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Teaching Children to Read: Learning to Read Mentally

"Parroting" as the "Death of Learning"

What is "Learning to Read Mentally?"

What do I mean by "learning to read mentally?" I mean asking students to learn to read by memorizing rather than by visualizing. In essence, this practice forms the basis of most conventional learning-to-read skills and of most learning skills in general.

Right from the start, now, let me admit my bias.

I see asking children to learn anything by memorizing as a fundamental error in teaching, especially in cases wherein the students are being asked to learn the basics of a language.

Please know, the language I am referring to may be a language of words or a language of numbers. In either case, though, I see asking children to use memorization to learn any language as a fundamental error.

Why am I saying this?

Because I believe memorization kills the student's love of learning. And the teacher's love of teaching. Further, I see these losses as very unnecessary in that another, more authentic style of teaching exists; visualization.

My point?

I believe learning by memorizing is a poor substitute for this more authentic style of learning; learning by visualizing. What makes me believe this?

To begin with, let me ask you. Have you read the opening article in this series wherein I suggest teaching children the alphabet visually? If you have, then you have experienced this difference in action. Now consider this difference once more.

Picture yourself sitting in a first grade classroom, sitting at your desk.

What kind of a desk are you sitting at? An old carved wooden desk? A white formica and chrome modern one? Whatever the case, I ask that you actually picture the desk you are sitting at, as picturing is what will allow you to see the truth in my words.

Picture you at your desk again. Now picture, in front of you, on your desk, a sheet of three lined manila paper.

Can you see this piece of paper? It's the kind of paper children learn to write the alphabet on, the kind with solid and dashed light blue lines going across it.

Can you see your sheet of learning-to-write-your-letters paper?

Now imagine you hear your teacher telling you that, today, you are going to begin to learn to write the alphabet.

What will you have to do?

Imitate on your three lined paper, what she has written on the blackboard; her version of a letter "A."

Of course, she does not actually tell you in this way. Rather, she tells you that you will be practicing the letter "A" on your paper.

Even so, what she is saying is, you will be repeatedly imitating, on your sheet of learning-to-write-your-letters, what you see on the blackboard in front of you.

What fun.

Can you now picture yourself in this scene? I can. In fact, I can still picture myself actually doing this.

My most basic feeling? Aloneness. And a bit intimidated. Mostly, though, I feel unsure as to whether I am doing it right.

Are these feelings unusual?

I would think not. In fact, I would guess that most children, when being asked to imitate a teacher's work, feel similar feelings. After all, a teacher is the expert, judge, and approval giver to children. And by age five, most children see "doing it right" as being profoundly important to their being loved.

Have you ever felt, while you were learning, that your "being loved" was at stake? I certainly have. And I would think most children, to some degree, regularly and frequently feel this same pressure. Sadly, most people never realize this connection exists between imitating and "feeling loved," this despite our knowing the old cliche, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Now bring your mind back to the classroom scene and to having just been asked to practice writing the letter "A."

Again, picture your desk and your sheet of learning-to-write-your-letters paper.

Now ask yourself this. What do you feel as you begin? Do you feel you will need to keep doing it until you "do it right?" If you are like most kids, you will feel this pressure, the pressure to perfectly imitate your teacher's "A."

Now return to this scene one more, and imagine you and all your classmates have now begun "practicing."

Imagine now that your teacher is walking around your classroom, glancing down at all the children's work. At times, she stops and compliments certain children, her compliments audible to the other children.

How do you interpret these compliments if you are one of the complimented children?

How about if you are one of the children who did not get complimented?

Finally, consider what these compliments appear to be based on.

To most children, these compliments appear to be based on how well the child has mimicked the teacher's writing, in other words, how well the child has "parroted" the teacher.

Very quickly, then, "parroting" becomes the child's test for whether his or her work was done correctly or not. In time, this test will become this little boy or girl's test to know if they have learned anything or not.

"Parroting" as "the Death of Learning"

To me, the story I've just told you is filled with the smell of death. What has died? In many of these children, their love of learning, and more specifically, in this story, the children's love of learning to write.

In the classroom we have just imagined, then, I believe many of the children would have left school that day already having begun to lose their love of learning to write.

How many of these children?

In my opinion, many of them.

Does this actually happen this way though?

Yes, it does. In fact, it happens a lot more than we realize. Worse yet, what children learn more than anything else is in scenes like this is that "parroting," at first their true test of whether they have done it right or not, eventually becomes their test for whether they have actually learned anything or not.

Does any of this ring true for you? Do you want to see for yourself? Try asking yourself the following question.

What is your personal test for knowing if you have learned something or not? Is your test if you can successfully regurgitate someone else's work?

If so, please know, you are in the majority, as most children, and most people in fact, believe"parroting" is "learning"; that "regurgitating" is "knowing."

Please now ask yourself this question once more. And look deeply and personally.

What is your personal test for having learned something?

My test?

My test is different. And simple.

My test is, "can you picture what you have just learned?

In other words, my test to know if I or anyone else has learned something is, can you visualize what it is you believe you have just learned?

In the next section, I'll offer some evidence that this test is really the true test, along with some suggestions for a better way to teach reading, beginning with teaching children to create a "visual pronunciation key."

Are you ready? In order to be, you will have to, as the best kindergarten teachers say, "put on your learning cap."