Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Well into my 30s and during my doctoral program, I was finally afforded the opportunity to read carefully the work of John Dewey. This late scholarship on my part is an indictment of teacher certification, but it is also a window into the historical and current misinformation about the state of reading and the teaching of reading in U.S. schools.

Dewey, the Father of Progressive Education, I discovered, believed that we do not need to teach reading; Dewey noted that reading just happened, basing this claim on his own inability to recall having been taught to read.

The first time I came across this—considering I was then and remain primarily a teacher of English—I was puzzled that Dewey could be so wrong about reading and so compelling* about education in general.

With time, however, I realized that my initial rejection of Dewey’s belief about reading sprang from my perspective as a teacher: Teachers are predisposed to seeing themselves as change agents, as causational in the learning of others.

As an avid reader and writer, if I am honest, my perspective on reading isn’t all that different from Dewey’s. It is likely that Dewey and I experienced similar conditions of privilege that allowed something like a natural learning of reading, and literacy in general.

And it is here that we must confront a foundational question: Why have we declared a perpetual reading crisis in the U.S. throughout the last century?**

Lou LaBrant: A Progressive Voice

Lou LaBrant began teaching in 1906—in a one-room school, nonetheless. LaBrant’s career spanned most of the 20th century, ending in 1971.

Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, LaBrant built a substantial publishing record that focused on a few powerful commitments: (1) Endorsing progressive education, (2) calling for free reading, and (3) highlighting the importance of libraries and the role of librarians as teachers (LaBrant, 1940).

Progressive education and Dewey became and often remain targets of traditional claims that U.S. public education is a failure. But, as Alfie Kohn has detailed:

Despite the fact that all schools can be located on a continuum stretching between the poles of totally progressive and totally traditional — or, actually, on a series of continuums reflecting the various components of those models — it’s usually possible to visit a school and come away with a pretty clear sense of whether it can be classified as predominantly progressive. It’s also possible to reach a conclusion about how many schools — or even individual classrooms — in America merit that label: damned few. The higher the grade level, the rarer such teaching tends to be, and it’s not even all that prevalent at the lower grades. (Also, while it’s probably true that most progressive schools are independent, most independent schools are not progressive.)

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

LaBrant’s career and her scholarship, then, represent both an accurate case for progressive approaches to teaching reading and a record of how U.S public schools have failed the promise those practices offered.

More so than Dewey, LaBrant’s scholarship and practice represent a practical progressive pedagogy that rises above “natural” and includes “critical”:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

Dewey’s claim of “natural” learning has led critics to demonizing the latter, while LaBrant’s practices are grounded in the former. In reality, again as Kohn shows, neither the misapplication of a laissez-faire progressivism nor holistic, child-centered progressivism has ever characterized the learning experiences of most U.S. students.

And thus, LaBrant’s arguments throughout the first half of the twentieth century remain relevant.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

In fact, many years before this observation, LaBrant (1936) confronted the failure of implementing progressive philosophy in the real-world classroom:

An Experience Curriculum in English [A Report of a Commission of the National Council of Teachers of English. W. Wilbur Hatfield, Chairman. D. Appleton- Century Company, 1935], published only a the year ago, is already influencing the course of study in many schools. There is always danger in popular revision that the change may be confined to stated objectives and superficial devices, and that basic understandings may not be involved at all. A teacher eager to join the ranks of progressives recently asked the question: “How can I put the teaching of The Lady of the Lake on an experience basis in my ninth grade class?” The question is but little less absurd than the procedures of many curriculum revisers who re-arrange old materials, add a little in- formality to class discussions and present the result as a mark of progress. We must consequently beware lest many so-called “experience curriculums” be set up without recognition of opportunity for normal, strong and complex experiences, within which language development in reading, writing, talking and listening is an integral factor. (p. 295)

Despite LaBrant’s optimism above about the impact of NCTE’s report, the history of reading programs in the U.S. remains a disappointing trail of costume parties. In fact, the history of reading instruction as little more than a masquerade was tackled by LaBrant (1936) just five years before:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. At almost any meeting of teachers of English one may find, somewhere near the main entrance, a room full of exhibition work. This will include models of the castle from Ivanhoe, miniatures of the lake with Ellen’s isle, weaving ma-chines like those at Raveloe, and soap reproductions of Camelot. Recently a teacher attempted to protest against such an exhibition. The reply was that such materials always drew attention from teachers, more attention than lectures probably, and that pupils also found them interesting. …

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. Good work in handcraft would best be accomplished by a teacher trained in that field. The sand table, the soap for carving, the tiny mirrors for lakes, and the rest of the paraphernalia belong, certainly, outside the literature class. (pp. 245, 246)

The misapplication of the project method as arts and crafts (instead of reading) is a close cousin to what passes for reading instruction today: Test-prep for reading tests (instead of reading).

Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

If LaBrant were alive today, I suspect she would express the same wrath for Common Core and the high-stakes testing that are the source of the materials bonanza now sweeping across the U.S.: This is once again allowing reading programs to masquerade as reading instruction—except these costume parties are incredibly costly in terms of time and public funding and detrimental to the exact students who need genuine progressive learning environments the most.

Why, then, are we failing reading once again?

There is no market incentive for doing what is right in terms of reading.

New standards and new tests feed our consumer culture, but genuine reading reform would not.

In short, the sort of reading practices we have known to be effective since LaBrant’s career (and echoed by leading literacy experts decade after decade) simply don’t sell:

  • Alleviate poverty and inequity so that all children live in homes that foster early reading development.
  • Choice reading, not prescriptive reading programs, is essential to reading development.
  • Access to books, such as libraries as well as books in the home, is also central to reading growth.

Thus, if genuine social and school reform focused on the above, instead of new standards, new tests, and new materials, consider the consequences:

If all children entered schools as literate as most affluent children, the reading program industry would be destroyed.

Just as the market economy of the U.S. depends on poverty to thrive (and thus market forces will never overcome poverty), the reading program industry depends on struggling readers and thus will never seek ways to foster reading among all children.

The choice before us is to continue the masquerade that is Common Core—one that lines the pockets of curriculum consultants, textbook and testing companies, and government bureaucrats—or to make a truly progressive commitment to both the lives and schools of all children, lives and schools that allow learning that seems natural.


LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.

LaBrant, L.L. (1936). The library and “An experience curriculum in English.” The Elementary English Review, 13(8), pp. 295-297, 305.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

Thomas, P. (2001). Lou LaBrant—A woman’s life, a teacher’s life. Huntington, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

* For the record, I am not a progressive, and I remain about equally disappointed in traditionalists and progressives in terms of educational practices. When I must acknowledge a label, I am most comfortable with “critical.”

** Without a historical perspective of education, the public may be unaware that at any moment throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, the public and professional claim about reading always includes: (a) children today aren’t reading as much as they used to, (b) our literacy rate is in crisis, and (c) we must make sure that all children can read [insert grade level here; in 2013, 3rd grade is the emergency year].


17 thoughts on “Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties””

  1. First, Dr. Thomas, thanks, as always, for making me aware of historical perspectives I was not previously aware of. Your writing always provides much food for thought.

    I am not certain of your point with this post, however, and because understanding how young people learn to read (or don’t) has become so important to me, I hope you will clarify for me.

    Mea culpa: Despite the fact that I am in my 17th year of teaching middle school English, I have come to see myself as a teacher of reading only gradually. Earlier in my career I saw it as my job to teach literature and academic writing. It took me far longer than it should have, but I finally began to wonder why students reached middle school with such widely varying aptitudes for understanding what they read.

    My question pertains to your statement that your “perspective on reading isn’t all that different from Dewey’s” belief that “reading just happened.” How close, then is your perspective to Dewey’s position?

    Dewey’s stance contradicts what I’ve come to believe – although there seems to be much disagreement about reading instruction, even among experts, so I am keeping an open mind.

    OK, I’ll try to be brief: Pinker, in The Language Instinct, convinced my that young children are wired to learn oral language without formal instruction. Hart and Risley, in Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, convinced me that the extensive differences in the quantity and quality of verbal experiences among children had an enormous impact on children’s readiness to learn once they started school. Lakoff and Johnson, in Metaphors We Live By, led me to believe that the advantages affluent children had in verbal practice led not only to a larger vocabulary, but a conceptual system far more prepared to make sense of the abstract content they encountered in school.

    But here is where I disagree with Dewey; here is where I think he just didn’t understand that a reason he didn’t remember being taught to read is that his young mind didn’t have the conceptual framework yet to be metacognitive about what he was undergoing in his childhood.

    Dr. Diane McGuinness, in several books, has argued that children don’t naturally learn to read any more than they naturally learn to work on car engines. Yes, some people have more aptitude for learning how car engines work, just as some people learn to read faster. But, still, having some guidance from someone more experienced seems a “natural” part of our development as humans.

    McGuinness points out that writing systems are a human invention and the English alphabetic system is particularly complicated. To fully understand it, children must be taught to decode written words and encode into writing the sounds we produce as words. She also points out that the brain is an incredible pattern-spotting machine, and children will learn, even when teaching methods are not particularly efficient.

    Now, to be clear, it seems to me there are essentially two stages (that must overlap) to learning to read – learning to decode and encode the code that is our alphabet, and learning to read for meaning. Perhaps I misunderstood your position, and you were referring to learning to read for meaning. To some extent, I think that can occur more “naturally,” as our brains are also meaning-seeking.

    Finally, all this has led me to believe most definitely that discrepencies in wealth and power and priviledge are responsible for the much of the discrepencies we see in children’s academic achievment. In that regard, I agree with you 100%.

  2. Hello Professor Thomas… I have a question that is not really related to this post but since you are an expert in literacy pedagogy and practice and a former high school English teacher I would really value your input on this matter. My question is this and I think it is a pretty commonly asked and debated question…Should a high school students, college student, or even an adult who has long since graduated from formal schooling be expected to value what is termed the Western literary canon just because it is held in such high regard by the individuals who first dubbed it the Western literary canon? I pose this question after reading what I consider to be a semi-polemical work by University of Virginia English Professor , Mark Edmundson, entitled “Why Teach”, in which he claims that the devaluation of so-called Western Culture and the Western literary canon is at least partially caused by a growing “culture industry” in the United States in which the main standard by which society judges a work of literature is its ability to elicit feelings of pleasure and satisfaction from readers,

    “If Stephen King and John Grisham bring pleasure, why, then let us applaud them. Let’s give them awards, let’s break down the walls of the old clubs and colleges and give them entry forthwith. The only really important question to pose about a novel by Stephen King, we now know, is whether it offers a vintage draught of the Stephen King experience. Does it deliver the spine-shaking chills of great King efforts past? Is the mayhem cranked to the desirable degree? What’s not asked in the review and the interview and the profile is whether a King Book is worth writing or worth the reading. It seems that no one anymore has the wherewithal to say that reading a King novel is a major waste of human time. No chance. If people want to read it, if they get pleasure from it, then it must be good. What other standard is there?”

    I am not entirely sure how to react to this statement. On the one hand, it seems to be incredibly insulting to anyone who dares to read for pleasure. I do read for pleasure, however not as much as I used to. These days I find myself reading more for discovery, more for what Edmundson calls “the pursuit of influence”. I want to have my horizons broadened, my views shaped and altered, albeit in a critical manner. I am aware that I am not perfect and neither is my outlook on the world. I agree with Edmundson that “It takes a strange mixture of humility and confidence” to read this way. I also believe that most people do not have this mixture. Evidence? People who equate freedom of speech with the freedom to be free from criticism, so technically they believe only their freedom of speech is worth protecting. People who claim their freedoms of speech and expression are being infringed upon because someone else is offended by what they are saying or doing. These people believe that the freedom to offend is the highest freedom we, as human beings, should aspire to. The use of the term political correctness to describe a serious moral transgression disgusts me. It is a perjorative term used by the offenders to portray the individuals offended as thin-skinned crybabies. I agree with Edmundson that many people in this country do not want to be influenced. They are dogmatic. They are ignorant. They are irrational They are set in their ways, and they simply don’t care. I also agree with Edmundson that, up to a certain degree, reading for primarily for sensual stimulation as opposed to “Reading in pursuit of influence” is a product of this culture. But, at the same time, I think human pleasure comes in many forms. Pleasure is not just immediate sensory stimulation as Edmundson implies that it is. Perhaps, in this respect, ours is just a disagreement in the meaning of terms.

    However, I do think that lionizing the Western literary canon and labeling anyone who doesn’t unequivocally appreciate its contents as an active participant in this “pleasure” culture, is just plain wrong and severely diminishes the credibility of his argument. To think that this could be the only possible reason, or even the main reason, that someone would disagree with the labeling of the works of literature included in this so-called canon, as high and superior culture, is extremely naive. Is it an indication of my low culture that I find James Baldwin more engaging, more thought-provoking, a more relevant author then Shakespeare? Would Professor Edmundson call a Black teenager living in the midst of inner city poverty in the United States, devoid of culture for not being able to relate to Homer’s Odyssey? I believe reading and especially critical reading is a subjective process and what Professor Edmundson and others who lionize the Western literary canon and I are disagreeing about here is not its supposed value to shaping our society but the pedagogy that is used to convey, explain, and relate that value to human subjects who bring their own experiences, their own values, their own knowledge to the classroom. It is as if Professor Edmundson believes his students should value a work of literature just because it is presented to them as high culture, the best our society has to offer regardless of what you guys may think. You can’t just plop Shakespeare down in front of a kid and expect him to value it, relate to it, be transformed by it just because you value it, you relate to it, you are transformed by it. Does Professor Edmundson believe that his students are standardized? Does he believe knowledge is standardized? If that is one’s idea of affective teaching and learning then one should not be a teacher. I believe the view that Edmundson takes here is extremely authoritarian and paternalistic. If his pedagogy reflects his reasoning for why his students do not appreciate Shakespeare, then he will forever be complaining about what he perceives to be the low culture of his students. By doing this, he absolves himself of all pedagogical responsibility for helping to make literature, any works of literature, whether they are in the Western Canon or not, accessible, relatable, and most importantly potentially transformative for his students. And so I pose the question to you sir, Should a high school students, college student, or even an adult who has long since graduated from formal schooling be expected to value what is termed the Western literary canon just because it is held in such high regard by the individuals who first dubbed it the Western literary canon and should they be made to feel uncultured if they do not?

    1. No and no. To last Q. Western canon is about power not literary merit (whatever that is). Find my post about Neil Gaiman for US Sec of Ed. And read Gaiman’s speech. It is about love of books and reading. Not “right” books or such nonsense.

      1. I certainly will and I am happy to have finally found an English teacher who also realizes the elitism and arrogance in Edmundson’s argument. I raised the exact same concern with a one of my college English professors and in high school as well with one of my English teachers and I got the same response as Edmundson gives in this book. In high school, it was a socratic seminar and I was fed up with talking about the literary symbols, the themes, the symbolism, the motifs of the Crucible by Arthur Miller. I wanted to talk about the politics of the book. I wanted to start a conversation about religious fundamentalism and perhaps relate the Puritans to present-day fundamentalists. My teacher extinguished that line of dialogue as soon as I had started it, because of course that kind of talk is not appropriate for an English class. She once told me that I didn’t belong in an English II Honors class because I couldn’t appreciate the greatness of the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I want to be a teacher and I can’t imagine talking to a student like that. What could be more important for an educator then to facilitate the student’s curiosity?

      2. Yes I am aware of critical pedagogy and critical literacy…has given me a language to articulate what was difficult to articulate back in high school. I have read Giroux, Freire, and Kincheloe The term New Criticism I was not aware of however. I will certainly take up your suggestions for reading. Thank you.

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