How To Grow a Reader
I talked to a mother of a delightful four year old girl last summer. We were sitting on a bench in town chatting as her daughter was gathering pieces of tree bark from the ground and offering us some as “steak.” My friend told me, “My daughter is four and doesn’t even know the ABC song! She can only count to eight on her best day and doesn’t recognize any letters. I’ve stopped going on Facebook because I hate all the bragging mothers who live through their kids achievements.”
I wasn’t entirely sure if she was feeling proud of her daughter’s lack of “achievement” or concerned, until she said, “I was completely free from any academic pressure for the first seven years of my life, and that’s what I want for my own children. She’s loved, respected and appreciated for who she is, not for what she knows.”
I asked her if she was worrying about her daughter being behind the other kids when she started kindergarten. She said she wasn’t because she knew her daughter was very smart and kind, but she knew that her daughter was probably going to be judged by some children, and that some parents and teachers were definitely going to judge her as a parent. She was OK with that.
There certainly is something beautiful and brave in just letting a child be a child. No pushing. No pressure. Faith. The “Wildflower” approach.
As a Montessori guide for three to six year old children, I saw the Wildflower approach in action every school year with a handful of families. I have to say, that those children often had clear opinions and strongly defined interests. What is more, they didn’t seem to be at all bothered that other children were more accomplished with letters and numbers.
There was also another handful of children who arrived at our school’s door who were clearly more familiar and comfortable with adult direction. They waited for instructions, praise, and permission. Many understood the path toward reading and noticed when a teacher checked off a newly acquired skill into the record book, whether it was their skill or a friends.
There certainly is something rewarding about efficiency and well-defined expectations. Progress. Certainty. Involvement. The “Rose” approach.
We Are Gardeners
Maria Montessori said, “The secret of good teaching is to regard the child’s intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination.”
Children eventually learn to read, whether they are a Wildflower or a Rose. What adults can do for young children is much like what we do every spring and fall to ensure a fruitful summer garden: prepare the soil. We don’t decide when our seeds will grow. We protect them, water and nourish them regularly in the right amounts, and give them space. We create the best conditions we can and then stand back and allow the seeds to sprout and bloom whenever they are ready.
Understanding and providing the best conditions for learning to read is what we can do for our young children. Once that is done, respectfully let the child’s mind, body and heart do the work and bloom whenever they are ready.
Oral Language Is the Magic Ingredient
So many well-meaning adults think that learning the letters is the first step to learning to read, and so it makes perfect sense to go out and buy a workbook or flashcards. That’s a little bit like polishing only one leaf on your plant and forgetting to water the roots! Did you know that the ears and mouth are directly related to reading and writing? That the skills of listening and speaking not only usher in, but are strong predictors for reading and writing success? Think of oral language as the soil. Make it rich and robust.
Read Aloud! Obvious, I know, but books are the lifeblood of vocabulary, conversation, and new ideas. Don’t let a day go by without reading a good book to your child.
Phonemic Awareness! Maybe not as obvious, but essential. A child’s level of phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of how well a child will learn to read. Phonemic awareness is different from phonics. Phonemes are sounds, not letters. Can your child tell you the first sound they hear when you say “toy?” Can they tell you the last sound in “cake?” How about all of the sounds they hear in “monkey?” (m-u-n-k-e). Play I Spy: “I spy, with my little eye, something on the table that begins with the sound sss.” “Spoon. That’s right!”
Vocabulary! Young children are word learning machines. On average, a three year old adds 5 words to their vocabulary every day! Typically, only one new word is directly taught, while the others are acquired through context. An enlarged and enriched vocabulary is an important tool for effective oral and written communication. Understanding others and expressing their own thoughts becomes easier. An expanded vocabulary is also directly related to reading success, and it is such an easy thing to do work on with library books or whenever your child asks you what a particular word means.
One important thing to know is that just recognizing a word is not nearly as beneficial for reading as being able to explain what the word means. In an article called, “Taking Delight in Words: Using Oral Language to Build Young Children’s Vocabularies” there are some excellent examples of vocabulary instruction that you can read about in detail. In the meantime, look for interesting words that you can share with your child when the time feels right. After a couple of tries, it will become second nature to use these effective steps: Read the word within it’s sentence in the story. Stop and ask the child to say it with you. Ask if they can guess what it means. Explain the meaning in every day language. Use the word in a new context. Have your child try to think of their own example. Say the word together one more time.
There are other oral language skills that can also be practiced with fun as the main ingredient. Conversational skills, auditory memory, listening and rhyming are all language skills that improve with practice. Keep your antennae up every day to find opportunities to play with words.
Provide More Structured Experiences
Play in childhood is what gas is to a car. Play fuels the brain and the body. The three to six year old, for the most part, wants more of a road map than he or she did as a Full-Body-Exploration-Specialist (aka Toddler). It is easy to miss this subtle shift in development, and then miss out on great opportunities for creating activities that are “just right” for supporting their important stage in brain development.
Three to six year old children need and want more ordered and purposeful play. Notice how they match, sort, sequence, classify and find order in their little world. If we understand that they are consciously looking for patterns and details to connect throughout their day, we can supply those opportunities and add language to them.
Stockpiling quality experiences is creating rich and deep connections and meaning, which grows a bigger and stronger brain.
Wildflowers or Roses? We Don’t Have to Choose
Recognizing the value of exploration, imagination and freedom for a young child is an extraordinary gift for their soul. Parenting with clear and informed intention to make the most of the three to six year old child’s unique stage of brain development serves the child’s mind. Freedom within clear boundaries, exploration with real objects and ideas, and imagination fueled with inspiring language sounds like the ultimate balance. We don’t have to choose one approach over another.