Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Read

First it was preschool. Then elementary school, middle school, now high school. I realized recently that for most of my daughter's thirteen years, I have been losing sleep over her schooling. Are classes too big? Teachers overworked? Undertrained? What's all this testing accomplishing? Does the "atmosphere" of the school inculcate good social values? Does the community agree on what good social values are?

I know I am not alone. Friends and colleagues alike tell me their kids' schooling costs them sleepless nights, too.

Take the time my daughter was learning to read. It was a Sunday during her kindergarten year that she first read aloud from an unfamiliar large-print book: "I am not fat. I have a hat." At first she was delighted with herself. Then she drew up short. "I don't want to read," she announced. "Why?" I asked. "Because my teacher doesn't want me to."

This had to be a misunderstanding, easily resolved. Her teacher would surely reassure my daughter that reading was a fine thing to do.

But instead, my daughter's teacher censured me. I was "pushing" her to read. Children achieved readiness to read at different ages, some not until second grade. The children in the class ranged widely, she told me. It was important that they all catch up to each other in school.

Perhaps I had not been clear? My daughter had begun to read of her own volition but needed a word of support from the teacher in order to continue. Would she not tell her it was all right to read?

She would not. If I chose privately to have my kindergartner read at home, that was my business, but the school wasn't endorsing it.

When had "don't ask, don't tell" become the policy on reading, I wondered.

At any rate, it hardly mattered whether I wanted my daughter to read or not. She had already absorbed the message that her teacher didn't approve, and that was that.

The following year my daughter attended first grade in a village school in southwest England, where my husband directed the Kenyon-Exeter program. There, we found, each child spent individual time every day reading to an adult or working on language skills. Apt children were introduced to reading at the age of four and most children by age five; a teacher or aide worked with those needing alphabet or word skills to bring them to readiness.

Once firmly ensconced in a school culture that expressly encouraged reading while respecting differences in ability, my daughter quickly made up for lost time. All the while I wondered why she'd had to come from behind in the first place. What was the point of delaying reading-ready children in her American school? Wasn't that just as bad as insisting that children begin to read who still needed time?

Letters arrived from a friend back home in Ohio, whose child, a first-grader not yet able to read, was expected to spend class time each day engaged in "silent reading," part of a schoolwide initiative to bring reading competency up to state standards. My friend fumed. "She stares at the words, not knowing what she's looking at. Do they expect them to learn reading by osmosis?"

Meanwhile in England my daughter was reading aloud to adults twice a day from a wonderful set of graduated reading books about a family of three children who went on magical adventures. Thrilling and funny, these child-centered plots introduced the young reader to periods of British history and genres of literature they would return to again and again as mature readers. When a student reached the end of the series, the library awaited, promising more magic. It was all a far cry from the boring Dick and Jane books of my childhood. ("See Dick run. See Jane run." Where were they running? Why were they running? Don't ask, don't tell.)

Backing up the reading series in England was the understanding, put into practice, that some kinds of learning demand one-on-one attention, and all kinds of learning happen best when parents are involved. Every day the children brought home their book and their reading journal. Parents were expected to hear their child read aloud and to note their progress in the journal. The next day in school, the child would read to a volunteer parent or senior citizen. Again, written remarks in the journal recorded progress and problems. The teacher reviewed the journals weekly. A child requiring intervention would be identified quickly. With such a fail-safe
system in place, it seemed no child could be left behind.

When I think about a good public system, I think back to this little English school. It had an antiquated physical plant with outdoor bathrooms and not much of a schoolyard. But it is, to date, the best school my daughter has attended. The school worked so well because education was understood to be the shared concern of the community. It really does take a village to teach a child to read. The schools welcomed and counted on the voluntary participation of parents, grandparents, neighbors, and merchants, whose involvement allowed for plenty of one-on-one learning opportunities. The reading journal encouraged parents to work with their children, while advancing the idea that school and parents must be partners. The overall structure allowed appropriate individual goals to be set for each child. Slower learners were not left behind; faster learners were not held back. I hope there are American public schools working this well. I haven't found them yet.

We lose sleep over our children's education, yet too often in our busy lives we can't afford to look too closely at what's happening in their schools. But if we don't ask, they won't tell.

Back to Top