Phonics … Or Not

On Instapundit yesterday Gail Heriot discussed an Oakland, California, teacher who had success teaching reading based on phonics, and the opposition that engendered among teachers and administrators who opposed that method. She concluded her post: “Phonics.  Phonics. Phonics.  It’s the approach that works.”

Here’s an email I just sent her, which I thought readers who know more about this issue than I do might find of interest:

Hi Gail,

Hope all is good with you.
Re your recent post on Instapundit:
Phonics.  Phonics. Phonics.  It’s the approach that works

I’m no expert on this issue, and in fact knew more when daughter Jessie (now 35) was growing up, but I do know that phonics — which may well be best for most — is not how all kids do or should learn to read. Here’s an excerpt from a short article I wrote last year, “I Was Raised by a Gifted Child”:

One morning, when my daughter Jessie was three and a half, it became crystal clear that my wife and I had an unusually smart kid on our hands. We were on a plane returning from a visit to grandparents in Florida when Jessie took a book out of her mother’s hands — All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten— and began reading it out loud.
… And who could have ever figured out how a toddler had one day just suddenly started reading adult books? Guessing she may have been keeping this ability secret for a while so we would keep reading to her, after the Florida trip I proposed a bargain: I’d sit with her while she read out loud if she’d stop and ask about any word she couldn’t pronounce or didn’t understand.

One night she was reading about the black plague in the Middle Ages (!), and I could see she was approaching a word she wouldn’t know, contagious. But she pronounced it correctly and kept going. “Jessie,” I interrupted, “you agreed to stop and ask about a word you didn’t understand.” Pointing to contagious, I asked what it meant. With no hesitation she replied, “spreadful.” I kept quiet after that, a useful lesson I should have learned better.

Jessie, in short, started reading without ever sounding out a word, encountering a syllable or phonics. This ability may well be rare, but I’m sure it’s not unique to her. Perhaps it’s similar in some way to the fact that as a second-grader she tested about half way through eighth grade algebra even though she wasn’t particularly good at arithmetic….
Regular readers of this blog (there are a few, aren’t there?) will recall that Jessie went on to receive a PhD in Applied Physics at Caltech, at 23 … but you could not have predicted her math ability from her arithmetic in school. Maybe arithmetic:math :: phonics:reading?

Barone On Biden’s Leftward Lunge

Michael Barone’s July 6 column, “Who’s Behind Biden’s Leftward Lunge?,” is as impressive as usual, though a bit more idiosyncratic than his normal commentary.

You should read his column, but, briefly, Barone argues that Biden’s views reflected those of his Delaware friends and constituents from 1972-1996. After that, when Delaware became safely Democratic,Biden too moved left, but more left because of the influence of his son (the execrable Hunter, daughter Ashley, and grandchildren). “So,” Barone concludes, “are Biden’s two surviving children or his grandchildren behind his unpopular leftward lunge? I don’t know. I just advance a hypothesis. But have you seen a more plausible one?”

Perhaps Biden’s leftward lurch is the product of his continuing weekends, and more, in Delaware and the influence of the young(er) members of his family, but I have a different hypothesis, perhaps no more plausible than the influence of Delaware and Hunter et al. as trend reinforcing woke progressives.

Despite the many twists and turns and even contradictions of Biden’s positions over the many decades of his career — against and for busing; against and for abortion; against and for and against and for eliminating the filibuster; against and for approving a new Supreme Court justice close to a national election — Biden has been remarkably if surprisingly consistent from the moment he stepped into the Senate. Insofar as he has moved left, it is not because he has changed his mind or his principles (assuming he has some of either).

Every time he looked in the mirror he saw a future president. And he also saw a person he, his family, his priests could easily recognize and approve: a devout true believer. As a child and young man his devotion was to the Catholic Church; as he moved into and up in politics he remained equally devout, but the Democratic Party became his new church. Thus the various positions he adopted were always put forth with the passion of a true believer, not simply politics. For example, his almost unending 1995 speech defending the sanctity of the filibuster — in his presentation the survival of the republic depended on it — was destined to be “one of the most important speeches for historical purposes that I will have given in the 32 years since I have been in the Senate.”

In short, I believe all of his apparently heart-felt and passionate policy positions — and then reversals of those policy positions — were calculated to help him move up the internal ladder of the Democratic Party. Back in 2008, for example, I discussed “an Irish-Catholic politician, born in Scranton, Pa., blessed with the gift of gab, an influential leader of his party with a very progressive record but someone with a strong appeal to Reagan Democrats, union members, blue collar workers.” But that wasn’t Biden; it was Bob Casey, former governor of Pennsylvania, who, unlike Biden, remained faithful to his actually principled opposition to abortion and was consequently shunned by the Democratic Party.

Initially Biden was the altar boy of the old guard Democratic priests like Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond, and even James Eastland. As their influence faded and then became controversial, he moved to the center and slightly beyond. His views reflected the position he chose to occupy in the party rather than vice versa. Finally president, he wanted, as he did and does, to be regarded as a “transformational” historical figure. “Biden relished,” as the Washington Post put it, “suddenly being compared by historians to Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

Actually, I don’t think he was or is that modest. I think he all along has had he eye on Mt. Rushmore, and he recognized that the way to become “transformational” was not to achieve normal legislative victories, which require compromise to achieve partial, limited measures, but to go for broke by using his slim majority to enact as much as possible of the woke, progressive agenda that animates the energetic base of the party he now heads. His “leftward lunge,” in short, like all his other abandonments of earlier positions, was produced by his calculation of the best place to be in order to be the most successful Democrat he could be. Unless he’s become stupid in his old age he must know that he could be a more successful president if he compromised not only with Republicans but with his few critics in his own party, but that sort of incremental success would not be “transformational,” would not elevate him to the ranks of the great Democrats.

Let’s hope that what he actually achieves is what one who goes for broke and loses usually receives.

Patriotism? Recycled Again

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President Claims Republicans Are “Fascists’ Tool, Threaten U.S. Liberty”

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UVa Men’s Tennis: A Dramatic, Perhaps Unique, National Championship!

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“Equity” And The Harvard/UNC Affirmative Action Case

The Supreme Court has just granted cert to the challenges against affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. No way, of course, to predict what the outcome will be, but it’s safe to say that at the moment progressives are nervous and conservatives are hopeful. My nominee for the most interesting fact […]

Fighting “Systemic Racism,” Promoting “Equity”

This year Seattle, like many cities, has seen a dramatic increase in shootings, “up 61% over the past four-year average.” Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said in July that “We’ve seen more than a 100% increase in drive-by shootings this year alone.” But not to worry. Here come some Washington state Democrats to the rescue (of […]

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