Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Does It Matter When You Teach Reading?

I have always valued reading above all else in education. If you learn to read well, you can learn anything else you want to know. I always knew I wanted to focus on teaching the girls to understand and think critically about what they read. With such an obvious, clear goal in mind, the time table is easy, right? The earlier the better. Getting a child to read is a good thing, end of story.

Except that’s not the end of the story. When Sierra was younger, she started reading just before she turned 3. By the time she was 4, she was able to read just about anything up to a first grade level. The biggest benefit of that? Bragging rights for me.

It was two more years before I swallowed my pride and did some research about early reading. See, a friend of mine who also homeschools her children had mentioned something about early reading actually being a detriment. I totally blew off this information at the time, but it simmered in the back of my mind. And some relatively minor problems with Sierra’s reading and comprehension persisted until I finally decided it was time to learn about what was going on.

What I found out is that children really need to get through some physical milestones before they are cognitively able to read effectively. While you may get them reading words and parroting a story before they meet these milestones, they have a much easier time and process the information more efficiently if the physical milestones are reached first.

Armed with this information, I have approached reading differently with Sedona. While Sierra was interested in reading, I was also very interested in being the mother of an early reader. I have no doubt part of her drive to read was actually striving for the praise and attention she got from me for reading. In contrast, I have let Sedona completely call the shots. When she asks to read or play a practice game, we do. When she’s done, we stop. I praise her successes without suggesting we read just one more book. We read to her, we talk about the story, she sees us read our own books. The biggest reading skill she works on though?

That’s playing.

Yes, playing. The kind of free play where she hangs out in the backyard with her sister and no toys. The kind of play where she jumps and swings and digs and builds houses out of sticks and rocks. What in the world does that have to do with reading?

One of the key skills kids need to read effectively is “crossing the midline”. That’s exactly what it sounds like, you cross your midline anytime you reach across an imaginary line down the middle of your body. You cross the midline when you cross your legs, touch your right hand to your left knee, and when you read a page. Kids who cannot yet cross the midline will start reading on the left side of the page and when they get to the middle, their eyes have to actually stop and refocus to pick up on the right side. By then they often lose their place and get understandably frustrated. These kids are also using the right side of their brain to recognize the “picture” of a letter and doing more sight memorization rather than the actual phonemic decoding they can do once they bridge that connection between right and left brain. The kids that are relying on this memorization are more likely to mix up words that have similar beginnings and endings (i.e. thank vs. think), more readily reverse similar letters (i.e. b and d or p and q), are less likely to recognize spelling mistakes when they see them and have a difficult time learning to spell correctly in their own writing.

Crossing the midline also goes along with bilateral coordination. That’s the ability to make the two sides of your body work together and helps you develop handedness and write effectively. As the two sides of your brain start working together, you develop a dominant hand and a helper hand and they work together to cut a piece of paper, spread butter on a piece of toast, or numerous other activities we take for granted and forget are educational in their own right. Children having difficulty with this might skip crawling, start walking late or have clumsy motor skills. Along with crossing the midline, this bilateral coordination is an important factor in the ability to write well.

So what’s it matter? If the kid reads, you’ve overcome any possible hindrance, right? Not so fast. A child who is “forcing the issue” when their brain isn’t really ready will have a difficult time with comprehension. They simply don’t have the brain power leftover to create pictures of the story in their mind and imagine what might be coming next. It may take a while for this to really become evident because true comprehension is not a focus in early elementary classrooms (when most of the kids are learning to read and repeating back plot points).

Sierra reversed her letters until very recently (though I partially wrote this off on her being left handed), and she has to really put in a big effort to get her spelling accurate, but it was this comprehension issue that stopped me in my tracks. The whole point is to comprehend. Not to give a summary of the story, but to truly understand it. To discuss it. To give a summary of the story from another character’s point of view or imagine what might have happened after the story ended. To point out fantastical plot points that don’t actually flow together. These are the skills that will help her critically evaluate the non-fiction she will need to educate herself in the future.

If I could go back in time, I probably would have waited another year to teach Sierra reading. I definitely would have taken it slower and paid more attention to her motor skills. She probably is a "true early reader", but I think paying more attention to what her brain was really prepared for would have made things easier on her. It's a little like potty training a kid when they're not ready yet. You can spend months battling over it and cleaning up messes, or you can wait until they're ready and be done in a weekend. The long term outcome is the same, the difference is in the frustration level for you and the child. Early education should be filled with excitement and enthusiasm, not frustration.

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