Reading! Jonathan Borba (
by Steve Timmer
Apr 18, 2023, 9:00 AM

Happy Literacy Day to those who celebrate

Today, April 18th, is Literacy Day at the Capitol, a near-religious observation of the Read Act, pending in the Minnesota Legislature. It would, as chief author in the House, Heather Edelson, said:

Edelson quote about the Read Act in a constituent letter

Rep. Edelson is not wrong. Boy, is she not wrong. One of the things that the Read Act does is prohibit the use of the “three-cueing” system in teaching reading. Here’s how it’s defined in the bill.

Three-cueing definition in the Read Act

The three ‘cues’ are ortho-phonemic (phonics), grammar or syntax, and meaning. If you don’t use all three, you can’t read with comprehension. Really. Phonics: letter sounds, blends, etc. Grammar: what is the word doing in the sentence? And last, but hardly least, what does the word mean? The Read Act would focus on phonics, drilling students on nonsense words.

It is incomprehensible that literacy education law in Minnesota would prohibit the three cues. Literally incomprehensible. It makes one wonder about the skill of the education committees and the people who advised them.

As was suggested I do recently, consider Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem, Jabberwocky from Through the Looking Glass. The first stanza:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Phonics will tell you how to pronounce these words, mostly. Grammar will tell you that toves, wabe, and borogoves are nouns; that brilling, slithy, and mimsy are adjectives, and that gyre and gimble are verbs. The last line is more ambiguous. Mome is probably a noun, but raths could be a verb or another adjective, and outgrabe could be a verb, an adjective, or an adverb.

And never mind meaning. When I first encountered this poem, probably in junior high, I didn’t like it because it was incomprehensible (there’s that word again) to me. At least a couple of the nonsense words in the poem, galumphing and chortle, have made their way into standard English. That probably happened because people were unwilling to let them go without attaching meaning to them. That’s a pretty strong desire.

I’ll bet that same desire would make drilling nonsense words both frustrating and boring. I wrote a poem about it, with profound apologies to Lewis Carroll.

The Phonawok

Tell me Teacher, I can’t glean,
Whatever does this gibberish mean?

Kire rogan, little one,
Rextowoden thouso fun?

When do we read ‘bout Jane and Dick?
Dut and kuf will make me sick.

Quesdar not yonu chercher,
Tryon akem yonu bettcher.

I’d love a story to unravel,
In my mind to dream and travel.

The deconphon habing tool,
Sunnell surging middle-school. Maybe.

I won’t learn if it’s not fun,
It’s a chore I’ll surely shun.

Reours must not why,
Jusors is doto die.

You’re kidding, right?
That cannot be.

Sorry, kid.

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