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Why "Meaning" and "Comprehension" Are Strategies for Dumbing Down

Once upon a time, a reader was someone who could say the words on a page.  

Readers didn’t leave out words that were there, or add words that were not there. Nor did readers make wild guesses or weird substitutions. Lastly, real readers never read words backwards.

These bizarre actions, which very nearly equate to mental illness, were not even conceivable (except in the youngest or least intelligent students).

punked1Of course, I’m talking about a bygone era before 1930, before Look-say was forced into the schools. This method requires children to memorize the designs or shapes of words. It’s quite a hopeless task; few students can learn to read this way. Illiteracy is a good one-word summary of what this mad method does to children.·

But it isn’t the commonplace, fumbling illiteracy that we all have in a language we haven’t yet learned. No, the victims of sight-words were stunted and damaged in new ways, distinctive and spectacular ways. These children often seem confident; typically they don’t know they are making one mistake after another--adding and dropping words, saying a word that isn’t close to what is on the page, etc. But the adults listening, or following along in the same text, know that chaos and havoc are in the air.·

Errors which were once unimaginable became ordinary. A public relations disaster was there for everyone to witness.·

Consider the dilemma of the education officials pushing Look-say. Simply to let a child read aloud was suddenly a minefield of potential embarrassment. What to do? How could all this failure be hidden?·

Here’s what apparently happened next. The so-called experts focused on finding devices that the children could use to read without actually reading. That sounds like a paradox, but bear with me. These experts began to place an extraordinary emphasis on what they called comprehension and meaning. These were made to seem reading’s true goals, not simply reading what is on the page.·

Meaning, however, is something we might deduce even in a text we can’t actually read or understand. Comprehension is something you might seem to exhibit --on a multiple choice test, for example--even though you can hardly read every third word. (Seventh graders could get A’s for their comprehension, even though they read at a second-grade level.)·

No one can fail to notice that meaning and comprehension have been harped on constantly, for many decades, even as literacy rates dropped, even as meaning and comprehension themselves dropped.·

I believe the experts decided to take the emphasis away from what the kids couldn’t do -- just read the text--and put the emphasis on what the kids could pretend to do. That is, figure out to some degree what a paragraph means.·

The literacy experts came up with what might be called extra-textual techniques. For example, one major technique is guessing. A second is deducing a meaning from context or from picture clues. A third is relying on prior knowledge. All of these are lavishly praised, even as they help to conceal the depth of the real problem--the kids can’t read the words on the page.·

Suppose you’ve studied a semester of French; and now you’re in Paris glancing at a sign or newspaper. You see one of the few French words you know, “rue.” Then you see “Madame Tussaud.” And you remember -- prior knowledge! -- that this name is associated with wax figures of famous people. At this point you are quite empowered to make a guess about the meaning of the paragraph: it’s telling you where this place is.·

You can’t actually read French. But that doesn’t mean you can’t collect enough clues to make a jump into the dark. You may well find the museum.·

Trying to make all these improvisations seem normal and appropriate is what our Education Establishment has been busy doing the last 60 years. This effort has resulted in a lot of jargon and verbiage. Literacy experts speak of “comprehension strategies,” “cueing systems,” the value of “using predictability as an aid to reading,” and much more of the same sort. Whole books and careers are devoted to contrived activities.·

Notice what is happening. Look-say reduces American students to the level of people grappling with a foreign language. But in this case the “foreign language” just happens to be their own native language which they speak every day with flair and confidence, but can’t yet read.

Even more perverse, the whole-word people came up with a sophistry to demonize kids who actually can read. They are said to be “word-calling” or “word-barking,” not reading. This is quite sick. Learning to pronounce words correctly is a step we all go through on the way to fluent reading. Demonizing this necessary step shows the desperation of these sophists. Clearly, they are desperate that nobody should see what real reading looks like. They seem to be content that children won’t go through this step, which means that all children will remain forever illiterate. (Also remember, kids come to school having already used most of their reading words in conversation. The notion that they don’t know the meaning of words they have already spoken or heard is ridiculous.)

Traditionally, children learned to sound out (i.e., pronounce) words; and then to read them more fluently and expressively, and then to grasp more of the meaning, and finally they went on to higher-level thinking about why a woman might abandon her family or Germany had a war with France.·

Whole Word stops all these developments. To summarize: meaning and comprehension are chattered about more and more, even as children can achieve them less and less. In fact, these words--meaning and comprehension--function more as coverup than as accomplishment.

So now the whole scam becomes clear. Whatever the children can’t do is ignored and indeed hidden. Namely, they can’t read English. What they can do is magnified and presented as a glorious achievement. Namely, they can guess/deduce their way to some of a passage’s meaning. We see a relentless barrage of analysis and enthusiasm for meaning and comprehension, even though the kids can barely participate in this level of cognitive activity because, after all, they are hardly literate.

They can’t do the main thing: read the words on the page. The explanation for that is simple, the Education Establishment kicked out phonics. Then, to cover up the magnitude of the damage caused by this irresponsible decision, these faux-educators invented a sideshow, a sleight-of-hand, a bait-and-switch.·

All of which is hereby designated the Comprehension Con and the Meaning Mumbo-Jumbo.·

There’s a pervasive pattern here. Whatever the Education Establishment rhapsodizes about is doomed. Expect to see less of it. I suspect the same pattern is unfolding now in “critical thinking.”

Certainly we hear this phrase every day. Alas, few students ever become capable of critical thinking. They don’t know enough to have sophisticated discussions, because the Education Establishment downplays the teaching of basic knowledge. Even more devastating, the kids can’t read well enough to find their own knowledge. But somehow these empty-headed kids are supposed to conduct college-level debates.·

In fact, “critical thinking” often seems to mean shallow musing on current events, with the goal of leading students to politically correct opinions approved by the school. This is the exact opposite of genuinely critical or independent thinking.·

So there you have it. Not much reading. Not much thinking. But a hurricane of hoopla about the glories of comprehension, meaning, and critical thinking. America, you’ve been punked.·

-----Bruce Deitrick Price writes about education. (For how we fight back, see “A Bill of Rights for Students 2012” on the author’s site:

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