Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Reading Magic promotes the idea of teaching literacy from the top down rather than from the bottom up. The author believes parents and teachers should start with stories, then sentences, then words, then letters; that children who can sound out words in a book but who don’t understand them aren’t reading, but that children who tell a story using the pictures on the pages to make their own meaning are.

Although I don’t think Mem Fox is all wrong, I think she’s misguided.

I definitely believe parents should read to their children, and that amazing, wonderful, terrific things can and do happen when reading is part of the family routine. “Read to your kids” is a message that deserves to be shouted from the mountaintops, and to be listened to and enacted.

However, while it may be the case that literate, supportive families can immerse children in books to such an extent that some bookwardly inclined children learn to read effortlessly and joyfully—accidentally, even!—at age 3 or 4, that is not a helpful one-size-fits-all solution to the general problem of literacy instruction, and in particular, encouraging children to interact happily with texts until they get the hang of reading is not a practical strategy that teachers can implement in their classrooms. Teachers really are better off with “letter A makes a as in ‘apple’, letter T makes t as in ‘table’, and when you put A and T together, you get ‘at’.”

The tone of the book is self-congratulatory and anecdotal; there’s no science or statistics here, so I don’t feel there’s much reason I should believe what Mem Fox has to say, even if it sounded intuitively correct, which it doesn’t; in fact it contradicts my experience as a reading teacher.

For more on what I liked and disliked about the book and why, see below.

Where do I Agree with Reading Magic?

I approve of basically all of Mem Fox’s tactics.

  • Family reading time is immensely valuable and should be part of a solid routine, not something that gets omitted because it’s inconvenient.
  • It’s never too early to read aloud to kids from books.
  • You should continue to read aloud to kids from books even after they learn to read well by themselves (and you should tell them that you will continue to read to them, or they might assume you won’t).
  • Family reading time should not be a stressful chore or resemble homework in any way. It should be fun.
  • Family reading time can be great bonding time for fathers as well as mothers.
  • Fun reading can still teach important literacy skills.
  • There should be a variety of good books in the home; books make great gifts at any age. (There’s a cartoon included of the Three Kings offering gold, frankincense and myrrh to Baby Jesus in the manger. He says to Mary: “I was hoping for books.” Amen!)
  • Families should make use of libraries and librarians.
  • Parents and teachers should be aware that negative feelings towards reading are a real danger.
  • Television, since it’s not interactive, cannot replace reading, playing, and conversing with parents.
  • Reading enriches children’s and families’ vocabularies and conversations.
  • Read enthusiastically, emotionally, and expressively: change your volume, speed, and pitch while reading. Use different voices for different characters and for narration. React with facial expressions. Express the appropriate emotions.
  • If children are focusing on decoding accurately, they cannot also understand what they are reading.
  • Give kids positive feedback (but don’t overdo it).

I disagree with Mem Fox’s strategy.

What is reading?

For me, reading is looking at the specific, exact words someone else put on the page, identifying those words correctly, and accurately mapping them to the meanings they are commonly understood to have. If you kinda sorta look at the page and invent your own words and/or meanings, then you’re not reading.

  • Reciting a text from memory while turning the pages of a book is a useful skill, but it’s not reading. It’s also not a necessary step on the road to reading.
  • Telling a story using a book and its pictures and text as a starting point is a useful skill, but it’s not reading.
  • Guessing the next word based on context is a useful skill, but it’s not reading.
  • Speaking a word that isn’t in the text, regardless of how well it fits the context, is not reading.

Congratulating children for “reading” if they are not actually reading is robbing them of understanding what reading really is—and it sets them up for failure later. Accuracy matters!

How should reading be taught?

Children need to be taught explicitly how to sound out individual words using the letter sounds and the common spelling patterns of English.

English spelling patterns are complex and unintuitive, but the fact that “nice” is not a combination of the sounds of the four letters that are used to spell it does not mean that children should just learn to read exclusively by memorizing whole rhymes and stories and incidentally the words they’re composed of.

Mem Fox at least twice in the book presents phonetically spelt words in Bahasa Indonesia and says, “See, you can pronounce these words but you don’t understand!” Well, of course not. No one would argue that reading a foreign language accurately means you can understand it. Straw man! The point of being able to decode and correctly pronounce printed words in English is to match the words on the page with words you have heard and understand from your knowledge of spoken English.

I would go beyond that. I say there’s value in having kids practice reading nonsense words that use English spelling patterns (or words that are English words but that are effectively nonsense words for young readers). The point is that at some point, kids will need to be able to generalize; memorizing English word by word is a doomed strategy. Kids won’t necessarily learn to recognize common spelling patterns like “ow” and “ou” if well-meaning adults like Mem Fox have already taught them to memorize common little kid words like “cow” and “house”, and those are the only “ow” and “ou” words they’re ever asked to read.

After students have practiced the decoding process to the point that it is automated, then they can think less about the mechanical part of the reading and turn their attention to the meanings of words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories. I don’t think meaning has to come first. Learning is work; it doesn’t have to be inherently entertaining to be inherently rewarding.

How should you NOT think about learning to read?

Learning to read is not like learning to drive a car.
Mem Fox says teaching reading using only phonics is like teaching adults how to dismantle and reassemble cars when all they want to do is drive them. That’s a terrible analogy. It’s not enough to be shown whole words, even in context; you have to be shown how the inside bits of words fit together. Literacy in the US was set back decades after some genius decided to teach kids to recognize words instead of sounding them out using the alphabet. Imagine knowing how to recognize the words “bat, cat, hat” but not “sat” because nobody specifically taught you that one! The real problem would be that nobody taught you the sound of the letter S, or the sounds that A and T make when you stick them together. Even Mem Fox believes kids should learn letter sounds… eventually.

Learning to read is not like learning to recognize pictograms.
Astoundingly, Mem Fox says something along the lines of “obviously we don’t need phonics because kids learn Chinese without sounding out the characters”. She fails to realize what a cognitive burden it is on Chinese kids to do all that memorizing, so she doesn’t appreciate how lucky English speakers are to have methods far less tedious. She also thinks Chinese is pictographic, which is at best a huge oversimplification of the writing system, and she’s apparently never heard of Pinyin, one of at least two systems invented to help people learn to pronounce written Chinese words.

Does language inform reading, or does reading inform language?

Both, obviously, but you have to start somewhere.

Mem Fox believes the process is top-down: she believes in the whole language approach, or possibly a modified version, “balanced literacy“, in which phonics and other letter-based strategies for decoding play a part (but only *a* part) in reading instruction. In other words, if you know a lot of words and rhymes and songs and stories, you can gradually use that knowledge to make sense of those weird black marks on paper, but really your intuitive language knowledge, speaking, storytelling, and singing abilities, and self-esteem matter more than whether you accurately say what those black marks want you to say.

I think an environment rich in books and a variety of linguistic experiences is valuable, but not necessary, and certainly not sufficient. The black marks on paper make sense, and it’s a crime not to explain how they go about doing it; that’s what phonics instruction is about. The sooner children learn how letters combine to form words and express ideas, the sooner they can use them to get more words ideas into their heads. Information flows from those black marks to us, not from us to the black marks! No matter how extensive our background knowledge is, we can’t change what the marks say, and it’s senseless to pretend (narcissistically) that they say what we merely imagine they might. If we know how to interpret the marks correctly, we have access to centuries’ worth of other people’s lives and minds.

That’s what’s magic about reading.

When and Why I Read Reading Magic

I have taught kids to read. I am reading this book to see how proponents of literacy can encourage parents to read with their kids.

Genre: non-fiction (parenting, education)
Date started / date finished:  28-Jun-17 to 29-Jun-17
Length: 192 pages
ISBN: 9780156035101
Originally published in: 2001
Amazon link: Reading Magic