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 lstrd@yahoo.com.

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