I haven't done a post on education in a long time. I suppose I've been away from the classroom.
But an article in today's NYT caught my eye, and I may be inspired to write my first ever letter back to them.
The article is about parents who wish to ban the Junie B. Jones books, or -- at the least -- prevent them from ever falling into their own children's hands.
Junie B. is a spunky little seven-year-old who has thus far narrated 27 short books about her life and adventures. I've actually read one of her books, because I was curious to know what the fuss was all about.
Parents want to protect their children from Junie B. for three reasons: 1. she disobeys authority, 2. she answers back to people, and 3. she uses nonstandard (or "incorrect") spelling and grammar.
Most of the focus is on #3. This actually delights me, because I am so impressed that parents are concerned that a book might cause their children to absorb poor English.
The NYT and Sample English Doctoral Student Jill Ratzan -- were they really only able to find a grad student to give the expert testimony??? -- deflect the argument as follows:
Just because they read "funnest" doesn't mean they'll learn to say that. I've never heard a kid speak in a Yorkshire accent because they read The Secret Garden or say "Have you any wool?"
(Obviously Ratzan never knew a kid like me, or my sister, or my best friend from elementary school. We used to play Secret Garden and Little Women and all of that and would imitate the dialogue incessantly.)
But Ratzan seems to be missing the mark here. She's only making the connection between reading and speech.
Most people, when put to it, can speak. Speech, and its associated grammatical patterns, are easily absorbed. They're absorbed because we are surrounded by speech.
But there is another, equally important connection: that between reading and writing. I've taught my fair share of undergrads who can speak without any lapses in grammar or syntax, but cannot write a coherent paragraph.
And, strangely enough, there seems to be a missed connection between the two. When undergrads visit my office hours to ask about ways to improve their papers, I often have them read the first several sentences aloud. Or I pick a particularly mangled sentence and ask them to read it.
"Do you hear what is wrong?"
A few get it, but many say "no." Then I ask them to tell me what they are trying to say with the sentence. The spoken result is nearly always clearer than the written one.
My point is that speaking well seems to be a separate activity from writing well; that many people grow into adulthood learning how to speak coherently, but far fewer seem to grow up learning how to write eloquently and understandably.
And this, I think, has a direct correlation with what is read in childhood. We learn about semicolons, for example, by experiencing them; by reading them, becoming immersed in them, and finally understanding (on an intuitive level rather than a punctuation-test one) how they are used.
(Learning about grammar in ninth grade is about as useful as learning about French; it will rarely be mastered that late.)
And Junie B. does not use semicolons, or parallel structure, or subject-verb agreement. But Ramona does, as do Anne and Alice and Tom Sawyer. Even the Babysitters' Club provides readers with clearly presented ideas, even if the ideas themselves are a little dim.
(BTW -- the NYT poses the argument that Tom and Huck used slang and incorrect English and somehow generations of kids turned out all right. But Tom, at least, had Twain as omniscient narrator, telling about his adventures in slightly more standardized prose so that his comical errors might become even more prominent and pointed. Huck, as the sequel, lets Mr. Finn promenade his English-butchering exploits but assumes, perhaps, that the reader is already familiar with the regularities of the language and thus can enjoy the fun.)
I'm not at all advocating banned books. I would be the last person to suggest banning a book. I might suggest, instead, that publishers stop publishing the equivalent of literary junk food, but I can't even justify doing that because I am such a fan of the biggest junk food of all (comics).
So I suppose I can only suggest that perhaps the parents have it right -- that they should limit their children's exposure to Junie B. Give them Ramona instead; they're essentially the same stories (young girl gets into silly mishaps) but much better written. And any kid who can read at a Junie B. level can read Ramona the Pest.
What do you all think? And for the members of Team Parent: what have you done with your children to encourage reading, and what books have you promoted?