It is universally conceded that the public schools fail to give children much power as readers. One authority asserts that, after the child’s twelfth year, his ability as a reader steadily declines. (Up to that time he is gradually acquiring greater mastery over words, and so, in a sense, may be said to be improving.) Testimony can be added that, by the time he reaches the university, the average student cannot read at all.
Many remedies have been suggested, from which two may be selected as typical. One is to call the attention of the child to the mechanics of vocal expression—to inflection, force, movement, and so forth. The other (that commonly employed), to tell the child to get the thought. It cannot be denied that both methods have, in isolated cases, been productive of some good, yet, on the whole, they have been well-nigh barren of results. Let us inquire briefly into the causes.
The mechanical method fails, especially with younger people, because it is dry, technical, unstimulating, and, in the main, uninteresting. It deals with rules for the use of the different elements of vocal expression, telling the child he must use a rising inflection here, a falling inflection there; that he must read parenthetical phrases and clauses in lower pitch and faster time; that this emotion should be manifested in normal quality, that emotion in orotund quality; and so on through weary, dreary rules and principles, the study of which has seldom done any good and oftentimes much harm. The “get-the-thought” method is a revolt against the other plan. Recognizing the fact that drills in the elements have done nothing toward elevating the standard of reading, the conscientious principal or superintendent tells his teachers that they must see to it that the scholars get the thought. This is a step in the right direction, but it must be acknowledged that it does not produce results. And the chief reasons for this are two. First, for one cause or another the finer shades of meaning escape too many teachers. Second, very few teachers have received the necessary training to enable them to discern quickly with what mental conditions various forms of vocal expression are associated. In other words, they have not the criteria of vocal expression; and, in consequence, helpful criticism is impossible.
Why have previous methods of teaching reading practically failed? There are three reasons: first, the lack of appreciation of the best literature on the part of the teacher; second, the complexity of vocal expression; and third, the intangibility of vocal expression.
Appreciation of the meaning and beauty of literature is the first requisite of a successful teacher of reading; and yet there is little opportunity afforded the teacher to get this appreciation. Is it not true that too many teachers have no love for real literature? The fault is not theirs, but that of the method of teaching literature that substitutes grammar, philology, history, and lectures about literature for the study of the meaning and beauty of the literature itself. One may safely assert that thousands of children would be better readers, even with the present faulty methods, if their teachers had a genuine interest in the best literature. Of what avail is it to put good literature into the schoolbooks if its merit does not appeal as well to the instructor as to the pupil? The stream can rise no higher than its source. There is, however, a rapidly growing sentiment against the substitution of parsing, history, philology, or ethics for genuine literary training. We are coming to recognize that literature is art, beauty, spirit; and, when this recognition becomes general, we shall have better teachers and better readers. For there is nothing that so stimulates our vocal expression as the desire to impress upon others the beauty and feeling of what has impressed ourselves.