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I hope that Wood gave due credit to Milman Parry and Albert Lord, who first visited the Balkans to hear authentic bards sing stories, which became the foundation of Lord's book, "The Singer of Tales."


Bravo. well said.

We read diligently to our son from the earliest. Before he could talk, he knew which books he loved to hear, and would bring them to us over and over again. Eventually, he compared the different ways we would read the books, since we have different styles.

Now he's eleven, and although school has a daily reading requirements, he's diving into books and reading them over and over again (in spanish also- he goes to a bilingual school). It's a distinct pleasure to listen to him discovering and getting excited about books that I loved. Call of the Wild and White Fang have been the recent one, and I gave him Watership Down for Christmas. A bit advanced, maybe, but challenge is good. Of coure, he's a Harry Potter fanatic, and about the time the last book comes out, he'll probably be about ready for The Hobbit.

But furthermore, the school has a pretty well developed, integrated language program that balances writing skills, speaking skills, and visualization. So he's developing the ability to construct a story, write a poem, and read it to a group. He's written haikus- in Spanish. He's emceed an Author's Tea, where all the students get to read their original stories. He's read Shel Silverstein poems to his class.

And I believe it all started with reading stories. But at his school this is the way reading is taught.

did I mention that his school is one of those horrible urban public schools? They do all this wonderful work in a very well built, but ill-maintained and outdated, building from the early 1900's, and sadly inadequate funding. I don't think I can imagine what they could do with a budget that's realistic.


Smart schools invest in early reading help - 20 or 30 tutoring hours in kindergarten and first grade and those kids are back on track.

Here's a link.

I say invest because while one-on-one tutoring is expensive, it brings 99% of the kids up to grade level in 1st/2nd grade and then they can stay there.

I have to think it became "cool" to be stupid right around the same time it became "fun" to watch cars go around in a circle.

Anne Laurie

Hey, Kids These Days -- and their parents -- still pay storytellers with the big money & the big attention, too! What are rappers like Eminem and Fifty Cent doing, if not telling stories? Isn't Jerry Seinfeld's fortune, and prestige, based on telling "stories about nothing"? Don't people listen to Rush Limbaugh, or watch Jon Stewart, because those guys are re-arranging the day's politic trivia into a series of cohesive STORIES that help us make sense of all that random information? (The fact that Limbaugh's stories & Stewart's seem to be taking place in two very different universes, while using much of the same information, just points out the primacy of Story over Fact.) Doesn't every modern American novelist complain that "the readers" are less interested in those black-marks-on-paper the novelist has taken such pains to arrange beautifully, than in the novelist's... story... their biography, opinions, celebrity?

The problem, I think, is that reading/writing is a very recent, and neurologically sophisticated, advance in Homo Sap's all-important ability to tell stories (to pass on information). We've reached a stage of cultural development where any person hoping for "success" will almost certainly need to develop SOME level of fluency with the black-marks-on-paper; we can't pass down rocket science, brain surgery, mortgage refinancing, even sports playbooks without teaching basic reading, writing, and mathematics first. But for most of human evolution -- extending well into the last century even in the most "advanced" societies -- learning, comprehending, using those marks-on-paper/papyrus/tablets/stone skills wasn't essential for the vast majority of the population. In fact, in a great many cultures, "book learning" was explicitly or implicitly a skill confined to a tiny coterie of the Leaders, the few important people who needed to know the Big Secrets. The methods we're now using to teach reading/writing were developed in a culture where most people didn't need much "literacy"; a culture where advanced reading/writing skills were linked to a small, top-tier elite of the same gender, race, and class. In reaction, we developed -- we live in -- a "people's revolutionary anti-culture" where advanced literacy, "book-larnin", is something that only effete, desexualized, wet-nosed not-really-grownups in a clerical class uneasily poised between the Citizen Worker and the Military/Political Leader needs. (Scrooge was a successful businessman, but Bob Cratchitt was only a clerk; the current Oval Office occupant brags about being "a C-minus student" & his minions trumpet their impatience with the "quibbling eggheads".)

But we no longer live in a society where at least half of all children will never get to attend school, and where the one-sixth to one-half of all children who can't "keep up" with a single standard-testing-based curriculum can be discarded as tomorrow's farm workers, hand laborers, housekeepers. We CAN develop strategies to teach essential literacy skills to almost all our children. Even quite unsophisticated parents successfully teach their offspring to use the toilet, to tie their shoes, to sail boats or grow vegetables or play soccer or drive an automobile -- all sorts of skills that require sophisticated visualization, memory training, large- and small-muscle control & training, and all the other neurological building blocks that make learning to read a complicated process. Nobody's advocating -- nobody's claiming -- that one out of five adults might as well be allowed to wear diapers, because bladder control is "too challenging" for any sex, class, or race to master. But we don't assume that only the very small percentage of toddlers who take naturally to self-control (the kids who hate wet diapers, who embrace their potty chairs, who are reliably continent when they enter pre-school & who sleep dry through the night before the first grade) are MEANT to be toilet-trained! We need literacy training that acknowledges that reading is always a complicated skill, that some people find it harder than others to master, that different people will need different methods to learn it, and that it will take some people longer than others to be achieve adequate mastery. But first we need to stop assuming -- explicitly or not -- that literacy is either optional or "just too hard" for some considerable percentage of the population.

(Incidentally, if comparing literacy to toilet-training seems ridiculous, or grandstanding: Remember that the reason modern six-year-olds enter the "first grade" has nothing to do with reading readiness, eye-hand coordination, cortical development, or anything else directly related to literacy. Age six is when the average child can be expected to "hold it" in the classroom for up to four hours at a stretch, and having the pupil "hold it" without interrupting a blackboard/lecture-based session to visit the outhouse was the single most essential pre-literacy skill desired by Dewey-trained pedagogues. True fact; you can look it up!)


Hey, everyday my son marches into an auditorium and says the Pledge of Allegiance. What could be more important than that? He knows how to line up and march single and double file to his class room. He will make an excellent taxpayer and soldier. What more do you want? The public and most private schools know what they're doing; really.

Unlike his stupid peacenik great grandfather who never went to a school until, well, College. I mean come on, by the time great grandpa got his doctorate he had taught himself to read antique High German, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Sanskrit but he didn't know the pledge! One nation under God; I mean come on, how hard is that? The guy could read and write and speak fluent Mandarin Chinese not to mention his native English but could he stand in line and march to class? Great Grandpa was missing regimentation. Is Great Grandpa the kind of person who would run up a credit card on useless electronic gadgets? No! Is someone like Great Grandpa going to buy a new car every year or so? No, I tell you boys today are better educated in the things that are important.

Now you take any American boy and ask him who the best NBA ball players are. Believe me; you will get a straight answer with reasons. So he doesn't know who the prime minister of Canada is or who the President of Mexico is. Why would you want to teach them that? That's not something a good taxpayer needs to know. You teach taxpayers about prime ministers and such and pretty soon they are asking questions about why the US overthrows democracies in favor brutal dictators. Is that what we want? It would just cause the poor boys needless pain and worry. Why ruin their lives? Be happy! Be regimented!

Don’t listen to me, let me quote to you from somebody who really knows: "If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy”, Frederick Douglas quoting his mistress’s husband, Mr. Auld.

Kevin Wolf

Maybe it's only because I have no children, but I don't even hear the phrase "reading aloud" anymore. I do think perhaps things have changed too much. (And then there's those who would pretend that TV "tells stories." Oy.)


Bloated, overlong comment follows. Sorry.

Your postings on this subject have been continuing a while now and I keep thinking I'd like to comment but end up not knowing what to say, which probably is a good clue that I've not anything to contribute.

But, no, reading/writing and the spinning of the story isn't the same thing.

We homeschool, have read to our son always and have hundreds of books in our apartment. So it's not as if our son hasn't been continually exposed. Kids seem to be just ready at different ages and what works for one child may be hell for another. Our son (just turned 8) can read but hates to do it. Comprehension is always there for what he does read. I figure he'll grow into it. No one even knew I could read until I was 8 and his cousins (also homeschooled) have all learned to read in different ways, some picking it up and enjoying it as early as 3 and 4 and others not picking it up until 8 and 9. One of his cousins who started picking up reading at 8 and 9 now walks around always with something by Shakespeare, determined to be an actress. And boy does she have a flair for broadcasting on stage. Making herself *big* on stage, radiating, all the way to the back row. She does not just read, memorize and regurgitate. She "is".

So, young son hates to read and write but at the age of 8 has plunged into storytelling. Interesting watching the personal evolution. He's always done it with drawing, storyboards, onion-skinning animation etc. But now he's reving up with words. About two hours a day is just him circulating the room here telling his stories. These are games, of course, make-believe, pretend. But they are stories. It is story-telling. It is developing the art of form, timing, structure, spinning ideas. And I sit and listen and work and listen and when he wants it interactive I interact, the main thing is the free time to spin on and on and on. And then there are stories he rehearses, that he practices, separating elements and refining. So on Saturday he was down at the studio and my husband made a recordinng of one of the latest stories he'd been rehearsing (these always more detailed than the game-play-stories, he works too on structure) and I sat and listened afterwards and was amazed at the confidence in voicing and the structure. Beginning, devlopment, end. Sound effects. Everything.

He was mortified to learn drone bees are sent outside the hive to die. Dealing with life and mortality is always big with him. No matter the subject we're on (we're about as loose as can be, though not unschoolers) issues of life and mortality are inescapable, they are always there for him. Looking at a chicken egg is not just an egg. It's life and mortality. A drone bee is not just a drone bee, it's life and mortality. So last night's two hours of story-play was the story he was making up of the drone bee who made maps for the hive so he would not be sent outside to die in the cold.

Sometimes his stories run like dreams. And makes me think about the function of dreaming as regards the brain's storing of memories. Very similar, the pulling in of information from that day or recently, incorporating it, relating it to other information, an element of the surreal with the bringing together of seemingly unrelated content but deep in that little noggin there are connectors and the maps are enlarging, one building upon the other. I listen and think about how people accept early playtime as essential to children learning, but not much is said about it as they get older. The 8-year-old spinning those play tales seems to me just as essential, and essential the ability to not have to be literal. One thing school tends to have a problem with. Keep it concrete, literal, linear.

Man, does he hate reading still. But what the hell does the ability to read and write have to do with learning how to think independently and intelligence. He'll be literate. He's on his way there. He's got to do it and will. But when he's an adult it's not literacy that's going to give him vision and sense of purpose, and for some reason we have confused literacy with intelligence and the ability to imagine worlds. Literacy is not story-telling. Literacy is a particular method of information retrieval and relaying. I try not to give him the idea that reading and writing are the building blocks that will open worlds to him. It is one way of learning a story. There are others. I tell him he's going to need reading and writing because of the stories he's going to want to tell. And I'm not thinking as an author, because there are many ways of telling stories and he calls himself an artist and now is calling himself a story-teller, he'll find his own way of telling stories in the way suited to them. I just tell him that reading and writing are going to be essential to get them done, and that there are a lot of stories and ideas that have only been related in print that he will like to learn and to do that he'll need to read. I tell him the more comfortable he is with reading and writing, he may even find enjoyment in using them as a tool for story telling, just like some pictures he wants to draw and others he wants to paint.

In the meanwhile he's learning and teaching himself elements of style and structure that have everything to do with thinking and nothing to do with writing, though books teach style and structure as writing skills. They are not. We teach the ability to think and organize those thoughts as if it hinges upon the written essay and only happens if the brain is attached to a pen. Not true.

There are cultures that wouldn't consider scripting critical information. No, you have to learn it other ways because the pen simply can't do it. Which exists as a certain sort of myth in literacy-dependent cultures, that there is learning which can't be written and so is necessarily hidden between the lines. We erased untold numbers of those oral stories through ethnocide, killing the language (which we knew was critical to assimilation). As the bearers of the stories died, their language dying with them, some of them told the stories to missionaries and linguists who recorded them. And we turn around today and in the height of arrogance say it's only because of those written records that the stories can be known, emphasizing the importance of reading and writing in this way. Pure perversity. And yes we do have them but it is vanity to say that because we can read them we know them, they are ours. They have ceased to sing. Their secrets are locked away because the pen was helpless to communicate their complexity, the heart, what can be learned only the way of the fairy tale adventurer whose path, even if formulaic,is ever the unexpected.

The pen doesn't mean accuracy. The pen doesn't mean truth.

There are ways in which the pen kills memory.

Anyway, reading and writing are today pretty essential as far as information retrieval and relay (though they aren't strictly essential, as we have recordings). They are tools. But literacy isn't the end all and be all and the ability to think, to dream worlds, to organize, interpret and relate information shouldn't be confused with reading and writing.


I think you may have something there. The best books for small children are ones that are rhythmical. We teach kids the alphabet with a song. We entertain toddlers preschoolers and babies with rhymes and songs. The high pitched and sing song "Baby Talk" many parents use when talking to infants is now actually considered to be helpful to small children in learning to speak. All the best shows for children are filled with songs.

My mom says one of her main regrets as a parent was not continuing to read out loud to us once we were able to read ourselves. It's something she constantly advises the parents of her students to do - advice I pass on to worried parents who come into the store. A part of it is that struggling first graders are often unable to read the longer, more interesting stories and so they start to lose interest in reading altogether. But another part of it is also that, at that age, even decent readers have diffilculty reading smoothly enough to fully comprehend and enjoy the story. On the other hand, a book read aloud by even a semi-competent adult is often rythmical and poetic - even if the words don't appear that way on the page. Reading aloud to elementary school children teaches them to read with inflection and for meaning, to strive for more than just to getting through the sentence. Reading aloud with them - ie taking turns - gives them a chance to practice doing so.


Oh, and Idyllopus,

The literature/writing program my mom uses with her first graders, and really likes, involves having the kids sit and think about their stories first, practive telling the story to other children next, "pre-write" the story through pictures - and then write the story. Throughout the year they're taught to make sure that their stories have a beginning, middle, and end, as well as characters and setting. It works really well (when there's time for it) and the kids leave not only better writers, but with a better understanding of story structure, and thus better readers than if all they had practised was reading itself.

So, no, rhymes and songs may not be necessary (all kids are different) - but the process of telling stories is - whether it's reciting, singing, telling, or drawing. It's that doing anything other than reading (and math) is being cut out of early elementary school - and many kid's reading suffers for it, especially in the long run. They need a chance to tell, dictate, recite, draw, and act out as well as practice actual reading in order to be good readers - but the people setting the "standards" don't seem to get that.

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