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Prepare to Read…then Relax

When my son was in first grade, he was in a mixed-grade classroom where the teacher worked within a progressive education model. (See alfiekohn.com for information on this.) She believed that in a rich educational environment, children didn’t need to be taught so much as experience a model of learning. Our son was a great achiever within this model. At age 6 when he entered the class, he wasn’t yet reading. I thought I’d done everything right: We’d read to him since he was tiny, he didn’t watch any TV, and because he was our first child and I thought I should, I even drilled letter sounds with him when he was in preschool.
Six weeks into first grade, he started reading. Not just Cat in the Hat. He started really reading…everything. When I complimented his teacher on how he’d improved, she said, “Oh, yes, reading, I haven’t really worked with him on that yet.” She trusted the environment, and the environment succeeded.
In other words, he was ready.
My daughter has a different story. She grew up in the same reading-rich environment, but her mother was a lot more tired and jaded! I hardly worked with her on reading, past learning the letters. Yet one day she started reading common signs on the highway, then she started to read signs on stores. She never read to us, but we started to notice that she was gleaning information that she could only get by reading. Pretty soon she started reading fluidly, at the age of four.
She was ready.
Imagine if my son, who now reads pretty much at an adult level, had been told that he was “behind” because he wasn’t reading anything by the end of kindergarten. (This is the kid who drove me CRAZY because no matter how often I pronounced the word “the” for him, he’d see it and say, “tuh-HUH” with this great effort!) In some school systems he would have been held back if he couldn’t read a list of sight words that some not-so-bright adult thought kids “should” be able to read at the end of kindergarten. What a waste of resources to hold back a completely normal, bright kid because he isn’t reading on someone else’s schedule!
Imagine my daughter in a standard classroom – what would the teacher do with her? One of the ways that teachers occupy kids who are already reading is to have them “help” the other kids. Since my daughter was never taught to read, I can imagine she’d find that exercise a bit strange. I know that when I was in public school, if I’d finished the work I was just left to my own devices.
I can promise you that this is NOT a winning strategy with my daughter!
The most literate countries in the world seldom require kids under seven to do any actual reading instruction. Our public schools, which are failing more miserably every year to produce solid readers and writers, are now cramming in reading earlier and earlier. Our testing system makes it clear that there is something “wrong” with a second-grader who doesn’t read.
Yet the fact is, except for when something really IS wrong (such as a learning disability), there is nothing wrong with our kids. Many of them (the “average” kid) learn to read between the ages of six and seven. But that doesn’t mean that ALL of them should or even can. Late readers shouldn’t be made to feel that something is wrong with them. Early readers are often ready for much more at a much younger age. That doesn’t mean they should have to sit around and wait for everyone else to catch up.
Education is a messy business that has nothing to do with a business model based on widgets. Teaching kids is an art, more akin to modern dance than selling cars. No real child is average. Teachers sigh with relief when they get a class that functions within the usual parameters, but that doesn’t happen that often. They’re always going to get the kindergarten non-readers like my son, and the kindergarten book-devourers like my daughter. Our system needs to be flexible and forgiving.
We need to relax a lot more and really pay attention to our children, giving them a rich environment in which we read with pleasure. We need to give them the time to appreciate the joy of using their mind’s eye instead of relying on video to create stories in their heads. We need to trust that they will learn, and let them be happy while they’re doing it.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.


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