So far there has been very little school in my house since we’ve been staying home. It hasn’t really made much of a difference, because my son already learned to read, even though I’d be hard pressed to tell you how.

I thought I would be able to put some of my emerging knowledge of print literacy into practice with my own kids — I’ve been reading Timothy Shanahan and following the “science of reading” with some interest since I worked in an alternative high school and needed to supplement my focus on media literacy with better frameworks around supporting print literacy. My sense at the time — that you had to raise standards rather than lower them when students are behind in reading, and that it is just harder and takes more time — was, according to this school of thought, more or less correct. A few months ago on a podcast, I said:

What you can do at the high school level is you just set the bar really high for everybody, but you don’t assume that anybody actually knows how to read. You set the bar for everything else really high, and you don’t do the basal reader with the sixteen year old. If they’re interested in mass incarceration, you read about mass incarceration. But they may not be able to read what you’re using –so you use the exact same resource and you use every trick in the book to get them reading as much as they can — chunking it out, working on smaller passages, connecting it together.

Reading has two interconnected but distinct processes. In decoding, you literally decipher symbols and put them together into words. Everything beyond that deciphering falls under the much bigger umbrella of comprehension, making meaning out of the symbols you have successfully decoded. A lot of other media, which tends to be more intuitive, doesn’t have a direct comparison to text decoding. The more apt comparison, I think, is to spoken language rather than written — you can learn to hear and speak a language through immersion in a way that you can’t in print literacy.

Whereas in print literacy, being left alone with print (to be “immersed” in it) won’t necessarily correlate with success. There is a specific mechanism for decoding that can be achieved more easily or with more difficulty depending on the learner, the teacher, and the environment. Because comprehension is so tied to decoding for so long in reading education, these variables in classroom settings can get blurry. It’s not until a student reaches fluency, a seamlessness in reading the text and making meaning from it, that we can think of it in the way that we do these other literacies and other media forms.

But my son really did seem to pick up reading like other kids pick up language. We didn’t “teach” him much, beyond a bit of alphabet review and letter sounds (what the science of reading folks call “phonemic awareness”). I used tips I’ve learned from my years in education, like avoiding the names of letters (“ay, bee, cee”) and instead focusing on sounds (“ah or ay, buh, kuh”), or pointing out when combinations of letters form a new sound, something that I found useful from my minimal understanding of Cyrillic through a few years of Russian language in high school (Cyrillic has unique letters for “ch,” “sh,” “sch,”and “ts”).

But then one day when he was four, my son looked at a pizza box and read the restaurant’s slogan — “For the love of pizza!” — in the same tone and cadence as you might say “for the love of Pete,” as intended, and we knew he could read. Within a month, he could read almost anything. It seemed miraculous, but for me it also seemed mysterious. I don’t remember how or when I learned to read, and neither will my son — because even I don’t quite know how it happened.

This is just to say that there really is a somewhat mysterious set of “clicking points” in various readers’ ability to decode. It’s different in every child — already it is obvious that my younger son is very different and will likely benefit from a more hands-on approach to decoding, though it’s still early. Lots of kids learn to read without much explicit instruction. I think about people I know who can observe dance moves on television and do a passable approximation almost immediately. I think about my own ability to decipher melodies and chord structures from songs and play them on the piano, a skill that my wife doesn’t understand at all. Teaching decoding is so foundational and so crucial, and yet it can happen arduously or all at once.

I am thinking about this more now that school has officially moved online for the foreseeable future and this kind of deliberate decoding practice is something that will likely fall by the wayside — it’s something that is much more challenging when children haven’t figured it out for themselves. For kids who don’t just naturally click with reading, formal instruction is really important. But it also helps me articulate my increasing frustration with the way learning and care have been yoked together in our thinking about schools throughout this crisis. Early print literacy is one of the few things that I really do think schools are extremely well equipped to handle. And these are gaps that will not be easily closed — in my experience, it gets exponentially harder to teach children to the level of fluency as they get older. By the time they are teenagers, it really does seem like tutoring and individualized support is more effective than any kind of group instruction.

I can imagine a world in which schools are dramatically reduced from their current role in our society not because a pandemic requires it but because our society figures out how to achieve universal care. Then different spaces and organizations could offer the kinds of targeted interventions that some kids need and others don’t, and buildings themselves, still functionally schools and yet like few schools we currently have, would offer the kind of space a community center provides. It was my initial thought when it was clear schools can’t reopen safely — invest in online access for universal resources and then open school buildings, optional for regular staff, as childcare and community centers. But mostly I’m just drifting along like everyone else, improvising, hunting for silver linings.

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