We’ve been following John Holt’s approach to reading instruction in his book Learning All the Time, which is to say creating a text-rich environment full of stories, printed books, handwriting practice through copying notes to Grandma, but not explicitly teaching reading. Sometimes I wanted to do more, especially when I read the blogs of other homeschooling moms with kids N.’s age who are doing explicit reading instruction. But Tim and I had agreed we weren’t going to push early reading for a variety of reasons, some more idiosyncratic than others (our thinking about this is not slavish devotion to John Holt).
Tim was taught how to read in school at age 7 and my mom taught me to read at age 4; we both have Ph.D.s in English so it would seem that earlier or later reading in and of itself had no impact on our respective literacy and love of reading. Tim and I believe a multifaceted culture of language is the best way to prepare for literacy.* We are also fairly obsessed with the Finnish academic model, which is very successful by a variety of measures, and they don’t teach reading till age 7.* This is not to say that 7 is any kind of magic number. “Readiness is all” is our mantra; when he is ready, I am confident that N. will learn to read.
Without romanticizing illiteracy at all, we have also thought about what might be lost when a person becomes literate. Literacy is a necessary skill and also a wonderful pleasure, but it is simply a very different mode of experiencing the world. N. listens intensely, has an amazing memory, an inventive imagination, and keen powers of visual observation. Will full literacy displace any of these modes of experiencing the world, or can they coexist? William Dalrymple, in a New Yorker article from 2006 called “Homer in India,” describes the ancient oral poetry traditions – bards who recite ancient poems that, when written down, are more than 600 pages long – sustained by the special skills of the illiterate: “Just as the blind can develop a heightened sense of hearing, smell, and touch to compensate for their loss of vision, so it seems that the illiterate have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not” (p. 54). In some cases, when illiterate bards have been taught to read and write in order to record the poems they perform, their memory of the poems weakens as they become literate. The process of preserving the poems in the form preferred by modernity – writing – ends up eroding the process that had preserved them for centuries – memory. Some older Anglo-American models of education (Shakespearean-era grammar schools,* Charlotte Mason’s pedagogy) emphasized literary memorization as much as if not more than literacy, and I like the idea of trying to preserve N.s capacious memory at least to some degree as he moves into literacy.
In a story-rich environment like N.’s (we read a lot to him every day, and he and Tim tell each other elaborate stories on their daily long walks), there isn’t a lot of incentive for him to learn to read for himself, although he enjoys looking at books on his own very much. N. mentioned a couple months ago that he didn’t want to learn to read, and I pointed out that we would still read to him, that one wouldn’t replace the other, which seemed to reassure him. Jim Trelease’s Read Aloud Handbook (which I’ve mentioned before!) reminds us of the importance of continuing to read aloud after a child learns to read, since there will likely be a huge gap in sophistication between what he can read and what he can comprehend aurally. [If you have access to JSTOR, here is a really interesting account in The Journal of Educational Research (Vol. 95, No. 5 (May - Jun., 2002), pp. 259-272) of a study suggesting that "semantic abilities (i.e. oral definitions and word retreival) not phonological awareness, predicted 2nd grade reading comprehension."]
N. has known the alphabet and the letters’ sounds for a couple years, and he had early whole-word recognition of a few words (bus, off, on, no, cat, etc.) but he could not comprehend “sounding words out.” Sometimes he would ask what something said and I would try to lead him through sounding it out, saying the letters’ sounds and stringing those sounds together to figure out the word. Over the past 6-8 months, no matter how much I modeled this, he just didn’t get it and couldn’t do it independently. I was puzzled by this and it was a struggle for me to remain patient and true to our plan; Tim reminded me that there was no rush for N. to read. I backed off, so that when N. asked what a word said, I would maybe briefly sound it out for him, but I wouldn’t ask him to do it.
Then, suddenly, just in the past two weeks, N. demonstrated that he understands how to sound out words -- even big, complicated words! I have no idea how this happened, but something seems to have clicked in his brain, and he now enjoys sounding words out, and does it all the time. This feels like a huge literacy milestone. N. seems to enjoy our shock at his new skill and to feel pride in having figured it out himself. He can truly feel that this is his accomplishment. Since N. can sound words out, Tim taught him last week about syllables, a little song to remember which letters are the vowels (which he’d been having trouble remembering), and that there is generally one vowel sound per syllable in English. N. absorbed these concepts right away (telling me all about them when I came home from work): readiness is all! He still hasn’t shown particular interest in reading books to himself (and that’s fine with us), although last night as I was reading him a chapter from Robert McCloskey’s Centerburg Tales, N. kept interrupting me to ask about random words or phrases he was noticing on the page; he would get excited when I finally reached those words or phrases in the course of my reading, thus making a connection between his aural and visual experiences of the words.
I see this development as confirmation that the approach we have taken so far to abjuring reading instruction is working for N., that he is on a path to reading that builds on his readiness and makes reading a positive and no-stress process while at the same time not displacing all the other ways of experiencing and interacting with the world that are so crucial to a 5 ½-year-old.
* Many of the studies and policies advocating early reading assume children entering school from non-text-rich (less conversational engagement between children and adults, less reading aloud, etc.) environments. The response to this in U.S. educational policy is to push so-called "academics" earlier and earlier at the expense of play (Google "early reading academic success" and you'll get a raft of examples). But the Finnish model suggests that a more successful response would be to create a multifaceted culture of language in all preschools and kindergartens made up of story-telling, reading, conversation, language-rich play. See alse: Alliance for Childhood's "Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School."
* "[R]eading and writing instruction is not part of kindergarten activities in Finland. Instead, kindergarten focuses on social skills and free play, with rhymes, songs, and listening to stories as popular activities. In many kindergartens, children occasionally use workbooks or teacher-made pages for practicing coloring pictures, drawing lines, and cutting with scissors. The curriculum is typically based on thematic units, which include field trips, listening to books read by the teacher, singing songs, and art work on the theme. Although teachers often read a story to the children, books in the classroom are for teachers to read to children, with no library corners or literacy centers. Nor are alphabet cards posted on the wall, as in American kindergartens, because the emphasis in Finnish kindergartens differs from those in the United States. Finnish kindergarten teachers are trained to work with children from birth to age 6; the training emphasizes child development and care and does not include literacy instruction. Kindergarten children are not expected to learn to read and write, and there is no pressure on their teachers to have them do so." --Journal of Literacy Research, Sept. 2000. See also: 100 Years of Kindergartens in Finland
* I am simply noting the role of memorization in Renaissance English schooling, not advocating at all for its draconian discipline!