What is reading, really?
Do you remember learning to read? Most people do have some memory of receiving reading instruction as a young child. We remember “sounding out” or decoding words and learning to say them faster and more fluently. But reading teachers often discover two very divergent issues among children: extreme difficulty in decoding, or a complete focus on decoding without regard to word meaning. With the former, the child struggles to make sense of those little black marks on the page that we call letters, and with the latter, the child decodes beautifully and fluently, but has no idea what he or she is actually saying and cannot tell what the text was about afterward. In my opinion, these two maladies of reading are closely related.
The author and creator of language, both spoken and written, is God Himself. The opening verse of the Gospel of John actually tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” When God created us, He hard-wired us to communicate with Him – and with one-another – and to be able to read. Why else would He have given us a written account in the Bible?
So why do so many children have such a difficult time learning to read and write? I do not pretend to have the answer to that question, but I do have some ideas. Imagine with me a big pile of Lego blocks. Pretend each of those blocks is a word on a page, and imagine that your teacher has told you to pick up the blocks one at a time and put them into a big box. Now, does that sound like much fun? What do you want to do with those Legos? Well, my guess is that you want to build something with them.
Now, pretend instead that your teacher has told you to pick up each of those blocks (words) and examine them, and see how they fit with all the other blocks (words). Your teacher tells you to build something with those blocks. Now that sounds like fun!
You see, somewhere along the way to No Child Left Behind we have forgotten that the purpose of language is to convey meaning, and we have started teaching children to figure out the words on the page for the sake of figuring out the words on the page. We should be teaching them to begin building something meaningful – something beautiful – with all those words and to see how they all fit together in the greater contexts of language and communication. Let’s stop expecting children to simply pick words off the page and put them into the big box – let’s start giving them permission to piece them together into wonderful new creations with all kinds of mixing of colors and shapes, and dozens of new ideas. Reading is communicating ideas and constructing meaning, not just stuffing words away in the old noggin.