Some Read, Some Memorize Words

Let’s start with a couple of indisputable and opposite facts. There is literacy and illiteracy. This is an absolute law, just as the law of physics that states every action has an equal and opposite reaction. But unlike physics, the literacy/illiteracy law is not absolute. In fact, it’s more than a little messy.

Those of us who read…and generally read well…have a hard time understanding why so many can’t read all that well or can’t read at all. We also don’t comprehend why so many can’t comprehend what they read. After all, it isn’t all that difficult. Is it? Well, actually it is.

Part of the reason is due to the way reading is taught in what passes for schools these days. For example, there’s see-say, which is essentially word recognition/memorization. The disadvantage to that one? If you’ve never seen the word, you don’t have a clue what it is and can’t say (or pronounce) it. You also don’t have a clue as to what it means or how to use it in its proper context.

Even phonics, which is making a comeback in some areas, isn’t taught the way it should be. Take a look on the internet and you’ll find page after page of phonics programs for sale that purport to help the child learn to read. But every one of them, at least the sites I’ve looked at, overcomplicate the process. When you look at the price of the programs that they’re so anxious to sell you, it’s apparent why the overcomplication exists.

What people forget is that reading has always existed, whether pictographs or words and somehow they learned to read without the ‘benefits’ of an entire industry claiming to teach you to read but whose primary focus was your money. Illiteracy has never been as widespread as most think, nor has the lack of school attendance stood as proof positive that one cannot read or read well. And let’s not forget that books were among the most prized of trade goods in America’s old west.

Whiskey & Gunpowder’s own beloved Linda Brady Traynham has written an in-depth discussion of reading that I’m assuming has appeared before my own comments. If you haven’t read it yet, go back and do so before you go any farther in this one.

Simply put, and as Linda has so expertly explained it, teaching someone to read is not difficult, nor does it require multi-hundred dollar programs broken into multiple parts that keep you on the hook for ever more material. You simply learn the sounds of the letters, how they’re put together, certain basic rules and you’re done. But that’s the problem. It’s too easy. If there isn’t some way to develop a self-perpetuating industry on the subject that keeps the cash register ringing, it isn’t worth bothering with. What people can’t get thru their heads is that everything doesn’t have to take that approach.

Another part of the problem lands squarely at the feet of the parents. You’ve heard that before in relation to many different subjects, probably to the point of nausea, but it’s as true today as it has always been. For example, when I was growing up, my mother had a friend who did absolutely nothing to help her son prepare for first grade. Her attitude was that it was the school’s responsibility to teach him to read, learn to tell time, etc. Frankly, I’m surprised that he could tie his shoes before starting school! It got so bad that she would go on to work at the telephone company, leaving a six year old kid to wake up, dress himself, get his own breakfast and then to school on time. What was the end result of all this? He was in a lousy marriage and the last I heard of him he was in his 30s when he told my mother, “I hate my mother.”

On the flip side of the coin are those parents, mothers primarily but many fathers as well, who make every effort to encourage their children, help them succeed and supplement what they learn in school. And they don’t wait until they’re school age to begin teaching them.

Linda Brady Traynham and my own mother are excellent examples of what I’m talking about in different ways. Linda, as those of you who read her regularly know, has multiple college degrees and would generally be regarded as highly educated. My mother was a high school graduate in 1922 and spent 31 years working for AT&T as an operator. Retiring from AT&T because of my bad health during childhood, she spent the next 33 years working PBX boards at newspapers, hospitals and department stores. But she was ahead of her time in a lot of ways.

I literally have no knowledge of learning to read. In some respects I suppose I taught myself, but I’d suggest my mother laid the groundwork. She read to me constantly, encouraging me to read along and even read to her myself. I had alphabet blocks from infancy and she also taught me the alphabet using flash cards. What’s interesting is that she always argued that phonics didn’t teach children to read, not realizing that she was teaching me phonics! As she put it, “You don’t need phonics. All you need to do is teach them their A B C’s.” To the day she died, at the age of 97, I doubt she ever realized how smart she really was.

According to my mother, I was just short of three years old and we were living in Vallejo, California. One day I was lying on the living room floor looking at the front page of the paper. She glanced at me and thought I was just looking at the pictures. Then she looked a little closer and it became obvious to her that I was actually reading line by line. And I wasn’t using my finger as a pointer so that I could tell what word I was reading, either. From that point on, she kept buying books, each being a little more challenging than the preceding one while I read everything she handed me.

By the time I entered the first grade in Ft. Worth, Texas, as I mentioned in a previous post, I was reading officially on a sixth grade level and in reality reading anything you put in front of me. I also belonged to a children’s book club and not too much later would join a science-fiction book club. I’d already outgrown the Ft. Worth Public Library’s children’s section and was prevented from using the adult section because “…it was too advanced for me.” That problem was quickly solved by my selecting the books I wanted when my mother took me with her to the library, then she would check them out on her card.

Reading, today, is the key to knowledge. If you can’t read…or if your reading ability is limited to the words you can recognize or have memorized… you will have limited yourself to a very narrow world.

Illiteracy, whether total or functional, is a prison of the mind. Not only does it limit what the individual can do in life, it is all that is needed for a nation’s leaders…whether elected officials or dictators…to control every aspect of your life.

Remember this: Knowledge is power…but without the ability to read there is no knowledge.

Richard Marmo

September 18, 2009