Read. The very first revelation carries a powerful message for mankind; reading is the key to knowledge. In today’s literate society, being able to read is an important if not necessary skill to survive. Yet, two prevailing questions surround it; when and how do we teach children to read?
It was my mother who told me about Glenn Doman, author of How to Teach Your Baby to Read. Suffice it to say, I bought the book and did the program with my three year-old. Within six months, she was reading on her own. Years later, I came across opponents of early reading. Apparently, there are three schools of thought with regards to the best age to start reading instructions.
Age 0 – 6
Glenn Doman, a pioneer in the field of child brain development, recommends reading to be taught as early as infancy. Doman argues that a newborn is replete with the ability and desire to learn. Her capacity to learn about the world around her is the highest at age 0-6. This is when she displays utter curiosity which adults often mistake for short attention span. If we are to feed this curiosity by providing her with the opportunity to acquire reading skills, she would acquire those skills just as effortlessly as she acquires the ability to speak. According to Doman, the process through which a child interprets spoken words via auditory processing is similar to how printed words are interpreted via visual processing.
What prevents a very young child from attaining reading skills naturally is the small size of our printed words. If they were bigger, she would be able to recognize the words by sight and eventually acquire the ability to read. His program for children age 0 – 6 entails the use of flash cards of a certain size with the words of a certain color and size. The sessions should be very brief, enjoyable, and stopped before the child wants to stop. He discourages testing, pressuring, and insists the parents to stop when either party is stressed.
The reason why very young children have this uncanny ability to remember words by sight effortlessly may be due to the fact that the right hemisphere of the brain is more active at this stage of their development. The right hemisphere is visual and mainly responsible for photographic memory. As a child grows, her left hemisphere (sequential and analytical skills) becomes stronger, and these two halves strive to work together.
The mainstream education system in place today expects children to undergo formal reading instructions in the first year of primary school, around age six. Children are expected to be exposed to reading readiness in pre-school so that by the time they enter kindergarten, serious reading instructions may ensue.
Raymond Moore, founder of the Moore formula, and author of Better Late Than Never and School Can Wait, advocates a later start in formal education, including reading instructions. Using results from extensive studies, he argues that reading success largely relies on maturation of the child’s brain. In fact, early reading may place undue stress on developing eye muscles. Around age 8-10, children’s brains are mature enough to receive formal instructions. Given the time to mature completely without pressure of formal education, it will easily pick up reading skills easily. Due to the ease of learning and prior absence of academic pressure, the child will thus develop positive associations with reading, leading them to be successful readers.
Other proponents of this school of thought also shun early academic pressures on children before their brains are ready. Jane Healy, author of Your Child’s Growing Brain, stresses that if a child reads at an early age, she will use the lower order of her brain for this process because the higher order is not yet mature. This will in turn affect comprehension as the brain gets used to using the lower order function for reading even after the higher order functions are ready. In other words, a child may be reading at age three but may have trouble with comprehension later on.
With regards to how, the pendulum has swung between two highly debated approaches.
In this approach, reading instructions are not explicitly taught. Rather, children are exposed to a good selection of literature and immersed in them. The teacher may place an oversized copy of the book on an easel and they follow along as she reads. The focus is to enjoy good literature and gain comprehension, and not so much on decoding each word. It is believed that children will learn to read via extensive reading by which they memorize and recognize words as a unit instead of a group of smaller units. When they come across unknown words, they are encouraged to guess from context or pictures. Eventually, children will implicitly know the phonemic rules through reading. It’s very much like knowing how to speak English with proper grammar without learning grammar as a separate subject. Children who learn with this approach learn to read faster and may not be bogged down by the frustrations of decoding each word. However, they may grow to rely on guessing alone and never acquire the phonemic skill that is found to be necessary to be a good reader.
This approach places heavy emphasis on decoding each word through sound-symbol connection. It is taught as a separate subject and books that are chosen may be limited to those providing phonics lessons. Students are taught the sound of each letter, letter combination patterns (th), word families (crutch, clutch, hutch), etc. Those who oppose this method argue that it takes away from enjoyment and comprehension necessary in reading. Furthermore, children who learn to read this way may find reading frustrating and thus develop a negative association with it. Nevertheless, researches have revealed that decoding skills are essential in order to be a good reader.
What To Do
From further research, a middle ground that combines both teaching approaches has proven to be quite effective. As to when to start reading instructions, I believe there is no generic answer. Children who grow up around books and avid readers may develop an interest to learn to read at a young age.
Once my eldest was reading, her two younger siblings automatically followed suit. I had done the Doman program with them, but not to completion. However, the fire had been stoked and they learned to read on their own. Now, all three are avid readers. Currently, I have a preschooler whom I exposed to the Doman program during infancy. However, his food allergies put a halt to it. I later resumed it, but he showed no interest, so I stopped, again. Now almost four, he can read quite a number of words and keeps asking for more.
The key is to foster the love of reading in our children before they even learn to read. If we are in love with reading, most likely, our children will follow suit. Once that love is established, learning to read becomes a strong desire that the child has to fulfill, regardless of his age.
First Published in SISTERS July 2011 issue. Also posted on Juli Herman’s personal blog.