Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Here's something interesting about an effort of parents to ban the Junie B. Jones books. I thought I had written here on the subject of learning to read a while ago, but perhaps I am remembering some comments I posted elsewhere.

In 1966, when I was learning to read, my school used i.t.a. (the initial teaching alphabet). There were two kindergarten classes. Mine used i.t.a., and the other class used a traditional method to teach reading. I often wondered about i.t.a., especially after I became an educator, so a few years ago I did some research on it.

It was more popular in the UK than it was in the US, and there are still some proponents for using it, or a similar simplified spelling method to teach reading and writing. Apparently, i.t.a. was a response to the difficulties of teaching children to read and write in English, a problem that is not as often seen in cultures that speak a more phonetic language such as Spanish.

I.t.a. didn't harm me at all; it may have helped me (my parents believe it did), or perhaps I would have learned easily no matter the method. I am a voracious reader, I like to write, and never had trouble with spelling, grammar or punctuation (aside from when carelessly writing on the 'net :-).

You can see the influence of i.t.a. on my writing in this story I wrote in February 1969, when I was 7 1/2 years old. This was written during second grade, the transition year from i.t.a. to regular spelling. I didn't write A Cat in a Boat for school; I wrote it at home, to amuse my family. We were definitely not up to writing stories of this length or complexity in school! I would add that the dark theme probably would have gotten me sent to the school psychologist's office...except that in 1969, such things didn't happen, and I don't remember my elementary school having a psychologist. Plus, in second grade I had a wonderful teacher who would not have overreacted. (You can tell even at age seven how much I preferred animals to people, eh?)

However, I do remember that the transition to regular spelling in second grade was very traumatic for a lot of kids in my class. Some struggled for years, and I think some still struggle as adults. Whether that would have been true, regardless, is a good question. Parental resistance is one reason cited for failure of innovative methods by proponents of simplified spelling, but the transition is the most important reason given for failure of this approach. My school abandoned the i.t.a. pilot after just a few years.

I do notice that a lot of students in my classes have trouble with spelling, punctuation, word choice and grammar, and they certainly didn't learn via simplified spelling, but perhaps they were taught with the whole language, rather than phonics approach. I have always chalked my students' weakness in this area up to over reliance on spell checkers, and also to the love affair with text messaging and IM-speak.

I don't have any wisdom regarding the merits of the Junie books, although I think banning books is always misguided. I do believe that reading is better than an activity such as television watching or gaming. But I remain interested in the topic of learning to read, and this is a fascinating debate.

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