READING Unleashed – Just in time for SCHOOL!



In first grade, I was taught how to recognize words and then read them in short sentences. There were three distinct reading groups, and I was fortunate to be a Cardinal because I caught on to reading sentences quickly.  We all had a chance to rehearse reading from a book that the teacher gave us. If we read it rapidly without making a mistake we were called Cardinals, if we took a long time, but got most of the words right we were called Blue Jays. If we stuttered or got stuck on words the teacher would just say, “…okay stop, that’s enough – you’re a robin.”

The Bluebirds were not far behind the Cardinals, but the robins never seemed to catch up by the end of the year.  On one hand, I felt proud to be a Cardinal and on the other, I felt sorry for those poor little robins that seemed to look so defeated, frequently stumbling over the words.  I wondered how long they would remain a robin and if they ever had a chance to become a Blue Jay or Cardinal. A few unkind children in the class gave the robins another name, “the dumb kids” and that description followed many of them throughout their school years.

Why do I still remember these details after 56 years? I am convinced this is an example of school gone wrong. What is so incredibly sad, is that it still happens today. The bird names have given way to more “updated and relevant” descriptors, but children are still grouped by ability for ease of lesson delivery. Textbooks, assessments, and worksheets all feed into this phenomenon with regularity and by design. By the way, the children know what their labels mean even if those labels seem non-evaluative.

Why is it so important to quantify the level of achievement for something as basic as learning to read when we know that it happens at different times for different children? Why do we feel so compelled to pronounce degrees of performance in the learning arena of school? Why do we create artificial time periods that offer rewards and punishments for student growth in reading?

You fail first grade if you don’t achieve everything that is outlined to learn within that time frame. What if in another month or two, or even another year you learned to read? What if it took you even longer than that? We are so intent on labeling children that we lose sight of the fundamental fact that each child learns differently at different rates?

Learning is organic, unique and different for each child, fueled by interest, creativity, and curiosity.  How better to kill that innate creativity and curiosity than to package learning into an adult-constructed box governed by our notion of value, time, and space.  The joy of learning becomes lost when it is packaged in evaluative terms, forced upon us, and given strict time limits. 

The art of reading can be joyous, exhilarating, and frustrating at the same time. What would happen if we allowed children the opportunity to discover and perfect this art without quantifying, evaluating, or placing deadlines on it? What if we gave them as much time as they needed and supported them in whatever way necessary in order to achieve their goal of becoming a reader?

Just a few positive outcomes:

  • Happier, self-directed children
  • Cost savings on remediation and retention
  • Truly valuing diversity
  • Defeating the ill-effects of labeling i.e. (failure, slow, at-risk, etc.)

I will never give up this dream…NEVER!

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