STEPHEN JUDY IS EDITOR of The English Journal, which is to English teachers what Business Week is to entrepreneurs and corporate executives. This means that there is hardly a textbook, a test or a teaching strategy that Judy hasn't heard about. And that puts him in an excellent position to write The ABCs of Literacy: A Guide for Parents and Educators. His book takes us through the historical functions of literacy, the history of English teaching, and through every method of teaching children how to read and write known to God and man. Because of the book's thoroughness, because of Judy's sweet and genuine concern for children and because of his sensitivity to the realities of teaching, I would strongly recommend this book to those for whom it is intended: teachers, administrators and parents.
But the book is somewhat marred, I fear, by Judy's almost schoolmarmish addiction to lists. Once he gets into his subject, there is hardly a chapter that does not have a list of suggestions for one thing or another: 10 global priorities for literacy education, 100 projects for improving literacy instruction, 14 criticisms of standardized tests, five stages of growth in language learning, 10 model English curricula, etc. The trouble with lists, of course, is (to make a short one myself) that: (a) one tends to see everything on a list as equally important, (b) by the time one gets, say, to item 9, six out of the previous eight hav been forgotten, and (c) lists wreck havoc on one's writing style, which, in this case, amplifies another weakness of the book, Judy's prose. His writing throughout lacks verve, even interest, and shows signs of his having spent too much time reading articles submitted to The English Journal. Even a well-intentioned reader must struggle to keep at it. Here, for example, are a few sentences that reflect the textbook style and tone of the book:
"The spontaneity and naturalness of elementary school children extends to language as well. Grade school children don't need to be told that writing is important and a skill that must be mastered, for they are natural storytellers and welcome an opportunity to spin a tale. On the whole, they take to literature as a duck takes to water."
But these criticisms are intended to forewarn readers, not deflect them. The book's virtues far outweigh its faults. Its pages are filled with intelligent ideas about how children can learn to gain command over written language. Judy is well known for his commitment and his enthusiasm matches his knowledge. If, for personal or professional reasons, you need to know what literacy is and how adults can nurture its growth in children, Stephen Judy is your man.
Whereas The ABCs of Literacy is based on the assumption that there are multiple solutions to the complex problem of achieving literacy, Where to Find Tomorrow is based on the assumption that there is only one solution, and not merely to literacy but to the entire academic crisis of public education. This solution is known as The Ramseur System, designed by Nancy Fairley Ramseur and her sister, Mary Ramseur Lindsay who, in the same spirit of self-congratulation that pervades their book, have named their solution after themselves.
Their book is a detailed description of The System, particularly as it has unfolded in the Camden, South Carolina schools which seem wholly committed to it. So far as I can tell, the system consists of grouping students according to their abilities in different subjects, evaluating student work with relentless and uncommon precision, and providing a fairly rigid structure to the act of teaching. I am unsure about what is actually being done in Camden because for all of their direct, "downhome" prose, their account of the Ramseur System is as difficult to follow as those directions one finds on a box containing the parts of a bicycle. Here is a sample.
"Just as a student is free to choose his group, he is free to choose his course grade from any of the groups in which he has worked. If, during a single semester, a student earns in the three six-weeks' (reporting) periods B2, A2, C1, he may take his examination in Group 2. By this means, his performance on the exam will be averaged only with the B2 and A2. He may prefer to take his exam in Group 1, but this means that his grade will be averaged with the C1. If another student earns a B2, U1 and B2 and takes his exam in Group 2, the 'U' (failure to meet standards) is omitted completely when the grades are averaged. The student is thereby encouraged to try out his abilities without fear of being penalized for his gallant attempt."
The "thereby" in the last sentence goes to the heart of the Probelm I have with the Ramseur System and the book which is intended to celebrate it. I like what comes after the "thereby" but cannot fathom what has come before it. The book is filled with similar "therebys," which is to say that the sisters Ramseur want what everybody wants for children -- a safe, stimulating, nurturing school environment in which confidence and intelligence can expand. But I cannot tell from their book how their system provides such an environment or why this should be the only way to do it.