Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reading Update: Dipping In or Reading Through?

Reading Paddington Helps Out on a car trip
 As I have written before, I was convinced by John Holt's Learning All the Time and the Finnish kindergarten model that in a text-rich environment N. would learn to read without any explicit instruction in reading.  So we have not taught N. to read with formal reading lessons, computer reading games, worksheets, etc.  We have a lot of books and we read to him all the time, and that's all.  But as an English professor who is passionate about reading, I have struggled to be patient as he made his own way in his own time through the stages of his independent journey toward literacy.  N. loves books, has known the alphabet since about 3 1/2 years old, has long been able to read individual words on signs, newspapers, etc., and was reading Dick and Jane a year ago at nearly 6 years old.  I assumed that after Dick and Jane, N. would move on to the other "easy reader" books that I carefully strewed about, but he was uninterested and often actively rejected them.  Instead, all this past year he's spent a lot of time looking at more difficult favorite picture and chapter books.  I was never sure how much he was reading these or whether he was simply looking at the illustrations (probably some of both), but I now believe this was a kind of silent reading practice as he immersed himself in favorite books we've read to him over and over.  Every morning he spent long stretches of time "looking at books."  He could read familiar picture books aloud if asked to but didn't like doing so, and he didn't want to read new unfamiliar books by himself, so we didn't push either.  We didn't want to make reading a site of conflict or negative associations.  I managed to keep my impatience to myself, but nonetheless I had a specific model of what it looked like for a child to be a fluent reader, namely independently reading unfamiliar books, and I wondered (however unfairly) when I would see my now nearly 7-year-old son conform to that model.

Then in May 2011, N.'s independent reading suddenly took off.  He no longer said he was "looking at books" in the morning but that he was "reading books" and would we please stop interrupting him.  I discovered while reading aloud The BFG that he had read ahead several chapters.  One morning he read 3 chapters of Henry Huggins.  Another morning he read a chapter of Russell and Elisa; another he read a chapter of The Indian in the Cupboard.  I was elated!  We bought three new Paddington books in England and in the last few days of our trip he was devouring Paddington Here and Now (listed reading level: grades 3-5) on the train, subway, and airplane.  Now he reads at least a chapter of some book or other every morning: Pooh, Thomas the Train, Pippi Longstocking, Rufus M., The Tough Winter, The Time Garden.  Most of these are books I've read aloud to him at least once before, but now that I know he's reading this challenging material, I am less obsessed with whether he's reading unfamiliar books (although I am still perplexed by his randomly reading single chapters in the middle of unfamiliar books).  I recognize that dipping in to these favorite books all by himself is an incredibly rich experience for him.

N.'s mode of reading -- "dipping in," I'm calling it, randomly reading a chapter in a new book or looking for a favorite chapter somewhere in a book, reading it, and then repeating the process with a different book -- surprises and intrigues me.  My model of "proper" reading is linear; you start at the beginning and read through to the end!  In coming to terms with the difference between my model and N.'s current mode of reading, I remembered that one of my favorite eighteenth-century writers, the very learned Samuel Johnson, excoriated pedants who demanded linear reading.

In James Boswell's Life of Johnson (published in 1791) he describes Johnson's reaction to an instructor's advice that his pupil "read to the end of whatever books he should begin:"
'This is surely strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep to them for life.  A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?' (Life of Johnson p. 1304)
On another occasion a friend asked Johnson his opinion of a recent and much admired book.  "I have looked into it" said Johnson.  "What," said his friend, "Have you not read it through?"  According to Boswell, "Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, 'No, Sir, do you read books through?'" (Life of Johnson p. 520). 

Johnson also believed strongly that both children and adults should read what captures their attention.  "A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good" (Life of Johnson p. 303-4).  "He said, that for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to, though to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance.  He added, 'what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression.  If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read'" (Life of Johnson p. 747).  Johnson makes the important distinction that when one is learning a particular discipline (a "science" of any sort, including literature) one must read methodically through the major works in the field, but he describes so poignantly the wasted mental effort of trying to focus the mind on required reading.  He goes so far as to say that you must seize the precious moment when your attention is captured, no matter what: "He said, 'if a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it, to go to the beginning.  He may, perhaps, not feel again the inclination'" (p. 747).  Johnson, like other eighteenth-century writers on education (Locke, Maria Edgeworth), believed strongly in the pedagogical efficacy of the chance encounter.  There is something about coming upon an idea or book by chance that makes us especially receptive to learning.

For children (or rather, boys, the subject of Johnson and Boswell's conversations about reading and education; although Johnson appreciated and encouraged learned women writers, he does not as far as I know comment on girls' education), Johnson advocates free-range reading:
I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good.  I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book.  He'll get better books afterwards. (Life of Johnson p. 1020). 
Again he acknowledges that eventually one must read deeply to be a true scholar, but Johnson maintains that dipping in to books can have particular benefits for the child learner: 'Snatches of reading (said he,)  will not make a Bentley or a Clarke.  They are, however, in a certain degree advantageous.  I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice.  A child should not be discouraged from reading anything that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach.  If that be the case, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains from the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study.' (Life p. 1080).

I love it that Johnson imagines a child encountering something too difficult as he browses a library, and that for Johnson this can only be good for him.  In fact, to bring this all back to N., I suspect that difficulty is at least in part behind N.'s dipping in to books, that he wants to read silently at our read-aloud level but can't yet sustain it beyond a chapter or two.  Perhaps as he gains confidence and facility he will read a chapter book through.  Or perhaps he'll remain like Samuel Johnson, dipping in to books as the inclination strikes him.  N. could do worse than follow Johnson!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sharing Music

N. has been taking piano lessons with a fabulous teacher since late September 2010 and he's really been enjoying it and has learned a lot.  We wanted him to take lessons because we thought he would like it and because being able to make music is so life-enriching over the long term.  One of the the true joys of music is to share it with others, whether by making music with other musicians or by playing for willing listeners.  N. has recently had some great experiences making music with and for others and I never expected he would do either so early in his study of the piano.

Unlike Suzuki strings instruction, for example, where children play "Twinkle, Twinkle" with other beginning violinists, I think piano instruction tends to be solitary.  But one of N.'s really good friends is learning to play violin and when he and N. get together to play with Legos, blocks, etc., they end up jamming together, just improvising on the piano and violin, listening to each other and trying to match tones or moods.  They are not self-conscious and play together with freedom and joy, having fun creating sound together without caring about the product. I love it that they both love music and without any adult intervention they've figured out that they can share that with each other.

We recently visited friends in Minneapolis and N. got to participate in a slightly more sophisticated electric-keyboard-and-electric-guitar jam session.  N. played some of the ragtime and blues tunes he's learned this year, calling out the left-hand chords to our guitarist friend who improvised licks as they went along.  N. loved it and I think our friend had fun too.  It was interesting to see N. experiencing these tunes (which are some of his favorites) in a new way as he played them with our friend.

One of the many things I love about N.'s teacher is that she doesn't hold student recitals.  I suppose there's a time and place for recitals, but I think a recital would have been counterproductive for N. this year.  Instead he's had a lot of fun playing spontaneously for friends and family.  He always volunteers (we never make him do it!) because he really likes the pieces he plays and loves sharing them with our guests.  He plays with a lot of verve and skill for a beginner and I think he enjoys the surprised and positive response this elicits from his listeners.  In playing for friends, the emphasis is on the fun of sharing a favorite piece of music rather than on the perfection and performance that might be the focus of a recital.

When we began N's piano lessons, I primarily imagined the benefits for N. of learning the instrument.  Recently I was reminded, however, that music isn't just for him, but a means through which he can give joy to others.  We've been visiting his elderly paternal grandmother in the care facility to which she has moved, and N. gives her great pleasure by playing for her on an electric keyboard we'd brought along.  On another visit, his grandma was listening to a resident play an organ in the common area, and both women encouraged N. to try it.  Both women had a wonderful time showing him how the instrument worked and listening to him play.  I was so grateful to N.'s piano teacher for all she's done during the past year to give N. the means to make his grandma and her fellow resident smile.  Here's a bit of the moment I captured on my phone:

Friday, July 1, 2011

An Afternoon at the Train Museum

N. at the museum in 2009
N. at the museum in 2011
Last week N. and I went to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, NC.  We went there two years ago and it was fun to see how much N. remembered from that visit.  The museum is on the old maintenance yards for the Southern Railway; there is a cool round house, repair shops, turntable, lots of engines, and a short train ride available.

As a museum, it is woefully underfunded and underdeveloped; there are missing explanatory signs and aging exhibits that are just beginning to be replaced.  It also does a poor job "interpreting" the era.  I was struck by the sea of white faces in all the old photos of the workers at the Spencer works and wondered what role African-Americans played in the rail history of that area.  But the museum is entirely mum on the issue of race relations.

Despite the fact that it was difficult to learn as much as we would have liked to about the development of railways in the South from this museum, N. enjoyed seeing lots of magnificent train engines, which was really the main attraction anyway!