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Learning: The Two Forms that are Rarely Distinguished

by Dr. Marion Blank

When their children enter first grade, legions of parents find themselves facing an unexpected, perplexing situation. Up till that point, all seemed well. Their children seemed so bright and alert--and they were. Then suddenly, when faced with the small squiggles on the printed page, the youngsters' confidence is drowned in a sea of confusion. Almost no parent expects this but with the reading failure rate nationwide consistently hovering at about 40%, this is what a million of more parents face each year.

The parents' response entails not simply anxiety but also, and quite naturally, a search to determine what the cause might be.

A host of reasons have been offered--ranging from inadequate nutrition to unsuspected learning disabilities to the near-ubiquitous attention deficit disorder. But one factor is rarely considered--even though it is central to what is happening. That factor is the difference between learning that is self-directed (spontaneous) and learning that is imposed by others. Yet in everyday discourse, the distinction is rarely made. Learning is the single term used for both forms --even though they represent totally different worlds..

Self-directed learning does not mean that a person is learning something totally on his or her own. For example, imagine a person deciding to learn a new skill such as tennis or a foreign language and then hiring an instructor. The learning that takes place is still self-directed in that it is contains the key factors undergirding that form of learning. These include the learner (i) electing to be in that situation, (ii) being motivated to master the skill and (iii) at all times, feeling in control (e.g., knowing that he or she can decide to continue or withdraw at will.)

Now think about the school setting. The difference is striking. Indeed, the classroom is the mirror image on all key parameters. And the reading failure rate that plagues our nation is one of the terrible outcomes that result. Plato, thousands of years ago, warned us of the pitfalls when he wrote that "knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."

Does this mean that we are fated to endure the overwhelming rates of reading failure that currently exist? Naturally, I do not believe that to be the case or I would never have designed Phonics Plus Five and other reading programs. But the situation that we face does mean that, if they are to be effective, the content of teaching programs must be designed to overcome the profound disadvantages that are built into imposed learning.

One of the keys to success for any program is how effectively it leads a learner to mastery. Mastery, the sense of having real command over a particular realm, is one of the most powerful sources of motivation. At all ages--from infancy on, people relish the feeling of mastery. So when a teaching program imparts that feeling to a learner, imposed learning can be amazingly successful.

The problem is that most current reading programs fail dismally when viewed through the perspective of mastery. Among their weaknesses are the following: (i) they induce high rates of error thereby causing a child to feel inadequate and demoralized

(ii) many of the tasks, while associated with reading, do nothing to actually foster reading. As a result, they take up time without offering any significant benefit. Unbelievable as it may seem, for example, the months spent learning letter names in kindergarten and first grade does not actually aid reading itself

(iii) the exercises take far longer periods of time than necessary --thereby draining the learner's effort

(iv) they are rarely fun--as you can see if you simply take some of the hundreds of worksheet pages devoted to isolated sound analysis and keep working at them for months at a time

So when you are selecting programs for your child, you might find it helpful to keep these criteria in mind. Programs that are designed to foster mastery are programs that are going to succeed!

Dr. Marion Blank is a world-renowned authority on how children learn to read with over 40 years experience in the field. She is the creator of the Phonics Plus Five reading & wrting program available for sale on her site. To read more articles by Dr. Blank, please visit her blog and join her newsletter.

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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