Common Sense in Teaching Reading
reviewed by Olive S. Niles - 1964
Common Sense in Teaching Reading is clearly the product of long and close personal association with children, teachers, and parents, experience resulting in strong convictions about the ways in which all three of these groups should work in the best interests of the first. Dr. Gans states her central theme in the Foreword: "I have emphasized the reading aspirations we consciously develop in children as our major goal in teaching them to read."
This point of viewthe decisive importance to be attached to the way children and adults -feel about the pleasures and values of readingaccounts for many of Dr. Gans's recommendations: for example, her concern for the crucial role parents play in children's learning to read, her criticism of basal readers (which, she believes, are of genuine interest to few children), her questions concerning the use of standardized tests for the evaluation of a reading program, her insistence on the role of exciting discovery through many experiences in reference and library reading, and her sensitivity to the way slow learners and children with special reading problems can so easily be discouraged and made to feel second-class both in school and at home.
Despite its easy, readable style, this book is a rather sophisticated one. It assumes that the reader already knows a good deal about teaching reading and is aware of the controversies that are current. It is, therefore, probably not a "first" source for young teachers learning how to teach reading, through there may be professors who would like young teachers to begin with it in order to grasp its warm understanding of children's reactions to this complex process. However, it is lacking in the how-to-do-it specifics which beginning teachers also need. In this reviewer's opinion, it would be most useful as supplementary reading after some basic techniques have been learned, a source to remind all its readers, the old hands as well as the beginners, that techniques without warmth and understanding can be futileeven fatal. But if the reader wants to find out how to teach phonics, for example, Common Sense is not the book for him.
The most exciting parts of the book are the chapters on the development of critical reading and discussion and on the teaching of reading to non-English-speaking children. These subjects are often neglected or treated superficially in text books. Dr. Gans analyzes, often from a child's point of view, some of the understandings necessary to critical reading and makes recommendations for developing them. She is also helpful and specific in her suggestions concerning the handling of bilingualism.
A realistic appraisal of Dr. Gan's proposals reveals that she has, indeed, described what she herself calls (p. 18) a "visionary program of reading." Little account is taken, for instance, of the facts about teacher preparation set forth in the Harvard-Carnegie studies. For the kind of program she describes, the teacher must be expert in both human relations and the teaching of reading. While few educators will disagree in theory, many will question the practicality of the proposals in the face of the cold facts of teacher preparation and mobility.
One idea which runs insistently through this book is the importance of early experiences on the road to reading competence. The essential nature of the work in kindergarten and first grade is strongly emphasized as is the importance of remedial work, when needed, early in the child's life before bad attitudes can be firmly established. Corollary to this is the idea that enrollment in primary classrooms should be smaller than in intermediate rooms. Dr. Gans states the point as follows (p. 361): "For far too long, school leaders have been plagued with an idea that school, to be fair to all teachers and children, must attempt to equalize class size."
Common Sense suffers somewhat from an attempt to write for both parents and educators. For example, it lacks the direct reference to research which would be useful to educators. However, brief but carefully annotated bibliographies appear at the end of each chapter, and a more complete bibliography (not annotated) is at the end of the book. The index is well prepared.