Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The foundations of early reading

It was suggested yesterday that readers of this blog might be interested in a little more practical advice on the subject of home education and less criticism of  the particular styles used by others.  It is at least worth trying.

     Because I was so fanatically structured in the education which I provided for my child, some have thought that this meant that it was a case of all work and no play for her.  After all, how else could she have begun to read at fifteen months? In fact, the key  to her education was play. Play, both symbolic play with toys like cars and dolls and also prtend play with a parent, is the foundation for reading, expressive and receptive language and indeed even coherent thought. Let us look at this idea a little and then tomorrow we can think about how to start teaching babies to read by using these ideas.

       Reading is the most vital skill that any child growing up in a modern, industrial society will ever acquire. The ability to read fluently is absolutely crucial to every aspect of future educational attainment. Sadly, reading is a kill which many children struggle to master; in some cases having difficulties with the process even after they have left school.

     The problem is essentially that learning to read is being left too late. By the time that children start school at the age of four or five, their brains are already far less receptive to the learning of new skills than they would have been at two or three. The ideal age for picking up the art of reading is probably at the same time that they begin to speak; that is to say around twelve months or so. We shall see later why this should be. Another problem is that the method used to teach reading in British schools , synthetic phonics, makes the whole process vastly more complicated than it need be. In fact learning to read can and should be as easy and natural for a young child as learning to speak.

     At this point, some readers are probably scratching their heads and saying, "But you have to teach reading. Nobody teaches babies to speak; it just happens!" Well, yes........and no. It is of course perfectly true that we do not sit our babies down for "Talking Lessons". Never the less, we are in fact teaching them and by the very same method that can be used in order to teach them to read.

     Before we look at the teaching of reading, let us look for a moment at the "teaching" of talking. When we listen to people speaking in ordinary situations, it is all but impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. People do not, for example, say, "I am going to go to the shop". They say instead, "I'mgonnergototheshop". Words are slurred together, cut off, mangled and abbreviated until they all run together in a string of sounds. How on earth can a baby make sense of this string of noises? The answer is that she doesn't. She does not have to.

     There is a particular style of speaking to infants which has been called "Motherese". The pitch of the voice is raised, the tempo is slowed and key words are stressed slightly, emphasised so that they stand out from the rest. Something like this perhaps, "Can you see the dog? Look, the dog is sitting up. What a nice little dog." Any attempt on the baby's part to reproduce the sound of the emphasised word is met with immediate reward, praise is lavished upon her. She need only make the initial sound and say, "Duh" and her mother will smile broadly and say, "That's right" Clever girl. Yes it's a dog." In effect, the mother is teaching her child how to speak! She models the word she is teaching and then reinforces her child's efforts at saying it herself.

     The printed word, like spoken language, is usually presented in a vast jumble of incomprehensible components, only instead of hearing a cacophony of weird noises, the baby sees a forest of black squiggles. Look at any page of a book or newspaper and you will soon see the problem. Just as with so-called "Motherese", the trick is to present individual words so that they may be learnt entire.

     We will be exploring different aspects of the reading process later on. In particular, we shall be looking at how the brain develops in childhood and then dealing with the nature of language generally and reading in particular. The important thing to remember is that just as parents were the best people to teach their children to talk, so too are they the best people by far to teach their own children to read. It is not a difficult task, far from it; in fact it is very enjoyable.
     Before we look at the teaching of reading, it is probably worth stopping to think a little about what language actually is. Once we have done this, we shall be better placed to understand just what is happening when a child learns to read, because of course reading is really just a way of using language.

     Broadly speaking, language is the ability to use and understand symbols for thinking and communicating. This covers everything from writing a birthday card to reading War and Peace, from reminding one's self about the important appointment that afternoon to formulating the theory of relativity. What do we mean by symbols? Nothing more than something which stands for or represents something else. Spoken words are symbols, as of course are letters and numbers printed on a page. Pictures are a kind of symbol too and so are toys. Acting or pretending are also symbolic. We shall see in a little while why this is important. For now, all we need to remember is that reading and speaking both entail using symbols; things that stand for other things.

     We tend to take it for granted that children operate on the same level of symbolic understanding as we do, but it is not so. Just as they must learn to read words and decode their meaning, so too they have to learn to "read" pictures and toys. Just think for a moment about a picture of an orange. When we look at it, we of course see a splodge of orange printers ink on a page and identify it at once with the sweet, slightly tart citrus fruit that we have to peel. To a baby though, all this is nothing more than patches of colour. It certainly doesn't represent anything. Similarly, we see a toy car and recognise at once its symbolic nature. Although it is small, light and garishly coloured, we know very well that it is meant to represent the large metal object that takes us to work. Again, this is far from obvious to babies.

     It has been said that a child's play is his work. That being so, toys are the tools of his trade. Their importance in the development of the growing child's understanding of the concept of symbols cannot be overstated. It is only by such activities as the use of a toy car and the growing realisation that it in some strange way represents Mummy's big car that the baby becomes familiar with the whole idea of one thing standing for another. Since this peculiar notion underpins not only reading, but also speaking and listening, we must make sure that the baby acquires a sound background and thorough grounding in the use of symbols. The reason for this is that the interpretation of two dimensional symbols, whether pictures, numbers or words, is the culmination of much mental effort on the child's part. To achieve this breakthrough in symbolic understanding requires a great deal of spadework beforehand.


  1. "It is of course perfectly true that we do not sit our babies down for "Talking Lessons". Never the less, we are in fact teaching them and by the very same method that can be used in order to teach them to read."

    This idea, learning as part of day-to-day life through immersion and availability of resources, is one of the basic tenants of autonomous education. However, the response to the environment can vary from child to child, of course. One of my children learnt to read in much the same way as they learnt to talk and could read at 3. Another, brought up in the same environment, didn't. They asked to be taught to read when they were older and we used a phonics scheme since it appeared to suit them best out of the various approaches we tried. However, the late reader had picked up much of the background necessary for reading because of their earlier exposure, so it only appeared to take a few months for them to learn to read once we began teaching them in a structured way. Each to their own!

    Alan Thomas also recognised this problem of what to call the types of parent/child interactions that are effectively 'teaching' but are usually not recognised as such.

    One of the things that strikes us at this point is that we have no word to describe this aspect of parent/child interaction nor its impact. Many parents we spoke to were very aware of its influence but were loath to call it “teaching” with all the school type connotations that that word now holds. Maybe it is time for the autonomous world to consider how we can verbally characterise the relationship between parent and child as it pertains to learning in autonomous education.

  2. Much of the autonomous movement didn't stop at immersion. They attempted to make parents feel guilty for using a structured approach to learning. Well known internet gurus being members of TCS were the most vocal in spreading their dogmatic approach to non coercion. It was as if they'd never heard of the phrase 'each to their own', meetings were often hijacked by some pompous bufoon and self righteous wife using it to spread TCS propaganda and doctrine.
    Unaware and unembarrassed as they coerced parents through use of recognise how wrong they were for taking a 'structured' approach to developing literacy skills.
    Never once were the words 'enjoyment' or 'fun' used.

  3. Why would you feel guilty if you believed you were providing the best education for your children? You sound like some of the school using patents I've heard who say much the same about parents who chose to home educate and dare to talk about it in their presence.

    Autonomous education is not anti-structure. It can, and often does include structured educating and I've taught my children quite often using a formal structured approach at their request. So you have either not understood what they were saying out they didn't understand AE themselves.

  4. It was pretty obvious that the Fortune-Wood Family didn't understand the concept of Autonomous learning even though to hear them regurgitate HE tomes and talk about it you gained the impression that they were the pioneers and groundbreakers of autonomous education...Their impromptu was lecturing was oh so tiresome and, boring. You could get better discussions than that from places like Glastonbury festival and the festival circuit. Some of us hadn't really got the inclination to correct them or debate the origin and merits of the Autonomous philosophy. And.. then they started banging on about TCS.
    Life is just too short.

  5. According to Simon, Jan Fortune-Wood coined the phrase 'autonomous education', so it would probably make sense for you to use her definition of autonomous education. Otherwise things can get a bit confusing...

  6. As I recall, she plagiarised the term. That much was obvious.

  7. You can presumably tell us who originally coined the phrase then?

    1. It certainly wasn't Jan Fortune-Wood, although she may have encountered the subject of Autonomous Learning Models during her teacher training.
      Henri Houlec in 1981
      Schon in 1983
      Kolb 1984

  8. It came out of the humanism theories and was advanced by Maslow, Rogers and Knowles.

  9. Ever heard of A.S Neill?
    Jan Fortune-Wood has.

  10. and... she was well aware of Waldorf schools, Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori.
    Almost like she'd written a dissertation on the subject.
    She made a mistake in assuming that other people she was meeting hadn't.

  11. There you go Simon, it sounds like you may have been wrong about who coined the phrase, 'autonomous education', though I don't have the time to check myself.

    Of course autonomous education has been influenced by many people (I'd heard and read about most of the names you mention). Jan makes this point in her writing and describes various influences. Why would anyone think otherwise?

  12. And...she didn't ever take into account that autonomous education wouldn't and couldn't ever work for many.
    Often home educators couldn't quite understand the confusing and conflicting jumble of radical parenting and educational ideas gushing from the
    F-Ws, it was all pretty embarrassing to be around such perfect parents..
    Most HEing parents hadn't got the experience of being teachers or the assessment process like JF_W had.
    They wouldn't be able to identify if learning was taking place or if key information was being understood adequately.
    It was all rather obvious that M&JF-W were relating only to the middle classes and they were quite dissmissive of working classes. They wouldn't engage in conversation with a significant number of families and were always keen to establish an intellectual dominance over groups.
    Although some knew that 'autonomous education had been influenced by many people',the F-Ws wouldn't and couldn't answer honestly regarding direct questions that were being raised. I recall their petulant behaviour at many meetings when their TCS agenda was put into the background by fun.
    It was all plain to see that the F-W family couldn't quite handle diversity in society, that everyone needed to be influenced by them and their intellectual prowess, that they needed to dominate during meetings and make a big splash in the world of HE.
    Really they're not doing anything that's been done or said before, they just rehash it and flog it to death.
    I remember JF_W informing everyone that 'she was the first female vicar', that turned out to be a considerably long queue of women about to be ordained.
    They were the most dedicated vegetarians...
    That were soon tucking into bacon and sausages.
    Claimed to be philosophers...
    and Writers...
    and were utterly vulgar and pretentious.
    It's quite a sad thing that all of the autonomous and spontaneous hard work and energy that ordinary people put into home education groups was usurped by this illmannered family.