Sunday, December 22, 2013

Reading or Writing Haberdashery

          Reading or Writing  Haberdashery

A surprisingly large number of years ago I wrote this essay on what we learnt from our attempt at teaching our sons to read. A few people have asked me to publish it, and we feel strongly that the subject is important enough to justify more attention. Get it wrong and you can do harm. Use a little patience and good sense, and you can do more good than you might believe. The whole process proved simpler and cheaper than we had expected, but a few warnings that I include might prove helpful. 

Before we undertook the project of teaching our children to read we did a lot of discussion and heart searching in the light of dire warnings about everything that could go wrong. In the end we elected to damn the torpedoes because, as we saw it, potential harm as predicted seemed speculative at worst, and besides we could not imagine what harm would be worse than depriving the children of their second most important channel of communication. 

Not to spoil your anticipation of the outcome, we had no regrets then, and have not developed any since. Trying to get any coherent evaluations out of our sons is not easy, because neither can remember learning to read, any more than he can remember learning to converse. Accordingly it is hard for them to imagine what the deprivation of pre-school reading might have meant.

So: for anything it might be worth, and hoping it does readers and prospective readers a lot of good, here is our

Basic Recipe for teaching young children to read.


The child:
·     is willing
·     has no relevant disabilities
·     can already speak fairly fluently
·     is at least of more or less average intelligence

The adults
·     have a good rapport with the child
·     can afford 10-20 minutes per daily session for several weeks

Note that these assumptions are not absolute, and some of them require some subjective, but sound, judgment.  Still, the less confident one can be about them, the poorer the prospects for good results. 

If reading is taught as fun, and enjoyable reading material is available, a child can learn basic reading skills in several weeks of brief daily sessions.  The method I describe here worked well for us and neither of our now adult children can remember learning to read, any more than they can remember learning to talk.  One of them can remember how, at the age of about four, he learnt to read silently instead of reading aloud; in our lessons he had learned to read aloud, and it had not occurred to us that there was a distinction; in fact we did not even know about his epiphany till more than a decade later. Apparently he had been reading while his mother was on the phone one day and she had called out to him to be quiet. So he duly was quiet and discovered that he could go on reading just as well in silence, or even better. That was that. The other cannot even remember any such experience, so I cannot answer for him. 

The method is a derivative of that described by Glen Doman in his book “Teach Your Baby to Read.”  The edition we used may be a bit dated by now, and it is highly politically incorrect in some educational circles, but the method works like a charm.  Doman himself stresses that the book describes basic principles, not rigid instruction. 

The essential points are that:
·     Most healthy children in a healthy emotional environment enjoy reading as much as they enjoy other media of communication; that is to say tremendously. 
·     To read effectively they need to have the necessary neural paths trained. 
·     One key difficulty is that normal print is too small for untrained brains. 
·     The solution simply is:
·     to present the first words in very large print, say with characters several centimetres high
·     to keep the typeface simple and unambiguous (unambiguous in particular!)
·     to start with simple words of direct interest to the child
·     to move on to interesting text as soon as possible (avoid either teaching long lists of unconnected words, or Dick-and-Jane, Janet-and-John inanities.)

First prepare flash cards with words written plainly and vividly in simple, unambiguous letters.  Avoid typefaces in which say, lower case L and upper case I are identical.  (This may be unexpectedly difficult.  Publishers of children’s books no doubt select typefaces for their simplicity, but they very often offend in this respect.  At this stage the simplicity of a typeface is far less important than unambiguity.  The problem need not be fatal and there are a few approaches for dealing with it.  Firstly, one simply can ignore it until children object.   If they object, you explain why the letters are illogical and agree how stupid some people are, and you might say that if they print books when they grow up, they can use more sensible letter shapes.  Otherwise you can neatly ink a small curly foot onto the lower case ls.)  It does not much matter whether the letters have serifs or not as long as each letter is clearly distinct in appearance.  At first use lower case only. Most of the typefaces commonly available on computers nowadays are suitable, including Bookman Old Style, Times New Roman, Verdana, and the pointlessly maligned Comic Sans. I mention these not because they are the best, but because they are freely available and completely adequate for Western circumstances. Obviously, users of other alphabets and scripts would have to adjust accordingly, but I see no reason why there should be serious problems in general. 

Colour and illustration are important in that both should be strictly avoided at first.  This is one of the few firm rules.  No matter what your views may be concerning visual interest and cheerfulness or beauty, it is crucial at first to avoid distraction or confusion.  Colours should be simple and stark and there should be no distracting drawings or decorations.  Black print on white is fine; so is any other easily readable, strident contrast.  As a rule, keep all the print the same colour, especially in the first few weeks.  Only mix colours when there is a special reason to highlight something, and not until the child quite clearly understands that the words are the things that matter, not colour, illustration, decoration or anything else.  For instance, once you are well into the lessons and are building sentences, you might want to show every place that the word “and” appears.  Probably this is best done by using  a bolder or larger font, but one just might have a valid reason to use colour.  But for the most part colour has no place in this exercise.  It is noise, a source of confusion and distraction at a time when confusion and distraction are the last things one wants.   The more Spartan and uniform the presentation, the better.  At first there is just one objective: clarity plus distinctness.  The aesthetics of variety can wait a few weeks. 

Start with just two words on the first evening (Doman says one, but I found it easier with two, so that it was immediately clear that different cards could say different things.)  One word could be say,  “mama” and the other “baby” or “girl” or something equally basic and visually different, but in the same size, print and colour.  The only difference should be in the spelling, not in the shape, size or other visual clues.  One convenient way to prepare the cards is by printing them with a word processor, using a laser or bubble printer, but one can do just as well with paint or ink on card if one works neatly.  Letters of say 8 cm or three inches high, written in thick, smooth, bold lines, do nicely. 

Follow your own initiative with the use of computer screens or the like, but don't get distracted from the primary objective, which is to help the child learn to read and to love reading, not to indulge your love of frills and gadgetry.

Prepare a number of cards with a selection of words.  Many shops sell such printed cards nowadays, but home-made cards work as well or better if they are clear and stark; some commercial fonts common on such cards are not particularly suitable, and in preparing your own cards you can choose fonts to suit yourself.  Also, in constructing one’s own cards, one can prepare a selection designed for building sentences that should suit the child’s interests and tastes.  Commercial cards often fail in this respect too. 

The first lesson is one of the most critical.  Let it once set the wrong tone, and you might have to drop the exercise.  The whole process should be in a mood of anticipation and excitement, with no distractions.  The lesson should last just one or two minutes. 

Show one card dramatically, holding it still and very visible.  Say: “This says: ‘mummy’!”  No explanations, no analysis into letters, just the bald statement.  Say it several times over.  You may hide and re-display the card as you repeat the word.  Then put the card face down and display the next card, saying  “This says: ‘girl’!” You can then alternate the cards, each time with a  “This says:...!”  but do not alternate them rapidly or confusingly.  Each time give the child a good, leisurely look.  Show the same card twice in succession  a few times.

If everything goes well and the child is obviously keen, then towards the end of the first evening you can hesitate before saying the contents and see whether the child supplies the word.  But DO NOT PUSH AT THIS STAGE.  Even just a little pushing can spoil everything.  If the child does not read the words on the first few nights, be patient.  Do not be long-suffering; be eager and encouraging.  Be willing to go over the top; it is easier to teach restraint later than to instill enthusiasm by beginning with sighs and droning.  Doman said that the mother who screams: “WOW!” when the child gets something right, gets better results than the intellectual mother who says “That is very good,” even if she and her child are more intelligent. 

In a few evenings the child should be able to read a few words as the cards are flashed.  Do not show separate cards for little words such as “to” and “and”.  Concentrate on familiar names and concrete nouns.  Follow them with a few similarly clear verbs.  Don't make the process of adding new words too long; when a few suitable words are comfortably mastered, begin to make short, simple sentences and let the child read them.  Put the little words in and deal with them casually in passing.  Most pupils will pick them up almost without noticing.  If the child asks about them specifically, just say: "Yes, this says ‘to’ and that says ‘and’," and leave it at that. 

It is crucially important that the lessons are a treat and that there is no pushing.  The child should be so keen on the lessons that after a while the threat of withholding them would be a serious matter in case of naughtiness.   If ever you push you have lost the game and should drop the lessons for months or until you can sneak in the teaching in some other guise. 

At this point it becomes convenient to reduce the size of the print to say 3 cm or an inch or so.  At this size one can put interesting or amusing statements on a convenient size of page, say a favourite snatch of poem, or a sentence with a ridiculous unexpected twist, say:

Are you green? 
No, I am not.
How long have you been not?

Word tricks like this go down well and also serve to keep the child alert.  They help in preventing any  tendency to recite expected words instead of reading.  Another game that children seem to love, is to set up a form sentence like:  “the big girl eats the red apple”  and keep swapping keywords.  “the big girl eats the red worm”, “the big apple eats the green worm” and so on.  Let the child suggest sequences. 

It does no harm if the child discovers your cache of words and wants to know what the unfamiliar words are.  Be sure to make the child confirm that each word has been learned, instead of just telling the word and forgetting it, before letting the child continue with the next word.  Pushing consists in telling words before being asked.  Anticipating lessons is no problem as long as it is the child’s idea.  But do not encourage it. 

Doman strongly warns against teaching the child letters and phonics.  His reasoning was sound, but the degree to which he emphasised this contradicted our experience.  Certainly one should not deal with them out of context, such as by teaching the child to drone the alphabet in advance, but when a child say, has initial trouble recognising the difference between “head” and “hand”, then one trick is to mask the word with one's hands and say  “Look, this in an ennnnn.  There is an ennnnnnnnnn in hannnnnd!” 

In our experience this worked marvellously.  There were no objections along the lines of “Why is it an n?  What is an n anyway?”  For a couple of evenings there was a quizzical “No nn?”  Head shake in reply.  “Head!”  This can also be made into a game with: “Look there is a ‘win’ in ‘window’!  An ‘in’ in ‘win’...”  and so on.   That same child, about a year later, heard the word “haberdashery” for the first time, asked what it meant, and without ever having seen the word, was able to spell it out of his head when challenged.  What is more, as he came to the first “r”, he hesitated and said “r?”, looking at us for confirmation.  Though he never had been taught spelling explicitly, he had recognised that there was an ambiguity.  Having got that right, he continued and finished the word confidently.   

The next, and bigger, problem is to find reading material that will hold the attention of the children and keep them reading during the critical stage between when reading is a new thrill and when reading becomes an automatic skill. 

This may demand some persistent and intelligent shopping.  Surprisingly few books are suitable.  It is important at first that the fonts should be clear, that the letters are closely spaced within words, but that the words are distinctly separated.  Many children’s books deliberately aim for simplicity by separating the letters widely in words, and they compound the felony by setting the words close together.  That is about as bad a combination as one can get! 

We used to use an excellent series of small, cheap booklets by Methuen.  Their only shortcoming was that they had sans serif Is and ls.  They ranged from really simple four-page large-print stories, to informative natural history suited to children of say five or so.  However, even the simplest stories had a point:  At the beach the little girl’s bucket drifts away... despair!  Mummy fetches it back; triumph!  A more complex story at the next level tells of hermit crab looking for a new home; intriguing, accurate and exciting, but easy to read.  A parent with a flair for creative writing for tots can bridge this stage with original works.  Alternatively, there are many fine works for children, but not in a suitable format.  With modern word processors, such material can be keyed or scanned in and printed in a suitable format. 

Another trick is to leave notes to be found about the house, with little jokes or interesting trivia: (“A hungry snake can swallow another snake a little bigger than itself.”) or news of a surprise: "There is a new book (or an apple or some other treat) in the bottom drawer." 

It is particularly important not to let pictures disrupt the acquisition of the reading skill.  At first the flash cards should be barren of all but the words.  Later on, pictures may appear, but they should neither lead the story nor illustrate any of the words.  Apart from reducing the challenge and encouraging mental laziness, illustration can be misleading and a child might for example read “tree” where the word printed is “oak”.  This may undo progress and take a long time to recover.  In this respect comic strips are particularly pernicious.  They do little harm in small doses once reading is fluent, but they are no good during the learning phases.

Learning the alphabet can be done in any enjoyable way, towards the end of the elementary reading lessons.  It is much more important that they can recite the alphabet in sequence than that they learn the letters in odd sequences as they learn to read.  One reason is that the alphabet is important for looking things up or sequencing lists.  The phonics of letters the children will pick up almost automatically.  For instance, a child that sees "Philips" on an appliance and reads it as "puh huh lips", will without fuss accept it when you explain that there are many silly spelling rules and that we say "f" when we read "ph", for instance, we say "filips" when we read "Philips". 

Horrible warnings against early reading are easy to come by.  Children will grow up unable to spell; they will develop language difficulties and be bored at school; they also will miss the joys of childhood stories.  Both our sons are multilingual, being fluent in at least three languages and competent in more, both have spelt excellently since the age of three or four and both did well at school.  Both were reading for their own pleasure before they were four years old, in spite of a major family relocation which delayed their home teaching.   Both read their own choice of stories before they were five, so that they actually read more children’s material than they would have done if they had had to depend on grown-ups for stories.  Both read to classes or to friends when appropriate.  None of this reduced their pleasure in family readings of stories.  Obviously the worst consequences of early reading are not inevitable.

Learning to read other languages was also easy — practically automatic.  Our children were bilingual but learned to read in English.  They spontaneously picked up reading Afrikaans almost without instruction.  When we found them reading Afrikaans newspapers, we did explain that v, w and a few items like that sounded different in Afrikaans.  They accepted the information without comment, but I suspect that our intervention was unnecessary.

One thing one might have to guard against, is bookworming.  It also may be necessary enforce good reading posture to avoid eye problems (e.g. one of our children got a ‘lazy eye’ from, we suspect, lying and reading with one eye in the pillow.)

If there are adult books lying about the house, and a child elects to read them, no problem.  No real censorship is necessary.  The parts that one might censor usually will pass the child by.  At the age of six, one of ours found, read and re-read “The Broken Sword”, a Nordic fantasy by Poul Anderson, full of violence, non-explicit sex, incest and so on.  The book did not dwell on such things; it just happened to be based on material from a tragedy in Norse mythology, and it was consistently in character.  It happened also to be a rattling good story, well written.  (Well Anderson generally was very good, of course.)  Incomprehensible items in the book, such as sex, the child apparently skimmed over as uninteresting. 

One difficulty in later years was that by mid-primary school, they had exhausted the resources of the local public library's children's shelves.  In the face of considerable resistance, we had to persuade the librarians to permit them into the adult section to select books for themselves.  Again, there was no problem with their selection of books.  The bad stuff generally is boring, and the children do not exude green saliva and grow fangs as soon as they encounter unsuitable material.  

We had no personal experience teaching classes of children; in fact we taught our two separately (the age difference was just over 1 year). All I can say is that separate teaching worked for us. I understand that children tend to teach other or learn very well from the teaching of other children. No doubt there also is a lot of on-line experience dealing with the likes of that. I suspect that the major factor is the way the topic can be worked into the ethos or activities of the group. In a group in which reading is valued, encouraged or admired, I should expect any "well-adjusted" child to progress not just rapidly, but almost unconsciously; in various ways the process of learning to read is suspiciously similar to learning to speak, and in particular to learning sign language for the deaf. 

Our own experience has been of such low investment, and such lasting and nearly unalloyed benefit, that we cannot but recommend the approach to others. 

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