Thursday, February 6, 2014

Too Young to Read?

I've written about this before, but I keep finding people (who usually support play-based learning) who seem to believe that young children aren't capable of academic learning. While I wholeheartedly agree that the vast majority of preschoolers aren't ready to learn the way traditional schools teach, I find it frustrating that many people assume that is the only way academic subjects can be taught. It also seems to be a common assumption that if academics matter at all to a teacher, (s)he must be undervaluing other areas of development. I find it frustratingly ironic that many of the same people who advocate for letting children develop at their own pace also advocate for restricting what we offer them.
The subject most commonly treated this way is reading. There is a huge segment of people – parents and educators – who believe that kindergartners should not be taught reading. And the research supports them to a certain extent, but it also only looks at children who are taught in traditional ways. It acknowledges the children who learn to read at four years old, but only as outliers. I haven't seen any research outside of the Montessori sphere that considers any methods of developing pre-reading skills that vary too much from the norm, so it's no surprise that they all conclude the same thing. I read another article about this topic today here. The author touches on some interesting and important research, but I believe she draws the wrong conclusions from it. Below is a comment I left on her post:
Have you looked into Montessori? It’s based on observation of the children and following them developmentally. In the early days, and to a slightly lesser extent now that we have a set of materials that work for most children, materials were brought in and removed based on the children’s interest. My knowledge of Montessori education leads to me to believe that most children CAN and SHOULD learn to read around age 4.5… but note that I did NOT say they should be taught. See, Montessori schools have teachers who are trained to demonstrate the use of materials, based on the child’s interest, and then back off and just observe unobtrusively. The children are free to explore as long as they are not doing anything dangerous, damaging the materials, or disturbing another child. The only “reading” material they had in the original schools was a set of sandpaper letters on small wooden boards. Children who wanted to learn them were offered instruction, but if they didn't that was okay, too. It was just tracing the letter and making its sound. Montessori herself believed 3-6 year olds were too young for anything more than that, and that they would learn even that much later, in formal schooling. So it wasn't urgent, and in any case she looked at these classes as experiments anyway. Her concern was not in making the children learn, but in finding out *how* they learned when no one was imposing a specific curriculum on them. But the children surprised her, and their teachers. In each class, there inevitably came a day when a four year old would make a letter with the chalk that had been provided for drawing. (S)he would write words, and then exclaim something along the lines of “I've done it! I've written!” The other children would crowd around and try it for themselves and suddenly all the older children were writing. This same scenario happened in classes across the world. Montessori wrote about children writing on everything, even the crusts of their bread, because they were so excited about it. And then, as if their teachers weren't astonished enough, about six months later some child would look back on something (s)he had written and read it, and tell everyone something along the lines of, “I can read!” Again, the other children would try it and find that they, too, could read. And when adults asked them who taught them to write and read, the children looked puzzled and replied, “Why, no one. We taught ourselves.” And at that point, most of the students were the children of illiterate day workers. They got no academic instruction at home.
So I firmly believe the issue is not teaching reading and writing at young ages, but in *how* we teach it. I find that most people who are against early academics (at least vocally so) assume that young children couldn't possibly be interested in reading or math or history. It’s the other side of the coin – legislators believe that all children *must* learn it (now), and detractors believe that all/most children *can’t* learn it (yet)… but Montessori schools have found the opposite. And the reason is that Montessori schools actually ask what the children are interested in and let them demonstrate what they’re capable of. They have all concrete materials. There are no worksheets and no homework. There are art supplies and free movement and building materials and basic activities to care for oneself and one’s environment. Academics are “taught” by the materials themselves, through the child’s interest, and in an environment where social and motor development are just as highly valued as academic learning. There are other benefits of it, but I've already written a book so I will just hope people look into it on their own. Suffice it to say that Dr Montessori consistently found that whatever age she developed materials for, it was children just younger who were enthralled by them.
So I hope not to offend you by this statement, but I think articles like this miss the point. The focus shouldn't be on what children learn when, but on *how* we teach them. When teachers believe children are too young, they usually don’t provide opportunities for the child to prove them wrong, and I think that is just as much of a disservice as pushing them to do things for which they aren't yet ready. The key is having an environment that includes materials we don’t think they can handle yet, all the way down to materials we think they have outgrown, and then let them tell us what they need by observing what they use and how they use it.

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