Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Reading in their own time

Not many people understand the idea of letting a child come to reading at their own pace in their own time.

In this culture of "early reading" with pressure to be reading at younger and ever younger ages it is a pretty different concept. But there is tons of research to suggest that the timeline for kids brains being able to read (not just decode words, but understand and enjoy what they are reading) is hugely variable and that to try to get young people to read before their brains have made all the connections they need to is just asking for the process to be frustrating and can actually result in a lifelong dislike of reading and adults who never read for pleasure.

Consider how variable the ages are for babies learning to walk and talk, some so very young, and some much older. But a few years down the road who can tell the early walker from the late walker?

While some kids read on their own very early, ages 3-5 say, others take much longer - brains are extremely complicated beasts and we really know very little about them. But we do know that brains mature at such strikingly different rates that it is not that unusual to be much older when one comes to more mature and complicated thinking, such as the highly complex undertaking of reading on one's own: "The frontal lobe is the final part of the cortex to mature, this maturation occurring between the years 14 to 31 years of age."
And we have many examples that show that these later readers catch up quickly, and often surpass their earlier counterparts in terms of both comprehension and desire, as long as their learning environment was free of stigma and internalized messages of deficiency.

Our family has chosen the route of filling our house with print, reading to our kids, and having rich ongoing conversations with them about all kinds of things, but not actively working on ways to "get them to read".

We believe that they will come to it when their brains are ready, whenever that may be. And we certainly don't see this as holding them back. They are not in a school situation where they need to be reading worksheets or something in order to stay busy or "keep up with" the class. We can read with them whenever they need/want us, can help them decode instructions, etc. Their world is filled with print, conversation, reading aloud, notes, lists, audio and music and they use print regularly themselves to communicate and keep track of things that are important to them and I am confident that friends and relations would concede that both Effie and Fergus are able and satisfying conversationalists!

For our kids, some happy by-products of their not-yet reading status are that they are very oral, have fabulous vocabularies, great comprehension (well above their grade level), tell the most amazing stories, have terrific memories and tremendous recall as they are not yet able to go back and "look something up", and they explore and excel at all sorts of inventive things that they might not otherwise do if they were tied to 2 dimensional decoding and someone else's version of a story. So I don't see it at all as a handicap or something they are missing out on.

In terms of the broader definition of literacy, the wider one than simply decoding printed words, my kids perform amazingly. They make connections all over the place, from all kinds of things, not just what is put in front of them to read. And when the time is right for them, they will explode into reading and be at grade level in no time. Happily, and with a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

In Effie's case, she is also hugely resistant to being led through things, her way of learning is much more private and internal and she resents being pushed. We had an experience with another distance school we were enrolled with in the past where they needed evidence of her "progressing" and she ended up very angry and spent almost a year saying things like "I hate reading" and seeing herself as stupid because she couldn't do it. It was a long road back to a place where she saw herself as "not reading yet" and yet wanting to be able to and not seeing herself as stupid.

I have also read that very creative kids often take longer to read as they are thinking more in 3 dimensions in their heads and so settling down to the 2 dimensions needed to decode print takes longer. This makes sense to me in Effie's case as she can flip things around in her head and is very spatially aware (ie with puzzles, maps, building instructions like Lego and Ikea furniture - things where you have to be able to flip the picture in your head and look at it from another angle to understand what you are supposed to do).

Visits with her same-age reading cousins can be hard, as their lives are so different from Effie's, and she is always a bit angsty afterwards. There is always considerable debriefing and talking about what we do and why, how we believe that learning is only truly meaningful when we choose it for ourselves and how the world is overflowing with absolutely incredible things to learn about, so who is to say which of those things will turn out to be the most important ones for our own personal life journey? The world works in mysterious ways and there are endless routes to anywhere - a wondrous route is one that fills us with joy and excitement and anticipation for what comes next - so as long as we are following our sense of wonder we cannot go wrong! We are always learning something, and over time those millions of bits add up and make connections that compound and roll into one another and suddenly we find ourselves making sense of things we never fathomed before!

I absolutely delight in those times when my kids share with me the thought process that got them from "a" to "b" - it is so very often a route I would never ever have thought to suggest to them, and I have seen that Fergus' routes are almost always very different from what Effie's were. It is a tremendous privilege to watch my kids' learning unfold before my eyes - they are astounding, voracious, luminous, confident people and I envy their future!

We are each in control of our own learning path and no one really knows what unique way our particular brain will make the connections we need in order to be able to do something we want to do - it is our own journey and will happen for us along our own private timeline. As parents we can construct rich and exciting environments for our families to explore and we can be curious and fascinated role models, learning new things for ourselves and delighting in all that new learning brings us, but we can never successfully control that learning for another person.

It is hard to watch someone like Effie so wanting to be able to read, so wanting to be able to do something she just isn't quite ready for, to just sit and hold that space of knowing she will, sending out waves of sheer confidence in her. A friend once compared it to a child wanting to ride a bike and not being quite able to yet. There isn't anything I can do really, except hear her and be with her and keep telling her I know it will come and all the things that she is doing along the path to independent reading.

Which brings us to the definition of "reading". Effie can read simple books. But to her, reading is reading at her comprehension level, which is a very mature level including even some adult stuff. She has been listening to 400 page novels since she was 3, she just is that way. So her measure of whether she can read is a bit harsh given her age! She won't be satisfied till she is able to read the chapter books she is wanting to read, anything less doesn't count.

It is obvious that she is on the brink, just teetering in that space where things are all coming together but aren't quite there yet. Perhaps it will be months, or perhaps it will be longer, but I am utterly confident that it will be, and that the time between then and now will in no way be wasted! I am thrilled to give her this space to be what she is, where she is, right now, right this minute, without wishing her anywhere else. The things she loves and is passionate about are so interesting and she is so infectious when she shares them - she teaches me things every day, not just facts, but how to live, how to be who you are, how to love what you do! How can anyone suggest that this child is lacking anything? She is amazing, so confident and self assured and when she chooses to share her deep thoughts she overwhelms me with the maturity of her analysis and conclusions!

I am the luckiest person alive to get to share my days with my children - they inspire me to follow them places I never would have gone without them! And reading can't make that adventure any more amazing than it already is.


Bonnie said...

"The frontal lobe is the final part of the cortex to mature, this maturation occurring between the years 14 to 31 years of age."

This is my favorite part of this, because that's such an unbelievably huge range, and yet kids are pushed to develop along the same timeline and be grown at the same time. It's eye-opening to see what a wide range of ages full brain maturity can be reached in.

I'm told I could read when I was three (I'm assuming that means individual words) and in some ways that was as harmful as reading late. I got put in gifted classes based mostly on that one ability, then felt stupid when I wasn't also ahead at everything else. By middle school most of the other kids had caught up with me in reading ability, which made me feel like I was getting dumber or something instead of realizing that I had just reached my full reading maturity early and they were catching up. It's like how some kids are really tall when they're 10 but never get any taller than that and end up short, while some kids who were short at 10 have a growth spurt at 12 and get way tall.

Ronnie said...

Love this post, Gillian. I had the same feeling after our recent weekend, of Effie *on the brink*. It's a spine-tingly, exciting time. So fun to share it with her!

Frank said...

Kewl! Love y'all!

Carolyn said...

Thanks for sharing this...we're going through a similar process right now...friends with school kids in town visiting...some comparing going on...etc...so it's great to hear your thoughts and get some clarity/confidence on this!

Kyre said...

This is a timely post for me Gillian, I just attempted to have this discussion with someone the other day and it went nowhere. Thank you for putting into words all the things I couldn't seem to say!

dharmamama said...

Loved this! I really enjoyed reading it.

Sissie said...

LOve this post--thanks for sharing.

Schuyler said...

Simon's reading. I got him a Norse mythology book for his birthday and he sat down and read some of it. He still isn't always correctly interpreting words, but somehow it clicked. At 12 he went from almost reading ready to reading. On his birthday, so that'll be easy to remember.

I know that won't comfort Effie, I know she wants to read NOW! But it was, for me, that final thing, that last little test of all that I didn't need proved cause I know it's true.

I love your post, by the way.

Rebecca said...

Beautifully written, s.g.

Although you left out my "whole to parts vs. parts to whole" spiel.

:) R