Letter: Child-controlled learning does more harm

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Editor of the Reformer,

On June 30 the Reformer kindly printed my commentary on The Writing Road to Reading, a multisensory phonics program based on Dr. Samuel Orton's research. Here is my real-life experience with this program.

When our son, Andy, finished second grade in 1965 at PS 145 on Manhattan's Upper West Side, he couldn't read. The school couldn't help this dyslexic child, so my wife took the 40-hour course from the program's author, Romalda Spalding, and taught Andy to read, later becoming a successful second-grade teacher with the program at the Dalton School.

Oma Riggs, in the Spalding course with my wife, convinced the principal of PS 155 in Spanish Harlem, to hire her as a first grade teacher using The Writing Road to Reading. Riggs took the least-promising children into her class of 30. Only one passed the reading readiness test. Parents petitioned to have Riggs continue with their children through second grade. In April 1967, these children averaged 3.1 in reading (2.7 grade level). The school's other second grades averaged 2.0, typical of New York's inner city schools.

I observed Riggs' class, amazed at the children's reading, writing and spelling skills, and their happy enthusiasm at work. No work books, no Special Ed. I invited Riggs to an evening meeting of our PS 145 Parents Association. On the school's auditorium stage, Riggs explained the program to a large audience. About 12 of her students read fluently and with expression from randomly-chosen New York Times articles.

And there it ended. When Riggs left PS 155 that year the school dropped the program. My school wasn't interested. I belonged to the influential, liberal, local political club, The Riverside Democrats, and asked our Schools Committee to recommend program training for a PS 145 teacher. They were unanimously opposed.

I grow very sad, seeing liberal public schools ban highly effective multisensory phonics programs such as The Writing Road to Reading, while sorrowfully blaming children of poverty for failing to learn. Schools are horrified at teacher-controlled classrooms, worshiping a false god of freedom, of child-controlled learning, with illusory gifts of creativity, curiosity and imagination. No children, poor or otherwise, have more curiosity, creativity and imagination than children who write with a beautiful hand, and who expertly spell, write and read with confidence, and compassion for their classmates. Caring, dedicated teachers do not understand the harm done by their gift of free learning. What their children need, and want, and do not get, is excellent teaching.     

Thomas W. Graves

Putney, July 27

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