Tuesday, October 27, 2009

First Word!

Walk Beside Me posted today about when to start reading. Her thoughts were based on the Margaret Homfray videos. Apparently in one of them she says something to the effect that the ideal time to start language materials is between 4 and 6 and that starting them on language material before then could be harmful. I am going to do an unprofessional thing and write about my thoughts on this without having seen the video. Hopefully I'll get a chance to watch it soon and join this discussion better prepared.

Disclaimer: The following is based on what I "think." I do not claim to know what I am doing.

If Montessori has a mantra, it would be "follow the child." Nearly all writings about Montessori will intentionally leave ages off of the activities because they would get in the way of following the child. However, if you do enough reading you can make a little collection of statements like "this usually happens around age..." Homeschooling families are particularly interested in such statements because we don't have the experience of seeing 30 kids year after year to develop an inner knowledge of the pacing of the materials. It is helpful to know when things "usually happen" so that we can think about whether we may be pushing a child into materials he is not ready for or holding them back by waiting too long to introduce new ones.

I am interested in watching this particular video because I would like to see if it is clear exactly what Homfray meant by "language materials." As Walk Beside Me points out, it is easy to find places where people mention that sandpaper letters should be started as soon as possible. Also, in my limited experience I seem to spend significantly more time on "I spy" activities than the average homeschooler, but maybe it just seems that way because it's not a very blog friendly topic. It increased my confidence tremendously when I read Montessori Read and Write and saw how much emphasis they placed on the preliminary aural activities.

At any rate, back to following the child...

I would find it difficult to agree with the suggestion that it would be harmful to introduce language materials before four. If I had waited until 4 with Kal-El with language I will still be waiting and I certainly would have missed his sensitive times for many things. He started asking about letters when he was two, my response was to throw some magnetic letters up on the front of the dryer and simply answered his questions. By the time he was 2.5 he knew all their names. (Then I discovered Montessori and realized I taught him the "wrong" thing...capitals and names, oh well).

Walk Beside Me's post interested me particular today because I had exciting news to report. Today Kal-El used some magnet letters and "wrote" his first word for his brother. I was 100% NOT involved at the time. He had a lot of questions this morning about letters. He kept bringing me groups of magnetic letters and asking me "what does this say?" We sounded out the word "milk" at his request and he really got a kick out of that. When Me Too was finally out of bed and I was busy making breakfast I was vaguely aware that he was showing Me Too magnet letters on the kitchen floor. He was bringing a letters into the kitchen one at a time and laying them out, returning some to the laundry room, getting different ones...in other words he was out of my hair. He got my attention when he told Me Too "see? That spells 'map'." I looked and, sure enough, it did. Everything was right-side up, in order, and perfectly lined up on an invisible line. After I finish posting this, I need to go into the school room, find the box with the moveable, and put it on the shelf. I was stalling putting it out until he was more successful with ending and middle sounds, but if this isn't a sign that he's ready I don't know what is. I think it would be silly to worry that I was "harming" him in some way by doing so.

I hope he doesn't notice that we are still waiting for our Z's.

Another point Walk Beside Me brought up was that some educational theorists (and the like) believe reading training before age seven can do more harm than good (she wasn't agreeing, just mentioning). While I am a big fan of Raymond and Dorothy Moore who wrote books such as School Can Wait and Better Late Than Early. I agree with them that in an ideal world, children would be home with their families until they are between the ages of 8 and 10. It is, however, an important point that "being home" doesn't mean sitting around watching PBS all day (obviously). I agree at the same time with this statement from The Well-Trained Mind:

If you skimp on reading or writing...you're likely to hamper the child's educational progress. History and Science are reading-dependent. A child who reads and writes well will pick up surprising amounts of history and science as he browses. A child who has difficulty reading and writing will struggle with every subject.

The WTM talks a lot about building "scaffolding" in your mind for future learning, or putting up "pegs" on which to hang future facts. It is this aspect of a classical education that I find so much in agreement with the Montessori method. The earlier a child reads, the more they can read, the sooner they read "better." Reading more and better builds more scaffolding and puts up more pegs, leading to more accumulated knowledge which leads to yet more reading and more building. It is a continually rewarding cycle.

I think it is important to point out that some children in Montessori schools don't learn to read until they are older. I read "Montessori Online" and have seen several discussions about this. My impression was that they continue to follow the child and they will read when they are ready. I just think that withholding the appropriate materials until age four is dangerously related to statements such as "What do you think you are doing, teaching your child to read yourself?" [WTM, 13] and "Thou shalt be an expert before attempting to teach reading." [31] The Bauer's mantra is "reading is easy, reading is easy" and I agree that it is. I fuss a lot about it, and talk a lot about it because I think that the Montessori sequence makes it as easy as it can be so I want to follow it as closely as I am able. I am reminded that Maria Montessori said that she just made the materials available and the children taught themselves to read. Probably an over-simplified but otherwise true assertion. My Mom might seriously correct me here in the comments, but I was reading before I started kindergarten at age 5. She wasn't following the "Montessori method" or buying special materials. She just read to me, all the time. And then read to me some more. She answered my questions and told me the sounds the letters made when I seemed interested. I'm sure she remembers a lot more about the process than I do, but I don't think it was an ordeal. I certainly wasn't damaged in any way, in fact reading is my secret super-power. I do remember it being an ordeal with my younger brother who was subjected to whole-language instruction at school. It was also an ordeal for my husband, another whole-language victim. I could blame the fact that they are both men, but it's more fun to blame WLI.

I will agree that it can be damaging to try to teach something at the "wrong time" or "force" the child to learn something. Which brings us back "follow the child." It also brings me to one of my Mom's long-term concerns about Montessori, "what if they never want to do a certain subject...like math." My answer to that is generally that the Montessori Method as a whole works against something like that happening and in a true sticky situation the subject can be piggy-backed onto another of the child's interests. But, I'm sure there are many of you with better answers than I can give. Discuss!

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  1. Thanks for your thoughts on the subject, and congratulations on Kal-el spelling his first word!

    I think it probably is more about not forcing things on the child before he is ready. I certainly don't think she was suggesting that if a child starts asking about letter sounds "too early", you should tell him no.

    I didn't mention in the post, but I also kind of wonder whether more kids are ready earlier now than they used to be (for whatever reason).

    On the other hand, I was reading in that biography after I wrote that post yesterday, and it sounded like in Montessori's early experiments at Children's House, she was teaching the two-year-olds letters right next to the six-year-olds.

  2. I do think that some of the gap comes in the definition of reading.

    I define what Kal-el did as writing, not reading. He can read the word because he wrote it which is how the Montessori theory believes the progression happens. Actual reading is much farther down the road from writing. (Hopefully this reads as an observation not as me trying to burst your proud Mommy bubble..you should definitely be a proud mommy!)

    Because of this it is hard to compare non- Montessori theorists (like Moore) to the materials because they go about things completely differently. When they are talking about reading they are talking about the traditional method of instruction.

    There is also a huge time lapse in Montessori between those CVC writings to move to reading printed words in the way that is traditionally meant to be "reading" instruction.

    I've taught it both ways, and I vote for this one. It is more of a lengthy process, but it creates a more confident reader and a much more competent writer.

    I will be interested to see what your thoughts continue to be as Me Too gets to this stage!

  3. Heidi,

    I see why there might be some confusion here. Walk Beside Me titled her post "when to start reading" but the post talked about "language materials" as a whole, not reading versus writing materials.

    You didn't burst my bubble :) LOL! If you look again you'll see I did say that he "wrote" his first word. I do know that writing (in this way) precedes reading at first. When we sounded out "milk" we started with the sound and found the letters we needed, not the other way around. He was reminding Me Too that he built "map," wasn't reading what he wrote.

    I think you are right about the Moore's referring to traditional reading instruction in their works and that it is a good explanation for why theorists who agree in many areas might disagree in this one.

    It is easy to lapse into talking about "reading" when discussing the "language materials" because even though writing starts ahead it is only that way initially. Also I would classify early I spy activities as "reading" instruction, sandpaper letters and reading and writing, etc.,

    What I find interesting here is that Homphrey would say that it could be harmful to start "language material" before four when she knew exactly, without confusion, what that meant. That's why I am interested in watching the video because I don't know if she was really referring to "I spy," sandpaper letters, and the moveable alphabet as "language materials" in context or not. For all I know, she may have meant later materials.

    It would be interesting to know what Moore's actual thought were on Montessori. Their strongest arguments are the positive reasons to have kids home with their families and some of the consequences of them being away. I find the "science" of what the should or shouldn't be learning at those ages to be a weaker. (Such as damaging their eyesight by looking at tiny words too young. Besides, Montessori materials are HUGE!)

    I agree with my husband who always says things like "they'll learn how to [fill in the blank] eventually. People can spend X amount of hours teaching it to them early, or wait until the right moment and teach it to them in five minutes." He doesn't realize how Montessori that is. One of the points I maybe didn't make very clearly is that the process of learning to read (and write) in total might go faster from beginning to end if it were started later (as the Moore's point out). However, while Montessori kids might END their total instruction at the same time as other kids despite beginning it sooner, they are nevertheless doing "some" reading sooner. I agree with the Bauer's that the benefits of reading are exponential (like saving for retirement when you are younger rather than older and how much more you get for the same amount of money in). Sooo, I guess I'm making the argument for taking advantage of early language opportunities so that the possibility of earlier reading is there, rather than to miss them by waiting until age four. I know in the Montessori Online discussions there the argument was sometimes made that the kids who don't learn to read until significantly older ages somehow missed their early sensitive periods for language instruction and then all you could do is wait for another window. At the same time I'm arguing for not forcing language instruction on young children if they are not interested in pursuing it on their own.


    Heidi, all that was not really directed at your comment. I know you know all that already. I just got going on an idea again and then couldn't stop.

  4. Great post and very well written! Thanks! I have written several posts on this same topic but keep deleting them. I can't articulate exactly my thoughts in an appropriate way. I hate seeing parents who are scared to teach their kid to read, or feel they can't, because of so many "expert" opinions about the only "true and correct" way to teach reading and how they are going to damage their child.

  5. The thing about a school (as apposed to homeschooling) is that the materials are outand available and the lessons are going on with some-one every day, so an individual child will see all this and be drawn to the language materials at the right time for him/her. You end up with children in the same year group with the first showing interest in reading at 2 1/2 and the last being 5 1/2. I have a boy at school who I am still waitin for the sensitive period in language to arrive and he was 5 last May. It is frustrating for the teacher and parents but not for him - he is working his way through the pre-reading materials, as many as I can find/make/invent to get him to the right place. In the end he will read.

    On the subject of sensitive periods - although I am a Montessorian I disagree that sensitive periods disappear at age 6. In fact, i would go so far as to say that, given the right environment, the sinsitive periods never disappear. I look at my 9 year old, who had missed a lot of basic maths through glue ear and being deaf. When she was struggling at school, I took her into my classroom one weekend and went throught the maths materials right from the beginning. When we reached materials that filled in gaps she stayed with and repeated works over and over again in a way that older children are not supposed to. Each time she finished a work cycle she was refreshed and happy. At the end of the day we had reached work somewhere around her appropriate age. She has not forgotten what she learnt and her teacher is amazed and delighted. To me it seemed that the sensitive periods had not been satisfied when they had first arisen so had waited until she could attend to them.

    I would also point to how adults get extremely absorbed by a hobby or single issue. A child in that state is said to be satifying a senstivie period. Why not an adult.

    I would also ask - what do you do if some-one hands you a fruit you have never come across? Do you run for a research book or the internet, or do you lift it to your nose and sniff it, squeeze it gently and feel it, even lick it if you think no-one is looking? Surely the second (ok, maybe only I lick it!). Yet that would be classic absorbent mind activity, or from Piaget's point of veiw - a sensory-motor response. I think we go backwards and forwards through the different stages all our lives and for different situations. The same is true of a child learning anything. They return to different ways and stages of learning when they are given the right environment.

  6. Annicles, what great thoughts! The human mind is amazing. Perhaps it doesn't get less amazing after a certain age, just more specialized.

  7. I tend to agree with your comment about "follow your child" and do the language activities as they seem ready and ask for them. I started teaching/talking about phonics with my son when he was 4, and he was reading fluently by 4.5. My daughter was watching and listening as he learned, and knew all her letter sounds (and beginnings, middles and endings) by the time she turned 3! Now she is turning 4 in a few days, and she can read three letter words and knows quite a few blends. I am still trying to "follow" her though, because she isn't very interested in reading, so I'm not pushing her. Just fascinated that she learned so early!

    Now my just-turned-2 year old daughter is starting to show interest in letters. We'll see where that goes...

  8. You know I'm not one to stop once I get going so I can't fault you for getting it out there.

    I was talking to my husband about how I don't always get so into all of the Montessori blogs (although I read several) and discussion boards because of the time factor and also I feel pretty confident in my understanding and application of Montessori theory.

    That, however, is mostly because I have a theorist sitting across from me at the dinner table! WE talk about this stuff all the time, so I don't always get involved in the online discussions. That means my responses are usually somewhat off the cuff without necessarily having seen all of the prior posting done in other places!