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On Learning to Read: The Child's Fascination with Meaning

reviewed by Patricia Brown - 1983

coverTitle: On Learning to Read: The Child's Fascination with Meaning
Author(s): Bruno Bettleheim, Karen Zelan
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: 0394711947, Pages: , Year:
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When the pressure came to have the schools return to basic skills, educators like Knecht in Hesse’s The Bead Game had to compromise:

The men of principled simplicity

Will have no traffic with out subtle doubt.

The world is flat, they tell us, and they shout:

The myth of depth is an absurdity!

. . . In order peacefully to coexist

Let us strike one dimension off our list.

. . . The third dimension is dispensable.

Bettelheim and Zelan, both child psychologists with extensive clinical experience with disturbed children and a particular interest in learning to read, tell us in their new book that the dimension of depth cannot be dispensed with if our aim is to have children grow up to love reading. They insist that reading is not only a rational activity, but it is also rooted in the unconscious through the emotional element that surrounds early experiences with reading. Only if those experiences are “endowed with some visionary qualities and magic meaning” is the child likely to become literate. “Literate” in this context refers not simply to the ability to get meaning from the written work but also to reading as an enjoyable and important part of life.

The authors point out that in the first grade a child is not dominantly rational but is moved primarily by emotional factors. Nor is the young child concerned with future-centered utilitarian reasons for reading; he lives in the present and a highly imaginative present at that. If he has supportive parents who love to read, he is eager to get the key to the secret world that they enjoy through reading. Early childhood is here compared to the early history of mankind when words were used to invoke the gods, when the deepest beliefs were transmitted through poetry and myth, at first orally and later in written symbols. These symbols had such power, it was believed, that only the wise should be permitted to learn to read.

Reading is, of course, not the only area in which the relationship holds between an emotional involvement in childhood and an intellectual commitment in adulthood. The scientist or mathematician may be motivated for the rest of his life by an early sense of awe and wonder in his early experience of nature or the world of number. When the child is emotionally affected, he wants to know more, and this quest for meaning is at the root of the child’s desire to read. It is a positive force that the teacher can count on unless dull books, unimaginative drill, or too much pressure vitiate it. This seeking for meaning is demonstrated as the authors describe a study of “misreading” conducted with the cooperation of a group of elementary schools.

As the authors interpret it, a misreading is a substitution of a new word for the one in the text that makes the story “stupid” to the child or makes it painful for him through some personal association. One child read “Tigger” (from the Pooh stories) for the “tiger” in the text because the latter frightened her. Another child read “defective” for “detective” because, as interpreted, he found his workbook defective, that is, uninteresting. In such instances the teacher, instead of treating the child as having failed, notes the change of word with sympathy, and the child usually goes back and rereads the sentence correctly, thus indicating he knew all along how to read the word. The unconscious was acting in these instances as a positive force to help the child over a hurdle; an annoyed teacher, on the other hand, could hinder further learning and self-esteem if he did not handle this carefully.

Against this positive picture of the child’s fascination with meaning, the authors paint a different scene in sharp, dark lines of the early experiences with reading that the child is actually given in American schools. Preprimers and primers are described as inane, as an insult to a child’s intelligence, and as containing a ridiculously small vocabulary that is repeated over and over. The sentences are not in forms used in normal speech, the characters bland and unreal. Bettelheim and Zelan see teachers, administrators, and textbook publishers as an establishment that is ruining reading for children by sacrificing meaningful content in their misplaced zeal to teach reading skills as ends in themselves. But the authors weaken their credibility by insisting that the primers are the source of reading problems without substantiating that oversimplification. As the authors note, their own graduate students claim that as children they disliked their primers, but obviously these did not stand in the way of their becoming good readers who enjoyed reading.

There were many reasons why the modern primer replaced the older types, but the authors do not look into these reasons carefully. Had the more classic texts been successful over the years in which America became industrial, then technological, more pluralistic, more egalitarian, it is doubtful that they would have been replaced. The nostalgia with which the authors describe some European primers is understandable, but suggesting them as models for America today indicates a lack of awareness of the difference between the problems faced by Americans and those of the Swiss, Austrians, or Russians.

There are conflicting comments throughout the book as to what the process of learning to read actually entails. We get the impression that if motivation is present and the book interesting, “from such readers—particularly when we respect how they want to read them—children will be able to learn to read all by themselves, will enjoy it, and will begin their lifelong progress toward ever greater literacy” (p. 306). Would it were so! No prior skill training necessary to meet a page full of new words? This would mean that decoding as well as many less obvious skills are instincts like the nest-building of birds.

At other points in the book, however, prior skill training is indicated. “Children recognize that repeated exercises may be needed to acquire some skills, such as those necessary for becoming literate” (p. 7). Or “During such periods of practicing it matters little what is decoded; it is the fact that he can decode that delights the child.”

The confusion is never cleared up, and the reader is left to conclude that the authors are not interested in the research that has been done in linguistics or in the phases of growth in perception and in concept formation that must be met before the various levels of reading can be mastered. There seems to be little realization in this book of what a jump it is from being able to speak to being able to read; thus the authors keep saying that the child should be given a larger vocabulary to read because he has a large speaking vocabulary. Had they followed through on the analogy between the development of the child and the development of the human race, the long gap in time between Man Speaking and Man Reading would have become apparent. Were it not so difficult to bridge that gap, the Third World would be having less trouble increasing literacy. It is possible that the authors, whose anecdotes indicate that they work with a proportionately large group of bright children, do not realize how “telescoped” the reading process often is in such children, thus making it appear simple.

The insistence of Bettelheim and Zelan that we constantly be aware of the need for touching the depths of the human spirit if we are to develop a love of reading is a welcome reminder. But the point of diminishing returns in the reader’s acceptance of their thesis is quickly reached if they are told too often that the magic is the main ingredient that is missing. The other dimensions cannot be disregarded or downgraded. A. N. Whitehead, who back in 1922 offered us the Stage of Romance to encapsulate much of what Bettelheim and Zelan are concerned about, would add:

To write poetry you must study metre; and to build bridges you must be learned in the strength of material. Even the Hebrew prophets had learned to write, probably in those days no mean effort. The untutored art of genius is—in the words of the Prayer Book—a vain thing, fondly invented.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 84 Number 4, 1983, p. 963-965
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 837, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 2:03:57 AM

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About the Author
  • Patricia Brown
    Adelphi University
    PATRICIA BROWN is emeritus professor of education at the Center for Humanistic Education, Adelphi University. Her specialization is in philosophy of education and she is particularly interested in ways of teaching that relate the analytic and intuitive modes of thought.
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