It was suggested yesterday that readers of this blog might be interested in a little more practical advice on the subject of home education and less criticism of the particular styles used by others. It is at least worth trying.
Because I was so fanatically structured in the education which I provided for my child, some have thought that this meant that it was a case of all work and no play for her. After all, how else could she have begun to read at fifteen months? In fact, the key to her education was play. Play, both symbolic play with toys like cars and dolls and also prtend play with a parent, is the foundation for reading, expressive and receptive language and indeed even coherent thought. Let us look at this idea a little and then tomorrow we can think about how to start teaching babies to read by using these ideas.
Reading is the most vital skill that any child growing up in a modern, industrial society will ever acquire. The ability to read fluently is absolutely crucial to every aspect of future educational attainment. Sadly, reading is a kill which many children struggle to master; in some cases having difficulties with the process even after they have left school.
The problem is essentially that learning to read is being left too late. By the time that children start school at the age of four or five, their brains are already far less receptive to the learning of new skills than they would have been at two or three. The ideal age for picking up the art of reading is probably at the same time that they begin to speak; that is to say around twelve months or so. We shall see later why this should be. Another problem is that the method used to teach reading in British schools , synthetic phonics, makes the whole process vastly more complicated than it need be. In fact learning to read can and should be as easy and natural for a young child as learning to speak.
At this point, some readers are probably scratching their heads and saying, "But you have to teach reading. Nobody teaches babies to speak; it just happens!" Well, yes........and no. It is of course perfectly true that we do not sit our babies down for "Talking Lessons". Never the less, we are in fact teaching them and by the very same method that can be used in order to teach them to read.
Before we look at the teaching of reading, let us look for a moment at the "teaching" of talking. When we listen to people speaking in ordinary situations, it is all but impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. People do not, for example, say, "I am going to go to the shop". They say instead, "I'mgonnergototheshop". Words are slurred together, cut off, mangled and abbreviated until they all run together in a string of sounds. How on earth can a baby make sense of this string of noises? The answer is that she doesn't. She does not have to.
There is a particular style of speaking to infants which has been called "Motherese". The pitch of the voice is raised, the tempo is slowed and key words are stressed slightly, emphasised so that they stand out from the rest. Something like this perhaps, "Can you see the dog? Look, the dog is sitting up. What a nice little dog." Any attempt on the baby's part to reproduce the sound of the emphasised word is met with immediate reward, praise is lavished upon her. She need only make the initial sound and say, "Duh" and her mother will smile broadly and say, "That's right" Clever girl. Yes it's a dog." In effect, the mother is teaching her child how to speak! She models the word she is teaching and then reinforces her child's efforts at saying it herself.
The printed word, like spoken language, is usually presented in a vast jumble of incomprehensible components, only instead of hearing a cacophony of weird noises, the baby sees a forest of black squiggles. Look at any page of a book or newspaper and you will soon see the problem. Just as with so-called "Motherese", the trick is to present individual words so that they may be learnt entire.
We will be exploring different aspects of the reading process later on. In particular, we shall be looking at how the brain develops in childhood and then dealing with the nature of language generally and reading in particular. The important thing to remember is that just as parents were the best people to teach their children to talk, so too are they the best people by far to teach their own children to read. It is not a difficult task, far from it; in fact it is very enjoyable.
Before we look at the teaching of reading, it is probably worth stopping to think a little about what language actually is. Once we have done this, we shall be better placed to understand just what is happening when a child learns to read, because of course reading is really just a way of using language.
Broadly speaking, language is the ability to use and understand symbols for thinking and communicating. This covers everything from writing a birthday card to reading War and Peace, from reminding one's self about the important appointment that afternoon to formulating the theory of relativity. What do we mean by symbols? Nothing more than something which stands for or represents something else. Spoken words are symbols, as of course are letters and numbers printed on a page. Pictures are a kind of symbol too and so are toys. Acting or pretending are also symbolic. We shall see in a little while why this is important. For now, all we need to remember is that reading and speaking both entail using symbols; things that stand for other things.
We tend to take it for granted that children operate on the same level of symbolic understanding as we do, but it is not so. Just as they must learn to read words and decode their meaning, so too they have to learn to "read" pictures and toys. Just think for a moment about a picture of an orange. When we look at it, we of course see a splodge of orange printers ink on a page and identify it at once with the sweet, slightly tart citrus fruit that we have to peel. To a baby though, all this is nothing more than patches of colour. It certainly doesn't represent anything. Similarly, we see a toy car and recognise at once its symbolic nature. Although it is small, light and garishly coloured, we know very well that it is meant to represent the large metal object that takes us to work. Again, this is far from obvious to babies.
It has been said that a child's play is his work. That being so, toys are the tools of his trade. Their importance in the development of the growing child's understanding of the concept of symbols cannot be overstated. It is only by such activities as the use of a toy car and the growing realisation that it in some strange way represents Mummy's big car that the baby becomes familiar with the whole idea of one thing standing for another. Since this peculiar notion underpins not only reading, but also speaking and listening, we must make sure that the baby acquires a sound background and thorough grounding in the use of symbols. The reason for this is that the interpretation of two dimensional symbols, whether pictures, numbers or words, is the culmination of much mental effort on the child's part. To achieve this breakthrough in symbolic understanding requires a great deal of spadework beforehand.