I originally wrote this item for another website, which subsequently took it down without notice. Maybe it was too controversial. ; )
The other morning, Susie, my 11-year-old, mentioned that her teacher told the class that she’d first learned to read via the so-called whole-word approach, which of course is now very much out of favor. I told Susie that “whole word” probably describes the method I used many years ago in helping her disabled older brother learn to read.
Back in those days, I got my guidance from Glenn Doman, author of How to Teach Your Baby to Read and founder of a highly controversial clinic for treating brain-injured kids. My son Joseph did learn to recognize words via this method, although that skill never progressed to a functional level. Whether the problem lay in the method or in his capacity to learn (or my own capacity to teach) is still open to debate.
I also told Susie that, if the past is any indication, phonics may in due course drop out of favor as well, either to be replaced by something new or by a return to whole-word. I have no argument whatsoever against phonics. My point is just that there will always be warring factions, most especially when it comes to matters of education and child-rearing, and progress seems to occur along a zigzag path.
Nothing brings the divisions into focus more sharply than the experience of raising and advocating for a developmentally disabled kid. I could go on all day listing the topics people fight about here.
- Which is better, segregated special education classes or total inclusion/mainstreaming?
- What about vaccines? Are they a greater danger than the diseases they guard against? If so, is the problem only one or two vaccines, or the accepted schedule for giving them, or are they all suspect?
- What about terminology? Is it worthwhile to object when you hear a word like “retarded?” If so, what’s a better term? Challenged? Differently abled? Special-needs?
- Should kids with developmental disabilities be helped to improve, to be made more like the rest of us, or are they just fine the way they are?
The above questions barely scratch the surface, but it would surprise me if you did not feel a strong reaction to at least one of them. Even in the best of circumstances, parenting can sometimes be scary; and you can multiply the scare factor by a hundred when disability is involved. We want to believe that we have a handle on things, some semblance of control. If we don’t have that, how can we hope to give our kids the security and opportunities they deserve? And so we quite naturally look for justifications that will enable us to take positions with some confidence.
Over the long haul, however, there are trends and counter-trends in most if not all of these controversies. Just as in whether to teach reading via whole-word or phonics.
And yet, the fact that we may one day view things differently doesn’t mean we’re not entitled to opinions now. Of course we are. Because we have to make choices now. But somewhere along the line, I noticed something about myself. As the parent of a disabled boy, I had certainly formed strong opinions; and my concern for him, and my pent-up frustration with the limited opportunities available to him, had created in me a sort of righteous indignation that could burst forth when I encountered views contrary to my own.
Maybe now and then it’s healthy for us to let off steam in such cases. On the other hand, I wonder whether taking up the banner of a cause, any cause, really benefits our kids. After all, they are what this is all about. We adults are going to disagree over one thing or another, and maybe we need to accept that.