Friday, October 7, 2011

Huh? My baby can read?

As I mentioned in my last post, Ryan has started to read.

This happened despite our non-efforts to teach Ryan to read. We put in a lot of effort to promote early literacy and language skills, but we did not teach reading and it was not our intention to teach reading before he turned 4 years old. I am writing this post to explain why and to document our journey.

When Ryan was an infant, Richard and I were caught up in the frenzy of new parenthood, and we wanted to do everything, buy everything, try everything, that was on the market. We were seduced by the marketing material which showed babies and very young children reading. How amazing to see an infant being able to point to his nose when he sees the word "nose"!

We bought a sight-word programme called "Your Baby Can Read" (YBCR) (a set of 5 DVDs and books) which promised us that, if we drilled the content into our son, he would learn the words and figure out the phonics rules on his own. There is nothing revolutionary about it - the principle is that if you repeat something often enough, it will stick, which is generally true for anything - but the good thing was that it had been conveniently put together in a package. We watched all the DVDs with Ryan (although we did not adhere to the recommended frequency) and we read all the books with him.

At the same time, Richard and I were slowly calming down and finding our feet. When the novelty of being parents had finally worn off, we stepped back and started giving a lot more critical thought to our parenting choices. We realised that we were doing some things just because others were doing it, assuming that it was the right thing for us. But some things didn't actually feel right to us. And this early reading programme certainly did not feel right.

Firstly, I felt as if I was not respecting Ryan's needs by forcing him to learn something which he did not need to know at his age. After all, what did I expect him do with that ability - read the newspaper and discuss politics with us? He had no conceptual understanding of what he was looking at - he could see the word "elephant" and the image of an elephant, he understood that "elephant" was related to the image, but did he really understand what an elephant was? The only point seemed to be as a party trick - "Look my 10-month old can read the word "HEAD" because he put his hand on his head!" and I certainly had no desire for that. I felt that we should be doing things that were appropriate for his age and that we were depriving him of those precious and valuable experiences. Forcing him to sit there so all those words could be tattooed into his brain gave me the feeling that I was numbing him, shutting down his senses. The expression "drill and kill" came to mind. Look at the photo in this post when Ryan was 6 months old! At the time I thought it was cute, now I realise it's not funny at all - he was bored and numb.

Secondly, I felt that we were putting the cart before the horse. Ryan wasn't talking yet. He didn't know the alphabet or letter sounds yet. Reading was supposed to be the end point of a journey - certain fundamentals have to be put in place before actual reading is taught, and it takes years to do that.

Thirdly, I was not convinced that sight words were the right way to start learning to read. A sight reader is not taught to decode a word. Instead, he is taught to recognise a word. If he has not seen the word before or anything similar, he will not be able to read it. For example, try reading this word: sgiomlaireached. Could you read it by sight? Decoding it, did you suddenly sound like a struggling reader? How sure are you that you decoded the word correctly? (and yes, it is a real word - it means "the habit of dropping in at mealtimes").

I did a lot of reading and research on early literacy. A LOT! The more I read, the more fascinating I found it and the more strongly I felt that we were going down the wrong path.

I learned what early literacy was and what the differences between early literacy and actual reading are. I researched into ways to promote early literacy - all of which do not involve teaching reading.

I looked at several pedagogies. While they all encourage early literacy, none of them encourage teaching reading before 4 years old. It is important to instill language skills before the age of four, but not reading, the two are not the same. In the Montessori method, children are taught to write before they are taught to read. They start by learning the letter sounds and they learn to isolate those letter sounds in words that they hear. Then in Shichida, for the children under 2, we introduce the alphabet and letter sounds but we do not teach reading and we do not teach sight words. I looked at developmentally appropriate practices - they all say that teaching infants to read was a big no-no.

I read about the sight-word approach, the phonics approach, their history and how to teach both. I also looked at the long-term benefits for the child. Children taught with the sight-word method have higher reading levels than children learning phonics at the preliminary stage, because they learn to automatically recognise a small selection of words. However later tests demonstrate that literacy development becomes stunted when hit with longer and more complex words later. You need 20,000 words to be considered a fluent reader. Studies show that, if these students do not learn phonics in addition to their sight word training, they cannot learn more than about 2,000 words by sight alone because that is the average limit of human memory (they can perhaps learn up to 5,000 if they have a superb memory). Even if they learn 3,000 to 5,000 common words, they still read so poorly that they do not like to read.

I looked into the question of whether there was actually any real advantage or benefit to pushing your child to read early, whichever method is used. I found the converse - there was plenty of research telling me that it was not good (especially if not done properly). Richard was of the same view. He couldn't see any advantage to our child being able to read at 12 or 18 months. He said it's not as if Ryan gets a headstart in a race to read all the books in the world. A smart child will read early but reading early will not make a child smarter (ie. not all children who read early are smart).

We came to the conclusion that learning to read could wait. We would build a solid, strong foundation for literacy first and when we were ready to learn to read, we would use a blended but predominantly phonics-based approach (the phonics approach does include teaching sight words which are unphonemic).

So we stopped watching the YBCR videos (with a sense of great relief) and I made no attempt to teach Ryan reading. We continued reading lots and lots of books together and playing with books (including letting Ryan chew on the books and turn the pages). When we read books, we never forced Ryan to look at the words or even look at the page - we just read the book aloud and enjoyed the story, the words, the rhythm and the emotion. If he wasn't interested, we'd drop it and move on. When Ryan got a little older, we taught him the alphabet and the letter sounds, we did pretend play, had conversations, sang songs, recited rhymes and told stories. We also played lots of games with words and letters. I should add that we have never flashed cards to drill sight words into his brain.

The YBCR videos and books were put away, mostly forgotten and ignored. Once in a (long) while, we would pull one of the videos out but when we watched the introduction showing the little baby touching her toes when shown the word "toes", we no longer felt that we needed to teach Ryan to do the same thing. We accepted that sight word readers would read before phonics readers and we stuck to our chosen methodology - building early literacy first and teaching basic phonics. Ryan did pick up some sight words as we went along, like ZOO, LOVE, etc., even RYAN, but we knew he couldn't read yet and it was all right. We never pressured ourselves or Ryan to hurry up.

And yes, it all paid off. Ryan is starting to read now, way sooner than we had expected or planned. He does it by decoding the word according to its letter sounds and blending them together. There are a lot more phonics principles and rules to learn, plus some sight words as well, but this ability to identify the letter sounds and blend them together is the basic starting point. We are on our way!

Now I don't mean to criticise those who have done things differently from us. A few of Ryan's peers who started with the sight word method when they were infants are able to read already and it's fantastic to see them do so. Some of these little readers are adding phonics to their reading skills now (and if not, they eventually will when they get to school, as Singapore schools do teach phonics). It is so amazing to witness a infant/toddler making sense of the printed word, however he acquired that skill, and it must have been such a wonderful effort on the part of the parents so, well done all round!

If you are interested in reading up more on early literacy and developmentally appropriate practices for children of Ryan's age as well as sight words/phonics, you can start with these resources:

Early Literacy at
Why Don't You Teach Reading? A Look at Emergent Literacy at
Finding the Sweet Spot for Early Literacy at
Whatever Happened to Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Literacy? by Susan B. Neuman and Kathleen Roskos
"Why Johnny Can’t Read—and What You Can Do About It" (a book by Rudolf Flesch)
Hey, It's Not a Race at


Karmeleon said...

Well, I totally believe in the method of DVD flashcards. The YBCR is a little "longwinded", I must say, so does not exactly follow Dolman or Schichida.

We didn't use any other method to teach reading. We just showed the flashcard programme on the DVD. Our boy showed that he could recognise both Chinese & English by 10mths. And despite all the negativity on reading by sight, I do think there are merits. Our boy learnt by sight, but he figured out the phonetics through that too. He could read anything, words he'd not seen before - he'd figure them out by how he feels the alphabet combinations sound. We observed that not long after we observed that he really could recognise words.

Pinkie Pirate said...

@Karmeleon- hello! nice of you to drop by! It's great that you are happy with your chosen method, that's what matters.

Karmeleon said...

We didn't actually *choose* the method. But we know it works - to our amazement.

Pinkie Pirate said...

@Karmeleon - haha, I did not say it doesn't work. Of course it can work, that's why sight word reading has many supporters! In fact, I mentioned that some of Ryan's peers started reading that way - always amazing to see. Actually Ryan was also picking up words from YBCR but we decided that it was not the right choice for us and so we stopped. Each family decides what they are comfortable with. And yes, it is always amazing when our little ones acquire new skills! One of the joys of parenting! Cheers!

Karmeleon said...

Didn't we all learn to read by sight last time? I know I did.

Pinkie Pirate said...

@Karmeleon - that's great too!

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