Sunday, July 24, 2016

"But How Do They Learn To Read?"

"But how do they learn to read?"

It's the question most often asked by doubters when first learning about play-based education. Most people "get" that play is important for young children, at least to a certain degree, they're not ogres, but they just can't get their minds around the idea that most children, when left to their own devices, will actually learn to read without adult intervention.

First of all, from a purely developmental perspective, preschool aged children should not be expected to be reading. This isn't to say that some preschoolers don't teach themselves to read. I've known readers as young as two. And at any given moment, there will be a handful of four and five-year-olds at Woodland Park who are reading books on their own because that's how human development works: some children start speaking at three months and some barely utter a word until after they've celebrated their fourth birthday; some are walking by six months and some aren't up on their feet until they're closer to two. Parents might worry, but the truth is that it all falls well within the range of "normal." The research on reading indicates that the natural window for learning to read extends to as late as 11 years old!

Of course, in today's America, a child who is not reading by the time he is seven or eight is thought to have some sort of learning disability when the fact is that he is perfectly normal. A couple years back a University of Cambridge team reviewed all the available research on the topic and concluded that "formal" schooling should be delayed until children are at least seven, and that, indeed, pushing it earlier is damaging children's "academic" achievement, especially when it comes to reading.

Studies have compared groups of children . . . who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7 . . . (T)he early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children's reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who stared at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.

Their recommendation is that the best "academic" education for children under seven is the sort of "informal, play-based" environment we offer at Woodland Park because that is how the human animal is designed to build the foundation for all future learning.

The sickening thing is that today's kindergartens and preschools are charging pell-mell in the wrong direction:

A new University of Virginia study found that kindergarten changed in disturbing ways from 1999-2006. There was a marked decline in exposure to social studies, science, music, art and physical education and an increased emphasis on reading instruction. Teachers reported spending as much time on reading as all other subjects combined.

With the advent of the Common Core federal public school curriculum in the US (and it is a curriculum despite it's advocates' insistence that they are merely "standards") with its narrow focus on literacy, mathematics, and testing, it has gotten even worse since 2006. Indeed:

Last year, average math scores . . . declined; reading scores were flat or decreased compared with a decade earlier. 

We are proving the research: we are damaging our children. This is why I remain so consistently opposed to what is happening in our public schools. By law I'm a mandatory reporter of child abuse in my state. This might not fit the legal definition, but it definitely fits the moral one.

That still begs the original question: how will they learn to read?

As I learned from Carol Black's brilliant essay entitled A Thousand Rivers, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439, very few people could read. In fact, reading was primarily the domain of the clergy who needed the skill to read and create Bibles. But the printing press suddenly made printed matter widely available. With no notion of formal literacy education, Europeans were left to learn to read on their own, passing on the knowledge from one person to the next, from one generation to the next.

Literacy rates steadily climbed for the next couple hundred years, then surged around the time of the American Revolution when Thomas Payne's pamphlet Common Sense became a runaway hit, selling over a half million copies and going through 25 printings in its first year. It's estimated that 2.5 million colonists read it, an astronomical number for the time. And it's not easy reading. Nevertheless, historians credit this viral document with inspiring the 13 American colonies to ultimately declare their independence from British rule.

People wanted to read, they needed to read, so they learned to read, which is why literacy rates in those original 13 colonies were actually higher than those we see today in in our 50 states. A similar thing has happened, albeit at a faster pace, with computer technology. I have a distinct memory of Dad buying an Apple II+, a machine that came with no software. Instead it came with thick instruction manuals that taught us how to write our own programs. You could take classes on "how to work your computer." Today, our two-year-olds are teaching themselves as these technology skills have gone viral. The idea of a computer class today is laughable, just as a reading class would have been laughable in 1776.

And just as "walking" or "talking" classes would be laughable to us today, so too should this whole nonsense of "reading" classes. Yet shockingly, we continue to go backwards with literacy to the point that most of us seem to think that it's necessary that children spend days and years of their lives at earlier and earlier ages, being drilled in a utilitarian skill that past generations just learned, virally, over the natural course of living their lives. No wonder children hate school. No wonder they are bored and stressed out.

Certainly, there are children in our world who are "at risk" for not learning to read, including those with actual learning disabilities, as opposed to the manufactured ones we are currently slapping on normal children who are simply taking a little longer to getting around to reading. And for those children, as well as for those who are being raised in illiterate households, intervention may be necessary. But for the overwhelming majority of our children, the greatest literacy challenge they face is our obsessive rush for more and more earlier and earlier. We are, in our abject ignorance, our refusal to actually look at the evidence, teaching our children to hate reading, which is in my view a crime not only against children, but against all humanity.

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Unknown said...

See Emilia Ferreiro, she studdy ao children learn to read, i n a very good way.
She tel us that learn to read is like to learn to talk, a social behaver....
Soory about my english i am from Portugal....

Keeping Early Years Unique said...

This documentary was recently broadcast in uk. Our government are obsessed by phonics approach.

edblisa said...

I have a Middle schooler and a high schooler and both hate to read, yet they read very well. It all stems from the over emphasis on reading in the early elementary years. I was instructed that my children needed to learn 50 sight words BEFORE they began kindergarten. I reluctantly drank the Kool Aid and pressured them. Yes, they knew their sight words and soon they were reading very well.....comprehending? not so much. Next came the reading logs that I signed off on each night. It wasn't until my 2nd child's 4th grade teacher told me that she didn't require her students to read because she was forced to read and it caused her to hate reading. It was only after she finished college and was able to read what interested her that she began to love reading again. She didn't want her students to develop the same distaste for something that is supposed to be pleasurable. Unfortunately, it was too late for both of my children. I hope that one day they will start to read for enjoyment.

Nerd Girl said...

This is in the same vein as what I've been saying about my kids for a long time. My kids are healthy kids who live in a somewhat affluent area. They're read to daily. They're not in danger of becoming adults and not knowing how to read. They'll learn to read. They are NOT going to learn to read from ME.

Unknown said...

Teacher Tom, so very well said.
Knowledge reduces fear. All people do not read the same way, learn the same way, have the same timeline of specific brain development enabling reading to occure for the benefit of another on their terms or timeline but the end result is the same...they read.
Would it not be better to be given the time to learn to read on your own terms and timeline creating the best change of developing a love of reading than to be foreced to read on another's terms and timeline and the real risk of developing a life-long hate of reading?

Emilia said...

Totally agree. The more we instruct, the more we erode what helps kids learn. Instead we need to set kids free. Body movement, exploration, and a child's trust in safe secure rituals let kids truly make use of their abilities. Here's more on that:

Unknown said...

Great read!

Jenn said...

How do wr protect our kids from the rules of the current school system? They won't let us hold back our 5 year old from moving into grade 1. They have desks, not play areas. I feel like I'm letting my son down by sending him to school when the school is ignoring the research that is everywhere about how kids learn!