Who Would Win

Conditions of Learning

“Immersion—Children need to be surrounded by interesting, high-quality children’s books and different kinds of text (e.g., charts, labels, newspapers, magazines). Read aloud every day to children, sing to them, play word games, and use movement and dance to generate lively engagement in language, literacy, and stories.”



My 8 year old son and I spent an hour reading Who Would Win? Komodo Dragon Vs King Cobra by Jerry Pallotta. While he didn’t know all of the words, I was proud of his reading. You see I believe reading is more than decoding words or reading at certain artificial reading levels. It’s more than answering multiple choice questions at the end of the text. Reading is much more than passing a standardized test. I’m very fortunate that my son showed me, once again, what readers really do.  Reading is about understanding; in order to understand, he was immersed in text.

Twenty minutes of reading, took an hour as my son had to stop often to talk about our shared experience with that text. It was our curiosity and desire to learn more about Komodo Dragons and King Cobras that led us to spend that much time invested in the content of the book. The global map in the book assured both of us that we didn’t have to worry about either of these reptiles visiting us. We understood how the King Cobra uses its venom but couldn’t figure out how a Komodo Dragon uses its venom. The King Cobra has hollow teeth that shoot out venom when it bites. The Komodo Dragon does not have this kind of teeth but it does have venom. How does that work? My son’s curiosity will lead us to go to the library and learn more about Komodo Dragons. We could watch a Youtube video, but I know that the research we were doing from actual books would have a longer lasting impact on our learning. Our research process could be applied to various other issues we both deem important. And my understanding of why people read- to understand, wonder, think and learn-helped us make the most of this particular teachable moment.

That ‘moment’ continued: my son decided to send Jerry Pallotta a letter suggesting other animals to write about. To come up with his suggestions, my son skimmed approximately ten additional books.

My son doesn’t get this type of immersion in books in his school. Instead, his school would focus on testing him to find his “deficiencies”. His school’s reading instruction is not based on what a reader can do, but on what a reader can’t do. The point is to force a path onto the reader in order to prepare him/her for the next test. The path consists of interventions to work on these “deficiencies.” Instead of getting satisfaction from using a text to understand something, the reader must passively follow a one-size-fits-all program. That program consists of out-of-context computerized instruction and tests that reveal little about a reader and that create a false narrative about what reading actually is.

I choose not to let the system limit who my children are. I refuse to permit the school to determine my son’s reading skills based on false measurements and to put phony labels on him. I know that if I did allow them to label him, we would not have spent an enjoyable hour learning more about Komodo Dragons and King Cobras and wanting to know more.

I hate what our schools have become and how many entities continue to profit off misguided and down-right false literacy practices. Currently no child is winning in the current system.

When I taught 5th grade, my classroom was filled with words, and children were allowed to use these words as well as their own to discover, explore and experiment. My room had over 1,000 books from all different genres, including but not limited to poetry, realistic fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, graphic novels and books that defied any genre. Our classroom walls were filled with words. One section had “Wonderful Words” – words we found in books that deserved to be called “wonderful”. Another wall section had a “Writing on the Wall” space for quotes from books that we, as readers, thought were funny, scary, beautifully written or that we just liked. We were constantly talking about the books we were reading so others would get ideas about what to read next.

Our walls contained charts loaded with questions, or content on particular subjects being studied. When we ran out of wall space, we’d hang paper clips from the ceiling to post what we knew. And our notebooks were loaded with writing in response to various topics or books we were reading.   Our room was rich in print and conversation.

Children need to explore, experiment and discover.   Classrooms need to be filled with wonder and opportunities to follow passions. In response to policies today, reading is forced on children to pass tests –   not as an avenue to explore worlds beyond their backyards.   In order to create critical readers and writers we need to stop the push to have children read before they are ready and to use assessments that have nothing to do with what readers actually do.  We can force kids to decode, take tests, and pass learning targets, but until we give them multiple opportunities to thrive in an engaging language rich classroom, we will never create the readers our world needs and that they deserve to be.




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3 responses to “Who Would Win

  1. Hi Stef
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the concept of Immersion. I think it’s important to point out that your way of interpreting and applying Immersion to your both your son’s project and your classroom also involve many of the other conditions of my theory.
    I’d love to know if any of your readers can identify them.
    Brian Cambourne

  2. What a pleasure to read this beautiful post and Brian’s words above. We seem to forget that true “immersion” in classrooms requires engaged choice and joyful learning – both of which we see are sorely lacking in our schools as we find ourselves fighting for the same opportunities for children that Dr. Cambourne wrote wrote about. I am indebted to both of you for keeping this topic at the forefront!

  3. I agree with all of the above and Dr. Cambourne. Immersion is joyful and the challenge for teachers especially when children have disabilities and don’t like to read. Children need to want to read and find it pleasurable even if they don’t do it well. Librarians are often good at helping direct children and teachers to enjoyable books. Great school libraries with lots of good books and reading material are so important and sometimes lacking in poor schools. Giving children lots of opportunities to explore books they might like (or not), and allowing them to choose what they will read is important. Remediation of reading disabilities might involve some direct instruction, but it is boring for most children. It’s finding enjoyment in reading words in books, magazines, comic books, short novels, etc. that keep them coming back for more. They need motivation and are most excited when they see themselves actually reading and are given the time to do so.

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