Monday, April 9, 2012

On So-Called Early Reading...

I just finished reading this article citing research opposed to early reading. Most of the following post I first wrote in the comments section of that article, but I felt that this topic was incredibly important for people to understand fully and wanted to share my thoughts here.  Let me start by saying that I fully agree there is a problem with the way most children learn to read and write. Several problems, in fact. But we'll stick with the problem posited in the original post - early reading (as taught by most educational institutions) doesn't add anything to a child's academic skills or knowledge down the road. In fact, children who attended "play based" preschools fared much better in several areas than those who attended preschools that focused on academic skills. The research is quite clear on that verdict, Jennifer wrote, and it's true - but I've never found any research that differentiated between children by the way they learned to read or their motivation for doing so. Since the vast majority of people are educated in traditional schools, whether public or private, I think it's logical to say that the research is lacking. I would even venture to say that the way most children are taught reduces their interest in doing what they are taught to do. This really isn't a new idea, in fact, Alfie Kohn wrote a whole book about it and Montessori touched on it in a few of hers over fifty years ago.

The problem actually isn’t “early” reading, it’s the way traditional schools teach reading. When Maria Montessori developed the first Montessori schools, all she had available for the children was a set of sandpaper letters, believing that to go any farther was inappropriate for the children with whom she worked. They were ages 3-6. The children worked with the sandpaper letters and then, when they were drawing with chalk, started to write the letters they knew without any prompting from an adult. Then one child (around age 4) started to write words and prompted an “explosion into writing” for other children. Soon most of the class was writing on everything they could get their hands on – Montessori even wrote about children writing on the crusts of their bread! And then, about six months later, the second magic moment happened. One of the children realized that he (or she) could read the words he (or she) had written. This became an “explosion into reading” similar to the previous explosion into writing. All of it happened (in many different environments, with many different classes, over many years) without reading or writing being taught at all. All the teachers did was introduce a knowledge of phonetics and show the correct way to form the letters (which allowed the child to form a proper muscle memory of the letter shapes). They only did this with children who were interested in having those lessons. Most, if not all, of the parents were illiterate and couldn't teach either reading or writing. The children had these epiphanies because of their own interest in writing and reading!

Today we have materials that help a child progress farther into reading and writing, because Montessori discovered through these explosions that these activities are age appropriate for primary children. The philosophy remains the same, though, since everything Montessori advocated was based on observation of the child.

So yes, I agree that adults shouldn’t push reading on children, but not because it’s not age-appropriate. We shouldn’t push ANY kind of learning (with the exception of those few things needed for safety’s sake) for the simple reason that we only truly learn when we are intrinsically motivated. If we let them follow their inner teacher and simply connect them with safe opportunities to discover things, they will move farther along the educational path than any traditionally educated child will. There will be no divide between work and play because their work is joyful and pleasurable to them when they are allowed to follow their instincts. "Work" only becomes a dirty word when the task doesn't meet the worker's needs, but rather the needs or wants of an external source.

Of course I'm not suggesting anyone should let children run wild. Children need boundaries for physical and emotional safety, and their freedom cannot be broader than what their emotional and intellectual maturity allows then to manage effectively. But too often people assume that children need adults to fill the imaginary blank slate in their brains, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Welcome to Montessori Moments, a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.

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