Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Can teaching a baby to read be coercive?

Somebody asked a few days ago how I would have coped had my daughter showed any reluctance in learning to read. I honestly had trouble answering this question, because I could not imagine such a situation arising. I thought it worth giving a brief account of the process in order to show what I mean and to demonstrate the great advantages of getting reading under way as early as possible. The lower of the two pictures above, shows my daughter's bedroom wall when she was fifteen months old. By the time that this photograph was taken, my daughter was already able to read out loud the first nine cardinal numbers and point to them when requested.

As can be seen, the wall display is very simple and uncluttered. I used to hold my daughter up to each shape in turn, naming it and then asking her, "Again?" It was a favourite game of hers. I used to swing her up dramatically and shout, "Triangle" or "Green circle". She tried to copy what I was saying. I would also move her to one of the numbers and name it. This was all part of the normal playing about that we did, she certainly did not know that she was being taught! Babies love the attention of adults like this. When she was in her cot, I would point at the numbers randomly, naming them and then asking her to repeat the name. It only took a month or two for her to pick up the idea and from then on, she would point at numbers in the street and shout out their names. In effect, the main part of reading was thus acquired painlessly well before she was eighteen months old.

Reading words took a little longer. However, she was reading individual words by seventeen months and by two years and three months she was reading children's books fluently. The great thing about this was that once it was done, it was done. Because she learned to read as she learned to speak, reading is as completely natural to her as speaking. If there is a disadvantage to this system, I have not seen it. Of course, scanning rapidly from left to right was not possible until twenty months or so. This is simply a neurological limitation and had to be accepted. Reading words individually is quite a different matter. They are grasped as a whole thing, what the Germans call a gestalte. The individual letters are seldom scanned laboriously from left to right as is the case with reading sentences. Of course numbers are easier still, because they are one squiggle, rather than several. This of course led quite naturally to the reading of Chinese.
The top picture shows a couple of displays in my daughters bedroom, one when she was two and the other a few months later. We experimented with various numbers, for example the Bengali numbers may be seen, as well as Roman Numerals. This was to get her used to the idea of different squiggles meaning different things. The Chinese ideograms were brilliant, an entire word in one squiggle, with no sequencing. I dare say some will be aware that dyslexia is primarily a problem with alphabetic systems and that it is all but unheard of in China? This is because you can read one word at a glance, without trying to decode it and then synthesise it. By two and a half, Simone had a fair sight vocabulary in Chinese, but this ultimately seemed a sterile experiment and so i discontinued it.
I have to say that for my daughter, it was tremendous fun to be able to make sense of the world in this way. I took her into a chip shop in her buggy when she was two and she became excited at seeing a Chinese poster on the wall. It gave her great satisfaction to read some of the words. I cannot imagine why I would not have done all this. It was great fun for me, and great fun for her. It also enabled her to start making sense of the world around her at a much earlier age than is common. I have a suspicion that problems set in if this is all left until a child is old enough to realise what is going on.


  1. Sounds ok to me. It's clear that there was/is much affection and fun. You're right, children crave their parents attention, and so what if the attention is educational? It's still attention filled with love and cuddles.

    I don't see a problem.

    Likewise with an unstructured approach full of love and attention. The child is still getting love and attention but the games are different that's all.

    At the end of the day, it's all about having fun with our children and wanting what is best for them. I personally spent most of my time singing to mine and playing music to them. Lots of playdough, cooking and hours of reading. They didn't learn to read especially early, but they love spending time with me.

    Well done on raising a lovely daughter.

  2. It's just a case of learning things in a different order. We had lots of pictures animals, colours, numbers, alphabets, maps of the world, etc around the house and played similar games as well as the activities described by Anonymous (I'm sure you did too). It sounds as though you concentrated more on 'pictures' of words than we did, but presumably your daughter learnt less in other areas whilst she was spending time on words. Once they are all 16+ does it matter what order they learn in if they know roughly the same 'stuff'? Nice blog article!

  3. I can sympathise with your wish to teach her to read so early. It was done to me as a baby too, to some extent. But it's not something I've chosen to do with my own children.

    I wouldn't go so far as to call it coercive - your daughter obviously enjoyed the process and I'm sure I did at the time too. It might even be beneficial to brain development: I'm still very quick at learning new languages, decoding etc. (although so is one of my children, so I think that might be nature rather than nurture).

    The reason I chose not to do the same to my own young children was the feeling I remember having, from as early as I can remember, of being something like a performing seal. My parents' displays of affection and delight in me were directly related to my 'academic' progress and as I got older I started to realise that I wasn't interesting to them for myself, as much as for what I could do as a result of their input: a reflection of all their hard work.

    This wasn't overly traumatic for me, but it wasn't as nice or beneficial as simple unconditional parental love would have been - not that I'm suggesting your love for your daughter is anything other than unconditional. There was a definite feeling of being shaped, in fact my mother has talked about children in terms of them being lumps of clay that needed to be "molded into something useful" by their parents: not a view shared by me!

    I also found it quite difficult to direct my own learning as an older child, being used to having so much of it directed by them and keeping up to the standards they set for me was often tiresome and stressful. I had chronic insomnia by the age of ten, I think because of this. Being a prodigy is hard work, and not something I wanted to inflict on my own children.

    It's entirely possible that your daughter experienced it differently. I hope so. Our early bedroom walls are spookily similar though.

  4. Of course Anonymous, you raise some very good points about the drawbacks of so-called hothousing. Does a child end up feeling that the smiles and praise come only from what she can do, rather than what she is? Even worse, can a child become addicted to praise, so that she cannot function independently, but always needs applause from others? I have no answers to these questions, but it is certainly good to think about them. Obviously, i would say that this did not happen with my daughter, but then show me the parent who is objective about his own child? To my mond mond, what it boils down to is this. There is no one magical system of raising a child which is all goo and no bad. All methods have good points and bad. You simply balance it up in your mind and decide whether you feel that the good points outweigh the bad. This at least is what I did. An awful lot of the evil in the world seems to me to result from ignorance and stupidity, rather than wickedness. I always felt that the more my child understood and knew, the less likely she would be to be cruel and selfish. The reasoning may be flawed though.

  5. Your intentions were obviously good, whatever the outcome. I've often wondered though, to what extent these decisions we make about our children's education and upbringing come from our deep beliefs, as you've discussed here before.

    Are children born with the propensity for evil? If so, they need teaching to be different/good. Or are they born innocent, with innate and already potentially useful individual characteristics? If so, they only need protecting from negative influences and allowed to grow and flourish.

    It's been said elsewhere that it tends to be mostly religious families who use parent-led systems of learning, and non-religious who use child-led ones. But you've said that, although you attend church, you're not particularly religious(?)

    It's interesting to ponder, anyway.

  6. 'It's been said elsewhere that it tends to be mostly religious families who use parent-led systems of learning, and non-religious who use child-led ones.'

    I think 'elsewhere' may be wrong in its calculations. {g} Or, if the calculations are correct, it probably would be for completely different reasons than you imply, Anonymous.

    I suspect it might have something to do with the wealth of excellent Christian curriculum materials available to purchase from the US. They are remarkably attractive to new Christian HE'ers, for doctrinal, rather than pedagogical (is that a word?) reasons.

    However, most He'ers I've known, Christian and Non-Christian, have used a variety of both formal and informal learning strategies.

    Mrs Anon

  7. We're teaching our son to read. We're atheist. Today, the package containing his new batch of books (the next in the series we're using) arrived. He sat at the table, grinning and looking through them whilst we prepared lunch. He asked us to read every single one through to him this evening. We did. He's really looking forward to getting to grips with the rest of his books. That's not coercive, that's supportive. That's our job as parents, to support our child.

  8. Why would you think anyone would see this as coercive, Mam'Goudig? Your child sounds perfectly happy with the arrangement. Would you also be supportive if your child did not want to learn to read yet?

  9. You come across as very defensive Mam'Goudig.
    Your child sounds happy so I conclude you must be doing a good job.
    Just perhaps believe the rest of us are too.

    I hope you enjoyed lunch!

  10. Sharon, he had a wobble some time ago, and it transpired that he was afraid we wouldn't read to him any longer once he could read for himself. We explained that reading to him gives us as much pleasure as it does him, and that we'll read to him for as long as he enjoys us reading to him. Happy people all round.

    The coercive comments were a response to some interesting stuff I've been reading here and elsewhere during the last few weeks. An American friend of mine thought we must be religious and highly structured, based on her experiences of HE US-style. Um, no.

    moimoi: Defensive? No. Why would I need to be defensive? Lunch was lovely, thanks for asking.

  11. You're doing it again Simon. Just because your daughter could read at 2 does not mean that 'all' children can do so. My son loved books from an early age (by 9 months he had stopped chewing them and was looking at them instead) and was always asking what the words said. In spite of having all his pre-reading skills in place, he was a 'slow start' reader and still (at 11) has problems tracking text and blending sounds to read new words. He has visual and auditory discrimination difficulties which explain his reading problems. Eyes and ears are complex things and on would expect visual and auditory anomalies in a diverse population. The level of reading difficulty in the UK population (20 -25%), are the levels you'd expect statistically, based on auditory and visual anomalies alone.

    This does not of course preclude parents from supporting their children in their reading, and such support can train the visual and auditory systems to make the required discriminations in many cases. But for a child to be pressured into reading when their reading difficulty had as yet unidentified organic origins would be coercive in my view.

  12. Well I don't think that I was saying that it is possible or even desirable for all children to start reading at two. I was asked what I would have done if my daughter had been reluctant to learn to read and this post was an attempt to answer the queston honestly. It was not meant as template for home eductors to emulate; it is a personal account. There has been much discussion recently on several lists about so-called "coercive" education and it was aslo in respnse to that. I have re-read the post in light of your comments and really cannot see where I am saying that all children are able to read at two. Could you perhaps point out the parts that you think suggest this?

  13. You say that you have difficulty answering the question because you cannot imagine the situation arising and then go on to explain what you did to support your daughter's acquisition of reading. What I infer from that juxtaposition is that you were suggesting that your daughter learned to read as an outcome of action taken by yourself. However, if your daughter had failed to learn to read, despite your support, you would have had to think about what to do instead. I assume, with your experience of children with reading difficulties, that you have had to use your imagination in relation to them. I'd be interested to know how you tackled the issue in those cases.

  14. You are quite right to infer that I was suggesting that I taught my daughter to read. Indeed, it was hardly necessary for you to make any inference; I said so plainly. You are asking me quite a different question from the one which I set out to answer in this post. The question I was answering was, "What would I have done if my daugher had shown reluctance in learning to read?" I demonstrated why I could not see how the problem could possibly have arisen, since the learning was inextricably bound up with our normal playful activities. The question you are now inviting me to answer is another matter entirely. You are asking me "How did you tackle reading delays in the cases with which you came into contact professionally?" There was no one infallible method and I may well put up a post on the general subject of reading difficulties. If so, it will be quite different from the anecdotes which I mention above!

  15. "The question I was answering was, "What would I have done if my daugher had shown reluctance in learning to read?" I demonstrated why I could not see how the problem could possibly have arisen, since the learning was inextricably bound up with our normal playful activities."

    So are you suggesting that you could do the same with any child (unless they had specific learning difficulties)? Or do you acknowledge that another child, with the same level of intelligence and the same quality and amount of input, might not be interested or ready to learn to read at 2? If you do agree that this is so, what would you have done if this had happened with your daughter?

  16. How loaded is that expression, "learn to read"! Most parents sing nursery rhymes to their children, many of them swing their children up in the air and almost all play games with them. Usually, this is aimless fun, in my case it was directed to an end. To answer your question, I cannot imagine that my daughter would have avoided these activities, as she enjoyed them as all babies enjoy such things. Whether all fifteen month old babies would end up reading after such games is another matter entirely. Some would and some wouldn't. You will of course observe that i did not claim that I could not imagine a child failing to read after following my wise and good programme. I said that I could not imagine a child showing reluctance to do thjose things. I still can't. All children like playing like that, there is nothing coercive about it. As to how many children would be reading after it, I cannot say. the sample was extremely limited.