Posts Tagged ‘natural learning’

Thoughts on ‘teaching’ reading (and why I don’t do it)

May 12, 2015 @ 3:51 pm | Filed under: Comics, Early Childhood Education, Homeschooling, Read-Alouds

reading comics at the piano

Reading a Bird and Squirrel book by James Burks

I chimed in on a discussion on my local homeschooling list about one mom’s concerns that her son had stalled on the learning-to-read process. As usual I found I had a lot to say, so I’m scooping it here (and expanding a bit) in case it’s of interest to others. 

I’ll second what E. said: Six is really very young and at this point (and every point, really), the VERY BEST thing you can do is to read aloud a great deal. There are lots of studies to back up what many of us have been discovering and advocating for years about the immense and rather extraordinary benefits of reading aloud.

Some tricks we have used

• We always turn on the captions when our children watch TV. And it’s amazing how much reading they can pick up from scrolling through the DVR. Huck could distinguish between “Little Bear” and “Little Bill” at age three—his first sight words.

Video games! or apps, etc. My kids have all picked up a lot of reading just from encountering the repeated text instructions and captioning that is a part of many games.

Comics and graphic novels. Great reinforcement of decoding skills and incentive to read. Plus, you know, FUN. My 3rd child learned to read from Tintin Comics. Her older sisters read them and she pored over the pictures until she began to pick up words. (I read them to her whenever she asked but that stage didn’t last long–she just loved to explore them them on her own!)  (I’ve written more about this here.)

Word games and puns. We are a wordy, wordy family. Dinner-table conversation will often involve why a thing is called what it’s called–what the root word is, where it came from. Someone will hop up to look up a word origin. And scarcely a day passes without some terrible, groan-inducing pun trotting around the house. When I teach kids’ writing and lit classes (I’m teaching three different groups of kids at present), I begin every class by soliciting contributions to our ‘Word Hoard’—asking the kids to look out for interesting words during the week to add to our collection. They really get into the spirit of the game and we have amassed some splendid word piles over the weeks. The boys in my Friday afternoon class have turned it into a competition of sorts, unfurling mile-long words to impress their classmates. I’ve learned a lot of obscure medical terms in the past month, let me tell you.

Riddles, jokes, joke books!

I am not a fan of 100 Easy Lessons because of so many similar stories of kids getting turned off to reading, or stressed/intimidated/bored–all feelings I don’t want kids to associate with reading.

Books of facts are great for young kids–early reader science stuff, etc. Again, lots of pictures to draw them in & help with decoding.

My primary advice is to not try to “teach” a child to read.

The process can be more organic, less structured. Help them along the way you helped and encouraged them to learn to talk. Read together, allowing lots of conversation and lingering and interruptions to hyperfocus on some little piece of a picture.* Chat about street signs, store names, food labels (kids will pick those up as sight words very quickly and naturally). Text is all over our world, not just in books, and reading doesn’t have to be a Capital R academic exercise. People naturally want to find things out, and reading becomes a means of doing that–so sooner or later, every child will have an interest that drives literacy. What you can do is support that interest. Feed it! Rustle up some intriguing-looking books on the topic, preferably ones with a lot of art.

(Here I come back to video games: one of my girls got so interested in a certain game that she wanted to look up guides for it online, and HER reading took a huge leap forward as she began to devour information about this game. My role was to help her safely find resources on the internet, print out useful pages, provide supplies for assembling a binder (her idea)…so you can see there are many ways for a parent to be involved in the process, guiding, facilitating, without it looking like formal reading instruction–an activity that is so stressful for many children. Lots of so-called ‘reluctant readers’ will inhale anything you give them that’s about their favorite video game. Let them hunt for cheat sites. Who cares if they don’t figure out a game level on their own? They are learning crucial research skills–how to frame questions and find answers, and how to apply that information to a practical task. Hurrah for game cheats!)

Current example: Huck is obsessed with Rose’s Snap Circuits set. This morning I stood in the living room for the longest time, watching him—his back was to me—deeply absorbed in assembling one of the projects in the guidebook. He has worked his way through the entire project book with minimal help, following the picture instructions but also puzzling out chunks of text. Sometimes he asks for help with a mouthful word like “capacitor”—no self-consciousness, no sense that he is young to be expecting to be able to read a word like that. He can’t figure it out, he asks for help. But poring over this book, casually encountering these giant words that tell him things he wants to know, has catapulted his reading skills forward in a way no teacher, no matter how good, how patient, could reproduce. If I made him sit down to a reading curriculum, I can guarantee he would be restless and fretful within minutes. But he’ll spend the whole afternoon immersed in building projects out of this book, interacting with the pictures and text, following complex directions—and consider it ‘playing.’ As in, “Can I play with your Snap Circuits again today?” he’ll beg his big sister.

tuesdayinmay

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*Let me elaborate on what I said above about “allowing lots of conversation and lingering and interruptions to hyperfocus on some little piece of a picture.” A lot of adults have difficulty tolerating interruptions during a readaloud. There’s a whole big conversation to be had about how much background activity to allow — like, Legos keep little hands busy but can be very noisy. There are ways to work around that (spread out Legos on the floor before reading, since the noisiest part is the digging through the bin–things like that). But what I want to focus on right now are the interruptions that come when a child is looking at the book with you and starts talking over the narrative–pointing at things in the art, or otherwise being chatty about the book instead of listening to the story. This activity may actually be an indication of a big leap forward in skill acquisition–but we adults don’t always see it that way!

Here’s an example — when Rose was five or six, I remember reading her My Father’s Dragon. She was right at the point of emergent literacy, beginning to recognize words like street signs and store names as I mentioned above. We were about halfway through this short novel as a read-aloud when she started pointing out Elmer’s name on every page. And “the dragon” and “the cat” — words repeated often in the story. But mainly it was the word “Elmer” (the main character). It got to where I couldn’t get through a page, because she kept pointing at the name all over the place. And I had a moment of being irritated and wanting to hush her–now now, let’s listen to the story. But it hit me in a flash that what we were doing together — what SHE was experiencing in this moment — had changed. It had started out “listening to a story.” Now it was READING. She had learned a sight word and was putting this new skill to use, with numerous opportunities to “practice” it on every page. No curriculum in the world could top this skill practice, because it was completely voluntary and completely absorbing her. It was HER activity, not one imposed upon her from the outside.

So, in that hour snuggled beside her on her bed, I let go of the whole listen-to-this-story concept. I kept on reading to her, page after page, but that was merely a background activity providing the vehicle for her discovery. “Elmer…Elmer…the dragon…” — little finger pointing, skipping around the page. We finished the book that way, with Rose only half paying attention to the words I was reading. When I got to the end, she said it was the best book ever and asked me to start it over. The second time through, she listened raptly to the narrative. 🙂 Her brain had finished its self-assigned task. By the time I finished the book for the second time (a week or two later), she was reading very well on her own.

So that’s what I mean about stepping back to reassess an activity and your objectives….if a child is focusing on some part of the story that isn’t your voice reading the words, there is probably a very good reason. A wonderful thing about homeschooling is we have the luxury of time and space to allow this process to unfold at the child’s pace–there is no pressure to ‘get through’ a certain amount of material by a set date.

Way Leads on to Way

March 7, 2008 @ 1:09 pm | Filed under: Books, Connections, Unschooling, Why I Homeschool

The other day I posted a link to this article about Harvard professor John R. Stilgoe. The article made me want to read his book, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. I’m only a chapter in, and already I can tell this is going to be one of those books I have to post a lot about as I’m reading it. It’s transformative.

Some quotes:

[Regarding his courses at Harvard]

“…I refuse to provide a schedule of topics. Undergraduate and graduate students alike love schedules, love knowing the order of subjects and the satisfaction of ticking off one line after another, class after class, week after week. Confronted by a professor who explains that schedules produce a desire, sometimes an obsession, to “get through the material,” they grow uneasy. They like to get through the material.

“I explain that the lack of a topic schedule encourages all of us to explore a bit, to answer questions that arise in class or office hours, to follow leads we discover while studying something else. Each of the courses, I explain patiently, really concerns exploration, and exploration happens best by accident, by letting way lead on to way, not by following a schedule down a track.

“My students resist the lack of topic structure because they are the children of structured learning and structured entertainment. Over and over I explain that if they are afraid of a course on exploring, they may never have the confidence to go exploring on their own.”

(snip)

“Learning to look around sparks curiosity, encourages serendipity. Amazing connections get made that way; questions are raised—and sometimes answered—that never would be otherwise. Any explorer sees things that reward not just a bit of scrutiny but a bit of thought, sometimes a lot of thought over years. Put the things in spatial context or arrange them in time, and they acquire value immediately.”

This is exactly what I’ve enthused about when I write about the connections my kids have made—I get so excited about it; it amazes me to see what they put together in their minds, and where the subsequent discussion takes us. It’s how I learn best, and live best, too.

In a post a while back I quoted Sandra Dodd on connections:

“Learning comes from connecting something new to what you’ve already thought or known.”

She has a connections page on her website (well worth your time to explore). At the top is a quote from Heraclitus, circa 500 B.C.:

A wonderful harmony arises from joining together the seemingly unconnected.

Yesterday, perched in that tree outside the library, Beanie looked at a sign on a church across the street and said, “Mom! The Black Douglas!”

The sign said “E. Douglas.” It reminded her of the story of The Black Douglas (a Scottish hero) that we read in James Baldwin’s book Fifty Famous Stories Retold. She giggled and said the sign should say “B. Douglas.”

The Baldwin book is a great one for connections. When we see rocks poking up from beneath the waves out at sea, Bean calls out, “The Inchcape Rock!” We have a whole long-running family joke spinning off King Alfred and the cakes he burned while daydreaming military strategy. The joke kind of blurs into my kids’ very, very favorite Gunther children quote, uttered by a young Margaret at dinner one night: “Mommy, my burnt corn is cold!”

(One of the many reasons I adore Alice. She’s my kind of cook.)

Last weekend the girls were watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Tom was conducting an orchestra in the Hollywood Bowl (and beating down an eager Jerry who wanted to help). Jane wanted to know what the music was. I thought it sounded like Strauss, but I wasn’t sure, so I (what else) Googled it. Sure enough: it’s the overture from Die Fledermaus. We looked it up on Wikipedia and read about the opera, and we watched the overture on YouTube. Which led to viewing other songs, mostly sung by the famous coloratura Edita Gruberova, who is famous for her Adele in Fledermaus and who also played the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, which (if you want another Alice connection) is the song my cell phone plays when she calls me because it always reminds me of her daughter Theresa singing the aria around the house. And from there way led on to many other ways, and these connections will keep popping up in years to come, linking to something else.

Oh, I just remembered writing about this years ago, how I love that we call it “linking” when a topic on one web page connects to a page somewhere else.

“Way leads on to way,” of course, is a quote from “The Road Less Traveled.” But unlike Frost’s traveller, who, “knowing how way leads on to way,” doubts life will ever bring him back to this crossroads in the wood where he has chosen to take the less traveled path, the paths unfolding before our connections can and will be revisited and explored endlessly, in different ways, all through our lives. And like the paths in the wood, where wind and light and leaves and wildlife are always altering the landscape so that the path changes from hour to hour, our mental landmarks are changed and built upon and nuanced every time we revisit them.

Another funny connection: I had read much of the first chapter of Outside Lies Magic to Jane yesterday—it’s one of those books you just can’t keep to yourself—including the parts quoted above about Stilgoe’s students being uncomfortable working without a clearly defined linear schedule. This morning I asked Beanie to do a job for me, and I was explaining it step by step— overexplaining, evidently, because Jane laughed and said, “Gosh, Mom, it’s like you think she’s a Harvard student.” Heh.

“Exploration,” says John Stilgoe,

“is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun.”

Yes: it is so, so much fun, and that is why I write these posts all chattery with excitement over this or that connection the kids made today. (Or that I made myself!) I know I get carried away, but that’s the point, isn’t it, that way leading on to way has carried me away? And yet—and yet—I think we are at once ‘carried away’ and made more fully present in the now, more rooted, by these relationships between ideas about things past and future. The joy of connection makes me want to celebrate this moment, this brief encounter with wild-haired child and broad-trunked tree, bus going by, sign on church wall, Scottish warlord creeping over the tower wall and startling the English soldier’s wife who has just put her babe in arms to sleep by crooning that the Black Douglas won’t get him. Child, laughing, shouting “Dinna ye be sae sure aboot that!” across the courtyard outside the library. How can I not celebrate this freedom?