Sondheim on reading

Well, not exactly. But he did say something that captures an important element of  learning to read.

Terry Gross of Fresh Air is running three shows in remembrance of Mr. Sondheim. In a 2010 interview, Terry asked him a hoary question: which comes first, the music or the lyrics? His answer yielded a small gem. You can listen or read the transcript.

Sondheim says, paraphrasing mightily, that neither comes first. You have to work back and forth between them because each influences the other.  He says, “So the thing to do is to do [them] together or in tandem, but not one and then the other. It’s one then the other, one then the other, the same time.”

The relevance to reading? Many people think of reading as consisting of components that the child needs to master. The NRP report encouraged this view: Phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension. “The 5 Pillars of Reading,” the targets for instruction. There are classrooms where they are taught separately, which is a very inefficient thing to do because they are interrelated. In other approaches, the putative components are taught in sequence, e.g., spoken phonemes, letters and letter names, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension and beyond. Here’s an illustration (click to embiggen) of the difference from one of our recent Reading Meetings:

Sondheim was an interactionist. Bits of the music might inspire bits of the lyrics, which then affect further progress on the music, and so on, “one then the other, one then the other, the same time.” In Sondheim’s hands, the words and music eventually come together to form a piece in which they hardly seem separable.

I am not a serious Sondheim fan–I don’t listen to Assassins for light entertainment–but loved Officer Krupke (West Side Story) and Small World (Gypsy) as a kid and was thrilled to learn much later that he had written the lyrics. In my book I described learning to read as the question of “how the various types of knowledge that support skilled reading develop and come into alignment, like the characters finding their places in the tableau that will become the Seurat painting in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.”

Mr. Sondheim was apparently an extraordinary teacher. A person can learn from a truly extraordinary teacher even after they are, sadly, gone.

5 thoughts on “Sondheim on reading”

  1. Sondheim is my absolute favorite composer, I am dislecsic (sorry about spelling) , I try my best. The gift Sondheim left me is a life long love of words, meaningful words set to beautiful Music that has gotten me through a Very Turbulent life. Thank you Stephen for more than A Little Night Music, I as well as all theater lovers now face too many mornings without you. I never could whistle, but you made me realise how great Being alive is!!

    1. Thanks for sharing. There’s the emotional and psychological weight of the lyrics, and then also the benefits of listening to complexity language that brings out the phonological properties of language in particular.

  2. Your graphic refers to the importance of emphasizing interconnections during instruction, something you also emphasized in your ‘Lost in Translation’ article last year, which inspired me to reject both balanced literacy and structured literacy and refer to what I do as ‘layered literacy’. Here’s how I explained it to my literacy groups:

    “Without giving it deliberate thought, I had assumed that we would simply shift from Balanced Literacy to Structured Literacy as defined by the International Dyslexia Association. But upon further investigation, I soon realized that based on the recommendations from Diane McGuinness, the research by Devin Kearns (“Does English Have Useful Syllable Division Patterns”, Reading Research Quarterly) and my own experiences working with hundreds of struggling readers using a ‘speech-to-print’ approach, I could not embrace teaching syllable ‘types’ as emphasized in Structured Literacy. So I drew upon all the knowledge I had gained over many years–from relevant research; from podcasts and blogs; from the Australian-based Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy Network and the American-based SPELLTalk listserv–to put together a graphic that describes the literacy I teach. In particular, I felt compelled to devise something new after reading Mark Seidenberg’s recent article “Lost in Translation: Challenges in Connecting Reading Science and Educational Practice” in Reading Research Quarterly, which cautions against making recommendations not specifically supported by current research.

    And that’s why I developed ‘Layered Literacy’. It reflects my attempt to depict the major components that make up the world of reading within the universe of literacy in a way that describes the various elements that should be explicitly and systematically taught–all coexisting and each as essential as the layers of the atmosphere. It’s based upon my current understanding of the Science of Reading coupled with eighteen years experience working with K-4 students, both in the classroom and in small intervention groups as a reading specialist.”

  3. “In other approaches, the putative components are taught in sequence, e.g., spoken phonemes, letters and letter names, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension and beyond.”

    This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past seven years ever since I had the opportunity to teach a kindergarten class. As the reading specialist at my school, I’ve suggested to colleagues that they include letters in their phonemic awareness activities, and they’ve told me they don’t because that’s ‘phonics’. But then I noticed that their phonics activities were very quiet–filling in spelling patterns on dittos or shuffling words around on table tops to sort them into patterns–all done in silence. So I finally compromised and said, okay, once you’ve completed your various PA activities with spoken phonemes PLEASE follow-up those activities by applying these practiced phonemes to writing and making sure that all phonics activities are vocalized.

    I am a huge fan of Into the Woods, possibly the most philosophical musical ever written–and also very funny. An example of his genius: “while her withers wither with her”.

    1. I’m surprised at how doctrinaire many people have become about the ordering of these activities. We discussed the evidence linking “phonemic awareness” and print knowledge in our recent series of talks. But the issue is more general: the several types of knowledge you mention are all interrelated. Instruction should take advantage of that. You lose that opportunity by splitting the whole in a lot of parts and then teaching the parts.

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