Sunday, February 4, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 4, 2001

Learning to read

By Arnold M. Bitner

Anyone reading the front page article "New reading strategy bears fruit" (Dec. 23) might take heart that something new, good, and exciting is happening within the Hawaii Public School System.

But there seems to be opposition to the program. Why?

Which is better, whole-language, phonemic awareness or phonics?

Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld wrote: "If a war is raging among public educators over how to teach reading, who do you think the victims are? The children, of course. The stark tragedy is that millions of children in public schools are being prepared for stunted lives as functional illiterates and their parents haven’t the faintest idea that this is taking place."

My parents had absolutely no idea what was taking place. At six years of age, during my very first week of school, I was marched out of the first grade classroom, down a very large hall where footsteps reverberated from floor to ceiling, and wall to wall. The destination? The principle’s office, where I was made to sit up straight on a very hard, straight-back wooden chair for several days. My offense? I was unable to read "See Spot Run" of Dick and Jane fame.

During the early years of my school career there were a couple of occasions when our teachers took all of their students to the library, where we used reading machines to help increase our reading speed. My machine wouldn’t go slow enough, and when the teachers found out I couldn’t keep up with the machine, they simply walked away and assisted the students who could. From there, everything went downhill.

At 54 years of age, I couldn’t read or spell much better than the average second grader. That’s how much progress I had made, but no one was the wiser. Because of my inability to read and spell, there were many more lost opportunities throughout my life than I really care to think about. And there was the advanced education at my favorite university that I had looked forward to, but ended up missing out on.

Yes, I had dreams of something rather grand happening for me during my lifetime. Although I never once opened a textbook in order to do a reading assignment, and never once turned in a written home-work assignment, I passed every test, and I always graduated to the next grade level. I was making it through high school, but before graduation, I realized no university would have me. My developed ability to listen very attentively in class in order to pass all of the tests had not been rewarded with a grade average high enough to win a scholarship. And there was no money to pay for the advanced education I desired. My only option was with the U.S. Air Force, and that is how I came to live in Hawaii.

Like most people, I always was too busy earning a paycheck to pay bills and eat and survive to think about much of anything else, or so I thought. At age 54, a truly major catastrophic illness struck me down in the prime of life, and while my body was recovering, I found myself with all of the time I needed to teach myself how to read and spell, and how to write as well. It wasn’t easy, but now, because I had the time, I put my newfound ambition and enthusiasm together to accomplish the task. That’s when a whole new, exciting world of opportunity came into view.

Here’s how I did it. I thought back to the early days of elementary school when the teachers had talked about how words were broken down into syllables. Using a dictionary and following the rules of the few basics I remembered from childhood, I started decoding the words I already knew. By taking them apart and sounding them out, and understanding how those sounds worked in other words, I was able to move on to more complicated words. The job of decoding many of those words wasn’t easy, but gradually things started to perk up, and today I’m reading and writing this, and much more.

I’m one of the lucky ones, I suppose. Some of those who were brought up on Dick and Jane, and who knows what else, haven’t fared so well. Did I live a stunted life as a functional illiterate? Like many, for the most part, yes. And I spent my adult life working in a profession that required little or no reading skills. I bypassed other, better, much higher paying career offers, because of the inadequacies I felt, all of which related to my reading deficiencies.

Now, even at my age, my newly developed ability to read and spell has led to a new career which is just beginning to take flight, one that just a few years ago would have been quite unthinkable.

I know it isn’t everyone who either can teach themselves how to read and spell. It is a task that takes a tremendous amount of effort, both mentally and physically. But it is something that one must strive to accomplish all on one’s own, for there are few who are willing to help. However, this is one of those do-it-yourself-projects that offers the greatest rewards once accomplished.

Most people who can’t read will spend their entire lives denying they have a problem for fear of being embarrassed. They will make any excuse not to read. For more years than I care to think about, I only looked at the pictures on the printed page, and tried to decode the captions underneath, if there were any. I can only encourage those who either can’t read, or who have difficulty reading, to strive to improve themselves. And don’t give up when it becomes difficult, or by thinking it’s too late. It only becomes too late to improve your life when you are dead, and then it doesn’t matter.

As for the kids in the public schools throughout Hawaii, instead of arguing the case for the method called whole-language that has produced, and continues to produce, millions of Americans who cannot read, why not go back to the basics and teach the proper way of breaking words down into syllables and sounding them out before continuing? From all I’ve read and heard, whole-language is nothing but a joke, and a tremendous detriment to children and society as a whole.

There are those of us who have suffered throughout our lives with the feeling of inadequacy because we have been left out of the reading loop. It is my hope that all of the children of Hawaii continue to flourish while developing the basics of reading and spelling. Children who can’t read are never going to get a full and complete education no matter how much money goes into administrator and faculty paychecks. Children who can’t read will continue to become a burden on society, and eventually society will flounder completely under the weight of its own foolhardiness.

It is imperative that every parent spend time on a regular basis with their children during the earliest developmental years, ages birth to 5, when these new "little people" are developing habits that will last a lifetime. This is the time when they should teach their new offspring good reading habits. Even if you as a parent cannot read, I encourage you to start teaching your children the ABCs as early as possible. You know at least that much.

Then, learn to read right along with them. You will discover a very rewarding experience.

We keep hearing how the children are the future of Hawaii, but what kind of future will the people of Hawaii have if those children can’t read? They will become the true casualties of the war between educators, legislators, and parents.

Arnold M. Bitner lives in Waikiki.

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