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My friend, Lynn Stoddard, a veteran retired educator, is the author of four books and numerous articles on child-centered education reform. I asked him if I could republish his most recent guest editorial, "Two Education Myths That Stifle Learning", which appeared in the November 27 edition of the Ogden Utah Standard-Examiner.  Lynn said I could, so the piece follows below the fold.

Two Education Myths That Stifle Learning, by Lynn Stoddard

Myth Number One: Children learn reading from phonics. There may be no other myth that is so deeply embedded in our culture as this. Most people feel it is as true as 2+2=4. If a child asks a parent for help with a word, the answer most often is, “Sound it out.”

A prominent linguist, Frank Smith, explains why this hardly ever works: “There are too many alternatives and exceptions. Every letter of English can represent more than one sound (or silence) and every sound of English (including silence) can be represented by more than one letter. There are over 300 ways in which letters and sounds can be related.” Example: Try sounding out the word, “phonics.” Unless you already knew, would you know that “ph” has an “f” sound as in “fish” or that the “c” has a “k” sound as in “kiss,” rather than an “s” sound as in “certain?” What about the “k” sound in “knew” or “know?”

In his marvelous book, Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices: Flaws and Fallacies in “Scientific” Reading Instruction, Smith shows that children learn phonics from reading, not reading from phonics. It’s just the opposite of the prevailing myth.

The implications of this are obvious. Instead of teachers giving students phonics drills with nonsense syllables or asking children to “sound out” words they don’t know, they should stimulate curiosity, read to children, make lots of books and other materials available, and give them time to read. Children learn to read by reading or by following along while being read to. If a child asks for help with a word, you can tell her what it is, point out clues in the context or show how it is like another word.

I urge parents and teachers everywhere to read easy books to children when they are toddlers and set an example of curiosity. Children will soon learn to read the natural way, as they learned how to talk. The worst thing you can do is to require or assign reading, thus making it a chore.

Myth Number Two: Teacher-assigned homework benefits students. This myth has caused more damage and strife in homes than almost any other. There is much evidence that homework is detrimental:

* It is an excessive burden on parents

* It interferes with family activities

* It makes less time for other beneficial interests

* It gives children an aversion to learning

* It puts much stress on many students

James, my 3rd grade nephew, threw up nearly every morning before school because he and his mother couldn’t finish his  homework each night. When his parents asked the teacher about it she said, “I can’t understand it. James loves school so much that he doesn’t even go out to recess.” (He was staying in to do work he couldn’t finish at home.

The amount of homework has been increasing ever since the standardization movement started in 1983. Now, even kindergarten children are given school work to do at home. Fill-in-the-blank worksheets are common because some teachers have found that many parents want homework assigned.

There is an answer to this perplexing problem. Get students involved in self-chosen home study. I emphasize “self-chosen.” There is an enormous difference between learning that takes place when students are searching for answers to their own questions, compared to looking for answers to teacher-assigned questions. When students find answers to their own questions the information is stored in the brain’s resource file and is available for life-long use. It literally becomes a part of the mind. On the other hand, when students find answers to teacher-assigned questions, the information is usually filed in the pass-the-test file and discarded after the test is over. In our work we found that teacher-assigned learning is usually shallow and temporary compared with self-chosen learning that is deep and enduring.

My nephew, James, after his bad experience in third grade, became an expert on Native American Indian cultures from self-chosen home study and learned much more about Native Americans than if he had been assigned to do so. When freed from the self-image destroying nature of compulsory homework, James was reading on a 12th grade level by the end of 5th grade.

If schools will stop trying to standardize students with a common curriculum and start to help students develop their unique talents and interests, they can stimulate curiosity and self-chosen home study. Teachers can offer choices and “invite” rather than “assign.” Parents can also guide and help children explore possible areas of home study. It will make a marvelous difference.

Lynn Stoddard can be reached at

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (13+ / 0-)

    Cooper Zale Los Angeles

    by leftyparent on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 05:00:04 AM PST

  •  As the parent of an autistic kid, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Moody Loner

    they told me at the school; "Forget that phonics stuff, that won't work". So I dutifully went home and threw away all the flash cards.

    We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.

    by PowWowPollock on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 05:09:50 AM PST

    •  Parenting an autistic kid... (0+ / 0-)

      is an experience that I have not had.  But I tend to see most unconventional human characteristics as being part of the incredible diversity of human consciousnesses that inhabit these mammalian bodies of our.

      Given that uniqueness, we will all have different paths of learning, with methods working with others not working for us.  

      One of our diarists for this "Education Alternatives" group, FloridaSNMom, is raising an autistic kid and homeschooling.  Hopefully she will chime in on your comment.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 08:51:31 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Check out FloridaSNMOM's diaries... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Moody Loner

      She is raising a kid with autism...

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 08:54:12 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I took off with phonics. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Noddy, Brooke In Seattle, catfood, VClib

    in first grade, teachers were concerned enough about my inability to get the written word that holding me back was discussed.  as soon as I started in on phonics I took off and became a voracious reader.  its certainly not a panacea, but it can be a good tool in the toolbox.

    •  We are all unique and learn in different ways... (0+ / 0-)

      Your experience points to the fact that there are no panaceas, as you say.  IMO, what Lynn's experience points out is that most kids can learn to read organically by hearing others read and following the words themselves.  Just like we learn spoken language without being "taught", most of us can learn reading in the same organic way.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 09:11:44 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I love the idea of interest based homework. (7+ / 0-)

    I wonder why no one thought of this years ago or, if they did, why it was not widely adopted. I can only guess that educators thought it would be hard to get students to self-assign anything beyond the easiest of tasks. But that tendency would not be too difficult to overcome, kids love to work on things they are interested in, in fact it ceases to be work if the interest is deep enough.

    Just as a side note, the grade school I attended never assigned homework (okay once we were assigned to learn the multiplication tables). Once in highschool (there was no such thing as middle schools in the late forties and early fifties) the students from my school performed as well as the students from the schools where homework was routine. In fact I would say anecdotally that they did better than the other schools.

    The world is a den of thieves and night is falling. -Ingmar Bergman

    by Pirogue on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 05:40:45 AM PST

    •  Schooling traditionally meant drill work... (0+ / 0-)

      memorization and such, part and parcel with the top-down control model that young people needed to be "schooled" by qualified adults. Letting kids pursue their own interests falls within a very different learner-directed paradigm.

      Many progressive educational thinkers agree with your experience that homework hurts, rather than helps, the learning process, making it a "chore" rather than a joy.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 09:17:41 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  This sounds logical (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Can we still do it?

  •  I think getting rid of homework could be one of (7+ / 0-)

    the best gifts we could hand children today. It would mean giving them time to do what they want. Yes, some would claim to be bored for a while, but it is only when we have some time to waste that we find our true selves.

    I'm all for more cuddle time, more play time, more game time, and less made-up work. Let the jobs they must do be meaningful and they will learn that work is worthwhile.

    Help a Milwife win the Photobucket contest - Please Share, Like, and Comment, not necessarily in that order!

    by angelajean on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 06:07:18 AM PST

    •  Agreed and amen to that!... (0+ / 0-)

      Homework poisoned school as a learning environment for my two kids.  Here's my story of helping my daughter Emma with her 9th grade Geometry homework...

      Play time, even for teens, is the secret to real learning IMO.  That was certainly the case for me, and later my kids.  It is the exploration and projects we do on our own initiation that generally yield the most profound learning experiences.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 09:24:00 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I chose to (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    johnny wurster, Mrs M, reconnected

    supplement my children's education through homeschooling them after school hours, and sometimes taking them out of the regular classroom to attend events I felt would further their education in ways a classroom never could.

    The schools wanted to fail my children because of the number of missed school days, but I argued on their behalf, every absence was an excused absence (I kept the paperwork after the first child encountered problems), demonstrated that their extra-curricular activities rounded out their education, and that they were academically ahead of their classmates.  Holding them back because of too many missed days would be detrimental to them, and if they chose to do that, I could always withdraw my students entirely from school and just homeschool them.

    The schools didn't know I was already homeschooling as that would have caused issues with what they deemed "allegiance" - I could either homeschool or send my children to school, but not both.

    Threatening the school with homeschooling may not work in every state, Oklahoma has a liberal homeschooling policy - the right to homeschool is written into our state constitution.

    Today, all 8 of my children hold a minimum of a Master's Degree and have absorbing careers they love. They may have chosen their careers with just classroom schooling, but they (and I) believe it was the flexibility of their extracurricular studies that led them to those careers and to a lifetime love of learning.

    All knowledge is worth having. Check out OctopodiCon to support steampunk learning and fun. Also, on DKos, check out the Itzl Alert Network.

    by Noddy on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 06:09:47 AM PST

  •  If schools actually tried to help students (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MaikeH, Noddy, Brooke In Seattle

    develop their natural skills and talents there'd be a stark discovery that few parents want to acknowledge: their kid just isn't that bright, talented, or capable of much more than dressing him- or herself and muddling through a dead-end job.

    So I'll add a Myth Number Three to your list: "You can be or do anything if you just put your mind to it and try hard enough." Not everybody is going to be the next Newton, Vonnegut, or (Neil) Armstrong. In fact very few people, an infinitesimally small number relative to the population at large, will be.

    Your suggestion is, of course, one of the most important ways we can reform our education system. We need to help students who aren't mathematically gifted (or creatively gifted, or anything-gifted) fulfill whatever potential they have, rather than force them through a gauntlet that grinds them up and makes them feel stupid and useless for not being mathematician, scientist, or author material under the guise of some ridiculous, warped equality-based view of things.

    •  Not every kid wants to be Einstein... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      reconnected, JustinBinFL

      IMO human beings understand what they are all about and have the natural drive to pursue their areas of talent and interest.  Conventional school has tended to hinder rather than facilitate that natural urge.  Lynn is talking about transforming the teaching process to be more humanistic and facilitative of natural learning.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 09:46:30 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I love this: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MaikeH, angelajean, reconnected
    Get students involved in self-chosen home study.
    Kids need to be encouraged to discover their innate gifts and interests: who they really are and not what society tells them they are supposed to be a la Pete Seeger's "Little Boxes."

    Unfortunately parents aren't always the best ones to guide them through that process.  Too many parents impose their own preconceived notions on their kids and don't know how to really listen to them and help them learn how to make these critical observations for themselves.

    So maybe the parents need to do some of this work for themselves.

    "The fears of one class of men are not the measure of the rights of another." ~ George Bancroft (1800-1891)

    by JBL55 on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 06:34:20 AM PST

    •  We are all - parents and teachers... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      reconnected, JBL55

      caught up in that traditional control paradigm where we feel we need to completely direct other people's (including our kids') development.  It is a paradigm shift and profound culture change to get adults to see young people as other than inferior and semi-disabled beings.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 09:48:57 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I completely disagree on your phonics point. (0+ / 0-)


    I have two kids. Son was taught with phonics and daughter was taught that silly "whole word" or what we called back in the day "sight reading."

    Guess which one has struggled all her life with reading?

    NOT the one who learned to read phonetically.

    Sure, that's anecdotal. Want another? My oldest brother was taught to read the same way as my daughter -- sixty years ago! I was taught phonics. He was a high school dropout because he kept failing English. I have a master's degree in English and taught writing and literature on the college level for five years.

    Every child or adult I have EVER encountered who learned the "whole language" way is handicapped in his or her reading skills. Those who learned phonics struggle much less with advanced reading because they don't get bogged down in word choices.

    Just because there are different combinations of letters that sound differently in different positions in words is no reason to throw up your hands and say it's too difficult to learn. You learn ALL the combinations and get a dictionary if you have trouble with the pronunciation. Once the word is in your "word hoard," as I like to call it, you always know it. That's the best part of reading: learning new words!

    My kids were surrounded by books of all kinds. They were read to daily, and still love to read -- but daughter has difficulty to this day (she's 29) with sounding out words. She looks at a word and can't tell if it's supposed to be, for example, "compelled" vs. "completed." Her silly "whole word" reading taught her to just guess. That makes for a crappy reading experience, because, as my sig line notes, words are not interchangeable.

    I do agree that kids have too much homework these days that is busy work, but it's because teachers have no classroom time to do worksheets or rote learning because they are too busy teaching to some standardized tests. There should, however, be practice work sent home for those who need extra help with concepts, such as multiplication of fractions or conjugating verbs. Some students need a little more work, and there's just no time in the classroom. I do believe that three-hours-plus homework some students are forced to do is crazy. There is no time for real life.

    "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." -- Mark Twain

    by Brooke In Seattle on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 10:39:51 AM PST

    •  Thanks for your comment!... (0+ / 0-)

      I'm not a teacher like Lynn, but as a parent I am aware of kids learning to read using both approaches.  My own kids learned in more of the whole-word approach and they are both highly literate people.

      My take is that the big problem with difficulties reading is not so much whether the teaching is phonics or whole-word, but the external mandates that kids must learn their reading skills by certain ages or they are judged as failing.  That's part of the teaching to the test that you mention.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 03:34:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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