Bob Shepherd, the brilliant polymath and man of many interests and talents, has had a long and distinguished career in educational publishing. He has developed assessments, written textbooks, and ended his career as a classroom teacher in Florida. I defer to his superior knowledge on almost every subject.

Pour yourself another cup of coffee and sit back for a long read about literacy and how it is acquired.

He wrote about the flaws in the teaching of reading in an essay that begins with these words:

An Essay Touching upon a Few of the Many Reasons Why the Current Standards-and-Testing Approach Doesn’t Work in ELA

NB: For all children, but especially for the one for whom learning to read is going to be difficult, early learning must be a safe and joyful experience. Many of our students, in this land in which nearly a third live in dire poverty, come to school not ready, physically or emotionally or linguistically, for the experience. They have spent their short lives hungry or abused. They lack proper eyeglasses. They have had caretakers who didn’t take care because they were constantly teetering on one precipice or another, often as a result of our profoundly inequitable economic system. Many have almost never had an actual conversation with an adult. They are barely articulate in the spoken language and thus not ready to comprehend written language, which is merely a means for encoding a spoken one. They haven’t been read to. They haven’t put on skits for Mom and Dad and the Grandparents. They don’t have a bookcase in their room, if they have a room, brimming with Goodnight, Moon; A Snowy Day; Red Fish, Blue Fish; Thomas the Tank Engine; The Illustrated Mother Goose; and D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. They haven’t learned to associate physical books with joy and closeness to people who love them. In the ambient linguistic environment in which they reached school age, they have heard millions fewer total numbers of words and tens of thousands fewer unique lexemes than have kids from more privileged homes, and they have been exposed to much less sophisticated syntax. Some, when they have been spoken to at all by adults, have been spoken to mostly in imperatives. Such children desperately need compensatory environments in which spoken interactions and reading are rich, rewarding, joyful experiences. If a child is going to learn to read with comprehension, he or she must be ready to do so, physically, emotionally, and linguistically (having become reasonably articulate in a spoken language). Learning to read will be difficult for many kids, easy for others. And often the difficulty will have nothing to do with brain wiring and everything to do with the experiences that the child has had in his or her short life. In this, as well as in brain wiring, kids differ, as invariant “standards” do not. They need one-on-one conversations with adults who care about them. They need exposure to libraries and classroom libraries filled with enticing books. Kids need to be read to. They need story time. They need jump-rope rhymes and nursery rhymes and songs and jingles. They need social interaction using spoken language. They need books that are their possessions, objects of their own. They need to memorize and enact. And so on. They need fun with language generally and with reading in particular. They need the experiences that many never got. And so, the mechanics of learning to read should be only a small part of the whole of a reading “program.” However, this essay will deal only with the mechanics part. That, itself, is a lot bigger topic than is it is generally recognized to be.

Permit me to start with an analogy. As a hobby, I make and repair guitars. This is exacting work, requiring precise measurement. If the top (or soundboard) of a guitar is half a millimeter too thin, the wood can easily crack along the grain. If the top is half a millimeter too thick, the guitar will not properly resonate.  For a classical guitar soundboard made of Engelmann spruce (the usual material), the ideal thickness is between 1.5 and 2 mm, depending on the width of the woodgrain. However, experienced luthiers typically dome their soundboards, adding thickness (about half a millimeter) around the edges, at the joins, and in the area just around the soundhole (to accommodate an inset, decorative rosette and to compensate for the weakness introduced by cutting the hole).

To measure an object this precisely, one needs good measuring equipment. To measure around the soundhole, one might use a device like this, a Starrett micrometer that sells for about $450:

It probably goes without saying that one doesn’t use an expensive, precision tool like this for a purpose for which it was not designed. You could use it to hammer in frets, but you wouldn’t want to, obviously. It wouldn’t do the job properly, and you might end up destroying both the work and the tool.

But that’s just what many Reading teachers and English teachers are now doing when they teach “strategies for reading comprehension.” They are applying astonishingly sophisticated tools—the minds of their students—in ways that they were not designed to work, and in the process, they are doing significant damage. Leaving aside for another essay the issues of physical and emotional preparedness, to understand why the default method for teaching reading comprehension now being implemented in our elementary and middle-school classrooms fails to work for many students, one has to understand how the internal mechanism for language is designed to operate.