THE STORY OF READING AND WRITING:
A Literacy Parable for Our Time by Barry Lane
Once upon a time in a land far away there lived a sister and a brother named Reading and Writing. They lived in the forest and their mother and father loved them very much. As they grew they spent days together, lying in the fields, rolling in the fresh cut hay. Writing loved to tell stories, sprawling tales of Knights fighting dragons, or princesses who learned to fight to save the kingdom. Reading would listen and live inside the story, imagining she was the main character, dreaming of the heroic life she would live when she grew older.
Then one spring day, life their lives changed forever. There was a great war and their father went off to fight and died on the battlefield. Their mother went to work in a factory and was never heard from again. Reading was sent away to live with her Aunt Basal at the home of Dr Samuel Raymond Anonymous. (known by his knickname S.R.A.) Writing went to Mr Warriners boarding school in New York . Reading and writing soon learned a new way of seeing themselves. Reading learned that stories were not so important. It was the questions at the end of the chapter that mattered most. She also learned that she was composed of letters and sounds called phonemes. The sounds made up the words. She learned to practice the sounds and the words and until the stories seemed to not matter at all. About this time her skin grew pale and she started babbling incomprehensible stories like
The bad man ran,
The bad man ran to Dan,
Dan had a fan.
Dan can fan the Bad Man…
Doctors said she was just a little phonemic, not worry it would wear off with age. But her malady worsened as time went by.
Writing did well at Mr Warriners school. What a fool he had been before., when he didn’t know what a topic sentence was, when he didn’t know the three supporting details that marched obediently behind it forming perfect paragraphs, forming regiments of 5 down the page. Say what your going to say, say it and say it gain became his motto and before long he moved to the top of the class.
All was fine until one summer he went to Camp Whole Language and around the fire some asked him to tell a story. At first he started with an introduction, then a topic sentence and 3 supporting details but half-way through his story, when most of the campers had fallen asleep, something happened. Like a damn swollen and bursting at the seams, rivers of detail and hyperbole streamed out of him and though the story went on all night, the sleeping campers awoke one by one and by morning writing had a full audience.
At the end of the summer he went back to Mr. Warriners school , but this time he was a different student.
“Your rambling here” teachers wrote on his papers. “Where is your conclusion?” Mr Warinner himself said one day when he read his latest essay to the student body. Writing knew in his heart he had found his conclusion. He wanted out.
Around this time he began hanging out with a rougher crowd, the 6 Trait Geeks from Oregon. They were a gang with tough names like , Word Choice, Sentence fluency, Conventions, Idea Development , Organizaton and the ringleader, Voice. Though they were new friends writing felt he had known them for years. They reminded him of his sister, reading. Word choice was always pausing and staring into space before speaking words that sent writing reaching for his dictionary. Sentence Fluency was went on and on, peppering her thoughts with bits of punctuation., impulsive , wild. Conventions was always impeccably dressed in a white shirt and tie, but beneath the fancy clothes you knew he stood for something deeper and more important. Idea Development and organization argued incessantly about where the story was going but at the end of the day they were best friends again. Then there was Voice, writing’s favorite from the gang, because she said what she wanted to no matter who was listening. She inspired writing to think for himself.
The night they busted out writing told the 6 traits about the sister he hadn’t heard from in years. He had gotten a letter recently, that said she was seriously ill. The tests were poor. She needed serious remediation, but they were not going to leave her behind. They built a special laboratory with billions of dollars just for her. A National Reading Panel had been established her name and the report specified that no cost would be spared to revive her. Dr. Read Tiger was in charge of the hospital and they used only state of the art scientifically based reading methods.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Writing said, but I know with your help, we can get in there and we can rescue her.” Writing said as he huddled with the Six traits outside the gleaming page white marble hospital.
Before leaving the Boarding school, the six traits had stolen their white sheets and Conventions had sewn them into lab coats. Writing put on his best slip Jacket and knocked on the door. A nurse appeared at the door and behind her a beehive of activity.
“State your business” the nurse barked.”
“ Well,” Writing paused.
In complete sentences”. Shouted the nurse.
“It’s been a long trip. My name is Dr. Comprehension and these are my 6 associates we are here to see, a patient named a Miss Reading.
Dr Read Tiger, is expecting us.
“Oh really,’ said the Nurse eyeing him suspiciously, “If that is the case why are you not on my list. “Why are you not in the National Reading report.”
“ Mere oversight., I’m sure. If you look closer you’ll find I am on your list.”
“Well, let me ask you a few questions. First off, are you Literature-Based?’
Writing paused for a moment, then reached beneath his slip jacket ripped open the buttons of his shirt exposing words that crawled like live insects across his chest.
“Honey, I’m not literature based. I’m Literature! ” The words were bolts of lightning. The nurse recoiled backwards into the room where a million schwa sounds seemed to cry out in agony.
Writing pushed right by her with the six traits in tow. They followed the signs for THE PATIENT, walking briskly along the white corridors, clutching the homemade clipboards, idea development had crafted out of the cafeteria trays back at the boarding school, so as not to draw attention. Soon they reached the door to Reading’s room. Writing entered first.
She lay on a long hospital bed in a pile of flash cards. Tubes filled with letter containing and vowel sounds were attached to her thin arms. Nonsensical sentences streamed across the white ceiling and her pale lips mouthed the words.
Writing hardly recognized her. Her face had grown older, and her eyes had sunk deeper into the sockets. He tried to look into those eyes but they continued to stare at the sentences that streamed across the ceiling.
Just then, there was a noise behind the door. Quickly, the six traits shuffled into the closet, but writing stayed their kneeling at the bedside.
“Excuse me, I don’t believe we ‘ve met.” I’m Doctor Read Tiger.”
“I’m Reading’s brother, Writing said, pulling the slip jacket tighter around his shoulders so as not to expose his true self.
“Really, I was under the impression she had no family, She never talks about them anyway. “ The Dr. picked up his clip board and read silently for moment then spoke.
“Well you will be happy to know her speed is up, but unfortunately her comprehension, well, that’s another story. We’ve have used the best scientifically based methods to help her we fear there are deeper metabolic problems at work here. Problems that were left untreated by her sub standard school teachers. That’s why we brought her here where we have assembled the greatest scientific minds to solve her problem.
Writing looked up at the Doctor. His eyes were tiny slits like hyphens separating his nose from his ears. Writing could not control his rage any longer.
“What have you done to her,” “What have you done to my sister!”
“Now hold on there. You know we’ve done the best we could. She came to us with developmental problems. She needed remediation. The National Reading Panel said so.”
“I’ll tell you what I think. I think you and your National Reading Panel are just a front for textbook and testing companies that make money, the more so called reading problems kids have. So you pedal this scientific slop to every kid and hide the good books that will turn kids into real readers because you can’t make enough money off that. I’m on to you and your Aunt Basal. I want my sister back!”
“ Wait a minute, I know you….Your Writing…You’re your… Literature. I Dr Read Tiger backed away pushing the Red button on the wall. Writing opened his shirt again, proudly displaying the sentences that swirled and sprinted across his chest.
“Why You little putrid Pulitzer prize winning puddle of puss. “ shouted Dr Tiger, “ I think we may be able to use you in our next reader. Just remove that cute slip jacket , snip out a chapter or two and we’ll be in business. “
Just then two strong verbs appeared in the doorway .
“Get him boys!” cried Dr Read Tiger” Take him to the excerpter room!”
Suddenly, the closet door burst open and out jumped the 6 traits.
“He you action verbs, “ shouted Word choice. “You’re looking rather lugubrious tonight”
The verbs stared at each other in bewilderment and a moment later sentence fluency hurled herself at them kneeing both in the short vowels. They doubled over in pain.
“Run,” cried voice.
“No, I have a better idea, “ said Idea development as she gripped Dr Read Tiger in a half-nelson and injected a hypodermic needle into his arm.
“Your gonna walk out of here with us and we are going to pretend to be your associates.” cried organization, gritting her teeth. “You see that ambulance down there. “ She pointed out the window. “We are all getting in there together and we are driving out of the compound to the land of literature where you are going to live with us whether you like it or not.
“Never,” barked Dr. Read Tiger. “ You ding dongs no nothing of literature. You can’t even answer the questions at the end of the chapter.”
“There are no questions at the end of the chapter in the land of literature.” barked Voice .”
“ Or let me put it to you another way. YOU are the only question at he end of the chapter.” At that moment Dr. Read Tiger collapsed. The sleeping medicine idea development had injected was taking its toll.
They had to act quickly. They piled Dr Read tiger onto the gurney and covered him with a sheet with reading and rolled the bed down the corridors . Reading put on Dr.Tiger’s coat and wrote orders to transport the patient to a new hospital. A new approach called Meaning centered instruction. Hooked on Meaning was the name of the program Idea development wrote the orders and Voice talked the Ambulance driver into following them.
A few hours later they were in the forest, in the cabin where reading and writing had grown up. She lay in bed listless for days on end,her lips still involuntarily mouthing the words to sentences that no longer streamed across the ceiling. Writing took off his slip jacket and curled up beside her telling her story after story, waiting for the twinkle to return to her eyes, but alas it would not return.
The Six traits guarded Dr. Read Tiger in a separate cabin. One day writing went to visit him.
“It’s all your fault , you and your scientific methods, Can’t you see what you have done to her. She doesn’t see herself as a reader. She is not interested in me. She doesn’t even know me, her own brother.”
“You’re not her brother.” Said Doctor Tiger, in a soft barely audible voice.” You’re her half brother.”
“What do mean.”
Dr Read Tiger seemed to shrink backwards, his proud shoulders slumping forward,.
“Writing. I am your father.”
I met your mother before the war. Her name was comprehension back then. Reading Comprehension. It was a crazy fling A few late nights in the phonics lab. We were falling all over each other. I was a young scientist still wet behind the ears. She was wild with her text to text and text to life connections. When I found out she was pregnant I tried to get her to marry me, but she would have nothing to do with it. Nothing.
She didn’t want her child growing up in some laboratory. She wanted her child to be free as the wind. She left to and went to live in the land of literature. For a while I followed her there, I left my lab coat behind. I knew your sister when she was an iinfant. But soon after the birth, they came for me, your Aunt Basal and that old geezar SRA. They bribed me with billions of dollars. They said they would put me in charge of everything. So I went back . I knew it was the wrong thing to do, but I was not strong or rebellious. I did what they wanted me to.
I lost track of her till years later when I heard about her 2nd husband and his death in the war. I arranged to have the lawyers send her to me so I could remediate her. I decided to make up for my feelings of loss over her by raising her daughter, the way she should have been raised in the first place… In the scientifically-based method.
“So if you were my father why did they send me to Mr Warriners school and not here with my step sister. Why did you separate us.”
It was my mother’s idea. You’ve never really met her. Her name. Agnes Accountability. She thought it would be easier if we kept you apart. You’d stay of trouble, not go on long tangents to nowhere. We could keep track of you, the way we kept track of reading. My mother as you might guess is a real control freak. She never even let me play in the mud with new white sneakers.
“Father, I’ m so sorry this happened.” Writing said, surprised how easily the word father sprang from his lips. “I know your still evil, but I forgive you.”
There was a tender moment between the two. Writing reached out and Dr Read Tiger embraced him. It lasted only a few seconds because a sound came from the other room. In the doorway stood Reading, her eyes no longer darting around the room but staring directly at writing.
In a moment , he knew his sister was back.
“Tell me a story,” she said that night and writing told her of her rescue from the National Reading panel, and of the new father he found and of the life they would lead together and how nothing, not even the a National Reading Panel with the will and power of billions of corporate dollars would ever tear them apart again.
In the next room Dr. Tiger eavesdropped , taking notes on a napkin. What will mother think when she finds out? Is there a way to assess them together like this? How can we control the fate of literacy and raise stock prices of textbook and testing companies? Who do they think they are?