Thursday, 25 October 2012

Early reading through play



Most orthodox educationalists, as well as an awful lot of home educators, would be horrified at the idea of teaching a baby to read. This would be particularly the case when it is revealed that the poor mite was given no say in the matter and subjected to the most intensive teaching from the age of three months. This at least is one way of viewing the case.

I mentioned a couple of days ago that many people, both teachers and home educating parents, create a wholly false division between play and structured education and also between teaching and games. Let us ask ourselves what babies like. One of the things that they like is the undivided attention of a kind and friendly adult. They enjoy this all the more if the adult plays simple games with them; things like peek-a-boo. Babies often want the same activities repeated over and over again. Whether it is a game or a favourite book, they like to have things repeated often.

Thinking now about reading, we realise that a lot of it consists of identifying shapes with which we are familiar. I am not talking about letters, but the shapes of words. The word ball has an entirely different shape from the word dog. These distinctive shapes are largely caused by the ascenders and descenders; those parts of the letters which stick up or down. If we want a baby to read, and I can’t imagine why we would not, then the first step will be to teach her to identify different shapes. Most puzzles for children are too complex for our purpose and so we turn to products marketed for children with special educational needs. Here are some which are perfect, being no more than simple, geometric shapes with handles so that a baby or child can grasp them:



http://www.livingmadeeasy.org.uk/children/shape-puzzles-%26-boards-p/basic-inset-shape-boards-0018698-2721-information.htm





A baby of three months will, with help, be able to manipulate these puzzles and learn the difference between circles, squares and triangles. This is a good beginning and after a while we can move on to slightly more complex puzzles; things like this:



http://www.livingmadeeasy.org.uk/children/shape-puzzles-%26-boards-p/two-piece-colour-jigsaw-0014312-2721-information.htm




From these, it is only a short step to simple conventional jigsaw puzzles.

Now the great thing about this sort of game is that the reward for the baby is intrinsic. Babies love the attention of an adult and they also like to repeat simple games over and over. Doing puzzles of this sort with an adult on hand is unbelievably satisfying to a three or four month old baby. Here is a puzzle which although a little too complex and fussy for my taste, could be used with a year old baby:



http://www.sensetoys.com/P2N853896601_categoryid;5VEMYAGHAJ





Now it is important to realise that it would be no use just leaving these things laying around and hoping for the best. The reward for the baby lies in the attention from the adult. We hope to get the child to associate the identification of shapes with pleasurable interaction with a loving adult.

Any reasonably bright child of eighteen months old can be taught to identify and name individual numbers by this method. By this, I mean that a child of eighteen months will, after a programme of teaching such as this be able to point to and name numbers when she sees them on houses or street signs for example. Once this is done, the process has been established. Here is a baby who can read! What is good about all this is that it has been done only by undertaking the kind of activities with the baby which she would ask for if she were able to do so. Adult attention and simple, repetitive games in which the adult also shows pleasure. All that has happened is that a parent has played with her child in the most natural way possible and the first stage of literacy emerges as a by-product.

In a few days time, I shall talk a little about how to extend this sort of play, with a view to getting the baby to read text.

32 comments:

  1. Interesting. Our daughter was a great lover of puzzles as a baby and toddler, which we noticed was all about shape, even when they became fifteen piece picture puzzles. She was perfectly confident reading two digit numbers at a very young age (under three, I think) as she used to run ahead of us calling out house numbers from front doors. I never really thought of that as reading! Son did it all differently though - never liked puzzles but was always 'mark making', and from that came lots of early phonetic writing.

    Do you think that all the troubles children often have with reading would not happen if it was the norm in our culture to teach your baby to read?

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  2. 'Do you think that all the troubles children often have with reading would not happen if it was the norm in our culture to teach your baby to read?'

    Yes, I absolutely do! It is far easier to get the hang of the thing when a child is twelve months old and the brain is still developing rapidly, than at the age of four or five. It is also not 'work'; the whole thing is just a series of games that the baby enjoys. The 'mark making' that you mention your son doing is also interesting. All children like scribbling and all it takes is a little gentle guidance to turn that into the first stages of writing. Much better than having them sit in front of a whiteboard while some stranger attempts to instruct them in synthetic phonics!



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  3. How did you deal with similar shapes like ball and hall?

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  4. Just for a change, Simon, I agree with almost everything you say, and this is the path we followed.

    I'm not sure about an awful lot of home educators being horrified by this; certainly not many (possibly any) of the ones I know.

    I agree that the adult attention is very important, but I think that praise is only part of the story; children develop their own sense of achievement, and bright ones quickly learn to recognise and discount praise that goes over the top. That's important later in life, when praise doesn't always come, or when it's disingenuous. It's also important when working at a level where it's difficult for others to make an immediate judgement of the outcome of some work.

    As for "orthodox educationalists", I have little time for their damaging opinions.

    Overall, a good and informative post (and that's sincere) - thank you for taking the time to write this.

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  5. 'How did you deal with similar shapes like ball and hall?'

    Good question. By looking in the first instance at which words were most likely to be encountered by a small child. In the sort of simple books which most kids have, "ball" is far more likely to be seen, than "hall"; just as she is more likely to come across "cat" than "cot". It does not really matter though, because this leads to what one might term 'intelligent' mistakes when learning to read. The mistaking of the word "send" for "sand", to give one example. Once a child is doing this, she will start to look beyond the simple shape and examine the internal structure of a word; the letters of which it is composed. If you can get a child to the point where she chooses to do this for her own satisfaction, rather than being ordered to analyse phonics by an authority figure, so much the better! It is this which will stick, the efforts that the child herself makes of her own volition, as opposed to being directed by an adult, whether parent or teacher.

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  6. 'I'm not sure about an awful lot of home educators being horrified by this; certainly not many (possibly any) of the ones I know.'

    I suppose that this depends a good deal on how the case is presented. If I announced that I was determined at all costs that my child would be reading within a year and that I would neither be consulting her about this, nor giving her any choice in the matter; I suspect that quite a few home educating parents might raise their eyebrows. After all, I am telling them, in effect, that I have a curriculum which I am going to impose upon my child at all costs.

    This would be one and quite truthful way of setting the matter out. If, on the other hand, I said that I was going to play some games with my baby which would be enjoyable and might have a beneficial effect upon her development, then most would nod approvingly.

    'As for "orthodox educationalists", I have little time for their damaging opinions.'

    Indeed, yes. If you think that I am unpopular with some home educating types, you would be amused to hear of the fury that my ideas provoke among a lot of teachers. Even after my daughter passed IGCSEs at A* in subjects like chemistry and physics, there were still teachers who insisted that it was not possible to study a full range of subjects at home and without proper laboratories and so on! No amount of evidence would alter their view of this.

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    1. "there were still teachers who insisted that it was not possible to study a full range of subjects at home and without proper laboratories"

      Judging by the complaints I've heard from teachers about the impact of "health and safety" on experiments, it's becoming increasingly easy to teach school-level science (or better) at home.

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  7. 'Judging by the complaints I've heard from teachers about the impact of "health and safety" on experiments, it's becoming increasingly easy to teach school-level science (or better) at home.'

    This is quite true. Allowing pupils to carry out experiments for themselves involving bunsen burners or sulphuric acid is almost unheard of in most schools. At home, there are no constraints at all on what can be done. At the local secondary school, most experiments in science are shown to the pupils on a screen in the form of DVDs. This is mad for two reasons. First, because it is extremely dull and boring and secondly because it is only by carrying out activities by themselves that the kids actually learn anything.

    In our house, the kitchen table usually had some flask of acid, part of a dead animal or sample of mineral laying on it. My wife still recalls the time that my daughter and I made sulphuric acid and then managed to spill it. The kitchen table bears the mark still. I maintain that all this practical work was a key factor in not only making the topics interesting, but also in passing the examinations.

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  8. It obviously is 'be nice to Simon day' because I agree too. I think one of the first times I realised my 2 were seriously 'different' was when I noticed that they loved doing complex jigsaw puzzles upside down so they didn't have the picture to interfere with the process. They were both early readers, totally by accident. I read to them a lot, with my finger under the words as I did so, so they did see and say and worked out more complex words from there. I did have to teach them the alphabet tho, but that was just a matter of a wooden tray jigsaw puzzle and they then used the letters as stencils to draw round.

    And kitchen table science is amazingly easy and fun. Our biology skeleton is currently hanging in the porch and being explained by my little darlings as being the last door to door salesman who annoyed their mum.

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  9. "All children like scribbling and all it takes is a little gentle guidance to turn that into the first stages of writing. Much better than having them sit in front of a whiteboard while some stranger attempts to instruct them in synthetic phonics!"

    Yes, I think that's probably so. Our son used knowledge of phonics (we didn't teach that systematically, he seemed to pick it up) and labelled drawings and wrote stories from very little. For him, reading and writing were very much the same thing and he gradually developed excellent spelling and so on. We did address handwriting more systematically when he was eight and he wanted a nicer style more like that of his cousins who went to school. It took a few practice sessions but it wasn't a big deal.
    What always struck me about my son's writing was how prolific he was. He thought nothing of writing many pages at a time when he was six or so. I often wondered if he developed that stamina because he was never limited by lessons ending or anyone giving him worksheets or tasks that called for a limited response. It's very handy now.

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  10. ' I think one of the first times I realised my 2 were seriously 'different' was when I noticed that they loved doing complex jigsaw puzzles upside down so they didn't have the picture to interfere with the process'

    This is very interesting. I worked for some time at a residential unit for adults with autism. One of the guys there was a jigsaw fanatic and he always used to do them with the picture face down, just as you describe. Some of those wroking there used to ascribe this ability to his autism. Out of curiosity, I tried to do the same thing myself and found that it is not as hard as you might thinks. The pieces each have a distinctive shape, with big loops and little ones, sharp edges or curves and so on.

    Whta i found very odd was that looked at like that, they were very similar to pictogram symbols of human figures, the ones from Mehenjo Daro and Easter Island, for instance. I think that a familiarity with shapes of this type would definitely be a great help to a child learning to read.

    'Our biology skeleton is currently hanging in the porch '

    Is this a full-size one? We have a human skull, picked up by my grandfather during the First World War, but not a full size skeleton. Where did you get it, if you don't mind my asking?

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  11. "Is this a full-size one? We have a human skull, picked up by my grandfather during the First World War, but not a full size skeleton. Where did you get it, if you don't mind my asking?"

    Not Anne, but we bought ours from Ebay about 6 years ago. This looks like the one we have:

    http://tinyurl.com/d8dmky8

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    1. Though looking at it again, the rib cage on this one doesn't look right and ours doesn't have the red bit at the base of the spine. This one looks more like ours, http://tinyurl.com/bonzxw9 (though ours was not that expensive!). The size is right too, ours if 5 feet tall, so either a small adult or a little below life size!

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  12. It's plastic, Simon and about five foot six and I got it from a friend who's a teacher and was clearing stuff out that 'wasn't relevant' any more. I also got a 'put it together yourself' set of human organs which make me feel queasy just to look at but they love. She didn't want them to go in a skip and I was more than happy to re-home them. When it's not Halloween he hangs from the coat rack in the hall.

    And yes, I had a go myself with the puzzles, and it isn't as hard as it looks as if it should be, but it is a common autie thing and was used to help identify the visual processing problems both mine have because the consultant reckoned they were doing it to reduce the amount of input they were tackling. That's where HE has been so great for us. Instead of looking at them and thinking 'What on earth are you doing?' I can spend a little longer working out why they're doing something in what looks like an odd way and if there's any way we can work round it or use it in our favour. And, of course, there's no one to think it odd or laugh when they use high tech aids like a large piece of rigid card with a slot cut in it to limit their field of vision if the page they're working on is too busy for them to handle otherwise.

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  13. 'Not Anne, but we bought ours from Ebay about 6 years ago. This looks like the one we have:

    http://tinyurl.com/d8dmky8'

    Curses! I missed out on something here and no mistake.

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  14. "By this, I mean that a child of eighteen months will, after a programme of teaching such as this be able to point to and name numbers when she sees them on houses or street signs for example. Once this is done, the process has been established. Here is a baby who can read!"

    By this definition all of mine were reading by 18 months. ;-) But in reality, one was reading books to themselves by 3 purely as a result of play as you describe, the other didn't read until they were much older despite playing the same games together.

    Eventually they decided they wanted to learn to read and chose to follow a phonics scheme after we tried a few methods. I find the differences between individual children facinating. Maybe if I'd been determined that they would all read by 3 they could have, but I'm not convinced it would have been a good idea as it would have involved quite a bit of manipulation on my part - something my children seemed experts at avoiding from a surprisingly young age.

    ReplyDelete
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