Kids Can’t Fly with Training Wheels

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Learning to ride on a first bikePutting training wheels on a child’s bike has become a passé way to teach them to learn to ride a bike. Balance bikes—bicycles without pedals that kids push with their feet and glide along on—are much more effective; they teach kids how to balance more quickly. It takes a typical kid about an hour to teach herself (yes, all alone) how to balance on a bicycle from a seat that allows her feet to touch the ground without the added complication of having to pedal. Once they master balance, kids soon discover the freedom that comes with bicycling.

So, why don’t training wheels work? It’s because they basically change a bicycle into a tall tricycle devoid of a low center of gravity making it easy for a beginning rider to fall over or crash land, typically with a bicycle on top of him. Also, for that same reason, a child on training wheels who goes around a corner on her bicycle can’t lean into it, which is one of the sheer joys of riding a bicycle in the first place—that leaning, swooping motion that makes bike riding feel like unfettered flying!

In the literacy world, phonemically regular books—those with titles like Nat the Fat Cat, and Al and Sally are Pals—are the equivalent of training wheels for reading. While the titles are cute, their content gives beginning readers an unbalanced introduction to books. Basically, books that are written based on common phonics rules, to ensure that every word is easy to decode,  result in confusion and frustration because phonetically irregular words are used a large percent of the time. The resulting content of these types of books is simplistic and fails to captivate children’s imaginations and help teach them to love books and reading, which is the glorious path to lifelong learning.

Avid ReadingHaving a passion for books and reading invites children to experience the utter joy of folding themselves into a real story or subject to which they can relate. They are then overjoyed when invited into the treasure houses of the libraries and bookstores where they can  discover an endless supply of such wonders, filled with natural language.  Literacy training wheels are a hinderance, not a help.

Sure, children need help learning to read…and ride a bike. They need to see adults doing both. They need to get the answers to key questions like: “How do I keep from falling over?” and “Why do the letters in this word say that?” But twisting the magic of cycling and and the joy of reading into something cute and simple can diminish children’s motivation for wanting to learn either. Conversely, when we teach children to do something that they really, really care about—even if it’s hard—we give them wings.

C’mon. Let’s teach ’em to fly!

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6 Responses to “Kids Can’t Fly with Training Wheels”

  1. Janet Ruth Heller September 8, 2016 at 10:39 pm #

    Dear Mark Condon,

    I enjoyed your essay, and I fully agree with your conclusions. Also, as an author of award-winning books for children, I find that when publishers limit my word choice I can’t be as creative or as entertaining.

    Best wishes!

    Janet Ruth Heller

    [Ms. Heller is the author of the poetry books Exodus (WordTech Editions, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012) and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011), the scholarly book Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990), the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006), and the middle-grade book for kids about sibling rivalry and discrimination The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015). Her website is

    • Mark Condon September 9, 2016 at 7:48 am #

      Thanks for sharing, Janet. It means a lot coming from a children’s book author.

  2. Michelle Stuckey September 9, 2016 at 9:49 am #

    Hi Mark,
    What books do you recommend for beginning readers? While he’s not reading yet, my 4 year old already seems to be losing interest in the simplistic children’s books we have.

    • Mark Condon September 9, 2016 at 10:33 am #

      I’m not a good resource for identifying the greatest books for your little one. He is, though. Watch him and he’ll show you what he likes.
      Your local children’s library or well-stocked children’s bookstore are great resources to invite him to explore as well. At Unite for Literacy, our books are very diverse of course and almost all non-fiction, with a few narrative non-fiction. That might be a place to start exploring his interests and that’s 200+ books written for kids his age right there on your smartphone.
      In general I recommend books that are relevant and accessible. So, the key criteria are:
      Relevant Books, meaning books to which your little guy can relate. Watch how he responds when you read together. See what lights his fuse. Though still too few books offer cultural and racial diversity, children’s picture books have gotten so much better. Books that include places and faces he will feel comfortable with are always good.
      Accessible Books meaning that he can get to them when he wants to engage. He needs his own easily accessible bookshelf.
      Once you get him hooked on books about whatever he loves (subject, author, genre) then he may pick one that he’ll want you to read again and again and again. Over time he’ll memorize that book and then you can invite him to read along. When he says something that isn’t on the page, he invites the conversation to help him understand that the print and pictures carry the story from the author and illustrator to him…and off you go.
      Bringing him up as an avid reader will be a wonderful adventure for both of you.

  3. Tyler S. September 11, 2016 at 5:41 am #

    Your article was interesting. As a child I took pride in never using training wheels to learn riding a bike. However, this is because I was stabilized by my parents a few times and got the hang of things rather quickly. I remember my parents not letting me use training wheels because of learning to ride a bike so quickly, and feeling rather jealous as a result when my siblings got to use them. I think you have a nice and important metaphor. Yet, your article seems to imply that children discover a love of reading introvertedly where phonetic training wheel books aren’t ideal in such a process. Is this because public school is taken out of the equation? Some children respond as a group very positively to these training wheel books when read aloud. The positive responses can propel new interests. While I agree with your article, it’s equally important to consider the rhetorical place of the reading. Thank you for the article.

    • Mark Condon September 12, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

      In reply to Tyler S..
      Thanks for that perspective, Tyler. The difference is in what we want for a child. I tend to focus upon our youngest readers, birth through age 6 or so. For them, I believe that the most important first lessons about books are to learn that they carry fascinating stories and eye-opening facts about the world and its peoples. Further, children learn that such compelling content is brought to them via the magic of print and pictures in genuine books. Focusing on solo navigation through print via vocabulary restraints that too often result in bleak stories can interfere with those more foundational lessons in my view. Sharing real books in the arms of a loving family member is foundational. In my experience, that is what lays the groundwork for children becoming avid, lifelong readers, the single most important goal of education.