Variations in Learning

20/20 is Not Enough

The Vantage Vision Solution


Don’t Blame the Students: Educators Must Take Responsibility

The school system is failing. There are some who recognize this, but like the Titanic heading for the iceberg, no one seems to know there is an iceberg that will sink us unless we turn in time. In the last half of the twentieth century, schools began to be run on popular theories instead of common sense. Constructivism, a focus on self-esteem, and a hurry-up mentality combined to make schools into pressure cookers where only the strong survive. In the cooking process, so many students have failed to succeed that there have been policies created to allow students to leave an institution with a "leaving certificate" instead of a graduation diploma. I intend to delve deeper into how this happened and how teachers and administrators can easily turn this sinking ship around. It starts with common sense.

I am an educator. I try every day, whether I am teaching, tutoring, or helping a student choose future courses, to make sure someone is learning something. And I have been trying hard to help students succeed, but students keep telling me that it is their fault when they do not know something, and that they are simply not able to learn. I do know that there are students out there who have given up, that some are simply never going to want a good education, and that there are some no one can help because they refuse to listen. But as intelligent educators, we must try to ascertain which students are which. It is up to us educators to provide every tool for them to succeed. If the efforts are rebuffed, we can move on to the next student who needs help. Giving up and concluding that it is completely up to the student to succeed is simply apathy.

The system has been foisting our failure to help students onto them. But if the students are failing, and we blame them, whom can the students turn to to get help? If they are unmotivated because they just cannot get anywhere in this school thing, where will they find motivation? Students cannot fix the system they are in! They cannot motivate themselves to learn something no one is offering! Only educators can fix the system by refusing to do those things that keep students in failing mode.

These actions are:

Refusing to fail students who are failing, to protect their self-esteem

The policy in modern schools is to keep a student moving through the system. Some believe that if a student fails to learn, it will damage his self-esteem to let him know he has failed. While it may be true that the student will not like to hear of his failure from someone else, it is silly to think that the student does not know he is failing to learn. Allowing a student to squeak through the system simply sets him or her up for failure when real life provides much harsher penalties for failure. Failure is part of life and learning how to handle that and move forward is an important part of education. If a student is failing, put him back to a place where he can succeed. Find out what he doesn’t know and give him another chance to learn it. Don’t keep passing him through, thinking that somehow you are protecting his self-esteem by allowing him to keep failing in the next grade.

Expecting students to learn material in a day, a week, or six weeks

It may surprise you to know that In the past, students had an entire year of a subject. I was a baby-boomer, and this is how I learned, in depth and through lots of practice. By the end of one year, we had learned a lot of Math, for example, because we had time to practise and time to understand. Understanding usually comes a long time after the learning takes place. Think about something you “learned” and then finally “got” when you had to move on to something else. I meet students who must learn one chapter of Math each school day, practicing on one or two exercises and moving on to the next concept the following day. This does not allow the brain to process the new information, and at best, only a fraction of the material is actually learned. Let's slow this train down. Let’s give kids time to absorb and own the material they are learning instead of hurrying them through school so they can become adults faster. Everyone has the same amount of time, but we are led think we are on some kind of cosmic time conveyor belt, and something is wrong if students do not graduate by a certain age. That is artificial and does not reflect reality.

Allowing theory to dictate how teachers teach

While there are some kids who thrive in a discovery learning sort of environment, there are many who thrive when they are told what they need to know, how to do what they need to do, and what they can do to succeed. This argument is about constructivism versus direct teaching methodology. The constructivist theory has full control right now. This means that students get exposed to all sorts of things, and they get to choose how to learn and what to do to learn it. Very little is counted as wrong, because they believe that the student is discovering how to learn instead of being told what to learn. It makes teaching very difficult, because when students do not know how to learn something, teachers do not know how to deliver the lesson so they can learn. Again, exposing a student to information and not providing specific direction for why, how, and what to learn is leaving the students guessing. 

The latest craze (I use that word deliberately) is called Inquiry Learning. It means that students are told to ask a question and then use resources to find the answer and write it up in a report. One of my students was told to find a good question to ask. I helped her choose a topic and we framed it into a question she could find answers to. at our next session, I was told her teacher had said it was not a good question, so she had to choose another. The disappointed student was confused and wondered why she was not allowed to research her own question. I could not answer her. Why would a teacher not provide a set of questions she had preapproved for students to investigate if that is what she wanted? 

Direct teaching, on the other hand, delivers a lesson in a very linear fashion, essentially leading the student through the predetermined steps to arrive at the learning. This is seen by constructivists as restricting and boring, because the “creativity” is taken out of the lesson and is more teacher-directed than student-directed. However, nothing is more boring than sitting day after day in a classroom where you are not learning, and you do not know what to do to keep up with the teacher's expectations.

Constructivism works well when students know what they are expected to discover.  However, it works poorly for students who need direct instruction and for teachers who see that their students are not really discovering what they are supposed to learn. Learning happens in many ways, and creativity makes learning fun. However, if students do not know what they are supposed to learn specifically by directly telling them, they will not be able to succeed. Constructivist approaches can be fun and useful in Science, and sometimes in Math. It is fun to observe a phenomenon and share what you have found. But if students are left floating because they cannot or did not discover what was intended to be taught, then the teacher has failed.


To reiterate, only educators can change the system. Students are simply caught in the web of schooling not of their own making. When they fail to become the predetermined students that others have decided they should be, they have no way of fixing their own inability. When they turn to educators and ask why they do not succeed, they are tested and labelled as ADHD, dyslexic, or on the spectrum of autism. They feel blamed, and they go away thinking they are failures because they do not understand. They drop out of school and find menial jobs or turn to crime to survive, angry at themselves and the system. It is high time educators stopped trying to outdo one another in covering up for the system and started taking responsibility for what we should set out to do — educate students.

Are You a Genius Because You Can Read?

There has been a post circulating around Facebook about reading, and I see it every so often.

“Only great minds can read this. This is weird, but interesting!

If you can raed this, you have a sgtrane mnid too.

Can you raed this? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in what oerdr the ltteres in a word are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is that the frsit and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it whotuit a pboerlm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! If you can raed this forwrad it.”

While it may be fun to think you're a genius, this only reveals a poor understanding of how people learn to read. It does not take a genius to read messed up words when you have been taught to read properly. You can read this if you are an adult who is familiar with words. However, a reader who is learning would find it extremely difficult, if not ridiculously impossible. Earning the label of “genius” if you can read it indicates how poorly people are being taught to read today.

Why too many people cannot read well

Everyone should be able to read the passage above using their knowledge of the phonetic code upon which English words are built. As a good reader, when you recognize the sounds of the letters in the words, your brain’s ability to process, your powers of perception, and your background knowledge make it easy to figure out what a passage of text is trying to say. Once you get the gist of the meaning, you are able to read much more fluently. You may have noticed that it took you until the second sentence to get rolling, and then it got easy to read. So I laugh when I am labelled a genius for deciphering the meaning of a badly-spelled passage.

I laugh, but I then cry foul, because it is on this very premise – that adults who read well can read a messed-up passage and still get the meaning – that the modern whole language theory of reading is based. Whole language theory teaches children to read the entire word, not sounding it out, and so children must memorize every new word they meet. They are asked to memorize the shapes of the words, and the letters that make up the words are less important than “understanding them in context”. This concept has led to many attempts to get students to understand a passage of text that is undecipherable to them. They cannot decipher the words, but they are expected to get the context somehow. They start guessing what the words say based on the "cues" in the pictures, but their basic understanding still leaves them without a genuine, deep grasp of the meaning of the passage.

Whole language began as a theory in the 1970s, as a study of the ways to make learning more constructivist. Constructivists believe that children learn everything naturally and are not really in need of specific instruction to discover what they should know. When Ken and Yetta Goodman decided to study how to make reading more natural, they looked at how adult readers read. What they discovered is that mature readers take in whole words at a glance, which is why you can read the words in the passage, even though they are misspelled. Mature readers can see, process, and understand the meaning of many words in a few seconds. With a lot of practice, the letters are easily recognized, the words are made up of these letters, and the familiar words are very easy to mix together into the message.

So the educators who discovered this decided that there is no sense in teaching children to read by learning the sounds of the alphabet and the variations of sounds made when these letters are combined, which is the phonetic method. This is the method that had been used to teach generations of readers, and is likely the one that the Goodmans learned to read by. However, the Goodmans figured they could just skip all that phonics stuff that had made them good readers and teach children to read whole words. They believed that giving children exposure to natural, written language in many different contexts would ensure that they eventually catch the reading system the way they learned to speak the language. They believed that forming letters and writing words is as natural as hearing and making sounds. That is like believing that driving can be learned by riding in a car often enough to catch on to the rules of the road.

This faulty thinking turned into an entire whole language theory of learning, based on the constructivist approach. This means that the children are expected to “construct” meaning from a text by using their background knowledge of the subject, the context in which they find it, and the pictures on the page with the text . With all of these clues, the students are supposed to look at the whole words and discern what they mean. However, my questions are: 1. How many young children know much about anything to supply the background knowledge?  2. How many children are familiar with different contexts and subjects? They don’t yet know the varieties of subjects available in the world.  3: What if there are no pictures?

The whole language proponents say that students are actually being taught the sounds, but they are learning them "naturally" by seeing them in words. While they are guessing at the words, they are supposedly catching onto some phonemes. They are supposed to learn that “red” says r-e-d. Word families have them rhyming red with bed, led, fed, etc. The phonetic code seems simple enough that they can catch on. And many do figure it out, or their parents have already taught them the alphabet and its sounds. But what if they cannot figure out the code or they do not know the sounds the letters make? What if they encounter r-e-d in a word like s-e-v-e-r-e-d? What if they do not recognize the way the letter R controls a vowel? What if they know a very small vocabulary because they have very little experience with the world, much less the written word? Then they are required to guess. I don't know about you, but just looking at the Russian alphabet does not give me any clues as to which letter makes which sound.

Sometimes students guess correctly! Children’s minds are designed to take in information at lightning speed. They start to memorize as many words as they can. However, they are limited to only the words they are exposed to on a regular basis. They cannot memorize all the 500,000 words people use on a regular basis in only three to four years, so they are given “levelled readers”. These readers eke out the vocabulary to children in memorisable chunks. Learning enough words takes, they believe, about three years. 

According to the way whole language is taught, by the time they are in Grade 4, students are supposed to be able to read anything because they have been exposed to enough words to be able to figure out the new ones they may come across. In some of the literature written in defense of the whole language method, the defenders say it is okay for a child to read “pony” when the word actually says “horse”, because at least he is getting the meaning of the passage, obvious from the pictures. It is the meaning, they say, that matters in whole language. But there are no pictures for a great many words. How does one put the picture of “special” into a picture? How does one draw “intelligent”? These new, more complicated words are too difficult to guess for someone who has memorized a relatively small bank of common words. Incidentally, this is why newspapers now are written at a Grade 4 (age 9) level. Whole language methodology has reduced the recognizable English vocabulary in 40 short years.

The rhetoric used to defend whole language theory (for it is only a theory, not a proven methodology) is a rhetorical quagmire. Here is a sample:

“Whole language is a perspective on education, a philosophy of education, a belief system about education. It is an educational theory grounded in research and practice, and practice grounded in theory and research (to paraphrase Harste, 1989). This perspective or educational theory derives from several kinds of research: research demonstrating the psycholinguistic and social nature of the reading process, research demonstrating how children acquire language and how learning to read and write is similar to learning the basic structures of the language as children learn to talk; and research on how humans learn concepts and ideas. In fact, one way of characterizing whole language is to say that it is a “constructivist” view of learning, with particular emphasis on the development of literacy. Derived from research in cognitive psychology, constructivism asserts that human beings develop concepts through their own intellectual interactions with and actions upon their world. Learners and learning are not passive, but active. Forming concepts about language-oral or written-is easier when learners are presented with whole, natural language, not unnatural language patterns like “Nan can fan Dan,” not the vastly simplified language of some primers in basal reading programs, and not the bits and pieces of language found in many workbook exercises and skills programs. Hence the term “whole language.” (Weaver, 1995, Background)

Lofty-sounding words give the impression of intelligent design, but the core of the theory is empty. No one, especially a young child, learns anything by simply forming their own “concepts about language – oral or written – … when [they]… are presented with whole, natural language” (Weaver, 1995, Background). No one learns to read by just looking at something and trying to figure it out without a guide. Written language is an invented system. English and many other languages use an alphabetic system. Not teaching students this system is to deprive them of the very foundation of our written language. Speaking can be learned through listening and practising speaking what one hears, but reading can not be learned just by being exposed to written language. Everyone needs to learn the tools and tricks to be able to read using the phonetic code. Millions of people learned to read using the basic primers so disparaged by the whole language fans. Work exercises and skills programs are vital to learning anything, whether it is throwing a basketball or learning to read. Throwing a novice reader into the arena occupied by experts and providing no tools, skills, or protection is cruel. Expecting kids to "catch" the meaning and then punishing them if they do not get it by labelling them non-readers is child abuse!

Whole language proponents claim that they teach 75% to 80% of children to read successfully. That leaves 20% to 25% of children struggling. That is an epidemic! If  20% to 25% of the population had measles, the whole country would shut down! But whole language and its partner, constructivism, continue to dominate our schools' theoretical foundations, creating a large number of poor to non-readers.

So the next time someone calls you a genius because you can read very poorly-spelled words, just know that each of us has that genius potential when we learn to read phonetically, and that too many children are being deprived of the opportunity to read well.

More on Whole Language jargon:

I have written a page about the skills necessary for deciphering new words. It is here:

Word Attack Skills


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