Can This Man Teach Your Kids to Read? (Someone Needs to)

More and more parents and teachers, from grade school to graduate school, are discovering that their children can’t read or write.

At Temple Emanu-El recently, Alvin Granowsky put on a fright wig in front of several hundred adults and began to read a children’s story he had written. “That awful Cinderella!” he shrilled in the high-pitched voice of a wicked stepsister. “When I think of what happened, I’d like to smack her face and rip her gown! . . . Imagine the nerve of that awful girl.”

Granowsky is the third reading and language arts director the Dallas Independent School District has had in four years. “Hell, I wouldn’t want his job,” one DISD administrator familiar with reading programs says. “I have enough evidence to show we don’t know how to teach reading.”

But at the Temple Emanu-El meeting – a group of volunteers to help with reading classes – Granowsky was making his point: that reading can ana should be fun for children, something they’ll want to do on their own, outside the classroom. His enthusiasm, as he outlines in a rapid-fire Yankee accent the reading program he has in mind for Dallas, is contagious. “A Jewish elf with a Ph.D.,” one education writer once called him. “He is 40. He looks 30. He acts 20. And when the occasion demands it, he can be a pretty convincing 10-year-old.” And another DISD administrator says, “If the district won’t interfere, Granowsky can turn this thing around.”

The situation is grim enough. Program after program has been launched by the school district with negligible results. Median reading and language arts scores in the Dallas schools have steadily declined. For the years 1971-75, median reading scores in the Dallas schools, compared with other large cities around the country, fell from near the norm to below the norm. They declined in what the district calls stable black schools; they declined in stable white schools. And in what the district calls “white-to-majority-black schools,” they “declined drastically.” At all-black Lincoln High School two years ago, one fourth of the students were reading at or below a third-grade level.

What the tests can’t measure is that many of the students who in past years would have done well are now in private schools or have moved to the suburbs, for in those four years, the racial and social make-up of the District underwent marked changes. The “stable white schools” experienced an enrollment decline of nearly 50 percent.

But there’s equally disturbing opinion and evidence that literacy levels have declined in that portion of the population that might be expected to have continually high achievement levels. Newsweek, Harper’s, and the Yale Alumni Magazine, among others, have called attention to a phenomenon that has come to be known as the “literacy crisis.” The evidence is persuasive:

●The Scholastic Aptitude Test, commonly known as the College Board exam, is a national examination taken by high school seniors planning to attend college. Twelve years ago, in 1964, the national average score on the verbal aptitude part of the exam was 478, of a possible 800. By last year, in little over a decade, the average verbal score had dropped to 434 – a decline of 44 points. And last year’s drop accounted for 10 of those 44 points.

●At the University of California at Berkeley, students come from the top 12 1/2 percent of high school graduates. Last year, nearly half of the entering freshmen flunked the required English composition entrance exam and were obliged to enroll in a remedial nuts-and-bolts course known around the campus as “Bonehead English.”

●In 1974, SMU drastically revised its mandatory freshman course entitled “Discourse and Literature,” which has focused as much on the appreciation and understanding of literary works as on fundamentals of writing. It was replaced with a course in basic composition, and for the first time, remedial sections were instituted. “We had discovered that students were having trouble writing complete sentences and forming paragraphs,” M.L. Lawhon, the director of freshman English, explains. “We were wasting our time and breaking our hearts dealing with literature when we knew that our students didn’t know basic things about the English language.”

Everyone has a favorite villain – television, structural linguistics, anarchy in the Sixties, graduate school education, incompetent teachers, overcrowded classes, integration, busing – to blame for the disturbing trend toward reading and writing incompetence. But the truth is, no one really knows what’s to blame – so no one really knows what to do about it.

Except, maybe, Alvin Granowsky.

The DISD has had its share of experts before, and a variety of special reading programs, all working from the premise that it is chiefly through attentive reading that one acquires familiarity with the language – its idioms, grammatical structure, vocabulary, the way words are used and spelled. And that this familiarity with the language enables us to write it.

The programs haven’t worked. Bill Denton, of the district’s Department of Research, Evaluation, and Information Systems points out that “we’re having pretty good success in teaching word-attack skills, our reading proficiency scores in the lower grades are looking good. But at the fourth-grade level where the emphasis on comprehension begins, the scores start to decline. We just don’t know what reading comprehension is or how to teach it.” And as Denton goes on to point out, “If our reading trends are down, why shouldn’t we expect everything else to be down?”

If there is such a thing as a “reading expert,” Alvin Granowsky is one, though he considers himself first a writer – with a novel that didn’t sell, and some 90 children’s books that did, to his credit – and second a professional educator. Before he came to Dallas, he was reading director for the Greensboro, North Carolina, schools. His solution for the literacy crisis is – like most solutions to most problems – easy to state, enormously difficult to implement.

“The schools alone cannot do the job,” he says. “For years we’ve been saying that we educated all the children, but we’re beginning to realize that if the parents aren’t with you, you’ll fall flat on your face. The schools simply can’t do it alone.” And therein lies the key to Granowsky’s program for Dallas.

He told the Temple Emanu-El audience about a veteran elementary school teacher in Greensboro who had a reputation as an exceptional teacher because her students invariably scored high on district-wide achievement tests. But when lower-class black children were bused to the predominantly upper-middle-class school where she taught, the results were predictable – test scores for her classes plummeted. “Where was that woman’s teaching expertise then?” Granowsky asked.

The Greensboro teacher’s upper-middle-class students did well, to a great extent, because of support from the home. The lower-class students did poorly because of a lack of support.

As Granowsky spoke, I thought of Lonnie. Each time I visit my daughter’s first-grade classroom, I try to spend a little time with Lonnie, a friendly little 6-year-old with a coffee-brown face and a mischievous snaggle-toothed grin. As soon as I walk into the room, he grabs me by the hand, leads me to the work table, and shows me the letters he’s making or the pictures he’s coloring. Sometimes I see him after school, coat tied around his waist, ambling across the playground with his brother, headed in the general direction of home.

Lonnie, one of five children in a fatherless home, can’t read. He has trouble making those letters he so proudly shows me. And the chances are Lonnie will never get past a minimal level. Twelve years from now, if he stays in school, he may be walking across a high school stage to accept a diploma he can barely read. Lonnie isn’t retarded; he just can’t seem to catch on to what his teacher wants. He can’t make the connection between those squiggly lines on a page and the spoken word.

It should come as no surprise that Lonnie is having trouble learning to read. There are no books at home, no one to encourage him, to reinforce what he learns in school. I think of what my daughters, typical middle-class kids, are exposed to – bedtime stories every night, frequent trips to the library, books for birthdays and Christmas, magazines and newspapers lying around the house, shelves lined with books – and I realize again that deprivation comes in many forms.

What can Alvin Granowsky do for Lonnie? “Every child needs an advocate,” Granowsky says, “someone to stand up for him, yell and scream and do handstands when a child gets to the third grade and doesn’t know his alphabet.” But Granowsky knows as well as anyone that many parents will not or cannot act as their child’s advocate. Lonnie’s not learning, and who’s going to worry about him, who will work with him, who’ll find out from his teachers what the problem is, who’ll tangle with the bureaucracy in Lonnie’s behalf if necessary? Granowsky is pushing for a system that will provide Lonnie and every other student with an advocate – a parent, an aunt or uncle, an older sister or brother, a neighbor, a classmate’s parent, or if necessary a volunteer. Someone, in Granowsky’s words, “who can come in to the school and act as an informed critic on behalf of the child.”

If Granowsky’s plan works, a continuous check will be made of each student’s progress. If he’s not progressing, a conference involving the teacher, principal, school counselor and the parent or student advocate will be held to examine the child’s needs and determine how they can be met. Each child will advance at his own rate. If a third-grader is reading on a first-grade level, he’ll be given first-grade materials. If another third-grader is able to read on a fifth-grade level, he’ll be encouraged to read fifth-grade materials. Obviously it’s ridiculous to keep a student on a reading level that he’s already mastered just so the teacher in the next grade will have something to teach him. But, amazingly, that has been the DISD’s policy. It’s not the policy any more.

At the end of the year, the teacher and the parents (or advocate) will meet to evaluate the child’s mastery of essential reading skills. The teacher will also recommend summer activities to reinforce and expand the child’s reading progress.

The next step involves an evaluation of the teacher and the school by the parents. “I believe that parents, as the consumers, must be given the right ultimately to judge the quality of the education offered to their children,” Granowsky says. “Like it or not, I think our schools are monopolies. They are the only agencies in the entire United States that have a monopoly – okay, maybe Bell Telephone too – by law. By law, every parent must send his child to school, and he must send him to a public school unless he has money. If you’re middle class or below, you must go to the public schools, and the kids are at the mercy of them. Therefore, I think the schools had better have a careful feedback mechanism so that these parents will feel safe, will feel that their children are in something that makes sense, and that their voices are heard by those who run the schools.”

In an integrated community like Dallas, the problems of making the parents and the public feel they’re getting the most out of the system are multiplied. “You have on the one hand,” Granow-sky says, “very deprived families with parents who perhaps had bad experiences in the schools. Now they have to give up their kids to that place where they had such a terrible time, and naturally they’re worried. On the other hand, you have middle-class parents who are very concerned about the education and safety of their children. They re very threatened. They have to feel safe. So I feel there has to be a way that we can judge and be judged by our ultimate consumers, the parents.”

Granowsky’s system of reading accountability begins with a test of essential skills to find out where each child is and where he needs to go. Granowsky devised the test by working with teachers in Greensboro. “I asked them, ’What do you believe in?’ That was the hassle of my life, deciding what we all believed in, working out a consensus, finding a position on which we could agree. So I said, ’Do you believe in the alphabet?’ Yes, they believed in the alphabet. So we included the alphabet on the test. ’Do you believe in phonics? Believe in sight vocabulary?’ Yes, they did. So we continued the process of working out the test.”

After testing the child, the teacher sets up a program to meet his needs, and meets with the parent/advocate to explain the results and to suggest ways in which the child can be helped at home. For example, one of the skills to be mastered is writing capital and small letters. The test sheet has a place for the teacher to circle the letters the child can form. This helps identify the letters the child can practice working on at home under parental supervision.

At the conference, the parents will also be given a booklet called “Tips for Parents” with specific exercises to be used at home, including practical items like having the children check the TV schedule for the family. Granowsky says his own son became an enthusiastic reader by getting hooked on Mad Magazine. Reading skills have to move out of the classroom into the child’s everyday world.

At this point, the Dallas schools are still testing to find out what each child in kindergarten through the third grade knows or doesn’t know. When the test results are made public, community reaction in Dallas may be what it was in Greensboro. Teachers, school officials, parents, and the rest of the community were shocked. Tests found that in some schools in Greensboro as many as nine percent of the sixth graders were at or below the first-grade reading level. In the same schools, eight percent of the third graders couldn’t read at all. But the shock helped generate awareness and create a public consensus that something had to be done.

Community awareness seems to be developing in Dallas already. “Dallas has been much better than Greensboro,” Granowsky says. “I’ve been shocked at the openness. This city is not stalling.” The Dallas Federation of Chambers of Commerce sent a letter to all of its members urging employers to give all parents with children through the third grade in the DISD time off from work during the first week in November to meet with teachers. The Junior League has committed itself to raising $200,000 for parent advocacy materials and to “jog the system a little bit” to get a coordinator for a creative writing program Granowsky wants to develop.

“We are playing for very high stakes,” Granowsky says,” a child’s education and the economic life of a city. Ultimately a city gets the schools it deserves, one way or another, but if those schools lose, we all lose.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Granowsky’s program will be any more successful than the other experiments. The program after all requires a great deal of cooperation, and cooperation requires emotional commitment to a -chieving a goal. John Trimble, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, fears that television is so seductive that the commitment to reading outside the classroom may be permanently disabled. “TV, movies, and the mammoth record industry have usurped a large chunk of what used to be our daily reading time,” Trimble says. “The average family TV set is on seven hours a day now. Our students – even we ourselves – have become accustomed to being passively entertained. Reading requires effort, a concentration of mind, a willingness to use one’s own imagination. Why bother, some will say, when you can just flip a switch, lie back, and let someone else do all the work for you?”

And even if reading skills develop in the elementary schools, will the momentum carry through to high school? Trimble describes secondary schools as “overcrowded factories or cattle pens.” There are, he says, increasing numbers of secondary school teachers who are grossly ill-trained to teach English, creating what he calls “the snowballing effect of incompetence. Each poor teacher makes the next teacher’s job all the harder, for courses are designed sequentially.”

Teacher preparation is the focus of much criticism. Writing in Harper’s, Gene Lyons argues that the reason American students are not learning to write is that nobody bothers to teach them how. Instead of teaching literacy, English departments in most American universities worship literature. “I am every day more astonished by the increasing distance between most English departments and the everyday concerns of the society that pays the bills,” Lyons writes.

A former SMU English professor seconds Lyons in his criticism. “I learned how to read when I was three years old, and by the time I was a senior in high school was a bookworm. What could be more natural than becoming an English professor and trying to turn kids on to literature? And that’s what my graduate school encouraged me to do. But when I got out in the real world, I found that my students -affluent, upper-middle-class kids – couldn’t write sentences in which the subjects and verbs agreed, let alone comprehend the subtleties of Faulkner or Yeats. So I had to try to teach them to write – something I had always understood that menials like graduate teaching assistants or part-time instructors, housewives with M.A.’s, were supposed to do. I had never had any instruction in teaching writing, which is painful, boring, frustrating work. I resented it – after all, you don’t ask a Ph.D. in mathematics to teach high school level algebra.”

The cultural climate of the Sixties, some writers think, fostered what Pris-cilla Davidson, director of freshman composition at Roosevelt University in Chicago, calls “an anything-goes attitude.” Davidson charges that “if the beginning teacher started in the late Sixties, he could justify his neglect of composition on the grounds that only literature was ’relevant’ to the student’s experience. Compositions, if assigned at all, were evaluated primarily in terms of the ’meaningful’ feelings they conveyed, and if those feelings were awkwardly expressed, it seemed best not to destroy the student’s ’creativity’ … If a youngster seemed to write honestly, it hardly mattered how inept he was in handling the language, and the teacher was off the hook.”

M.L. Lawhon, the director of the freshman writing course at SMU, thinks that things are changing rapidly. She believes that a renewed emphasis on grammar and basic composition is taking place in high school and college, and that that will begin to take care of the literacy problem. “I really think in about three years that we will be able to change the emphasis in our first semester course. I really mean that.”

But Tom Dodge, an instructor in the Communications Division at Mountain View College, wonders if our society will ever value literacy highly. Speaking from the perspective of a classicist who translates ancient Greek poetry, Dodge says, “Only a small minority have ever been able to write well or have ever given a damn about literature. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it is now. There’s not much we can do about it.”

I listen to the prophets and the skeptics. I listen to Alvin Granowsky’s simple logic: that parents and teachers working together can lick the literacy crisis. And I think of Lonnie.

The Literacy Crisis Goes to College

The Mountain View College student, a graduate of a Dallas high school, at least knew he had a problem. “What can I do to improve?” he asked the teacher, who after going over the errors and suggesting the appropriate places in the grammar handbook the student should study, said, “You ought to get in the habit of reading. Read the newspaper every day – or Time magazine – anything so long as you’re reading.”

“We don’t take the newspaper at home,” he replied. “And my daddy won’t let me read Time magazine because it’s Communist-inspired.”

And after a few weeks he dropped out of school, discouraged at the difficulty of bringing his verbal skills up to college level.

The SMU student has stuck to it, however. “I’ve never seen such remarkable improvement,” says his teacher, who admits she was appalled when she received his first paper, an essay on D Magazine’s portrait of the “typical” SMU student.

“I hate to read, I hate to write, and I’ve always disliked English,” the student, another graduate of a Dallas high school, told her. His college entrance score on verbal aptitude was in the 200’s – out of a possible 800 – though he had a very high mathematics score.

“Nobody has ever taken the trouble to show him how to improve his writing,” the teacher says. It has taken constant work, conferences, rewrites, sessions in the media center listening to tapes designed to review basic skills- the last a technique the community colleges have been using with some success for several years.

In class, SMU freshman English teachers are using techniques like having students edit one another’s papers before they are finally submitted to the teacher. Students are graded both on editing – spotting and correcting errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on – and on the finished paper.

“It’s hard work for everybody,” the SMU teacher says, “but the thing I keep asking myself most often is why nobody has ever taken the trouble to teach these kids to write before. They’re making progress but they shouldn’t have to spend so much time in college doing this sort of thing.

“The other day, my daughter, who goes to a Dallas high school, asked me to help her with her English assignment. She was supposed to find 100 symbols in The Scarlet Letter. Aside from the fact that I don’t believe there are 100 symbols in The Scarlet Letter, it just made me mad that kids were wasting time doing that sort of thing when they could be learning to write.”


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