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The Old Scout
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"Where's St. Michael When You Really Need Him?"

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February 7, 2008

Dear Mr. Keillor,

Yes, phonics is the answer, particularly the phonics approach which is sometimes called multisensory phonics. This approach is also known as Orton Gillingham and while it was designed specifically for dyslexic children, it is an effective way to introduce all children to (1)the sounds of the letters, (2)the concept that sounds combine to make words and (3) the necessary but limited number of English spelling rules. Once learned, these rules serve as the basis of decoding and subsequent reading proficiency.

I am a retired teacher and teacher trainer and I know first hand the effectiveness of this approach. Unfortunately, I know, too, that teachers coming out of the education departments of our universities are only vaguely aware of Orton Gillingham and if indeed they have heard of it, they parrot their education professors that this is only an approach for language disabled children. Should you think that the teachers who are qualified to teach special education have any facility with this approach, let me assure you that they don't.

You are absolutely right. "Reading is the key to everything. Teaching children to read is a fundamental moral obligation of the society."

Here's an idea to start ameliorating this "outrageous scandal". Newspapers have a vested interest in attracting readership. Perhaps the Chicago Tribune would consider a regular column for parents and teachers that would offer step by step instructions for teaching letter sounds and how to combine these into words. Or perhaps the newspaper would be open to offering a little "kit" insert that could be used in the home setting to introduce preschoolers to the basic phonics needed as a foundation for reading and spelling. Or maybe demonstration videos can be made available on Chicago Tribune's website so that various techniques can be viewed and implemented by anyone who is involved with teaching reading.

You now have added your name to the list of those who have noticed the depressing statistics related to reading achievement. Newspapers report this all the time, but do very little with their unique resources to affect real change.

If anyone wants to talk to me about these suggestions, I will happily come out of retirement.

Emily G.

Dear Mr. Keillor,

Most often I read your commentary when I see it in my local paper. I don't always agree with the things you write but I do find you entertaining. Plus, I believe that we're from the same era so even though we have our differences, we probably have things in common.

I found the statistics that you wrote in your article quite revealing but I can say that I'm surprised. My daughter has been teaching at a Milwaukee choice school for the past 5 years. She got a "call" there after she graduated from Martin Luther College in New Ulm, MN. Teaching these kids, that for the most part, didn't make it in public school, isn't easy. Many come at the fourth grade level unable to read at a second grade level at best. Many have problems at home and some have to take meds so that they aren't bouncing off the walls, throwing chairs, or hitting/swearing at my daughter. The school is VERY structured and the first thing that the children are taught is that they are loved by their Savior. Then they are taught rules, many rules so that teaching can occur. They are taught to respect one another which isn't always easy because some of the kids never see it at home. My daughter's days are long but she loves her kids and wants to see them succeed.

I don't know if you know the statistics for Milwaukee, and as far as that goes, I don't either, but I do know that they are worse than what you were quoting. The graduation from HS is pathetic and down right scary.

I believe that the biggest difference in a child's life are their parents. Most kids are now from single family/blended homes. What they learn in school isn't always reinforced at home. I'll give you an example. When I was a child I was always in a Christmas program. My parents and grandparents would come and there wouldn't be any room left in the church. It would be packed on Christmas Eve. My husband and I went to the Christmas program at my daughter's school. There were plenty of seats left. Half the students don't bother to come and many of the ones that are there are picked up by the teachers and taken home by them. It was a beautiful bi-lingual service in English and Spanish but it was unfortunate that all the children weren't there.

The teachers/school and government can only do so much. Parents need to take their lives and their children's lives more seriously. That would help make a productive next generation instead of one waiting for their government checks to arrive in the mail.

Just a few thoughts Pat

Dear Garrison Keillor,

I fear you have probably received lots of e-mail from very very angry teachers. Please know their very professionalism has been torn to pieces by NCLB legislation which forces them to do great harm to many children.

For example, NCLB requires that children in special education and children who do not yet speak English take grade level tests. So a 7th grader who is a slow learner and is successfully working on 4th grade level skills has to take a 7th grade test. As a long-time teacher of children with special needs, I know how devastating this is to children.

I hate NCLB, not because it comes from Bush but becomes it comes from the Business Roundtable. Actually, I wrote a book about this: Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?

I hate NCLB because Democrats joined in and are just as responsible as Republicans. Add the war and I now know I have no party and will align with fringe elements, ever an outsider.

I hope you forgive the teachers who are intemperate in their messages to you. I also hope that you ask for their forgiveness for your rather intemperate remarks. Reading First is rotten at the core, not because it requires phonics, but because it
insists that there is only one way to teach a child to read. There are, in fact, many ways. Different children do need different things, as your own child and grandchild demonstrate.

Among other things, schools are blamed for the devastating effects of poverty. Rather than do something about a living wage for all workers, our corporate politicos have decided that schools will be charged with making everybody equal. NCLB turns your Lake Wobegon phrase on its ear, declaring that ALL children will be proficient by 2014. ALL children, retarded, non-English speaking, emotionally disturbed. ALL. And schools that fail to achieve this goal are "reconstituted," meaning everybody is fired Yes, fired. So it's no surprise that NCLB has turned schools with high poverty populations into test prep factories, not good for any child.

I hope you can see why teachers are so hurt and upset by your column. I'm betting most read right past the revelation that your daughter had reading difficulties. I hope she is doing well.

Susan O.
Charlotte, Vermont

Mr. Keillor,
Right on with your assessment of this country's education system, or lack of. But, somehow the parents need to be figured into this equation. They need to serve by example. Unfortunately, so many parents neglect their children for a myriad of reasons. Kids need encouragement and/or help. Maybe the old system of education (ie-local control) is now outdated in this global economy. After over a hundred years just maybe a new model needs to be developed, or we will end up seeing ourselves surpassed by the better educated citizens of other nations. We carry within ourselves the "seeds" of our own destruction. "Big egos" on both sides of the education debate fail to consider "long term" and are only interested in their own "short term" needs, reputations, etc. Your program is a breath of fresh air compared to most of the garbage out there.
Thank you.

Stan R.
Lincolnshire, Illinois

Garrison Keillor:

Your recent Op-Ed on teaching reading has drawn some fire.

Please consider that your essential point—that ALL students deserve to be taught to read, that students need a wide range of methods to achieve that—is correct.

However, you have fallen into a trap. Anyone who is teaching reading using Whole Language, an approach to literacy that is supported by decades of research, INCLUDES using direct phonics instruction with those students who need that in order to become fluent.

Anyone refusing to use phonics in the name of Whole Language is NOT implementing Whole Language. That is a failure of a person, not a theory of literacy.

Children in your or any family deserve rich literacy experiences in schools; many are not. The primary reason many students are not receiving rich experiences with literacy is a traditional obsession with phonics, not a commitment to Whole Language. True Whole Language is rare in this country—so you might temper blaming it for any failures, even when the failures are real.

Nonetheless, children need real experiences reading and I agree—let's hope some force more powerful that humans brings this about.

Paul T.
Greenville, SC

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I realize that you do not need one more letter in reference to your comments on reading, but since I admire your work and your publications, I will share my thinking. First and foremost, please consider that in this nation there are many wonderful, creative, caring, and knowledgeable teachers. One of the hallmarks of their strength as teachers is knowing that one method does not work for all children, whether it is in learning to read, to write, to learn another language, and so forth, and thus, you must adapt. It is within the purvue of each teacher to determine what the child needs and how the child learns best. Intervening with these decisions are mandated instructional programs that force teachers to favor a single approach. Programs which have been validated with so diverse populations that require significant modifications on the part of knowledgeable teachers to be able to make them relevant for the children in their classrooms. Publishers do not tell you this, they are in the market for sales.

Policies and practices seen in schools today are scary, all in the name of a single approach to reading instruction. Currently, teachers are being forced, under the watchful eyes of NCLB patrol agents to comply with methods and materials which are not applicable or appropriate for children in their classrooms, just like it was for your daughter and grandson where they went to school. Great teachers are choosing to leave the classroom, and others are trying to weather the storm with hopes that someone will drive some sense to politicians who seek and advocate for simple solutions to complex acts. The lesson here is that teachers, regardless of the reading approach adopted by the school, district, or nation, need the latitude to evaluate each child, and determine, based on the existing repertoire of methods and strategies available the one or ones that would be best for the child. Neither one philosophical perspective or another, or one political perspective or another, one set or materials or another will teach all children to read. Only one knowledgeable teacher, with a broad repertoire of tools and a conscientious commitment to help each child walk, dance, and rejoice in and through text will be able to tackle and conquer. A teacher with professional judgment, a well stocked tool kit, and the freedom to act on behalf of the child will get each child to read to the best of his/her potential. It takes knowledge, time, patience, trust and no meddling from outsiders to achieve this transformative act.

As a parent and grandparent you should be worried about how well the children are doing, and how well the child's teacher is working with him/her. A knowledgeable teacher appreciates this, as well as the support you can and do provide in the home. One doesn't learn to read only at school, it is a combination of home and school supporting each other, extending each other's teaching.

On behalf of the millions of excellent and knowledgeable teachers in this nation that are currently prevented from using their best professional knowledge to help children like yours, I invite you to study carefully what NCLB has done to children who are under the prescribed materials, policies, and practices endorsed by it. I also invite you to talk to creative knowledgeable teachers about the challenges they face when the aforementioned are imposed on them. Dedicating a show to this might be very insightful for all.

On a more trivial note, I would like to express my appreciation of your poetry and joke books. They are part of my bedside reading.


Elba M.C.

Mr. Garrison Keillor
Thank you so much for the excellent editorial on the Reading First controversy. In our paper, the Eugene Register Guard, it ran yesterday, Feb 3, with the headline, "If you want to improve schools, you must have faith." It will be interesting to see if the letters to the editor are more thoughtful with that heading. As an educator for almost 30 years and a lifelong Democrat, your article speaks the truth about education and our need to focus on research based practices in helping kids to learn. In my 30 years, I've seen plenty of fads & "feel good" curriculua that didn't provide any results. In my first grade classroom in Dunsmuir, California, my wonderful teacher, Mrs. Barr taught me to read through phonics, and she also instilled in me a love for reading.When I first started teaching, we had an "anything goes" approach — we taught whatever we wanted with no clear outcomes or consistency throughout the grade levels. In the past 10 years, our Distric t has been implementing a phonics based curriculum and children are learning! Even our children, in the so-called "disadvantaged" categories. There has been controversy, however, the results clearly show that our students are reading better and are continuing to improve. Thank you for your courage in writing the article! It's time that educators focus on research based practices that benefit students — and quit focusing on "behaviorism" as a scapegoat. I look forward to your columns every Sunday!

Celeste D.
Eugene, Oregon

Dear Mr. Keillor,

You have my greatest admiration but I must take issue with what appears to be your endorsement of phonics as a teaching tool for any and all. Please be aware that not all can learn phonics. As a child I was repeatedly beaten, ridiculed and otherwise abused because I could either not hear what others could hear or often recall a host of sounds that most of my classmates could hear and recall. I learned to read because I was blessed with great sight memory.

Sight memorization not phonics is the norm for the inhabitants of Japan and for many in China. Children in Japan must memorize about 1400 different Chinese derived characters and combinations of characters in order to read a simply written newspaper. There is no phonic connection between those characters and the Japanese language. (there are two other non Chinese derived writing for the Japanese people - one for foreign derived words, the other tense) The literacy rate in Japan is much higher than it is in the United States even among those for whom American English is their first language. The "Chinese" language exists as a single language by virtue of the universal use of the same and vast set of "characters". All Chinese have the same written language, but no matter what the Chinese people would say, linguists would not declare "Chinese" to be a single spoken language or a mere set of different "dialets". To use a western analogy, English and Polish are not different dialets of the same "language". Sight memorization is required for many "Chinese speakers". Again, the literacy rate is higher than in the United States.

Please temper your apparent endorsement of phonics for any and all. That invites abuse. Here in Baltimore, children who do not grasp phonics are usually told they are not trying nor paying attention. Such attitudes are frustrating and cruel: they do not encourage the struggling child.

Thank you for all the thoughtfulness, humor and kindness that you bring to so many people.


Sarah R
Baltimore, MD

Mr. Keillor,

I honestly think you make some very good points in your column about No Child Left Behind and Reading First. Still, one remarkable thing about education is the huge number of people with strong opinions about how it should be done who somehow can't be bothered to roll up their sleeves and shoulder the load. Why don't you quit that Lake Woebegon Home Companion thing and become a teacher? Preferably you would work in an urban school with high poverty and a large staff turnover. There are plenty of positions available. Come show us how it's done, Garrison.

Robert F

Dear Garrison,

As a fellow curmudgeon just two or three years older than you, I write to thank you for often giving voice to my thoughts and feelings. I am a retired Lutheran pastor still working part time who was born at the outbreak of WWII. My earliest memories include saving tinfoil from gum wrappers and bacon fat and tending a "victory garden" for the war effort. My teen years were "happy days" indeed, oblivious to the abiding cancers in American society. Fully involved in the turmoil of the 60's, I recall the hopefulness young Jack Kennedy gave me for a brief moment but soon discovered it was only a Camelot experience and never as good as it seemed at the time.

Now, even though Barak Obama tempts me to hope for a better day, I find myself a devout cynic who can only hope, with you, for St. Michael and Michael's Lord to intervene. There is here in Baltimore a new Hispanic school superintendent who also tempts me to hope. But the best my wife and I can do is involve ourselves in the lives of kids from at-risk families who attend nearby Thomas Jefferson School. My wife, a retired librarian, helps out in the library, and I teach kids to play the recorder. I don't expect miracles. I just do what Michael's Lord and mine expects of me.

But you should know that my life is not all one of despond and depression. Music, all kinds of music, but especially sacred music lifts my soul as I sing and play it. And in the midst of my moments of despair, I find joy listening to Prairie Home Companion and the Writers Almanac. Thanks, Garrison!

Sursam Corda,

Pastor Bob M.


I enjoy your column and look forward to reading it in the Baltimore Sun — also love the radio show — thanks!

I read in your "St Michael" column that you are concerned about your daughter's reading.

I learned by phonics (I remember the exact moment I "got" it in first grade, over 50 years ago)

We homeschooled our daughter, though. Although my wife tried all kinds of things to teach her to read, including Hooked on Phonics, she simply would not get it. What did happen though was that, sometime in her tenth year, she suddenly learned to read — while we were driving she told me the circus was coming to town and gave me the dates, and I asked her how she knew, and she said she'd read it on a billboard, and I didn't believe her —- I actually made her come home and read something out of a book before I believed her.

I can't say this is the ideal approach, and most homeschoolers learn to read well before 10 y.o. But the idea that if you don't learn to read by a certain age you are doomed to being a poor reader is bunk, and my daughter is proof. She's a successful college student (well, all right, Evergreen, but still, it's college!) and she reads stuff I can't read — dense political stuff — she's a serious person and she reads serious stuff. Her spelling and punctuation aren't up to the standards of my old grammar school, but not too many kids' are.

My daughter didn't learn to read until she was ready to learn to read, and then it happened almost instantly. (like the kid who never talked until he said the toast is burnt and the mother asked him why he didn't talk before and he said you never burned the toast before)

A lot of "learning disabilities" may actually be "learned disabilities".

Google "unschooling." or check this out: http://sandradodd.com/reading

Just another piece of the puzzle. take care,

Paul K.

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I am a fourth grade teacher in Minnesota and a proud Democrat.

I attended the Bruce Vento Dinner and listened with pride, then surprise, and finally dismay to your speech that night. I thought it prudent to overlook your gross generalizations regarding the state of education and what felt like your mean-spirited attack on educators. Parents who feel frustrated by the system's shortcomings regarding their child's specific needs must be permitted to vent.

Then my state representative sent a link to your commentary piece in the Chicago Tribune. I despair. Of course my heart goes out to you, since it appears that you do not feel your daughter is getting the service(s) she needs. I am sad, though, that you have chosen to complain about an extremely complex subject by promoting shallow and overly simple arguments.

The way I see it, to take the universal and sift the particular out of it is a kind of wisdom. However, taking the particular and expanding it to the universal is a kind of myopia. Your personal experience, however frustrating and disappointing, is neither the whole picture, nor is it out of the picture. You would not eat a slice of a poorly baked pie and proclaim that all pie is bad. Even if you ate another piece of pie from a different bakery and it, too, did not taste very good, it would still not be useful information about all pies. Further, if overweight people started blaming pie bakers for their increasing girth, most people would find that connection very tenuous.

I am aware of many, many problems in our education system. But the answer is not phonics, or Read First, or any single program. The "failure" of education is not proven by its test scores. The problems in education are complicated and multifaceted, and there is enough "blame" to go around, if one wishes only to focus on who or what is the "bad guy" in the picture.

Your commentary makes me sad because I think you've used your platform as a writer and radio personality in a petty manner. As a fan, I am ready to give you the benefit of the doubt, since it sounds like your daughter has had a tough time; but as an educator, I am disappointed by the potential ramifications of your parental hissy fit.

Yours Truly,
Sunny D

Garrison, how could you?!

After seeing right through standardized test score hoopla that promises to make every kid score above normal (so that now, a common term used in educational research and policy discussions is "the Lake Woebegone effect"), after years of being so sensitive to the complexities and nuances of everyday life, you’ve bought into the most simple-minded (but, unfortunately, commonsensical) ideas about reading.

And then you compounded the error by believing the hype about Reading First. Reading First is a failed policy, rife with corruption (even the GAO says so), resulting in so much time spent on mind-numbing worksheets that real reading and rich curricula—where those existed before—have gone out the window.

What’s worse, since most schools (especially schools in poor neighborhoods) have always been overloaded with the teaching of phonics, Reading First has now intensified what was already happening and thus eliminated even the few moments spent on what might engage young kids. Moreover, despite what its various political proponents say, and despite the money paid to mega-corporations for ridiculous reading programs, despite the hours spent every day making kids hate reading, those test scores have barely budged since Reading First went into effect.

Please talk to some of the really great teachers who, year after year, have taught all their kids to read, and who have been driven out of teaching by Reading First and its "extreme phonics" and by NCLB-instigated constraints on what they know how to do.

Carole E

Dear Mr. Keillor:

Now you've gone too far. Throwing phonics into the mix of the discussion on NCLB is really muddying the waters! NCLB , sadly, was written by politicians, not by educators. Incredible as it is, parents were left out of the equation in this historic endeavor to improve public education. There is no research that I know of that supports the notion that parent involvement, health of a child, discipline and modeling in the home are not important and that the school alone can improve student achievement. You are a parent so I assume you know this. I believe you have alluded to parents being very involved in their children's school projects in one of your articles. Ahh, but I digress. As a reading specialist and a library media specialist I can tell you people will become completely distracted from the heart of the matter if we get into another Why Johnny Can't Read debate...
Stick to what you know...or a least take a really good look at the research on reading first.

I really usually enjoy your articles but this one totally flunked the breakfast test.

Anne S. G

Dear Mr. Keillor:

I am a frequent, if not religious, reader of your increasingly religious column and find it a refreshing take on almost any issue you address. Your appeal to St. Michael hit particularly close to home because I am good friends with the man who set up the Reading First program and was cashiered from office for alleged improprieties in administering the program that were totally groundless. I agree completely that playing politics with the welfare of our children borders on the criminal. It is particularly offensive to me when coming from people who bill themselves — and actually believe themselves — to represent the party of the common folk.

Even more galling, if less important in the grand scheme of things, was to watch George Miller and his cohort of party fellows in the House Education Committee, subject a dedicated public servant to public ridicule of the meanest variety, ending with calls for his prosecution. It did not seem to matter how outrageous or groundless the charges thrown at him because he was "one of them," not one of us.

You may wish that policymaking was not a "scrimmage" but it is that, when it is not far worse. Keep writing; we need your voice.

John W.

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I wanted to reach out to you and express my support on your statements on Liberals able to botch up School too. I am a co-founder of a grassroots Minnesota based group called Parents Advocates for Students with Dyslexia. We are have formed this group with the purpose of trying to support one another with the challenges of teaching our children to read as well as trying to advocate for change within our school and at the legislature.

I co-founded this group when my son, Ryan, then in 3rd grade failed to learn to read. He was identified as early has 1st grade for special reading help which based on a whole word memorization concept. As with most kids when school switch from learning to read to reading to learn in 3rd grade, he started to fail in school. My happy, sunny, loving son was starting to act out in school and being labeled as a "problem child". We finally convinced the school to get give him different reading instruction as well as private tutoring that we provided. Over time I finally got my son back. Today, as an 8th grader, he still is slow at reading and learning to read but he knows that he can learn to read as long as he gets the correct type of instruction.

The statistics that you quote should be putting every adult in the United States that we have a literacy problem in the United States. The work that was done on Put Reading first (part of Leave No Child Behind) to identify what effective reading instruction consists of needs to be incorporated into our higher education institutions.

I too think of myself of a Democrat, yet I am very disappointed their lack of support. There currently is a Board of Teaching Task force that is reviewing our K-12 Teacher Licensure requirements. This only happens approximately once every 10 years. Our group is presently trying to drive change within our State Board of Teaching to change the requirements to teacher candidate licensure. If we aren't successful then another generation of children may become instructional casualties of reading instruction. We are asking for the following changes:

1) Specific Standards that require a teacher candidate to show knowledge and competency in the 5 strands of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) outlines in Put Reading First
2) A stand a lone Reading test that a teacher candidate must pass for licensure

Your support in this effort would help our cause immensely.


Cindee M

Hey Garrison— I usually love your writng as it calls to me but not so much this time. I just wanted you to know that nothing is as it seems ..including teaching and learning. In reference to your piece in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, as an old hand at the school game (including more than 25 years in early primary grades actually teaching people how to read), I want you to know that the Liberal vs Conservative or phonics vs whatever, points of view are just that. The folks who really know what goes into teaching kids to read or helping struggling learners figure out what they've missed, all know to their (our) core that it is not just one thing that teaches or remediates reading but many orchestrated tricky pieces. Perhaps the fussing that you have heard by Liberal educators is a reaction to 1) government with 0 teaching credentials telling educators what works, 2) a ridiculous concentration on rote
repetition of small skills such as isolated phonics, 3) a huge set of scary ties from the Bush administration straight to several publishers that just happen to produce said rote repetition packages which are among the few that are now legitimized by the Reading First folks, (4 an utter disregard of the parts of reading interventions that are not quantifiable but are arguably among the biggest hurdles especially for low income kids...namely motivation and 5) a frustration at the lack of understanding by nearly everyone, concerning the multifaceted and difficult job of teaching/learning reading.

You say "considering the test results" well, have you?? Most state tests do not really test what they say that they test. I have had many kids in my 32 years in education who can read well but test terribly because their writing has not caught up to their reading. The whole bunch of us needs to take the blame if the 4th graders really can't read very well because reading, like other learning, is a series of connections in the brain and as such, parents need to be LOADING the little darlings with oral language (not hard for us wordies but fairly difficult for struggling families for a variety of reasons) and the rest of us need to do something to cause everyone to accept the responsibility for fixing our freaky, video game, work-hard-for -the-toys mentality. Liberal dogma really says that true whole language..using the story to drive the instruction of phonics, syntax, visual patterns etc.... is the deal and to isolate any piece of it makes it further away from what reading really is...understanding.

Ok — really the righteous among us are practically killing ourselves trying to teach these precious children to read in spite of rather shallow policies of a government whose penchant for short-term, visible but not lasting change has become legend..the war, the economic bailout, Katrina and on and on. Please do read more about reading by true experts (like Marie Clay, Michael Pressley, David Pearson) whose research is recognized in places other than Washington. Checkout the website of the International Reading Association. Teaching and learning to read are miraculous and often very difficult as many mechanisms are working at once in orchestration.

To borrow form your piece...Lord, I beg you to send angels to nudge more adults to care about the difficulty of reading.

Enough for now, Lynne R.

For Old Scout:
More of concern to teachers in the Chicago school system is the paucity of soap, toilet paper and paper towels in the washrooms.

Why is that? If you have soap in the washroom, the kids make a solution of soap and water, throw on the floor near the entrance to the washroom, and watch, hoping that someone will walk in, fall, and get hurt. That is just so funny!!

And no toilet paper because the kids will take a wad of toilet paper or paper towels, stuff into the toilet, and flush a bunch of toilets all at once, hoping to bu=rst the pipes in the inner walls, flooding the school. That is so funny too!!

And ask yourself why the Chicago board of ed needs to have on staff five hundred full time glaziers just to fix broken school windows.

And we are worried about why Johnny can't read!

Something is very wrong and has been wrong for a VERY long time.

Al L.

Mr. Keillor-
Your comments ("Where's St. Michael," January 2008) about the importance of reading and not failing our children were music to my ears. Thank you for stating the facts; if individuals heed your words, perhaps more children will successfully negotiate the steps necessary to become proficient readers. Moreover, I hope they learn to love reading......it opens doors.

I educate at-risk readers in an Illinois elementary school. I also reach out to their parents, maintain a web site, publish weekly messages to a weekly newsgroup and even manage the State and Federal grants for my school district. Too many jobs, but oh well. My passion is enabling kids to be successful and guess what? When it comes down to seeing kids get the necessary instruction for reading success—it isn't that difficult. It requires patience and time. Teachers and parents must care enough to help children learn to adore stories......the tools they need to make sense out of words are not that hard to teach.

Thank you for your advocacy on behalf of young people. Keep writing for your many readers/listeners.
I tune in "A Prairie Home Companion" routinely. Story telling paves our way, through all our days.
I'm a native of Minnesota, and chuckle at many of your tales because I "get it!" Cheers, Rose

Oh Garrison!
Your letter in praise of NCLB and Reading First broke my heart! This entire household including our 89-year-old dad and fifty-plus and twenty-something kids have been your ardent fans for years and years because you're smart and wise and compassionate. Sadly, your letter reflects none of these qualities. You are so wrong it hurts (because it's really embarrassing).

Fingers crossed you'll recognize the error of your thinking -

Lois B

Garrison, as an English major you should know the joy that comes with reading and learning. What Reading First and its attendant skill and drill stuff has done is to turn a joyous event into tedium and boredom. J.K. Rowling got it right when she cast Delores Umbridge as the NCLB-type educator at Hogwarts. There is no liberal dogma that says each child is inherently gifted and that learning to read is an osmotic process. Republicans and Delores Umbridge love phonics-only instruction because it gives them control and eliminates any chance of a child expressing his or her own creativity.

Jenise P.

Mr. Keillor,
At 80, I'm an older scout than you. I've been in the education business since I started to kindergarten in 1932—as student, teacher, college professor, teacher trainer, county-level administrator, publisher consultant, textbook author, and professional book author. I've been published by every major education journal (usually multiple times) and was for several years a paid education columnist for Knight-Ridder/Tribune.

Please, back off your support of NCLB. Thoughtful educators oppose it not because they resist accountability, but because it's highly reactionary, freezing in permanent place a curriculum assembled in 1892 when mass production was the big "new" thing, and because it's utterly simplistic.

Be suspicious of ANY program backed by the Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce, and a stable of conservative think tanks, all disciples of Milton Friedman and salivating at the prospect of privatizing public education and getting a slice of the half-trillion a year Americans spend on it.

(Mr.) Marion B.

Dear Garrison,

This week I read about your support of NCLB and the efforts of Reading First. As a public school teacher and teacher educator, and as a citizen who reads the Writer's Almanac daily and listens to Prairie Home Companion each weekend, I was faced with a real anomaly. I wondered which aspects of a bill that from my vantage produces less thoughtful teaching and lines the pockets of publishers and test companies would make sense to you.

Educational labels, in the end, mean very little. Stories of learners who are caught in the trap of inadequate teaching resonate with me, and since you're a story guy at heart, I'd like to share several stories with you. In the end, I must advocate for professional teachers who are skilled at figuring out what readers are trying to do and are able to help them do it more effectively. This is not the direction this legislation is taking us. Frank Smith wrote about this phenomenon twenty years ago in his essay on "ten easy ways to make reading difficult and one difficult way to make reading easy: respond to what the child is trying to do". Now my stories of learners.

I began my teaching career in a strong working class neighborhood. As a newly minted special education teacher, my confidence in the learning labels my work required began to erode as I noticed interests and skills in the students that were not recognized in their classrooms or in my mandated assessments.

The first anomaly that caught my attention was first grader Chris, assigned to my special education resource classroom because he couldn't/didn't complete the worksheets in his first grade classroom, who told me that Mt. Rainier could be seen "over there" (as he correctly gestured south) on a clear day. This was the same boy that was prying the magnet out of a broken speaker—a free time option—just as I commented that there weren't magnets in speakers. A minute later the metal casing surrounding his pencil eraser was dangling from the magnet.

Not long after, Chris left our school. A year later I was visiting a self-contained special education classroom in a neighboring school, looking for a possible placement for another student, and there sat Chris, looking lethargic and defeated, at one of the eight or nine desks in a bare special ed classroom. I felt sick to my stomach as I remembered his bright enthusiasm that so contrasted with this scene.

The following year this growing tension took another personal face in third grader, Eddie, who was the last to leave my special education resource room one afternoon. Eddie had been absent for over a week and when I asked if he had been sick, he replied that, no, he had been fishing. When I asked where he fished, he asked if he could show me on the board, and then sketched the Puyallup River, illustrating where his Native American family anchored their boat, set their nets, and awaited the catch.

I was a young teacher then, with more enthusiasm than strategies, but in a clear "ah-ha" moment I knew intuitively that I could create an inclusive classroom that Eddie and Chris did not have to leave and that the content of students' lives and insights could be a bridge to the work of school. There wasn't the space or flexibility within the mandated programs we used (Distar, Sullivan programmed readers, Scott Foresman phonics-controlled readers; each included texts like "Dan can fan the man. The man can fan Dan. Can Dan fan the man? Can the man fan Dan?), so I left special education teaching and set out to achieve that goal in a first grade classroom.

There have been numbers of students since who have helped me continue to shape my understanding of their learning and the mismatch of school programs. The latest is nine-year-old Nick, who read like a kindergartner when I met him in October 2006. This was thirty years after Eddie and Chris. I was still a teacher, then working as a teacher librarian, and now had a graduate degree in literacy. My skills were honed having taught over 500 students to read.

On this October morning I was getting my teeth cleaned, and asked about my hygienist's children. I sensed a subtle shift in her voice. Her sons were amazing kids and skilled athletes, yet the younger of the two, Nick, was unhappy and struggling to learn. The parochial school he attended requested that he get professional tutoring, as they were not able to teach him.

Recent testing the parents contracted at the school's request—the fourth such major battery of tests in three years—had resulted in a diagnosis of "language-based learning disability, symptomatic of an underlying language processing disorder and dyslexic-like delays in reading and writing; attention regulation challenges (ADHD)."

Nick's scores on this battery of tests began with 82% on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and plummeted two hours later to less than the pre-primer level on the Woodcock Johnson, 8% on auditory discrimination and sequential recall of phonological information, and below the first percentile on "rapid naming of colors in rows and of drawn objects."

His mom didn't know what to make of these results—as a fourth grader he could readily name colors and objects, for instance—but when I offered to work with him, she hurriedly added that he read like a kindergartner.

His teachers added their own observations:

"Nick is neither recalling nor retaining any information that is being taught, even with reconstructing the information, graphic organizers, oral directions, chunking of information, and one on one explanation, He is still not working at a 4th grade level of comprehension. A trip to the bathroom takes up most of the silent reading time. He becomes anxious and tries to distract others so they will be less aware of his inability to sit."

Such authoritative test results and "educational-eze" left mom apologetic and without a plan of action, and ironically were preceded by two years of tutoring, vision testing, and summer school, also prescribed by the school. She had spent thousands of dollars following their advice without success. There was no exploration of why he might become anxious in the classroom or spent time in the bathroom. Essentially, the school had pathologized Nick as a learner rather than look more closely at their own practices. The learning center that had tested Nick persevered in their recommendation that he needed to first learn his letters and sounds, then receive reading instruction.

It took a leap of faith for mom to trust my suggestion that I become Nick's teacher, but she was also desperate. I soon after began to work with him two or three times a week for the next 10 months. Here is a summary of the plan of action and structure that I used with Nick:

1) I got to know him. He loves sports and his dog. His father is a chef and photographer and Nick shares these interests. I built from these across all of our activities.

2) I introduced a series of "just right" books, read through each once, and then shared the reading with Nick. After two readings, these became part of the familiar book collection.

3) Nick read aloud from the familiar book collection, marking each reading on a chart. Several became favorites and over several months he read them more than 10 times each. He was a different reader after 100 such readings. He began to use and further develop his knowledge of letters and sounds in the context of reading (and eventually writing).

4) I read short chapter books aloud, with Nick reading character's parts. Favorites included The Enormous Crocodile (Dahl) and Stone Fox (Gardiner). This was in part to dispel his belief that his classmates were so much smarter than he was. Chapter books are often symbolic of being smart to kids who don't yet have experience reading them.

5) We used reading and writing to study a topic of keen interest to Nick—crows. We observed and photographed crows, read books, and produced a multimedia report.

Most important, I asked mom not to interrupt or to help Nick if he got stuck or made mistakes when reading. Slowly he began to trust and use the strategies we discussed, some of which I predict he had developed over years of mom's nightly bedtime reading with him.

One favorite moment caught on video is Nick counting the books he had read in 20 minutes: "See how many books I read? Gorillas at the Zoo, The Smallest Mouse, The Wise Old Owl, The Birthday Surprise, The Night Visitor, The Trophy, The Magic Show, and The Field Trip. That's eight books! One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight!"

Kids become better readers … by reading! And by learning about things that interest them! During those ten months Nick grew two years as a reader. While this success is clearly a breakthrough, it has not undone the psychological impact and feelings of difference created by his earlier experiences.

A commitment to what I could call "teaching as inquiry" is a commitment to assess, teach, revise, assess & teach again. There is more to Nick's story than I can share here, but his story is a confirmation for me that, in the end, educators can take their lead from children or from programs and tests. The lenses and tools we use affect what we see. Early in my career, my focus was on the required programs and tests until Eddie interrupted that limited view.

Since that time, taking an inquiry stance—or asking what a learner knows and can do and if my teaching supports new learning—is the stance that best serves my work.

If NCLB or Reading First even approximated the crucial lessons I have learned over a career of teaching reading, I could support it. Instead, in the last five years I have witnessed an increased focus on programs and tests. Perhaps most onerous of all is that the kind of "literacy" these programs and tests create—astounding similar to the texts I set aside in the 70s when I started taking my lead from learners themselves.

Kathy E.
Seattle, WA

Dear Mr. Keillor,
I read your commentary on Reading First with interest, but there's a larger issue here that I think you've missed. This isn't a debate about what method of teaching reading is best, it's a case of unprecedented federal control over methods of teaching reading. High-poverty schools, many of them in desperate need of funding, can receive Reading First funds for the most part only if they agree to use particular, usually scripted, programs. In some cases those in charge of awarding grants profited directly from their own programs' being on the approved list.

These policies have been given a veneer of having been based on "scientific" research, but the report of the National Reading Panel, a prime source of this statement, has been roundly critiqued by a variety of scholars since it was released in 2000.

There is, and has always been, a healthy debate in the field of literacy about how to teach reading. What's happening now is something different. Decisions about literacy education have been removed from the hands of the teachers who work with children every day, many of them with master's degrees. There are also equity issues: in one school district near me, high-poverty children, primarily English-language learners, are being required to spend 4 hours on scripted reading programs every day, with no time for subjects like science and social studies. It feels frighteningly as if they're being prepared for low-wage jobs where they'll be expected to do as they're told (you should see the scripts in these reading programs!), while being deprived of the knowledge they need to be full-functioning citizens.

I can send you a list of references for further reading if you're interested. Finally, I think it's no accident that this issue has a political context. This isn't a case of the Bush Republicans getting it right on something; it's a case of the Bush Republicans framing regressive policies in sophisticated, manipulative terms. They're no more right on this than they were on Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, or torture.

Sandra W.

Thank God a fellow Democrat has come to learn the perils of the far-left liberal agenda - infiltrate the school system from the top down, ingrain bogus teachings to teacher interns who, in turn, will fail to teach the children what they truly need to learn while social engineering them to disrespect their parents' values and the mores that have made America great. When questioned, point the finger in any direction, especially the Conservatives (i.e., Republicans), use the race card as needed to deflect the failures of the system onto the critics. Blame the Government!

I do so hope that your reflections about the dismal state of public school education in Minnesota ignites an awakening of the folks whose futures will be shaped by the children of today. Sadly, Minnesota is not alone in this peril. The primary function of the education system, college to elementary, is to promote those literacy and civic skills among the citizenry necessary for the continuation and prosperity of our country. Free exchange of ideas in the Ivory Towers has been replaced with Leftist hate-America/blame America first dogma. Political correctness has thumped our 1st Amendment rights. Multiculturalism (i.e., hate Whitey, hate anything European) is successfully undermining the very tenets of what it is to be American. Our Naturalization Oath demands that the ways and hatreds of the old country are left behind. Multiculturalism through its focus on the individual trees in the forest is the bane of the American Melting-Pot. Sadly, until these elements are corrected, our public school system will continue to fail our children, our communities, and our country.

Karl D.
Cumberland, MD

Dear Mr. Keillor:

I was so surprised to actually see the word "phonics." Haven't seen that in a long while. My mother, who is now 80, used to teach phonics to her kindergarten classes. They were all more than ready for first grade. There was such a clamor for her services, she started holding phonics classes at her home several times a week. She also taught my three sons and they benefited immensely from learning to read via phonics. I learned to read through phonics and have been an avid reader since I was a young child. I guess this teaching method doesn't have enough bells and whistles to pass muster with educators. What a shame.


Nan M.

Hello Mr Keillor,

I agree with you that some angels are certainly needed to help our children with reading. However, it is not just phonics that the schools should be using to teach reading. Schools also need be teaching direct, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. I am sure you know that phonics has to do with the rules associated with reading, whereas phonemic awareness has to do with the sounds we use to put words together. There are only 44 sounds in the English language, but lots of ways to spell the same sounds.

I am an adult dyslexic and the mother of three boys, two with learning disabilities. It was not until my oldest child was in sixth grade that I realized that he was being left behind by the school system. He is now a freshman in high school and still struggles with reading. My youngest who began an Orton-Gillingham program in second grade is for the most part totally re-mediated. I just can't help but think if only my oldest son had received reading instruction by a teacher certified in an Orton-Gillingham based program earlier where he might be.

Anyway, let me just tell you there are some people who know how to teach reading. They just aren't always in the schools. The angels in my son's lives are their tutors at the Valley of Chicago Learning Center in LaGrange, IL. The tutoring the boy's received there is funded by the Scottish Rite - 32 Degrees Masons and is given free of charge to children struggling with reading. These Learning Centers also offer free tutor training for people with a college degree who want to tutor/teach children how to read. There are a number of these Learning Centers all over the country. They seem to be the best kept secrets in their various towns.

Anyway, I just wanted you to know there are some angels out there. It would be nice if the schools would recognize them.

Julie N.

Mr. Keillor:

Nice article. Doesn't fit the scathing criticism one would like to see targeted at the "Liberal Bent" in education, but does address a problem both liberals and conservatives refuse to fix; Politicization of our education system. Angels watching over the children won't help, but a flat shovel firmly applied against the foreheads of the elite Educators might.

Roy P.

I really enjoyed reading your column today. It echoed my own concerns re educating young people. This includes my grandchildren attending schools in Harford and Cecil Counties as well as those in Baltimore's inner city. Along with St. Michael, we might also need to catch the attention of St. Jude. I believe he is the patron saint of lost causes.

Joan P.


I read the article that you wrote in the Chicago tribune online. I can read. The Literacy Act of 1991 shows some shocking results about adults and literacy in this country . . . this is my over simplified version below:

1.) the US government decided in 1991 to test 19,000 people and found that only 40% of those tested were proficient in reading - that means reading and discussing what they had read. COMPREHENSION.

2.) the promise of the govt was then to test every 10 years and reveal the findings. Then in 2005 more results came in and believe this or not. . . only 31% that were tested were proficient.

3.) Can our society sustain a drop in reading at a loss of 10% each year. We will be a completely Barbaric society! It is dumbfounding to believe in this great nation that this is even possible. And we're worried about technology and the ability it has on the decline of interpersonal skills?

4.) Ask Nationally known journalist John Stossel about "the dumbing down of America" he did a fine job with that program in my opinion. (either dateline or 20/20?)

5.) The biggest lobbying group in our nation is teachers. Are we in favor of them over actually teaching students. That to me is All Children left behind!!!

6.) Please believe me when I say that my husband graduated High School over 25 years ago and was not diagnosed with Dyslexia but does not have above a 6th grade reading ability. My daughter is a Junior in High School as was recently diagnosed with a learning disability Dyslexia. She is only at a 6th grade reading ability currently. I paid for this testing out of my pocket and have been fighting the school tooth an nail to get her any help.

7.) This is not criminal it is sinister to say the least.

8.) George Bush who struggles with reading himself married a woman that tried to save the day so to speak. . . she is a librarian. Is there anyone else that has a greater love of the written word? I imagine her saying to George. . . Let's make a difference. . . Let's make sure all the kids can read. Since George didnt know what he was doing he got his friends in goverment involved and now look at the mess we're in.

9.) What is in it for the Schools?
What is in it fo the Students?
What is in it for Society?

Lorrene V.

GK: The National Reading Panel report (and Reading First) is great, but it's incomplete. It has become crystallized as the final word on reading in state and federal legislation, but it certainly isn't the last word in schools of Ed or school districts. Published in 2000, it says nothing about background knowledge or spelling and important evidence continues to accumulate supporting synthetic phonics as the best way to teach decoding skills (The Rose Report). Unfortunately, Reading First doesn't discern between the most effective phonics programs and less effective methods...Scott

Even though you suggest we Catholics live in a dim smokey world of bead rattling and hocus pocus we do have the presence of angels (which you are seeking) among our schools. They take the form of teachers who watch over our children and teach them to read very well. Perhaps you can make a case for a school voucher program which will help these angels (which you are begging the lord to send but are already here) in there mission.

Fritz S.

Mr. K, I must tell you I am 99% on the other side of the fence with you. But, your article on education was spot on! I have a 4th grader who is probably in the same boat as your daughter, I wish her nothing but the best. I adopted my son at birth, solo, so these 9 years have been quite a journey.

Eric S.

Mr. Keillor,
It was a keen pleasure to read your recent column about the righteous and their dogmatic views on education. I remember when the phonics and the word recognition techniques were introduced to my twin sons at Gaddis School in Oak Lawn in the 60's. The results were so vastly different that the phonics twin can read through a book in two days and loves it, and the word rec. twin would rather drink beer than read. A later son was read to by me, his siblings, and his nanny since the day he was born. He is an analytical, perceptive individual with an additional talent with numbers. It has always been my contention that reading fills the mind with facts that can be connected for cohesive and logical sequencing of ideas. I spent 35 yrs. teaching chemistry and biology in a Chicago public school and I have witnessed firsthand that lack of reading and math skills caused by neglectful parents and elementary teachers who couldn't spell "carrot" if they had to. I know, I went to many classes with them and the advanced degree students were ready to choke their dumb asses. Schools would be better off with a master teacher on each grade level to help these elementary teachers. Get rid of the politically correct, dumb-as-dirt principals. Let the teachers run the school and let the taxpayers support no more than 21 kids in a classroom with an assistant to help the slow learners, behavior disordered, and disabled development kids who have been mainstreamed. My gosh, it's as simple as that!

Camille E.
Chicago IL

Mr. Keillor: You will probably get a "ton" of mail over your article in today's Tribune ( 01/30/08) regarding reading. Though we are at opposite ends of political beliefs I read your column anyway, simply because over the years I have followed your books, audio tapes, shows and movies you have been very entertaining with out being completely in left field like say Sean Penn.

As a retired teacher (Math.) I agree with you that something needs to be done with regard to the reading problem in schools. It is not just the Democrats fault however. I know many dedicated reading teachers who are rather liberal. Reading begins at home like most things we value as we grow as children. How we speak, how we play, how we treat others...etc. Many of the young students in school today struggle to speak English properly let alone read it. Unlike the early immigrants who wanted to learn English and made their children speak English at home. The new immigrants retain their original language and have trouble reading English. ( I guess that is why you see many things written in both English. Spanish and maybe a few other languages as well.) Look at our voting ballots for example. You would think if you were allowed to vote for a president of the United States you should be able to read the directions in English. ( I know I am over simplifying the problem, but I am sure you can get an idea of what I mean. I know it is not "just" the immigrant problem but that is big part of it in some areas.)

Reading however is not the only problem. Take a survey in your local high school and see how many kids can write correctly using cursive. Every body prints! Cursive is dying art. It is not taught in many schools to any extent.

You would be a great spokes person for education; similar to what Bill Cosby does to try to get the black community motivated to work harder to help themselves. It would be a better use of you time, I believe, than writing a quasi political column that half the country may not read or at best not agree with. Get behind, or at the head of the reading and writing programs you may make a real difference.

Just my thoughts


Peter N.
Palatine IL

In Illinois at least most schools do teach phonics. You state that most schools are not run by conservatives. Many school boards are indeed often run by chamber of commerce types. I cannot say the same for administrators because I can only speak for the few I know. They are conservative Republicans. Students often score low in reading comprehension not because they can't read the words but rather they can't comprehend the full meaning of what they are reading. Some have a poor vocabulary, some can't understand figurative language, while others can't grasp the difference between main and supporting ideas. Many programs are forced on school districts by administrators who are easily sold on new ideas marketed by companies that realize new ideas mean new materials means money in their pockets. Nothing is ever straightforward. The problems of education are many and complicated.

Rita M.

God save us from the well intentioned for they have no concern for the outcome.

Keith B.

Geesh, I know you call yourself a liberal but, being of Scots descent, at least I thought you were a smart one.

Blaming liberal educators for the failures of our public education system? How boneheaded is that?

Let's be clear: our education system, both public and private, is about reproducing class relations. Affluent kids get fine schools, the middle-class get mediocre ones, working class kids are taught to show up on time and hide the cigarettes, while poor kids - black, brown, white, red, urban, rural - are taught not to bring guns in the school and dive quickly when someone does.

Drill down on your state test scores and you'll see an undeniable correlation between community, class and performance. And, despite what anybody says (Republican, Democrat, liberal or conservative), we like it that way.

Sure our schools systems, especially in urban areas, are filled with well-meaning educators with liberal tendencies. And, unfortunately, their good intentions (we know were that leads) generally end up in burn out, resignation to the unchangeable, or reduction to mere survival. As to education bureaucracy - which is a vast and necessary creation of the class reproduction machinery - it is certainly has plenty of pontificating blowhards, but the reality is that all theories of education can make only the most marginal difference in overall outcomes, as long as we tolerate inequality in our society.

Every child not only deserves not only to be taught to read, but also to sing and play, to paint and perform, to understand complex thoughts and to create beauty, as well as self-respect and the dignity of self-discipline. And in this century, it is simply morally inexcusable as well as economically foolish that we don't commit to a national vision that allows every child the ability and opportunity to get a college education.

We don't need divine intervention to make this a reality, but we certainly don't deserve God's grace if we don't try.

John C.
Chicago, IL

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