The kids were all baffled. Weren’t they going to have practice?
As he retells it, one brave soul finally spoke up, pointing out that there weren’t any footballs. The coach was nonplussed. “We don’t need any footballs,” he replied matter-of-factly. He then asked the kids how many people were on a football field at a time.
Twenty-two, they figured out.
“How many people touch the football at any given time?” the coach followed.
“One,” they quickly responded.
“Right,” he said. “So we’re going to work on what those other 21 guys are doing!”
Randy Pausch said he got the message loud and clear – fundamentals were (and still are) important. Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.
“You’ve got to get the fundamentals down,” Randy Pausch said. “Because otherwise, the fancy stuff isn’t going to work.”
I thought about this for a minute, and realized that the same can be said about teaching kids to read and write. They simply must have the fundamentals if the “fancy stuff” (fluency, comprehension skills, etc.) is going to work.
“What word is this?” they ask, holding up one of the dozens of “sight word” cards they want their kids to know.
Sometimes the kid staring at the card gets it right. Sometimes he or she doesn’t. But one thing is for sure, this type of “sight word drilling” is NOT teaching kids the fundamentals they need to know to read and write words.
It’s only teaching them to “recognize” them. Sort of.
In many cases, going straight to this sort of drilling without first teaching how letters and sounds actually work together to make words causes confused students (often 3-7 per class) to become what I call “guess readers”.
If you are an early education educator, you probably know who I’m talking about.
They’re the ones who call out “he” for she, “had” for did, “take” for like, or “in” for on. They might be heard saying “very” for every, “what” for want, or even “A” for I. They simply don’t look at letters from left to right, and they DEFINITELY don’t understand how letters work together to make words.
Big words just cause bigger mistakes. Deserved can become "discovered," inspection can become "impression," and guarantee can become "guitar."
That’s because these struggling “readers” are missing the fundamentals.
Instead of looking carefully from the left to the right, they look at words as blob-like images, possibly hanging on to a familiar letter or two somewhere within the word. They don’t understand that the letters and sounds have been
carefully ordered to create the words at hand. They don’t understand that certain letters (like sh, ch, th, er, or, ar, ou, oo, etc.) are working together to make new sounds.
“Look at it and say it” is what rings through their minds as they try to whiz through the words before them. “Look at it and say it.”
But without the fundamentals, they don’t know how to keep all of the similar-looking words straight.
And the more they miscall words, the more they mistrain their brains.
Pretty soon, those once seemingly-harmless mistakes begin to show up more and more. And every new “big word” becomes something to guess at or skip over altogether.
Around 2nd or 3rd grade, the problem usually becomes difficult to ignore. The kids who seemed to be reading “on level” (or at least close to level) but who were really just guessing their way through text begin to really struggle.
Now that the text has become more difficult and the pictures have been taken away, these “guess readers” simply can’t keep all of the words straight. And their already tapped-out memories can’t keep up with the growing lists of words
they must know to get through the more complicated text.
They are missing the fundamentals.
As a result, their comprehension skills drop, their attitude toward reading grows bitter, and their willingness to complete schoolwork is generally replaced with tantrums and tears.
“What’s the matter?” their parents and teachers wonder. “They were doing so well in kindergarten and first grade…”
But they really weren’t. They were only memorizing what they needed to know.
They were missing the fundamentals.
If you want to spare your kids a similar fate, make sure you do like Randy Pauch’s football coach. Go over the fundamentals before expecting your kids to read and write. Everything will fall into place when your kids know what to do with the words in front of them.
Fundamentals + lots of real world practice + time to process the information at their own rate = SUCCESS!
All the best and much success,