Friday, October 1, 2010

On Reading

Twice in your life you know you are approved of by everyone--
When you learn to walk and when you learn to read.
-- Penelope Fitzgerald

Parents shoulder a great deal of anxiety about their children's reading. Although we are usually content to support a child's natural developmental timeline when it comes to sitting up, walking, and talking, many of us are concerned, even worried, about our children's reading development. 

This may be the case because most of us have grown up in the context of institutionalized learning environments where children who are "late" readers are often sent for "testing" and remedial support. We don't want our own children to have to endure that stigma.
It may also be that we are all too aware that we (the species) made this "reading" thing up and that it is a complex cognitive task that our children are about to tackle. At least, we feel it is complex as we've witnessed people struggling with it in the school setting.

And, truly, it is a sweet, sweet thing to be able to read (and to love reading). As Rumer Godden said, "When you learn to read you will be born again... and you will never be quite so alone again."

Yes. It's completely natural to want our children to have the enjoyment of reading. But surely "learning to read" should not be one of only two times when our children feel our loving approval. It's just one, rather "everyday" accomplishment in the vast expanse of human development. Our kids are doing so many wondrous things all the time that we can jump up and down about, that reading can really be "just" one more of those fabulous feats rather than The All-Important Life Accomplishment.

So, let's put reading into perspective.

Definition of Reading

According to Maryanne Wolf, cognitive neuroscientist and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain:
The ideal acquisition of reading is based on the development of an amazing panopoly of phonological, semantic, syntactic, morphological, pragmatic, conceptual, social, affective, articulatory, and motor systems, and the ability of these systems to become integrated and synchronized into increasingly fluent comprehension. 
Perhaps that makes it all sound very scary and complicated.

It's not.

We humans are linguistic beasts. We're neurologically primed for language, whatever form it takes. Sure, reading print may take it up a notch by adding a visual component, but we've got the goods to handle it.

As Frank Smith, PhD in psycholinguistics and former UVic prof, states in Reading Without Nonsense,
From a language point of view, reading makes no demands that the brain doesn't meet in the comprehension of speech. And visually, there is nothing in reading that the eyes and brain don't accomplish when we look around a room to locate an object or to distinguish one face from another... reading is the most natural activity in the world, something we all do constantly, without conscious effort, whether or not we are literate.
Becoming "literate" simply takes time, repeated exposure to both spoken language and print, confidence, and a desire to master it... when the time is right.

Developmental Readiness

I'm a firm believer in the theory that most children will learn to read without coercion or excessive effort when they are developmentally ready and also have the internal motivation and desire. It's a process that begins when a child hears spoken language for the first time and evolves until the child is able to tie sound and visual symbols together to make meaning of print. For some children, this may happen in their early years. For others, it  may come together when they are older, even in their teens.

Children are so unique with respect to how reading "happens" for them that it's impossible to say, "a child should be reading at this level at this age". Most of the studies about reading are conducted with subjects who are in school and struggling to fit within a normative developmental timeline. This makes much of the research irrelevant when it comes to understanding the emerging reading process of learners who are not confined by early reading pedagogy.

We do, however, have some anecdotal material. We have stories about children who "magically" taught themselves to read before they entered school. And we also have the stories of home learners who did not read until they were "tweens" or "teens" and became fluent overnight (I may interview a couple of them (and their parents) later this fall). As non-coercive education finds its way into more homeschooling lives, we also have stories of kids of all ages figuring out reading with varying degrees of parental support.

Older children who have been immersed in language-rich environments often pick up reading in a much shorter period of time than younger children, simply because they have both the cognitive skills (abstract and logical thought) and experience to do so. There is no critical period for developing reading skills in the human lifespan.

When to Be Concerned

I've often been approached by the parents of children under the age of 12 who are concerned that their child may have dyslexia because their child is not yet reading, or the child inverts letters when printing them, or the child cannot remember sound-symbol relationships from one day to the next. I do believe that some people will have difficulty reading their whole lives due to a difference in their neurology. However, a child under 10 (or 12 or 14) who is not yet reading does not necessarily have a reading "problem" unless we make it a problem.

And yes, we have the power to make it a big problem if we force a child to read before they are developmentally (neurologically, cognitively, emotionally) ready to do so. Many people who struggled with reading in school often are functionally literate when they are older, even though they may not read for pleasure. Our early experiences with anything can leave a lasting impression. Children who experience learning to read as drudgery and an exercise in repeated failure, simply because they are not yet neurologically or emotionally ready to read, may find it difficult to overcome their negative emotional responses to it, even in adulthood.

Rarely, reading issues are not a matter of a child being on a unique developmental timeline. If your child is older (10+) and continues to have trouble recognizing letters or remembering the sounds of the alphabet from day-to-day (if she has been working on learning them) or if your older child continues to have marked and consistent issues with reversals (writing or reading), it may be a good idea to talk to someone. If your child is enrolled in a DL program, there may be a special ed teacher designated who provides support to families around these types of concerns.

Putting together sounds and symbols (blends, digraphs, and vowel combinations) to figure out words, as well as reading fluency, often comes with time and practice. If that process is taking awhile for your child or your child is resisting reading because it *feels* like too much effort, this is very different than the memory and processing issues mentioned above and likely just needs time and space. 

Your Child's Emotions Are Your Guide

When it comes to reading, your child is your barometer. If your child is unhappy about reading (or not reading), then it's good to think about that a little bit.

The first question I ask a concerned parent is: "Does your child want to read or are they getting the message from someone else that they should be reading?" The answer often is, "Our extended family/neighbours/friends are asking him if he can read yet." Or "My mother told dd that she was reading at the age of 4 and surely a big girl of 7 should be reading by now!" Or "The kids at drama were teasing him because he couldn't read the script."

In these situations, the question really isn't "Should I be worried that my child isn't reading yet?" Instead it is, "How do I protect my child's right to develop reading (and other) skills on his or her own timeline?" And that is a topic for a different post.

If, however, the desire to read is truly coming from the child (internal vs. external pressure), I ask: "Is your child experiencing frustration or do they seem content with how it's going?" When it comes to reading (and so many other situations in life), it's helpful to take your cues from your child's affect. If your child isn't concerned, that's great. Carry on and read a lot of websites to help you relax. (Some good ones are listed at the bottom.)

But, if your child is keen and eager and motivated (or frustrated and discouraged), there are some things you can do to support their reading development.


Talking and Listening and Reading
Have a house full of print. Use the library. Get books out that support your child's interests. Get books with pictures, with text, with both. Get a magazine subscription on your child's favourite topic. Incorporate your own reading into the day (so your child can see how you value reading).
Read a lot to your child. Choose books that catch her imagination and are at her cognitive level, even if she can't read them herself yet.
Have your child read a lot to you. Let her choose, especially books that she feels confident with, and encourage her to reread her favourites - over and over and over - repetition is powerful. When she's ready to move up a level, take turns reading the pages (so she doesn't get too tired or discouraged).
Read a lot to yourself, in front of your children. If print is important to you, your child will understand that if they see you reading.
Talk a lot. It's important for children to be "word rich" before they engage in print. The more sounds, the more words, the more words-in-context, they have heard (and used), the easier the process will be. And, of course, listen a lot, too. It's the conversation that's important.

About Books 
Listen to to audiobooks (there are so many good ones!). For the younger child, use picture books or early "readers" (high quality writing) with accompanying tapes so she can "read to herself". For older children, buy them a copy of the novel so that they can read along with the narrator if they want to.
Find good quality, well-written "early" readers. Do not automatically use picture books with the beginning reader. Picture books often have very complex and sophisticated vocabulary and word usage. (Of course, read the picture books to your child or let him look at the pictures on his own.) You'll want good books that are written specifically with the emerging reader in mind (but that aren't pedantic). Some of our favourite choices include: 
Little Bear (Else Holmelund Minarik)
Frog and Toad (Lobel)
George and Martha (James Marshall)
Henry and Mudge (Cynthia Rylant)
Mr. Putter and Tabby (Cynthia Rylant)
Poppleton (Cynthia Rylant)
High Rise Private Eyes (Cynthia Rylant) 
      DK also has some great reading series that are truly helpful - high interest, building vocabulary through the levels. Start with Level 1 books, and then, as your reader's confidence grows, move up.
      It's a bit more challenging for older emerging readers. A good bookstore, like Bolen's Books, will have high interest, easy vocabulary selections for the older reader (you may need to ask for help to find them). Older kids, because they have so much more experience with spoken word and naturally larger vocabularies, tend to move very quickly once the process of reading has "clicked" for them, so this is often a short stage.
      Let your child choose his own books. If he loves a certain picture book with complicated vocabulary and word usage, has memorized the story, and wants to "read" it over and over and over to you, well, hooray! Let it happen. And if you have an older child who is only interested in comic books or magazines, that's fine, too (see the suggestions for Graphic Novels here).  

      Beyond Books
      Look beyond books. Kids may do a lot of reading  that doesn't look like sitting down with a book. Games (both board games and video), subtitles on DVDs, doing things on the computer, cooking, etc. These are all valid reading activities.
      The computer is a great tool. If your child likes the computer, he can use an online program like Starfall to help him gain reading skills. A friend's daughter taught herself to read using the Living Books' version of Dr. Seuss ABC software. Also, if your child wants to instant-message with friends or use facebook (and you've discussed internet safety with your child), this is an amazing way for older kids to practice their reading and writing skills.
      Some kids write first. There is no 'cart' and 'horse' when it comes to reading and writing. Some children will write first. And that makes sense to me. They have control over content, over quantity, and over print size. When they write, then what they read is immediately relevant and important to them. If they like to create or produce, this gives them a great way to read while feeling good about something. One of my past learners was a huge Harry Potter fan. Her family bought her real parchment paper and a special feather pen to write with so she could write up spells like Hermione Granger. She loved doing this and it was her spark for learning to read. Creating family scavenger hunts are also a great way to give the young writer/reader the opportunity to use their emerging skills.
      It doesn't have to be on paper. If she wants to keyboard, get her a good typing program. Or use the BBC typing site.  Lots of kids love it. And it will help her learn her letters, too.

      Direct Support 
      Use tactile supports for letter learning, if your child would like that. Make letters out of play dough, put a bit of white rice (to just nicely cover) the bottom of a coloured container and let the child trace letter shapes in the rice, make fuzzy felt cut-outs of letters the child can use to trace with her finger, use a printing program such as Handwriting Without Tears that has a tactile component (wooden letters you can purchase to supplement).
      Keep things clear and simple. Be careful, when working on letter sounds, to not attach vowel sounds. For example, when you look at "B", be clear that it's not "bee" or "buh". Just show your child what happens with the lips and try not to vocalize (that's when the vowel sounds get attached). A child who has learned that "B"="Buh" is likely to have difficulty figuring out that "bed" is "bed" and not "buh-eh-d". (If that makes sense.) The goal is to help her develop a knowledge of the relationship between the actual sound and symbol (phonemics).
      Get the Bob Books. These are fabulous - simple, silly, confidence-building. Don't move on until your child gets the first series (there are 5). They are a worthy investment - but start with the first set (or find a way to preview) just in case he decides they are beneath him (has been known to happen). Let him colour in them and make them "his". 
      Phonics is not always a dirty word. But it is only one of many tools. Once your child knows his letter sounds, he may be interested in word families (especially with respect to vowel combinations). Some children may be more into patterns and that's a really efficient way to learn to read. If your child is keen, use recipe cards to write down the words in a family. Help her see the relationship inside the words (the patterns). 
      A book that can be helpful for giving word family ideas is Jessie Wise's "Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading" - she explains both phonics and word families and has things laid out in an easy-to-use, systematic manner. (This is not my favourite book in the world - I wouldn't use the scripted lessons, personally, but the word lists are nice, as are the silly way she puts the words together in sentences.)
      Note: The English language has too many exceptions for phonics to stand alone. For example, George Bernard Shaw was once (supposedly) asked how to pronounce the word "ghoti". His reply, "fish". Mark Twain also waxed eloquent about the inconsistencies in English. And here is snippet of an anonymous poem that further illustrates the point:
      I take it you already know
      Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
      Others may stumble but not you,
      On hiccough, thorough, lough and through...

      Beware of heard, a dreadful word
      That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
      And dead--it's said like bed, not bead.
      For goodness's sake, don't call it deed!

      (and on it goes!)

      The Heart of Reading 
      Value the emerging process. Lots of things go on for kids when they are learning that, from the outside, may not seem relevant. But it often is. Trust that. Value the small steps your child is making toward becoming a reader. Fluency alone does not equal reading. All the little pieces that will one day "click" to equal fluency are important and can be considered part of the act of reading. 
      Be aware of discouragement and frustration. You know your child. You've been reading their behavioural cues for years. You know when they are hungry, tired, when they're ready to go home, when they need some fresh air, when they need a hug or a smile. This "knowing" extends to cognitive activities as well. If your child is frustrated with reading, does that mean that it's time to back-off and give it some time? Does it mean that a different approach or strategy is needed? Does it mean that they need different material to engage them? And don't just rely on your "knowing" -- check in with your child about what they want and what they need. They may not be able to articulate it, but what they are able to express may help you figure out how to best support them.
      Celebrate your child's strengths. When we truly understand that each person is unique and that uniqueness is a good thing, we no longer need to compare our children's learning to others'. We can look at what our children's individual areas of strengths are and we can support their growth through their strengths and interests. In fact, when people are allowed to focus on what they are good at, the development of many other skills (including reading) follows, simply because there is now motivation and context for learning them. 
      Look for what is already happening for your child, the little pieces of the puzzle called reading that are already falling into place. This is a much more encouraging approach than looking for what's missing or what's not yet achieved. And because development is not exactly the same for all children, there are likely things in some other area of life that your older emerging reader can do well that a younger fluent reader may not yet be doing.
      Freely invite. We may choose to not coerce our children, but it never hurts to welcome and invite. Even if the answer is no. It will not always be no. 
      And what I've mainly noticed is that if we support our children where they are at and not worry too much about it, they'll maintain a positive interest in reading.

      I suspect that's likely what we, as parents, really want.

      © 2007, 2010 Home Learning Victoria, All Rights Reserved


      Links about late reading:

      Wonderful Frank Smith (PhD in psycholinguistics) books about reading:

      Reading FAQ: Expert Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
      Reading without Nonsense