Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Word Magic: About Early Reading

I am currently reading And The Skylark Sings with Me by David Albert. It has been a truly interesting read and I am much taken with the author's story of the homeschooling of his two precocious daughters and also his discussions of the problems with compulsory education.

There is one point in his work, however, where Mr. Albert writes about reading and reading instruction, and he mentions that, in his experience, children who learn to read "early" are often the children of driven, narrowly intellectual parents. That bothered me.

Parents of gifted children who go to school are often accused of driving their children to learn to read before they are "ready" and thereby messing with the "proper" progression of teaching in the early grades. In my experience, these accusations are rarely true. The parents of such children are often non-plussed that their children know how to read and are often apologetic that their children have somehow done something out of step with the educationally prescribed method of learning. I think that's pretty sad!

I will confess that both of my children knew how to read before going to school. When MLC was little, I was a young scientist (desert soil ecology) raising my first child. I had no comparison for her early meeting of developmental milestones and did not waste a whole lot of my energy worrying about them. I was very busy instead chasing around an active toddler who regularly slept a bit less than 5 hours at a stretch (and that only in the deep of the night). I knew nothing about the educational norms that we would soon be breaking.

MLC did everything very early and she was had a deep alert quality that seemed almost spooky from the moment she was born. She was fascinated with words. Of course, like most parents in the '80's (remember "Baby on Board"?) we were anxious to give her the right start, so we read to her regularly. One day in the summer before he 4th birthday, she demanded that I read The Hobbit to her. Thinking she'd be bored quickly and return to picture books, I acquiesced. How wrong I was. We read the whole thing. She talked about different aspects of the book with a child's understanding--but she did want me to stop. When we were a bit more than half-way through the book, she explained that she wanted to see the words (I had been commanded to run my finger along the lines as I read) in order to learn "the word magic." I thought that was really cute and I asked her whether it was helping--I was probably annoyingly patronizing in my tone, too, because she said to me in an exasperated way: Well of course it helped! I've got the word magic now!" And she proceeded to turn to the first chapter and begin: "In a hole there lived a Hobbit." Thinking she had just memorized this when we had read the beginning of the book, I turned to the last chapters. I remember this little blond thing reading about the dwarves and Bilbo traveling down to the lake in barrels so that Bilbo had a cold on his birthday. I was truly astounded. I called my mother to inquire about this. She told me: "Well, you read at about four years old. Don't worry about it." Satisfied that this must be normal, we simply went on about our lives.

When the time for school came, MLC's kindergarten teacher, a young woman just out of college, never said a word about her reading. She just sent home stories that matched MLC's reading level but that also had lots of pictures because MLC liked the picture books. No Sweat! However, in first grade, Nelly, bar the door! I was summoned to school for a meeting. The first grade teacher demanded to know what to do with MLC during reading because we had "pushed her to read early." I timidly suggested that she just be allowed to read what she liked as she had in kindergarten. There was much hurrumphing and it was explained to me that MLC had not learned to read properly and so she would have to complete all the worksheets the other kids did in order to "catch up her skills." This seemed kind of silly to me. It is sort of like saying to kid who learned to ride a bike on her own that she had to go back and learn all of the 236 odd separate skills for riding a bike ( Geek Alert! I just made the number up) before she would be allowed to continue to ride the bike. I said to this group, again rather timidly, in a quavering voice that I thought the worksheets were a silly idea. Then, gathering my strength, I suggested that MLC be sent to 2nd grade reading. "Oh, no!" the teacher said, "She is already reading beyond that!" So I suggested that they send her to 3rd or 4th grade. "But then," enquired the teacher sweetly, "What will we do when she finishes that?" Sorry, no can do. So we settled on letting MLC read whatever she wanted in the reading cozy corner (unused to that point by the kids), while the others did the worksheets. MLC thus read an entire series of books about a girl named Anastasia and her precocious little brother in the otherwise rather lonely reading corner. At twenty-one, MLC does not seem to have been harmed by the experience of "not learning to read properly." She is an honors student taking a BS in Chemistry at a major research university. She still loves the Anastasia books and returns to them from time to time! Of course, she still does a prodigious amount of reading although most of it is not as entertaining as Anastasia was.

N. was an entirely different child. He was a baby who loved his sleep (I actually took him to the pediatrician because I thought he slept too much compared to his sister. The old doctor, now retired, must have thought I was crazy. He said: Let sleeping babies lie.") and he was later at most of the developmental milestones. He was not really interested in talking and his first words were strange: Moon and Helicopter and Cement Mixer rather than Momma and Daddy. However, he took apart his crib at about 14 months and escaped from it was he was supposedly napping. (I nearly had a heart attack!). He would get very upset if we varied our driving routine when taking him to or from his three-day a week Gan (nursery school) at our synagogue. He liked to line up all his toy cars by color (and he had a very discerning eye) and was most unhappy if someone moved one of them. He only wanted me to read him non-fiction books about spacecraft and lizards--which he memorized.

N. was a tiny, elfin child--and he is still small for his age. So he was already in school when we figured out that he could read, but he looked like he was about 3 years old. At this point I was being warned that N. had developmental delays and that he might never read or write. Everyone was very worried about his language pragmatics and certain odd speech characteristics. He was a wonderful artist at drawing but his writing was impossible. He had extreme sensitivities to too much light, too much noise, and too many people. I spent a lot of time crying and we all spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to call this disability. I was even told that he was mildy retarded at one point.

It was at this point that the children's librarian at our public library (not connected with the school) casually asked me when I had taught my child to read. She thought he was about 4 years old instead of almost six. I sputtered: "But he doesn't read. He has some kind of learning disability." She said; "Oh, that is just not possible. He has been reading here for at least 6 months. He tells me all about the lizards he reads about. He is really very knowlegable about them." So we found out that N. had also read before going to school, but he did not make it known to us. He says now that he just assumed we knew. (This kind of "mind blindness" is typical of people with ASDs). I don't think they ever really figured it out at his schools. When he was in the 5th grade, I received a note that he couldn't read according to a computerized test and that he would have to attend summer school. I had to laugh. He was reading the first part of James Michener's Hawaii. He really loves how Michener describes the formation of the Islands. At this point, for a number of reasons, I took him out of school completely.

N. can now read aloud or silently in two languages. He loves being read to more than reading silently with fiction. He has much difficulty interpreting and analyzing fiction and he still has difficulty sequencing stories and understanding motivation in fiction. He still prefers non-fiction. He had a melt-down with one of his school librarians about this. She had a rule that the kids could only check out one non-fiction book a month. (This is a philosophical issue of some kind--the library had plenty of books). N. did not "get it" that he should just check out the fiction and leave it in his desk and read non-fiction from the public library. Kids with AS are like that. Naturally, I got called to school. The next day, after he had recovered from this abridgement to his freedom, I instructed him in the fine art of subterfuge.

Some kids learn to read early. Some kids learn to read later. In my experience, most kids learn to read sometime. I think that when kids figure out that "there is magic in them thar' stacks", or that books have important information, they will read in order to learn about other things. Some kids need instruction to get there--but they get there because they want to read. They don't get there because they want to define what a dipthong is--usually. (I have to qualify that statement or my very literal 13 year old will certainly find a dissenting example).

Call me a heretic. Fire up the stake. But I don't think there is a certain pre-determined time when every child "should" read. I don't think I am a "narrowly intellectual" parent because both my kids read early. Okay, okay--I did go to college and graduate school. Twice. But in very different fields. That's called broadly intellectual in my book. But I was not driven--at least not to teach them to read. Oh, all right, I admit it! With MLC I was desperately driven to keep her busy little baby self occupied so that I could sit down now and then--so I read to her. With N. I was driven to figure out what was the problem with my odd little elfin child. But I never did forget that there were many wonderful things about his "maverick mind." I felt vindicated twice so far for my faith in his intelligence. The first was when the librarian told me he could read. The second was when I recently found out that not only is he NOT mildy retarded--(I never thought he was), but in fact, he has a very rare intellectual capacity.

One reason that homeschoolers choose the difficult but rewarding task of teaching their own children is because they know that every child is unique and will best find the joy in learning that comes with an education that addresses that uniqueness. Nothing can match the joy and excitement of seeing one's own child find his passion and purpose in life. But that's another entry...


Frankie said...

What a wonderful post.

I see a lot of similarities between our sons.

We went through testing, GDC, and all that, but I still do not understand his "quirkiness" for lack of a better word.

All I know is that getting him out of the public school, away from the labels, and into a place where he was free to be himself and learn in the style that best suited him (we still tweak that) has made him blossom.

The hair on my neck stood up when I read about the teacher wanting your daughter to do the worksheets.

There are many wonderful PS teachers out there. So many have tunnel vision, though. I speak from experience, having many PS teachers in my family.

Megan Bayliss said...

Yes, I agree with Frankie: A WONDERFUL post.

Thank you for sharing your story E. It moved me.

I actually like all of your posts. They are always informative and educate me into your religion, your faith and your way of life.

Thank you E (and N).


Amie said...

When I think about the children I know who were early readers, I can't think of one case where the parent was pushing it. In fact, it seems to me, that it would be next to impossible (not to mention incredibly stressful) to teach a young child to read if they were not ready. Like your mentioned there is no set age for reading, and some children will fall naturally on both the early and late ends.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Frankie about the teachers.

What a wonderful post.

There seems to be some correlation between AS and early reading.

Those of us with late readers have issues with other people too. Why do so many people understand that speaking happens over a range of time, but what all other language skills to fit into a neat little package?