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In selecting the material for these books, no selection has been accepted merely because it is new; and no selection has been rejected merely because it is old. Very many familiar old pieces that have stood the test of time are included in the list. We must not forget that, while these selections are old and familiar to the teacher and the parents, they are just as new to the child who sees them for the first time as they were to the first child who ever read them. They are the songs that will always be sung, and the stories that will always be told. Such selections should be studied for the pleasure that comes from reading beautiful thoughts beautifully expressed. The child who appreciates the vast difference between merely saying a thing and saying it well has the culture insight, which is one of the true ends in reading.
What the Editors and the Teacher Must Do. —
1. When a child studies a selection for the first time, he has in his possession some of the information necessary for the interpretation of the selection.
2. The editors and the teacher must, in the introduction, questions, definitions, and the assignment of the lesson, furnish the child the remainder of the information necessary for the interpretation of the selection.
An illustration of this may be found in the wonderful “readings ” of his poems given by James Whitcomb Riley. With intuitive instinct he always prepared his audience by telling them a little story about the poem, which put into their minds the information necessary for its correct interpretation.
Similar help should be given the child.
Is it not strange that so little has been done to help the child to interpret the printed page? In the lower grades, the great stress is very naturally and properly placed on drilling for recognition of words. But in the higher grades, after the fundamental processes of learning to read have been largely mastered, interpretation has been mainly left to chance. In fact the children in these higher grades have been given less help to master the full content of the printed page than has been given to high school pupils. In the high school it is thought necessary for the pupils to have classics which are very carefully edited. Why not in the grammar grades?
The child can interpret only by his own experiences. No matter how simple or primitive such introductions may look in a series of readers, the only introductory helps that are of value are the ones that recall to the child his own personal experiences and not some far-away literary information with which the child's mind cannot possibly function,
The Grading of the Selections. — The selections should be graded or arranged in the order of the difficulty of getting from them the series of Images, Thoughts, and Emotions. Simplicity of language does not at all imply simplicity of thought. Formerly George Macdonald's poem beginning,
“Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of the everywhere into the here,'
was supposed to be a proper selection for the first grade, because it is about a baby. But a moment's examination of the thought of this poem shows that it is extremely difficult and profound, and that even eighth grade children would find great difficulty in comprehending it at all, for the molecules making up the little body come, like “ The Flower in the Crannied Wall," from almost every source in the universe.
Difficulty of comprehension, and not simplicity of language, is the true measuring unit for grading a set of readers.
In this series of readers, certain selections which usually have been graded lower down have been advanced to higher grades for the reason that their thought is too mature for the lower grades. This is true of such selections as “Maud Muller," “ The Bugle Song,” “My Heart Leaps Up," and the “ Gettysburg. Address.”
The Definitions. — It has been customary in the school readers to give the definitions after the child has tried to read the selection. Now, as these definitions are part of the material which the child must have in order to understand the selection, they should come before he has tried to read it, and not after he has tried and failed. Otherwise, the child blunders through the selection without understanding. Then he becomes disgusted, decides that the selection has no interest for him, and finally grows to hate it. Learning the definitions afterwards will not help him, as then he has lost interest and has acquired a settled dislike for the selection. Knowledge of the meanings of the unknown words is part of the material necessary to the child before he attempts to read the selection, not afterwards.
Therefore in a series of readers, the “ Helps” should give, not only an Explanatory Introduction, but the simple meanings of such words and phrases in the selection as the child is not likely to understand. And these should be given and studied before the selection is read as part of the material necessary for a reading of the selection with any interest. This seems so true that it is axiomatic.
The Nature of the Definitions. — Great care should be taken that the terms used in defining a word are words which the child already possesses and knows the meanings of. A definition is useless if it be as difficult as the word defined.
The definition of a word should not be the general definition given in the dictionary, but it should be simply the meaning of the word in the sense that is used in the selection and it should be given in the child's own vocabulary. Such definitions are not intended to take the place of the dictionary. Generally far too little stress is laid upon the use of the dictionary. The child should be encouraged to use it. But the child must wait for further experience to build up the general definition of a word.
Taking Literature into Life. — The teaching of reading and of literature does not attain its purpose unless the literature becomes a part of the reader's life in such a way that, as he goes about, it constantly rises to help him interpret his life. For example, if a person has read Wordsworth's little poem called “ March,” and if that poem has not helped him to see more in a March day than he would have seen without the poem, the time spent in reading it has been largely lost.
A poet, or in fact any worth-while writer, is a seer, an interpreter. He helps us to see what we cannot see without his aid. The eyes of most persons look at their environment, but do not see it. The poet teaches us how and what to see. He who has been properly taught to read should become his own seer, his own interpreter of nature and of life, without the aid of poet or prose writer to see for him and to tell him what it is that he is looking at.
Moral Teaching through Reading. — The greatest moral teaching that is attainable can be arrived at through the right kind of reading. For example, in reading such a selection as “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” p. 84, it is not enough that the children be led to see that the six Blind Men failed to get one another's viewpoints. The selection has not really been read at all until the child applies it, not to some neighbor boy or girl, but to his own daily life. The selection, if rightly taught, must of itself force the child to ask, “Am I willing to see the viewpoints of my playmates?” The teaching of the selection has practically failed of its purpose unless it results in simple understanding which passes into self-examination and self-action.
Reading has accomplished its purpose if it has been so taught as to lead the child to self-examination, and therefore to a determination to live better and more nobly, and it has failed unless it has achieved this.
The attempt has been made in these readers to carry the example of life that is in each selection over into the actual individual life of the child.
Accuracy of Information. — There is no need whatever in a series of grade school readers for an exhibition of editorial scholarship and erudition. All far-away information, no matter how scholarly, is useless to the child. Only that is of value which is within his grasp and which, added to his own experience, will help him to comprehend the selection.
However, such information as the editors give should be of the most accurate kind. Such information as fails to help the child to interpret is bad pedagogy, and may be pure pedantry. This includes attempts to teach, in a series of grade school readers, the history of English Literature. Extended biographies are out of place here save in a very few exceptional cases where the author's life is directly concerned in the interpretation of the selection from his writings. What is a child profited, if he shall learn all the petty details of the lives of these great writers and all the foolish gossip about them, and lose the information, the pleasure, and the inspiration, that a thorough understanding of their writings would give him? Hamlet said, “ The play's the thing.” In a series of school readers, the life of the selection, and not the life of the author, is the thing.
Oral and Silent Reading. — In the public schools the aim should be to produce simple, natural, expressive readers, not artistic actors and orators. A sensitive imagination is essential to good reading. Reading is not good unless the hearers can tell how the reader feels by the way he reads. Good reading is good talking. In fact the more the conversational manner is carried over into the reading, especially in reading prose, the better the reading is likely to be. It should be impressed upon the children at all times that they are studying to get the Images, Thoughts, and Emotions that others have expressed in words upon the printed page. They must discover the thoughts behind the words and then express them; that is really all there is to oral reading.
But we must not forget the silent reader. There are probably ten who will wish to increase their ability to interpret the printed page in silence, to one who is especially anxious to learn to read aloud, – ten who will be more anxious to get the correct impression from the printed page than to read it aloud with the correct expression. Fortunately both the silent reader and the oral reader need the same instruction in interpretation.
The pupil may not agree with either the editors' or the teacher's interpretation, and it is not important that he should; but it is important that he have an interpretation and that he be prepared to defend it.
Our Convictions. — We believe that reading is the most important subject taught in the schools; that a teacher is to be judged chiefly by the ease and the intelligence with which his pupils can read; that the human being who is able to read absolutely easily and intelligently holds
the key to a vast portion of the sum of human knowledge; that the grown man uses but little the technical teachings of his school days, - those of algebra, geography, et cetera, — but that his intellectual growth depends very largely upon his ability to read; and that if a teacher teaches a child to read easily and intelligently, understanding what he is reading, he has conferred one of life's greatest blessings upon that child.
To find pleasure in reading good literature; to learn to love it; to gain power to choose it with discrimination; and to train the imagination, are the final results to be attained by the reading lesson. After we leave school, our information is largely gained from printed matter, and what we get from it is largely determined by our school training. More than we at first suspect we acquire from our reading the style of language we use, the forms of thought we entertain, and to a considerable degree the kind of lives we live. Reading not only informs but forms the mind.
In this age of rush and hurry, that which does not come to us easily as we read is considered hard and beyond our grasp. But if there is one lesson more than another that cannot be hurried it is the reading lesson. The principal question for each teacher to ask is not how many pages have my pupils read in a month or a year, but how thoroughly have they understood what they have read; not how many selections have they read hurriedly, carelessly, and thoughtlessly, but how many have they read carefully, thoughtfully, and intensively?
The study helps are intended to be only suggestive. It is our earnest and sincere hope, however, that these introductions, questions, and suggestions may be helpful, and that they will lead to many interesting discussions. We hope that the children may enjoy these selections so much that they will learn to interpret others and that they may eventually learn to enjoy what is now far beyond their mental grasp.