How Do We Jumpstart Early Literacy?

The more I studied reading, as it is taught in most public schools, the more I understood why we have 50 million functional illiterates.

The schools say they are teaching children to read. It is often closer to the truth to say they’re teaching children not to read.

In one of the most famous books of the 20th century, “Why Johnny Can’t read,” Rudolf Flesch explained that English, a phonetic language, had to be taught phonetically. Conversely, if you teach it with sight- words, you will create nonreaders.

That was 55 years ago. Our Education Establishment went right on doing what Flesch said doesn’t work. Despite changes in jargon and emphasis, reading instruction in many schools starts off much as it has for the past 70 years. Children are shown lists of Dolch words, sight-words, high-frequency words, whatever you want to call them, and told to memorize them as graphic shapes. This is the end of the road for many kids.

So, for the past few years, I’ve puzzled over this question: how do we work around the policies of our Education Establishment? The best answer I have is that parents should start early, when the kids are two, three or four. Teach the letters, and then the sounds, and then the blends. At that point, even if a child is shown a sight-word, the child will read it as a phonetic word. Presto! The kids have been inoculated.

I also became aware that there are charities giving books to poor families. I wondered what was given with the books. Apparently, in most cases, little is provided with the books. So here came a parallel or complementary question, and a fascinating challenge: what could you put into a disadvantaged home so that parents, not very literate themselves, could initiate the reading process?

Just think of the things that are commonplace in upper-class homes. Children there play with alphabet blocks. They see toys, games, posters, furniture, etc. with the alphabet brightly displayed. How can we cheaply replicate that environment?

One idea that came to mind was a laminated place mat with the alphabet on it. Many designs are available on the Internet, at about three dollars each. If a large organization ordered in quantity, maybe with a corporate sponsor, the price would be trivial. Then you have a child at the age of two, let’s say, who is seeing the alphabet three or four times a day.

I also started working on the Bouncing Ball Project, where the goal is to create videos of nursery rhymes with the bouncing ball indicating direction and syllables.

Additionally, there is a vast amount of wonderful material on YouTube, which might be called early literacy assists.

I created a new page on my education site, “61: Early Literacy Pack,” which chronicles these projects, shows some of the YouTube videos, and links to the Bouncing Ball Project.

All of these efforts are in permanent R&D, you might say. I’m trying to encourage everyone to come up with their own solutions, to find better videos, to devise cheaper, more ingenious ways to accelerate the literacy process.

The goal is very clear to me. We want simple, foolproof tools that can help a child (or older illiterate) make progress. Who knows what that might be in any given situation? The good news is that lots of material is available. Parents can experiment and show a different video every day if they want to.

Bottom line, there is no need to let a child show up in K-1 without some basic reading ability. Frankly, if all schools were teaching a good phonics program, parents wouldn’t have to worry about any of this. But if children are going to encounter lists of high-frequency words that first year (which will wire their brains the wrong way), then taking these early steps is essential. Not to mention, easy and cheap.

It’s one of those situations where the so-called experts don’t seem to have the right answers. In consequence, people need to take the matter into their own hands. Teach the children early.