Location: Sydney, Australia

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Friday, August 20, 2004

reading 101

Chatting to another kindergarten mother this morning, I casually asked how her daughter was doing with reading. I'd spent breakfast time trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice as Olle stared at his reader, more specifically, stared at the word "a" for a minute, then ventured a guess that it was "and". So I was not-so-surreptitiously pleased to hear that they were experiencing exactly the same level of slow progress with this whole reading business. This mother (a very laidback hippy-type) even easily admitted to shouting at her daughter when she made simple mistakes. So far I've managed not to shout, but I haven't always succeeded in avoiding sarcasm and a curt tone of voice and I have regular panics that my child is, after all, not very bright. Then common sense kicks in [and if it doesn't kick in, I go in painful search of it...]

I know my child has above-average language skills and a deep love of books and reading. So why is he apparently struggling with learning to read? Despite my enthusiasm for public schools , I do have some doubts about their learning-to-read method. It's hard to remember back forty years ago to when I did kindergarten, but I don't think we were expected to read at the same level as today's kids, only six months into our schooling. Despite the advice to parents to "foster confidence" and "praise success", the system in itself seems to set some kids up for ... if not exactly failure, then a sense that they are not sailing smoothly.

A handful of children in Olle's class - say, six kids out of a class of 26 - have sped ahead with reading. They are calm and confident in their approach and obviously enjoy all the positive feedback they get. (The whole class now knows who are the best readers, so they're ensconced in a positive feedback loop.)

Most of the rest of the class are hesitant and faltering, with occasional outbreaks of fluency.

Even though we pulled him out of the Montessori system, I still think they have some good approaches. Eg, they see writing as preceding reading, as it is a concrete skill, and the concrete precedes the abstract in childhood development. Olle was not interested in writing and drawing at all until he started school this year - then he became an enthusiast. He loves spelling and can easily spell words that he struggles to read. It doesn't entirely make sense, but I am left to think that if he is giving his cognitive, developmental attention to writing and spelling - the actual construction of words - then he doesn't have much space left for learning to read. Left to his own devices, he would probably have learnt to read quickly and easily next year at age six. But he's in a system which, while not exactly a 'one size-fits-all system as it used to be, can't entirely leave all children to develop at their own pace.

It's not at all disastrous for him to have to accomodate himself to this system. [You wouldn't know it from this entry, but he can in fact basically read.] But it does require a constant process of mental accomodation for me - a constant revision of my expectations.


Blogger Kay aka Kirsten said...

This reinforces for me the Steiner idea (which is in sinc, as I understand it, with most European schooling and with other research I've read) that seven is a better age for starting kids on the project of learning to read.

Some kids, as Olle's class demonstrates, will be ready earlier. But if you must have a one-size-fits approach, it seems better to er on the side of caution and not turn kids off reading by trying to teach them before they are ready. Especially since the studies show that they will still be reading just as well by age ten, on average, if they start at age 7 as at age 10.

20 August 2004 at 6:22 pm  
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