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.