Too Many Stars in Our Eyes: Winning the Rat Race over the Cliff of Early Reading Instruction



Diane McGuinness is one of my favorite English spelling/decoding experts. She endeavors to make reading print language as comprehensible as possible, and because she has so thoroughly articulated the English spelling code. And, she is very successful in her efforts to ensure that children do not get riddled with inaccurate ideas of how we adult readers are able not only to read so fast but to love reading. So, I really like her book, Why Our Children Can’t Read.

But, despite her deep expertise in the structure of the English spelling code, McGuinness is to reading instruction like a too-smart mechanic is to teaching young children to ride a bike: her effective theoretical focus is on the contraption, not on the mechanics of fluently using it. So, she interprets all claims, and all data, about the mechanics of fluently using it in terms of her knowledge of the inanimate contraption itself.

The too-smart mechanic is so focused on the bike’s features that he fails to see just how essential is the rider to the task of riding well. The mechanic may so thoroughly understand the bike itself, and have such a thoroughly effective instinct about how to ride it, that he can ensure that children never panic and crash horribly. But, the fact that the mechanic is so successful at helping children learn to ride well does not mean that the mechanic either understands or articulates the essence of the task. In fact, in most cases in which a parent has succeeded in getting their young child to learn to ride a bike, the view which both the child and the parent would articulate as to how riding is accomplished approaches mechanical superstition: ‘keep pedaling, keep pedaling!’ Few people who can ride well are aware that they do so by extending their own balance instincts down through the bike. They are unaware of doing this even down through the pedals, and are especially unaware of it when they are pedaling.

It is because of her deeply accurate articulations of the structure of the English spelling code, combined with her rate of crash-free success in teaching children to read by way of her understanding of that code, that McGuinness fails to see that she almost entirely misses the mechanics of fluent reading. So, while I really like her book, Why Our Children Can’t Read, I also really hate it: Its logical progression leaves out virtually everything that matters most in the mechanics of fluent reading. Enter Rudolph Flesch, author of in Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, and Frank Smith, author of Understanding Reading, and the much simpler Reading Without Nonsense:

In Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, Flesch was sure he had shown Smith to be the Bozo. I could not help but wonder if Flesch had even read the book from which he quoted Smith (Reading Without Nonsense). Smith is amazingly perceptive, but focuses mainly on the user-dynamics of reading, so he doesn't get into the contraption of print anywhere near as well, in general, as McGuinness does. But, McGuinness, despite her intelligence, actually think’s Flesch was on-target about what Smith was even saying. Fortunately for everyone, Flesch accurately likened a beginner's level of phonemic decoding (phonics) to a tricycle. This is fortunate because Flesch quite superstitiously thought that fluent reading is mainly or totally sounding, and that this sounding out is analogous to riding a mechanically genuine bi-cycle:

The fact is, though a trike closely resembles a bike on a trivial mechanical level, a trike does not even come close to being a bike in principle. A trike may as well be a car as far as concerns the essential ability to ride a bike: neither trike nor car is an unstable system, and so the operation of either of them necessarily is absent the extension of the dynamic balance instinct so essential to riding a bike.

Moreover, riding a bike is far more complex than what even a deeply accurate knowledge of the contraption itself would suggest. In fact, such a knowledge, by itself, would find much of that complexity blatantly counter-intuitive: When riding an in-line two-wheel contraption (a bike, or Fluency in print reading is exactly analogous to fluency in understanding either spoken or hand language. bicycle) in rough terrain, it is essential to have tight control of the handlebars. This is because a tight control of the handlebars, when done congruent with the moment’s total task, keeps the pivot-able wheel from being suddenly forced to either side by the terrain. Nevertheless―and here’s where that ‘counter-intuitive’ part comes in—it is especially in rough terrain that a control of the handlebars not be expected to do all, or even most, of the work of keeping the bike upright. This is because to effectively treat the handlebars as the primary, or only, means of balance is to guarantee a fall, especially in rough terrain.

If you, despite being as a proficient bicycle rider, can manage to treat a bike like a trike, then you’ll see what I mean when I said that a trike may as well be a car as far as concerns the essential ability to ride a bike. For riding a bike, the complexity of the relationship between the implicit primary-means-of-balance and control-of-the-pivot-able-wheel is counterintuitive to anyone whose effective theoretical focus is only on the contraption. Though it clearly has handlebars for controlling the pivotable wheel, and though it clearly has a pedal crank/chain/sprocket assembly to help make it roll, it has nothing which may, in effect, be labeled BALANCE CONTROL DEVICE.

But, if there is no bona fide balance control device on any bike, then what, really, is the means by which a proficient rider does, in fact, keep it upright? Here’s a clue: ‘Look ma, no hands and no feet!’

So, despite her being so very right, McGuinness also is so very wrong. She has failed to see that there is something far more implicit and complex about reading than what the contraption which is the English-spelling-code-and-English-text makes plain. Her pragmatic solution to her theoretical deficit is to ensure plenty of meaningful reading. But, she interprets her resultant crash-free success in teaching children to read as hinging principally on her own correct knowledge of the contraption. The first of two critical distinctions to be made here is that she does not thereby ensure that anyone can read, but only that everyone can learn to read without crashing horribly. The second critical distinction is that the earliest possible age at which many children may effectively be trained into acquiring fluency in reading is not, in fact, the best point at which to pressure all children to try for hours a day for their next three or more years of life to become proficient readers. Some children, by analogy, learn to build and pilot an airplane before they even think of climbing a sheer rock face; some even build rockets before they can ride a bike.


Fluency in print reading is exactly analogous to fluency in understanding either spoken or hand language. When you practice any language which is foreign to you, at some point your brain begins actually to think in the words of that language: the words begin to seem to take on the meanings ascribed to them. An unpressured, and duly informed, path to visual recognition of written words is a visual analogue to this.

Up until that point, you find those forms artificial to your thinking: as tacked on to what your brain is trying to do in terms of meaning and form recognition. But, at and beyond that point, you begin to notice that those forms seem to take on the 'personality' and meanings for which you are trying to use them. Your brain thus has finally begun to reduce the accomplishment of a form-and-meaning task to the most efficient minimum effort required for your own brain. In other words, your brain has begun to ‘cut out the middle man’ of its own former, trivial perception of the forms involved in that task.

This reduction of accomplishing a task to the most efficient minimum effort is how a novice driver becomes a proficient driver. It also is how a proficient print reader of English can, if basically functional enough in the brain, look at any word on this page and effortlessly recognize both its form and its standard meaning without actually reading it.

If you are a proficient reader of a wide range of English, then take a minute to look at the next paragraph as if gazing idly at a ‘popcorn’ ceiling or a cloud. Some of the most proficient readers find it difficult to do this. They find it difficult because their brains are so used treating a text of familiar words as something to read, not as something to gaze at. And, due to its subject matter, if they also like rocket science, then they will find even more difficult managing to get their brains to just gaze at it.

The Moon has no atmosphere, so any accelerant kcv used for horizontal travel only lmnbvcx adds to any already-established orbit-promising horizontal velocity of the craft. Whereas, on Earth, which has over ten miles thick of densest atmosphere, a rocket first has sww to push up past pplstraxvc all that atmosphere fpfvooiw before it idlvssz can even approach pqefy horizontal orbital velocity. And, the heavier the craft, the more rocket fuel is needed jpft wtw to get the craft into orbit. But, the added fuel itself then needs to be pushed up too, which means even more fuel is needed to get the craft into orbit. So, rocket launch from Grdppvfp Earth-ground to Earth-orbit requires immense amounts of fuel just to push through qvv the viscos atmosphere.

The preceding paragraph has about a dozen collections of English letters which, despite your familiarity with the individual letters, you likely find visually foreign. You cannot help but pick out these collections because they stand out in terms of all the words that your brain already so easily recognizes. In fact, so long as you manage merely to gaze idly at that paragraph, it nearly could as well be this next one:

charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie zxccrwwtenvctwuyetrr charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie zxccrwwtenvctwuyetrr charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie zxccrwwtenvctwuyetrr charlie charlie charlie charlie charlie

Now, if you will, I request that you read the first sentence of the second paragraph of this Introduction thirty times in a row (Fluency in print reading is exactly analogous to fluency in understanding either spoken or hand language.). Assuming you comply with that request, make sure actually to read it each time: don’t resort merely to reciting it once you’ve memorized its wording. For the average adult reader, the task of visually reading it that many times in a row should take less than two minutes. If you are like most readers, you will notice that the more times you read that sentence, the less effort you spend each time being sure you have read it right. This is because your brain increasingly knows what to expect of that sentence each time you read it. In fact, if you were to read it a hundred times in a row, you likely would find you can instantly pick out its third duplicate which I have inserted somewhere in the remainder of this Introduction. Either way, you may find that, in spotting that duplicate, your eyes have scanned the duplicate far more rapidly-per-word than you can read an equal portion of new text.

This increased rapidity of word-for-word scanning is just an odd example of basically what happens when your brain has become fluent in a new task: your brain no longer has to spend effort just making sure you have completed the task correctly. In other words, you have reduced the effort required to complete it to a very easy minimum, just like learning to drive. The ‘obvious’ has become increasingly trivial, until, for example, in reading an engaging text you often fail to notice the occasional typographic error. If you have done much type writing of your own thoughts, and if you have done much reading of your own unedited typewritten thoughts, then you likely know how easily your own reading-for-meaning blinds you to the occasional typographic error.

This reduction of a task to a very easy minimum is just what happens when, as a novice rock climber, you begin to become expert at rock climbing: you become sufficiently familiar with the kinds and amounts of efforts required that you no longer have to spend the vast amounts of efforts which ensuring you don’t fall commands you to spend over-approximating your effort. But, what would happen if, all during your novice stage, someone kept effectively pressuring you to climb much faster than you were comfortable with? Answer: you would fall often, likely coming not only to hate climbing, and not only dreading just the thought of climbing, but failing to make nearly as much accurate sense of how to do it well as you would have made had you been allowed to practice it unpressured for all that time.


Children learn to walk naturally: without explicit instruction. This is because, in terms of walking, children are their own ready instruments-and-contraption. They don’t first have to become robotics engineers.

But, learning to walking is unlike both probabilistic spelling codes and really giant bicycles, neither contraption of which is readily learned even by most adults who’ve never experienced either kind. A one-to-one spelling code is like a push scooter. A push scooter is, essentially, a bicycle. But, it is a bicycle which is comparatively very easy to learn to ride because its tipping altitude is only inches off the ground. This near-ground tipping altitude allows the rider much more of his own bodily balance instinct to effect his balance of the push scooter. Whereas, a probabilistic code is like that really giant bike: if you haven’t yet acquired the instinct to which riding a bike is a mere extension of the ability to stand, walk, and run, then, even without ‘bad’ instruction, being pushed into trying to learn to ride it is likely to be that much more frustrating, dangerous, and, at least occasionally, injurious.

Seriously, how badly can you be instructed in learning to blink if you instinctively already know how to blink? Answer: not likely bad at all. But, even the ‘best’ instruction in any skill can be quite bad if some-or-all of your instincts about that skill are more-or-less prevented from being activated within-and-by the mechanics or manner of the instruction. This is really why, perhaps somewhat despite herself, McGuinness found that her method had to be accompanied by lots of meaningful reading. As if a normal human reader is an autistic savant with no sense of how to approach print except at the level of graphemes. As if the average adult reader cannot instantly recognize every word of this paragraph like so much popcorn ceiling.

So, contrary to McGuinness, a probabilistic spelling code is not itself any more a disadvantage than is a funny looking bike with a giant front wheel. At worst, such a code is the key point of opposition to the kind of society which, both because of and in spite of its sheer success in both international trade and domestic production, is made up mostly of parents who far more effectively are concerned with whether their child is ‘admirably’ ‘keeping up with the Jones’s kid’ than they are with whether he is keeping up with himself. These are not those parents in third world countries who live in such disadvantage that they expect never to have their children exceed their own lifestyle and economic connections. No, these are parents who see worldly success so promisingly within their reach that they become not only greedy for it for their children, but feel themselves robbed of it at any point at which their children fail to get as much of it as got the ‘Jones’’s kid.

You may well climb a sheer rock cliff partly to reach the top and look out over everything. But, as virtually all competent rock climbers know, the top is, by far, not the only attraction. In fact, for all the effort expended in getting to the top, if the trip itself commonly was a frustrating hassle, then very few climbers who do become proficient at it would ever have bothered to keep at it long enough to become proficient at it. Which joyful readers in their right minds would knowingly so insist that children learn to read at the earliest possible age at which it is humanly possible to train them to read that children learn to see reading, at best, as a mere necessary-and-technical means to some far-away-up good end?

The widely variable particulars of the normal development of ‘biological imperatives’ like first-language acquisition and proficient bipedalism are noticed by an age-graded mind only within the wide variability of infancy, never within the larger picture of human abilities. So, the fact that so many infants learn to walk at nearly half the age at which others learn to walk seems to such a mind to mean nothing for ‘unnatural’ skills such as reading. After all, the mere exact age at which your child finally learns to walk is admittedly not the issue and so is never invoked as a standard in the first place. But, then, why is the mere exact age of acquiring ‘unnatural’ skills invoked as a standard for those skills? Is it really because parents think that the personal variables which make acquisition of the ‘biological imperatives’ so age-variant do not exist for the ‘unnatural skills?

No, the real reason why a mere exact age of acquiring ‘unnatural’ skills is invoked as the standard for those skills is because parents in ‘educated’ societies are too ready to be greedy for a given ‘educational’ achievement of their children in terms of the exact mere age at which the Jones’s kids have achieved it. This means 'To heck with the actual trip up the cliff: the whole point is to get to the top as soon as, or sooner than, everyone else, lest you fall so horribly so many times that you refuse to climb it at all'. So, the fact that that cliff face is made up mostly of exposed gold veins is deemed trivial by comparison even to the need not to be rushed to climb it.

So, it would appear, from Diane McGuinness’ words, that the highly probabilistic modern English spelling code is a ‘mess’, and without which the ‘whole language’ approach to teaching reading could not ever have flourished: without that ‘mess’, there never would have been a literacy crisis.

But, I think there is a better, deeper, and far more complex reason for why the ‘whole language’ approach ever flourished. It has to do with meaning. And, what I mean there by ‘meaning’ has little to do with written language, despite what I say next:

The English spelling code is as much a guide to meaning as to sound. Consider just the connection between words like ‘sign’ and ‘significant’: if the original pronunciation of ‘sign’ has changed over the centuries, the spelling fortunately has not: sine. Meaning not only helps a novice reader identify an unfamiliar word, but is critical to the fluency with which all readers obtain the meaning of the writer’s statements. Further, the more a reader can and does focus on the meaning, the less the reader must attend to the ‘surface structure’ which is spelling, wording, and whether the author has omitted some expected words. The fluent reading for meaning is why it takes a careful and patient eye to spot every omitted word in an engaging text. Unfortunately, fluently reading for meaning also is why even the best authors commonly find key portions of their works critically misrepresented.

Let me repeat: the ‘mess’ of probabilistic English spelling only most remotely contributed to the fact that the ‘Whole-language’ bureaucracy even got their foot in the door of early literacy instruction. McGuinness not only admits to having got into studying that ‘mess’ herself by accident, but takes some pains to explain how the mechanics-and-linguistics of instruction by adults in such codes can all-so-easily be hazardous to young children: ‘letters don’t make sounds, letters represent sounds’. These are young children who, by definition, haven’t mastered even basic adult spoken English, much less their own personally selected collection of English graphemes. The faculty of initiating their own personally favored questions is precluded by an instructional method which is imposed on them wholesale long before they even get the chance to form their own questions.

For all her deserved expertise in phonics instruction, it is in light of Steven Pinker’s Forward to her groundbreaking book, Why Our Children Can’t Read, that I note to never having known McGuinness to point out that writing systems were invented not by and for children, but by and for adults. The fact is, short of highly bureaucratic enforcements, all writing systems inevitably either increase in complexity or become extinct. Further, the more broadly successful is a people-and-language in worldly terms, the more complex their language becomes. What ought never, ever be enforced is an artificially fixed ‘standard’ by which a particular child must learn to read, much less a ‘standard’ based on some notion of the average means-and-timetable within a highly imposed-and-micro-managed process of ‘helping him keep up’. Were there only one child in the world, there would be no such ‘standard’.

But, because anxiously greedy parentage becomes so common in advanced countries, those countries swallow whole the hegemony of the age-grading, scope-and-sequence approach to ‘ensuring my child doesn’t end up an ignorant and incompetent adult’. So, parents in such a society send their children to be taught ‘competence’ by institutions concerned mainly to keep the pressure on the students to ‘learn’. Hence, in turn, is born the whole mess which is the controversies over ‘how best to ensure my child doesn’t fall behind the Jones’s kid’. And, hence, in turn, is born educational research institutions which are connected to children in such a way as to make the average parent feel that an effective homeschooling would be like building a Saturn V rocket from scratch with little more in the way of tools than a Bowie knife or a plastic spoon.

So, this is how the so-called Whole Language people got their foot in the educational door: by the already-present literacy equivalent of robotics engineers not only pressuring all babies in their charge to try to learn to walk, but pressuring them begin to ‘buckle down’ learning it at the earliest age at which some babies do learn to walk. The fact that all nearly one-to-one spelling codes find very few young children under those codes functionally illiterate does not mean it is right to put young children under an academic load resembling that for which only the most ‘four-eyed’ of older teens could wish. The fact that a valley of horses finds itself living within a larger ‘rat race’ mountain range does not mean their own colts have to become good ‘rats’. Who thinks a marathon is a sprint, much less a contest to see who can complete it without risking bursting half the capillaries in their lungs?


I think that humans, in developing systems of prosthetic static visual reference (i.e. writing), had naturally to make use of both analytic and synthetic means. If my thinking here is true, then the fact that many people now choose exclusively one or the other means to teach children to read is essentially and ultimately part of the problem, not part of the solution. To help justify that assertion, let me offer an analogy:

It is agreed that a person who can pilot an airplane is more competent in that specific way than is a person who cannot pilot an airplane. It even is agreed that not all proposed processes by which a person may acquire that ability is equally effective to that end.

But, it most definitely is agreed that a human being is not a pilot. In other words, the natural category of 'human' subsumes the artificial category of 'pilot'. So, it is agreed, at least implicitly, that not all proposed processes by which a person may become a pilot are equally effective to the end of maintaining the proper priority between 'human' and 'pilot'.

So, in fact, a pilot who has got the proper priority mixed up is, in the broad term, an inferior pilot. This is true even if, in terms of some external artificial purpose, such inferiority is more effective. For example, in terms of the external artificial purpose of flying an airplane into a tall building full of innocent people, the genuinely superior human piloting is the 'inferior' kind. But, in that case, the pilot genuinely has been 'educated beyond his intelligence'. This all merely is an extreme example pointing up the fact that the ability to read is inferior to the ability to be human; And, that, to the extent that being human is artificially subsumed to the ability to read, there is no genuinely superior process of learning to read. In fact, a 99.99% ‘foolproof’ method of reading instruction can still be perfectly inhumane to the remaining .01%. It only takes one star to make the rest pale by comparison.

The coup de grâce of ‘foolproof’ is in the form of one of Steven Pinker’s own—perhaps somewhat unintentional―phrases, in his Forward to McGuinness’ book, Why Our Children Can’t Read:

When children are thrown together without a usable [spoken] language, they invent one of their own. Compare…this with writing. Writing systems have been invented a small number of times in history[,] originat[ing] only in a few complex civilizations[.] Until recently, most children never learned to read or write; even with today’s universal education, many children struggle and fail. A group of children is no more likely to invent an alphabet than it is to invent the internal combustion engine. Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.

‘Bolted on’??? Like riding (after inventing) a ‘ridiculous’-looking bike with a six-foot-diameter front wheel? No part of childhood should be subsumed to the ability to read. Because, only when childhood is subsumed to it does there ever arise a conflict over how best to subsume childhood to it. Supposedly, a stellar education is near-impossible without having learned to read fluently by the average age at which a nation’s children can be forced to learn it. And, it would seem, by the words of a man I most admire, that a proficient reader is likened to a cyborg.

So, the fact that the work of some researchers in the field of reading instruction has been stellar-ly effective does not make it right that we subsume childhood to the ability to read at a certain level. After all, we still know that our own most near little star is truly special.





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