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The Baby is Not "Getting Ready"

Educators talk all the time about "skills": reading skills, writing skills, communication skills, even listening skills. It may be true, at the level of words, to say that anyone doing a difficult thing well is using a variety of skills. But this does not mean that the best way to teach a difficult act is to break it into as many separate skills as possible and teach them one by one. As Alfred North Whitehead said years ago, we cannot separate an act from the skills involved in the act. The baby does not learn to speak by learning the skills of speech and then using them to speak with, or to walk by learning the skills of walking and then using them to walk with. He learns to speak by speaking, to walk by walking. When he takes his first hesitant steps he is not practicing. He is not getting ready. He is not learning how to walk so that later he may walk somewhere. He is walking because he wants to walk, right now. He has thought about it, worked it out in his mind, convinced himself that he knows how to do it and can do it. And now he is going to do it.

We cannot separate skills and acts, and we make a disastrous error when we try. Talking is not a skill, or a collection of skills, but an act, a doing. Behind the act there is a purpose; whether at two or ninety-two, we talk because we have something we want to say, and someone we want to say it to, and because we think or hope our words will make a difference. The baby who begins to talk, long before he makes any sounds that we hear as words, or even understands words, has learned from sharp observation that the sounds that bigger people make with their mouths affect the other things they do. Their talk makes things happen. He may not know exactly what, or how. But he wants to be a part of that talking group of bigger people, wants to make things happen with his voice. In the same way, walking is not a skill, but an act, with a purpose; the baby wants to move as he sees the bigger people moving, and quickly and skillfully, like them.

Reading is not a skill, but an act. The child sees written words all around him; he sees that the older people look at those words, use them, get meaning from them. Those words make things happen. One day (if we give him a chance) he decides that he wants to find out what those words say and mean, and that he can and will find out. At that instant, and with that decision, be begins to read. Not to "learn to read," but to read. Of course, at first, he doesn't do it well. He may not even be able to read one word. But if he is allowed (as few children are) to continue to do it, to seek out in his own way and for his own reasons the meaning of written words, with only as much help as he may ask for; if this task which he has set himself isn't taken from him and replaced with a lot of fragmented and meaningless tasks invented by someone else and done on their command; if he is not convinced by adults (as many children are) that he is not able to do this task he has set for himself, to figure out what written words say, but must "get" reading from a teacher as a patient gets a shot from a doctor; if he is very lucky, and none of these bad things happen, he will be reading well in a short time, perhaps even in a matter of months.

Not long ago I wrote to a number of people who work in reading and reading instruction in various schools of education, to ask if they knew of any research to find out how many children teach themselves to read, and beyond that, how they may have done it. Only one person answered, to say that he had never heard of any such research. Nor have any of the hundreds of educators and reading experts I have asked since. At first it seems strange that reading experts have not asked this question. One might think it would be the first question they would ask. On second thought, it is not strange at all; the answer to this question might be dangerous. It might show once again that our most rapid, efficient, far-reaching, useful, and permanent learning comes from our doing things that we ourselves have decided to do, and that in doing such things we often need very little help or none at all.

Excerpted from Instead of Education Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications, 2003. Reprinted with permission of Sentient Publications.