The Secret to Producing Great Readers

A second grader recites a poem she and her classmates wrote together and illustrated.

Professor Helen Vendler, a distinguished scholar and leading American poetry critic, imagines what kind of early schooling would produce great readers.   Here’s what she says:

In a utopian world, I would propose, for the ultimate maintenance of the humanities and all other higher learning, an elementary-school curriculum that would make every ordinary child a proficient reader by the end of the fourth grade—not to pass a test, but rather to ensure progressive expansion of awareness. Other than mathematics, the curriculum of my ideal elementary school would be wholly occupied, all day, every day, with “reading” in its very fullest sense. Let us imagine the day divided into short 20-minute “periods.” Here are 14 daily such periods of “reading,” each divisible into two 10-minute periods, or extended to a half-hour, as seems most practical to teachers in different grades. Many such periods can be spent outside, to break up the tedium of long sitting for young children. The pupils would:

  1. engage in choral singing of traditional melodic song (folk songs, country songs, rounds); 
  2. be read to from poems and stories beyond their own current ability to read; 
  3. mount short plays—learning roles, rehearsing, and eventually performing; 
  4. march or dance to counting rhymes, poems, or music, “reading” rhythms and sentences with their bodies; 
  5. read aloud, chorally, to the teacher; 
  6. read aloud singly to the teacher, and recite memorized poems either chorally or singly;
  7. notice, and describe aloud, the reproduced images of powerful works of art, with the accompanying story told by the teacher (Orpheus, the three kings at Bethlehem, etc.);
  8. read silently, and retell in their own words, for discussion, the story they have read;
  9. expand their vocabulary to specialized registers through walks where they would learn the names of trees, plants, flowers, and fruits;
  10. visit museums of art and natural history to learn to name exotic or extinct things, or visit an orchestra to discover the names and sounds of orchestral instruments;
  11. learn conjoined prefixes, suffixes, and roots as they learn new words;
  12. tell stories of their own devising;
  13. compose words to be sung to tunes they already know; and
  14. if they are studying a foreign language, carry out these practices for it as well.
Much of it sounds like aspects of the Waldorf curriculum.  To read more of her thoughts, go to this article:

Reading Is elemental | Harvard Magazine Sep-Oct 2011.

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