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One on One Again

Abby Em's picture


P. Grobstein- Brain, Education, and Inquiry

Paper #1

One on One Again


When my younger sister was in preschool, I taught her to read Bears on Wheels by Stan and Jan Berenstain. I don’t remember deciding that Hannah should learn to read, or picking that book in particular, though I recall it seemed like a good choice because it had only a few words per page and was relatively repetitive. It was also a book that she liked. By the end of the day, Hannah could read Bears on Wheels. Though in later years I dismissed this occasion when it was brought up, saying I’d probably just taught her to memorize rather than read it, Mom strongly disagreed. It was the first thing, aside from her name, that Hannah actually knew how to read.

            I’m only two years older than her, so this memory is from an awfully long time ago. I can’t really comment on the methodology of teaching reading that was apparently so successful on this occasion. A pedagogical discussion would question which of the two prominent approaches to teaching reading I used, the phonetic or the whole language method. Where the first focuses on teaching the sounds that individual letters and letter combinations make, encouraging new readers to then sound out words, the second method teaches children to recognize entire words and their meanings, hoping to provide more context for the mechanic of reading. My guess is that I used a combination of these methods, asking her to sound them out at first, but then telling her the word if that was unsuccessful, and encouraging her to recognize it the next time it appeared. But to be honest, I don’t really remember.

            What I do remember is that she was already familiar with and entertained by the story, which basically chronicles a various number of bears on a various number of wheels, as you might imagine. The illustrations of ten bears on a unicycle and a single bear in a racecar add to its vibrancy as an episodic narrative. You could make that argument, anyway. For whatever reason, both of us had a fondness for it, one that I’ll bet this girl expresses better than I now can: Please take a few minutes to hear her summary and, more importantly, enthusiasm.

            This girl’s excitement for her book is not unique. If not universal, it is universally more common than a passion for different vowel sounds, or even for the words themselves. I doubt our Nicole is (or was) eager to learn that two “e”s together make the long e sound in “wheels,” or excited to be able to recognize that “bear” is the creature that eats honey, growls, and drives colored motorcycles on the pages of her book. Being able to read Bears on Wheels, however, would (or did) probably delight her even more than it did Hannah fifteen years ago. The debate on how we should teach reading, is, I feel, overlooking the most crucial part of the process. The focus on phonics versus whole language fails to address that what should really be taught, in order to inspire interest and success in reading, is not the words, whole or not, but stories.

            I believe that the “whole-story” approach, as I call it, could take many forms, some of which are already present in classrooms and suggested in some of the materials I found such as the article by Teaching Treasures. Teachers who emphasize reading aloud to their students and who make a variety of books available for students to peruse on their own are already taking the first steps to encourage interest in reading. The key difference I propose is connecting that type of recreational reading with the process of learning words. Though it still has plenty of kinks to work out, I have, from my research and success with Hannah and Bears on Wheels, designed the “Expert Program” for teaching children to read inside and outside the classroom.

            The idea is that, rather than learning words or word pieces out of context, students will begin and continue the process of learning to read by becoming experts on their favorite books. Teacher begin by introducing their students to many and varied books, reading them aloud to the class, and telling them that in a few days or weeks they will have a chance to pick their favorite to become an “expert” on. From the start, students will have a say in their learning, and have a clear and direct reason for improving their reading skills.

            A potential weakness of this program is that it requires a lot of one-on-one time with a teacher, as I believe an individualized approach is the best way for each student to then learn to read the book he or she has chosen. It would work best in a team teaching or Montessori environment, where a teacher could work with one student or a small group while the rest of the class was otherwise occupied. During this step, the debate over phonetic or whole language technique becomes relevant, though instead of trying to decide which is universally best or, worse, best for the majority, the teacher can determine what works best for the student in front of her. Whether she chooses to emphasize sounding out or word recognition, she will eventually help each student be able to read the book to her, the teacher.

            The best part of this plan, from my humble perspective, is the opportunities it opens up once the entire (or most of) the class is made up of young experts. After the individual sessions, students should present briefly on their books, explaining what it is about, why they like it, and then sharing several words from their story with the class, including a couple of their favorites and a couple that were the most difficult for them. The group lessons can then center around the students’ own experiences with learning to read.

            Ideally, also, it would also create an environment where students can teach each other. As experts on their chosen stories, students can then teach those stories to others, similar to how I taught my sister. Though they might not always know the best way to teach their books, the process of figuring out how to share their knowledge with their fellow students could be immensely valuable for both the “teaching” and “learning” student. While trying to teach it to another, a student will consider their own learning process, reflecting on how they had learned to read the book in the first place. Done properly, it will also promote patience with and understanding of different learning styles as they discover how their classmates learn differently. On a more general level, being able to share accomplishments promotes pride in your own achievement, and sharing a story that interests you enhances your enthusiasm for it. The “learning” student gets a chance to become an expert on another book, expanding her reading vocabulary and literary interest. She gets to learn from someone going through the same process, immediately familiar with the struggles and rewards of mastering the story.       

            As I’ve acknowledged, the fledgling idea is far from perfect, but I’ve proposed it in order to emphasize the folly in focusing how to best teach words while neglecting the more important matter of helping kids see words as the keys to stories. In some classes, this is done better than others. Those overly caught up in the phonetic versus whole language debate, however, aren’t even having the right conversation.

            My favorite books from childhood, the Harry Potter series, were introduced to me by my sister. Five years or so after I first taught her how, she read the first book to me and introduced me to my adolescent obsession. Since then, she has become a published novelist of young adult literature, looking at hopefully a fulfilling and successful career. She could tell to you about the first book she wrote, Break. She could also tell you about the first book she read: Bears on Wheels.

            Or, of course, you could hear it from Sammy:


Coventry, Andrea. “Teaching Phonetic Reading in Montessori.”               a93471


gunggung21. “Sammy Reading ‘Bears on Wheels.’”   


Halcyon House. “Whole Language vs. Phonetics.”   


Svenson, Ann. “Teaching Reading: Phonics or Whole Language?”              


Teaching Treasures. “Four Main Methods Learning to Read.”               methods.htm


upload60120. “’Bears on Wheels’ Book Recommendation.”   


Van Der Brink, John. “Teaching Reading: A Phonetic or Whole Language Approach?”







Paul Grobstein's picture

parts and wholes in learning to read (among other things?)

"The idea is that, rather than learning words or word pieces out of context, students will begin and continue the process of learning to read by becoming experts on their favorite books"

Very appealing.  Suggests more generally that in the efforts of educators to "take things apart" in order to teach them, educators are losing the features that make them appealing to learn, ie the characteristics that cause students/people to learn "without thinking about it."  I wonder to what extent that might also be true of the teaching of other things?  Of math?  Of science?  Of social science/art/music? Of brain/education/inquiry?  Maybe they are all best learned from a whole story approach?  With the parts making sense/being learned because they are parts of wholes? 

Michelle Breum's picture

One on One Again

This book was one of my children's favorites.
I write a blog for people teaching children to read. I like your insights. I've been studying some of the latest research on teaching methods that produce success. Rereading familar books a number of times is something I encourage for beginning readers also.
Here are links to two of my posts you may find interesting.