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On Writing Consciously

An Essay on Teaching the Joys of Writing

This article, originally written for an online class for English teachers, discusses how active picturing can teach children to love reading and writing.

"There is a tide in the affairs of children ..."

One of the least known facts about writing is, if it doesn't delight you, it isn't well written. An even less known fact about writing is, if you can't picture it, you can't feel delight. Taken together, these two ideas could be used to create the most inspiring and nurturing class on English ever given. "Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in misery." Well, not quite. But if you are an English teacher trying to inspire young writers, then, pretty close.

Obviously this quote from William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1599) was never meant to teach English. In fact, for the generations of young writers who have never had to depend on tides in order to travel, it makes little sense. Unless, of course, your English teacher had you close your eyes and picture how the schedules of sixteenth century ocean bound voyages once depended on tides. Did she? Can you picture yourself on a splinter-laden, pine dock, hot summer sun scorching your already soaked blouse. You and your children sitting atop your banged-up, black, leather covered luggage. Rowdy men, shouting and cursing, while you urgently try to get your children to pretend to focus elsewhere.

Where is all this going, you ask? Delight and picturing. Did you just do either? If not, then consider yourself a normal English teacher. Unfortunately, this also means your writing, and teaching, may be bound in shallows and in misery. Translation. For you, teaching writing may have long ceased to be the wonder-filled voyage you and your young pen holders were meant to take. Perhaps not, though. Perhaps I am leaping to a conclusion. After all, we have not met. Not yet, anyway. So, let's.

Leaping from his sturdy writing seat, the long-haired, leaping gnome grabbed his pen and began to write, "I shall love writing." Twenty times. On the green, used-to-be-called, "black," board.

Any flickers yet? Any visible evidence that your synapses just fired? If so, yea! Welcome to the incredibly alive visual world of conscious writing. If not, let's try again.

Peter pulled the water logged poem from his blue wool jacket. "Would she like it?" he wondered. Sara always liked his poems. But this time? Peter knew that, with Sara, love was always a tough sell.

Notice anything this time? Any nibbling, mind movement? Did you picture Peter? Yes? No? A little, perhaps? No? Oh, well. Then perhaps I might interest you in a brief lesson in conscious reading, the foundation of all conscious writing.

"But I know how to read!" shouted the well-educated door mouse, scampering heavy-footedly over to the doorway of her magnificent wooden burrow-mansion.

"I know," said the uneducated, leaping-to-conclusions gnome. "Just the same, would you mind if I check?"

"And how exactly will you be checking," asked Matilda Doormonger-Mousestein, E. D.?

"With a single sentence," said the cheerfully arrogant gnome, gleefully smiling a toothy grin.

"You're going to test my ability to read with a single sentence! And how exactly do you intend to do that?" bantered Matilda, now sporting an appropriately toothy grin herself.

"Just watch," said the gnome. (And for those who would like to follow along with Matilda, here are the simple instructions.)

A Simple Test for Conscious Reading

[1] First instruction. Read slowly. And please, please, please, do not read ahead, no matter how compelled you feel. "Reading ahead" is unconscious reading and will void most of the test. And ruin your chances to possibly rediscover a lost part of your reading / writing innocence. At least from doing this exercise.

[2] Next instruction. When I tell you to "go," please begin to read aloud, reading only until you come to a word you cannot picture. What I mean is, the minute you hear yourself read a word you have not pictured, please stop.

[3] Last instruction. More an encouragement, really. Know there are no grades in my reading classes. Only discoveries. In other words, you can either discover how consciously you do read, or you can discover how unconsciously you don't read. Either way though, you will receive an "A" no matter how many words you read consciously.

Are you reading these words consciously? Then now hear this. You have already received an "A." Just for trying. Please keep this in mind as you read the exercise sentence.

Are you ready then?

All righty.


"Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved, who was a dawn unto his own day, had waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship which was to return and bear him back to the isle of his birth."

So how did you do?

"How do you think I did, you stupid gnome!" stomped the petulant Matilda. "I do know how to read, you know!"

How about you? How did your reading go? Did you, in fact, recognize what we just read?

For those who may have never read this sentence, it is the opening line of Lebanese mystic Kahlil Gibran's masterpiece, The Prophet (1923). With these words, Gibran begins what is surely one of the deepest mystical masterpieces ever written. And one of the most oddly phrased. Few realize, however, that Gibran's odd phrasing is, in part, due to his having learned English as a second language.

What might also interest you is the fact that Gibran spent twelve years writing and revising this little book, the last four simply holding onto his manuscript before sending it out to publishers. Writers do this sometimes. Conscious writers do it a lot. Hemingway said he made hundreds of revisions. I'd guess he waited a lot too.

"But what about the reading test?" Matilda asked. "What was it you were trying to show us?"

Well to be honest, the actual "test" part of the test comes now. How? By asking yourself, honestly, this one simple question. Without looking back, please, tell me this. How many words did you picture?

"Why, all of them," said Matilda.

"All of them?" the now even more toothy gnome sported as he taunted the perturbed Matilda. "Really? Well, if so, then tell me this. What does Al look like?"

"Al?," the quizzical about-to-curse door mouse asked. "Who the hell is Al?" To which the gnome, now beginning to posture, hands on hips, cap on head, and standing slightly left foot forward, replied, "Almustafa. The chosen and the beloved. What did Al look like?"

How Consciously Do You Read?

All kidding aside, now, how did you do? Did you picture Al or did you roll right past him?

In truth, most people who take this simple test do not stop to picture Almustafa. Nor do they even realize they did not picture him, this despite my simple instructions to stop reading when you come to a word you did not picture.

I see this lack of pause as being incredibly important. Sad even. Why? For one thing, because there are eight pictures in this sentence. Al is but one. For another, because if you didn't picture Al, you didn't picture the principle character in Gibran's book. After all, Al is the prophet!

More to the point though, when I ask most people, including most English teachers, what their Al looked like; was he tall or short, thin or fat, dark with a bearded face or light with white hair; most people look puzzled. Why? Because in truth, most people picture very little of what they read. In fact, by third grade, children almost never picture what they read. How exactly does this happen?

For most kids, it happens to them during a "read aloud" session, a time wherein the poor teacher is struggling through one of the more difficult parts of the required curriculum. Thus teachers rarely, if ever, get enough time to teach children how to pronounce anything, let alone to get them to love reading out loud. This guarantees that many children will embarrass themselves. Many others will shrink in anticipation. This leaves most of us with a life long, terrible fear that if we read aloud, we will feel ridicule and shame.

Sadly, it often does feel this bad. Moreover, this is no one's fault. It is simply a flaw in the way we learn to read. The flaw? That we pay too little attention to how we teach children what has to be one of the most difficult to learn language skills; how to pronounce the words. How do we teach this? We teach it using the most personally disconnected of methods. We teach it by memory. No surprise then that math teachers struggle too in that they also face this flaw. Every time they teach children to memorize the times tables. No surprise most people find this to have been one of the hardest parts of learning math.

In both cases, I call the way children are taught, the "blind-eye" method. What the heck is the "blind-eye method? And what is conscious reading?

Conscious reading is [1] picturing the words you read as you read them, and [2] stopping to get a picture for a word, when you have not pictured this word. This is conscious reading.

And what is the "blind-eye" method?

The "blind-eye" method is plowing through the printed word as if your very life depended on it. Like you were rushing past the entrance to a dangerous cave wherein Cerberus, the three-headed dog from hell, was poised, waiting to pounce.

Why am I making such a big deal out of picturing the words? Because reading is supposed to convey pictures to the reader. Young. Old. Even blind people reading brail. Reading is supposed to be a visual journey.

How can I be so sure? Because this is my area of expertise; human consciousness. To be direct then, "consciousness" is the skill of picturing movement. This means we human beings cannot experience what we have not pictured. Thus, whenever you hurriedly read though words, you will have missed most of the gist. Why? Because you will have missed picturing most of what these words mean. And if asked to say what you just read, you will feel nervous. Why? Because you will have to use logic to make up the gist. No surprise few people feel joy when they read.

In truth then, turning what you read into personally meaningful experiences requires that you picture the words. Or at least, that you discern between the words you do picture and those you don't. People who read consciously do this. This means they will have many meaningful reading experiences. In fact, you can pretty much always tell who these people are. If asked, they will look into the air and smile, then tell you what they loved in this reading, the part that they loved picturing. In fact, they'll do this even when reading beautifully written, but imperfectly phrased words, such as those in Gibran's The Prophet, or Twain's Huck Finn. Or those in anything by James Joyce.

Sadly, people who never learn to picture what they read, rarely, if ever, realize how beautiful words can be. Let alone that all words are beautiful. At least to the conscious beholder, they are.

What keeps more people from seeing this beauty then? Mostly, the fact that they struggle so to get past the dreadful Cerberus of pronunciation. At best then, most people will simply rush through the words. Then they'll use logic to interpolate what they read. If asked, then, they will spit out something they pray will pass for intelligent. Translation. When asked to describe what they just read, since they pictured none of what they read, they will be unable to go back and visually review it. Thus, they'll have to logically make it up.

Sadly, this means most people will rarely see the beauty in what authors write. Including in the words they themselves write.

So am I saying that if you read consciously, you will enjoy everything you read? No, because no one can read this consciously. However, if you do at least try to picture what you read, you at least have a chance to enjoy what you read. Even when reading the more difficult-to-follow words, such as those of Umberto Eco's Focault's Pendulum or Joyce's Finnigan's Wake.

Learning to Read: the "Blind-Eye Method"

What I have been saying is, most people worry more about pronunciation than picturing. This guarantees they will not read consciously, meaning, they will not picture what they read. This is odd in light of that we often implore young writers to "show, don't tell"; meaning, to write with visually oriented words. So what makes us focus so on pronunciation? It turns out, we do this inadvertently. It is built into the way we teach children to read, a method I have been calling, the "blind-eye" method. At this point, I'd like to go into what this is in a bit more detail. What is the "blind-eye" method?

The blind-eye method is the four step process with which young readers are required to process words. By this I mean, when children learn to read, they are required to look at the words on a page and then to [1] speak aloud what they see, [2] to memorize what they spoke aloud, [3] to recall what they just spoke aloud, and [4] to explain the meaning of what they just spoke aloud. This is the blind-eye method. And because learning to read consciously depends on learning to recognize these four steps as they are happening, please allow me to repeat myself.

The blind-eye method is a four step process wherein children process written words. In step one, children are asked to pronounce aloud what they read (to recite). At the same time, they must also commit to memory ( to memorize) what they are pronouncing aloud (step two). Why? Because in a moment, they will need to retrieve (to recall) what they just said aloud (step three). Why? Because the teacher will be asking them to explain (to interpret) what they just pronounced aloud (step four).

Recite. Memorize. Recall. Interpret. Did you notice where all the emphasis is? It is not on reading. It is on saying words out loud. So now, let me ask you. With all this importance being placed on learning to pronounce words, how is it that most people never even remember where to find a pronunciation key let alone know to use one. For instance, how many times in your life can you remember consulting a pronunciation key? Ten? Five? Ever? More important still, how many times in your reading life have you had someone ask you what you pictured? Ever. In your whole life?

So What's Wrong with Children Learning to Read This Way?

So what's wrong with teaching children to read this way? Well, let me ask you. Have you ever tried to learn something in groups of four steps at a time? Let me skip to the point. It can't be done. We humans are capable of doing things only one step at a time. At least, consciously. Why? Because doing things consciously requires you "picture what you are doing." And because no human being can simultaneously picture doing two things at once, let alone a complex skill like reading.

Have you ever really considered how we can do only "one-thing-at-a-time"? It's simple enough. Just picture yourself learning to do something. For instance, picture that you are now learning to drive. Now picture that you are being asked to use the blind-eye method to learn to parallel park, and to learn to make "K" turns, both skills at the same time. How difficult do you think you this would be?

For most people, me included, learning these two skills, one at a time, was hard enough. Both at once! Impossible. And blind! No way.

How about learning to boil water? Remember? There was a time you did not know how. So imagine I am now asking you to use the blind-eye method to learn to boil water and also, to learn to pour this boiling water into a teacup. How hard would this be to learn? Remember, you can't picture what you are doing. You have to learn this with your eyes closed.

How about an easier one. How about if I were to ask you to walk using a four step process, for instance, to [1] lift your right leg, [2] to move your right leg forward, [3] to drop your right leg to the floor, and [4] to shift weight to the other leg. Now repeat with the other leg. Imagine having to learn to walk this way, in sequences of four activities at a time! It's hard enough to do this even having learned to walk. Even with your eyes open. But with your eyes closed.

Now let's consider what being asked to learn to read, in groups of four steps at a time, is like. In step one, we ask kids to "recite" written words out loud. What is this like for most kids? To see, you have but to ask most adults to read aloud. Most will confess they are either bad at it or hate it. Does this tell you what it was like for them to read aloud as children?

For most people, the experience of learning to read aloud was just plain terrible. Why? Because educators have yet to discover a visual way to teach young children to pronounce. At least an easy to use one. Because we haven't, most kids, when asked to read aloud, feel so nervous, they often do read poorly. Best case, then, a sympathetic teacher will tell them to ignore this difficulty and to just go on. Worse case, they will get derided for their mistakes, either by being patronized by the teacher or by being laughed at by their peers. This guarantees these children will, for the rest of their lives, hate reading aloud.

So what's the big deal. You don't read aloud when you read to yourself.

Yes, you do. And although most people never notice, reading requires you hear the sound of what you read in your head. Unless, of course, you are picturing, in which case, you are hearing a narrator describe a moving experience. No coincidence we call this being "moved." We get "moved" only by visualizing movement.

Now let me ask you this. Do you like reading aloud? Does reading aloud, in fact, delight you? If not then you like most people I know, learned to read unconsciously. Moreover, whether you literally read aloud or whether you read aloud in your head, either way, you are more going through the motions of reading than actually reading. Which means, you are more just parroting the sounds of the words than actually picturing them.

Parroting words is not reading them. We all know then that when parrots speak, no matter how well, they are simply imitating the sounds of words with little, if any, real sense of what these sounds mean. Sadly, this is exactly what we get taught to do when we learn to read. We get taught to parrot words. Moreover, this is one half of what you got graded on. You got graded on how well you parroted the words. If you did it well enough, you got a passing grade in "reading."

So let me ask you again. Did anyone ever ask whether you had pictured what you read, let alone whether you loved what you had read? Of course not. Why? Because teachers, even the most "chosen and the beloved," learn to read in this exact same way.

So am I saying the way we grade reading is entirely invalid? For the most part, yes, I am saying this. What would a real grade be based on then? It would be based on one thing and one thing only. It would be based on how much joy a child felt while they read.

Imagine teaching children to read this way.

Is Parroting Really That Bad?

So we are teaching children to read by parroting words. Is this really so bad? We have to start somewhere, and isn't this the place we need to start; learning to pronounce the words we read?

My answer my surprise you. Yes, we probably do have to start with learning how to pronounce words, although I have also done a few years of research into how teaching the alphabet visually would improve this process even more. This said, imagine if we spent more time and gentle energy on discovering how to teach our children to love pronouncing words? Can you imagine how many of us would now love reading?

Recite. Memorize. Recall. Interpret. All four skills focus on pronouncing words correctly. No wonder we understand so little of what we read, let alone picture it.

The Divided Mind

Before returning to Matilda and the gnome, there is one more thing I'd like to mention. In part, this thing is what makes learning to pronounce so hard.

What is it? Well, have you ever watched kids being asked to interpret what they read aloud? If you have, then you know most kids try to sneak a second look at the page. Why? Because this is how they are told to read the first time through. They are told to pre read. Why? When I ask people this, they tell me they were taught to do this so as to have a better chance to pronounce the words correctly.

Does this give them a better chance though? Not really. In fact, here again, we see children being asked to apply a multi step process to the reading of words, this time, a three-step process; [1] pronounce what you see, while [2] reading ahead, [3] while trying to memorize both. The end result?

Most kids never understand what they read. How can they. They read with a divided mind, meaning, they focus one part of their mind on the words they are pronouncing, and one part on the words which come next. This guarantees they will not enjoy what they read and in fact, this forces kids to pretend they are reading.

No one ever mentions this divided mind problem though. So most kids simply learn to fake reading. Translation. They never learn to love reading. Worse yet, they focus mainly on getting passing grades, which, as I've mentioned, forces them to focus almost entirely on how well they can parrot. And logically infer. And not at all on the joy of reading.

Now consider how what I've been saying affects peoples' love of writing. Do you, in fact, love writing? If you just said yes, then let me ask you this. When was the last time you chose to spend your day off buried in the joys and struggles of creative writing? Not a school assignment, but just something you did for fun? Have you written at all in the last week? How about in the last year? And in the last ten years?

Is it any wonder so many good people struggle so much with writing. Even English teachers. Even good English teachers.

So what am I suggesting we do about all this? I'm not sure I know yet. This is a complicated problem. However, what I can say is this. No one can solve a problem until they picture it. Thus, my whole motive here has been to create in your mind a picture for what prevents children from learning to write and read. More important, what keeps them from learning to love doing these two things.

I also hope to have, in some way, inspired you into action. To do what? To find ways to teach children to love reading and writing. You see, I have, at times, seen little boys and girls thoroughly enthralled by words. Probably, so have you. Sadly, most times, this happens only when children are being read to, and not when they themselves are reading. What is most sad though is that I know in my heart these children can feel this joy. If only someone could teach them to read visually. Don't they deserve to love reading and writing. Don't you too.

Saying Goodbye

Matilda was quiet. Sullen even. Understandably so. Matilda had been teaching mice to read for more than two decades now. Without once telling them about picturing. Nor about divided minds, and four step processes.

The gnome, heart now spilling over with compassion for the poor Matilda, reaches toward her, thinking he'll gently touch her forearm.

Pausing, he decides, at the last minute, not to. Matilda is in enough shock. He has shown her enough for one day. Perhaps, too much.

Have I overwhelmed you? Has this been too much for you as well? Would you like me to gently touch your arm? Or do you just need some time to take it all in?

Know I've had the privilege and joy of teaching many, many people to read consciously, quite a few of which have had long standing IEP's and 504's. Even so, in almost every case, I've been able to awaken in the person the joy of reading. Even reading aloud. Once this happens, then learning to enjoy writing is right behind.

So now, here's the real question. Doesn't everyone deserve to love reading and writing?

More to the point, can you, yourself, imagine teaching children to love reading?

If you can't, just ask Scott. He does it. In fact, he's been teaching children to love reading for some time now. He even reminds me, at times, how I have been the inspiration for some of his wonderful work.

When he does, I feel really good. Mostly though, I just love hearing from him how he helps children who hate reading to love reading. You see, I was once one of these children. I was, in fact, the worst kid in my class at reading. I was so bad, in fact, that as a little boy, I regularly and frequently had sleepless nights knowing I might be asked to read aloud in class the next day. And here I am, writing to English teachers! And littering my writing with sentence fragments and starting conjunctions! Who would have thought!

On behalf of the children who have yet to learn to love reading and writing, I thank you for listening.


The leaping gnome has left his writing chair.

Elvis has left the building.