Learning to read

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Although I did not home school my children, I did make sure they all learned to read at home, at a very early age. All six of them were reading by the age of four, and all six of them are still readers. As a matter of fact, fully half the weight of our cross-country move was books - and that was after we sold around 100 books and donated several packing boxes (a mini-van full) to the Eugene Public Library.
Mark Shea, Chris, Lane Core are among many bloggers who have linked to and commented on this item about how the brain processes written English. Go ahead, click over and read it - it should only take you a moment. Anyhow, it got me to thinking about the differences in how we expect our children to acquire read/written language as opposed to heard/oral language.

I confess that I have a few handicaps in this discussion. One is that my grandmother was a first grade teacher and reading specialist. Another is that my sister is a speech and language therapist who worked her way through her masters degree by substitute teaching in special education classrooms. I guess the final handicap is that I have never ever taken any courses in pedagogy - I am considered expert in adult education and have been teaching adults for 20 plus years now - but have never even tried to formally teach children other than my own. So I have never learned 'ed-speak', and have probably been immunized against it.
When I was a child, I read several books about the treatment of brain-injured children using techniques that included patterning and multiple sensory input. Much of what I read made sense to me not only for brain-injured children but also for 'normal' children. When I had a baby of my own (and then several others!) I tried to apply much of what I had learned about normal brain development to help my children to reach the potential that God had put into them. For example - I breast fed them, and tried to be sure that they had sensory input from both the right and left side (most people hold babies on their left only - have you noticed?). I put them down on the floor on their tummies -where I could see them - for their waking time. I did not use a playpen other than as a big toybox or for very occasional naps. I used a front-pack, back-pack, or sling preferentially to a stroller.
I did not generally spoon feed them solid foods. I figured that if they were mature enough to eat solids, they could feed themselves, so I put the food in front of them and let them finger feed. Yes, it did get messy sometimes, but I've noticed that kids are washable. And I talked to the kids from infancy on - I gave them the names of objects in their environment, I would hand them a toy and say, "Here is your blue block", or whatever it was I was handing them. I would sit on the floor with them and help them put the shapes into the Shape-O ball and label the shapes (this is a triangle, see, it has 1,2,3 sides, now this is a star, good, hand me the circle). These are all language skills that I worry kids aren't getting between day care and TV.
How to Teach Your Baby to Read by Glenn Doman and Janet Doman is a book I read when my first child was a few months old. Doman was one of the proponents of patterning. His book talks about using environmental cues to teach your child a few basic things. One is the semantic concept that this visual cue (ink on paper) represents a spoken word AND a physical concept. Very young children are concrete thinkers. So they learn spoken language as words and phrases, and ideally should also learn written language the same way. Doman advocates putting big signs up all over the house that have labels for the words you want your child to learn. I never went that far, but what I did was to use visual cues already in our environment to get that concept through to the kids. My favorite reading cues were the paper grocery store bags with the name/logo of the store on it. I taught my kids to read while on the road and in the car. We started with grocery stores and gas stations, and moved on to the signs on the side of the L.A. freeways. Call box. Right lane must exit. Oh, - can you find me the word 'exit' in another place? What is that store? Mind you, this was being done to the 2 year olds.
I rarely read out loud to the children, but their dad did. And they memorized their books (as children do) but I would then write them stories and print them in large block print, using the words in their books, so they could get the idea that you can move the words around and they still make sense.
Much later, about the time they really got the concept of reading for meaning and pleasure, I would introduce the concept of phonics - the sounds made by letters and combinations of letters - so that they would then have a tool to learn unfamiliar words through reading them. Given the illogic of most of written English, I felt that phonics would be an advanced but necessary tool, especially given the need to deal with homophones and spelling.
It worked for us, six times over. It worked with my 2 'normal' children, my 2 severe ADHD children, my (probably) Asperger syndrome child, my 'quiet' ADD child. I dread to think what might have happened had I left teaching them reading to the schools and their fads and fashions. I only wish that I had been able to teach them math with the same facility.


I think I was reading at 2. No one sat down and taught me either. When I got to first grade, I had no idea why we were doing phonics, because I didn't know that some first-graders are still learning to read. I thought it was busywork and it just about killed my respect for school as a place of actual learning. (I knew the parts of speech from playing Mad Libs one time and adding and maybe subtracting from playing Scrabble.)

But I've also read that to generalize from a few kids who are gifted in this regard and to assume that all learn to read the same way is wrong. I'm no expert, of course, but I can see how phonics might work better for some kids, "whole language" or whatever for others, and maybe a combination is necessary for everyone? Phonics didn't seem to be something I had to learn from the book, though -- maybe I intuited it from the words I first learned less systematically.

Speaking as a veteran elementary educator with an advanced degree in literacy (oooh, big man tossing around his credentials!), I can say that this post by Alicia is right on the money, as is Davey's Mommy's response. Phonics is not the "magic bullet" for learning to read. Whole Language is not the "magic bullet" for learning to read either. It is a blend of the two, adapted by well-trained teachers to meet individual needs that help kids learn to be readers.

Teachers who try to cram a child, or worse yet an entire group of children into one tightly crafted mold of reading instruction and will not budge an inch is doomed to failure.

Those teachers who look at the kids' individual needs and adjust accordingly to meet them as reasonably as possible are the ones who get the job done. They are also the tired-looking ones who arrive early, stay late, take a huge bag of work home with them each night and weekend, and are constantly reading research and taking upper-level college courses to refine their craft. Of course, they frequently go prematurely gray and often wear mismatched clothes and live in houses with many cats, but they are the ones who find success in teaching reading and rightfully earn the love and respect of students and their parents for seeing the child as a separate person from the crowd, not a machine on an assembly line. This is firsthand experience talking here.

If someone asks me the most important things to do as a parent to prepare your child for a lifetime I reading, I always reply with three very simple things:

1) Read age-appropriate books to your children from just out of the womb until they (the kids) just will not allow it anymore. (There are lots of resources on the web for identifiying age-appropriate books, and you know their interests.) Don't stop reading to them once they become independent readers! Keep going as long as possible.
2) Be an example and be seen reading for various purposes yourself. Let the kids see you reading for pleasure, reading to learn something, and reading to perform a task (i.e.-assembly instructions, recipes).
3) Go to the local library with your kids once every week. And don't sweat it if they pick the same books or same series of books for a while. It WILL pass! Make library visits part of your rituals. With me, it was Saturday morning: go to library, Sunday morning: go to Mass, weekday mornings: go to school.

Thanks to the last class of fourth graders I taught, my elementary school just placed in the top 30 out of over 370 elementary schools in the state of Maine in standardized test scores in all subjects. Grade four has been the earliest statewide standardized test year in Maine for some time. It's not often I can respond to a post from a position of solid footing, but on this one, I can.

I'll go let all the hot air out of my bloated head now so I can fit through the doorway to go to bed. :)

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This page contains a single entry by alicia published on September 17, 2003 10:59 PM.

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