When should we start formal instruction of math and grammar ?

I have just finished reading a blog by Harvey Bluedorn, Research on the Teaching of Math, that confirms something I have always believed – we waste the first few years of a child’s school years teaching subjects they are not yet mentally prepared to learn. The result is that we instill a dislike for school that kills a child’s natural desire to learn, for the student comes to relate education and school to increased frustration. Instead we could be building on a child’s natural curiosity and predisposition to love learning by laying a foundation of experiences that will increase vocabulary and model language usage. Then when the brain is ready, children will learn in a couple of years what they were learning to hate because of endless repletion of the same content for several years in the early grades – grammar and formal mathematics.

Bluedorn quotes Raymond and Dorthy Moore from School Can Wait, p. 228:

. . If we expect reading and arithmetic based on understanding rather than on rote learning, delay of formal training in these areas appears wise – although informal education through warm parental responses is desirable. Some scholars and clinicians conclude that formal education should wait until ages ten to fourteen . . . . Strong clinical and research evidence indicates that early exposure to the so-called stimulation of school often destroys childhood motivation for learning. By grade three or four many children become stranded on a motivational plateau, never recovering their early excitement for learning. Most primary teachers agree.

In Endangered Minds, Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It, by Jane M. Healy, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1990, Healy says on p.289 :

Abstract rule systems for grammar and usage should be taught when most students are in high school. Then, if previously prepared, they may even enjoy the challenges of this kind of abstract, logical reasoning. Only, however, if the circuits are not already too cluttered up by bungled rule-teaching.

One ninth-grade student who came to me last year for help with grammar was hopelessly confused about the simplest parts of speech. Although she was intelligent and could, at her current age, have mastered this material in a week, she had been a victim of meaningless “grammar” drills since second grade. As Michelle and I struggled on the simple difference between adjectives and adverbs, I often wished I could take a neurological vacuum cleaner and just suck out all those mixed-up synapses that kept getting in our way. It took us six months . . . But finally one day the light dawned. “This is easy!” she exclaimed. It is, when brains are primed for the learning and the student has a reason to use it with real literary models.

She continues on p.290:

Immersing children in good language from books and tapes, modeling patterns for their own speech and writing, and letting them enjoy their proficiency in using words to manipulate ideas are valid ways to embed “grammar” in growing brains . . . . No amount of worksheets or rule learning will ever make up for deficits resulting from lack of experience with the structure of real, meaningful sentences.

It is folly to ignore the importance of oral storytelling, oral history, and public speaking in a world that will communicate increasingly without the mediation of print. These skills build language competence in grammar, memory, attention, and visualization, among many other abilities.

Now the experts seem to believe that if we start teaching children to read and write sooner, they are getting an early start in learning and that this is a good thing. But wouldn’t it be better to use a child’s natural desire to understand his world by taking him outside and learning the names of the various trees, flowers, animals, birds, insects, and other creatures that he sees? Then the teacher could also tell stories that the sights suggest, perhaps in answer to the questions children ask: What makes a flower? Why do leaves change color? Why do leaves fall off the trees? Why is the sky blue? What is a cloud made of? Where does snow come from? This is a great time to build vocabulary and do hands-on science demonstrations or experiments that will lay the foundation for more formal science instruction later.

The best way to help children become successful in language skills later on is to model good language for them now. Read wonderful stories that model standard English or offer opportunities to explain English that’s a bit different and why it’s different, and what the words we use say about us. Discuss the stories with the children to lay a foundation for reading comprehension skills later. Help them find main ideas, see sequence of events, and predict outcomes. See if they can guess what new words might mean from their context. Take a book like Rosie’s Walk (Pat Hutchins) or Pancakes for Breakfast (Tomi de Paola) and let children use the pictures to tell the story orally. Let them tell their own stories, with or without prompts.

In their early years, children have an innate sense of wonder that makes them open to learning all they can. We can lay the foundation for many subjects before teaching them to read and write by helping them explore the world around them, reading to them, talking to them, and answering their questions. We can also introduce many skills needed for critical thinking and reading comprehension orally as we converse with children and let them tell us stories. It’s such a shame that so many children in the early grades only learn to hate school because they are pushed into tasks they are not developmentally ready for too soon. When children are ready, they will be able to learn grammar and reading and formal math quickly, without endless repetition from first grade on.

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7 responses to “When should we start formal instruction of math and grammar ?

  1. teachingyoungchildren

    I stumbled upon your blog surfing “learning to read” tag, and I liked your post. I quite agree with you that playful learning is best. But I disagree about math. You position that math teaching becomes too early, but I think that it starts too late, and it’s not taught correctly. Math has to relate to everyday experiences. After all, quantity surrounds us everywhere, and we all do math everyday without thinking twice about it. I enjoy playing number games with my toddler as we chase dandelions outside. I enjoy drawing geometric shapes for her and talking about how they are different. I hope that she will enjoy math and won’t become another female for who math and science are dry and boring subjects. We’ll see :)

    • I think the key word here is formal instruction. Counting and learning math facts may be appropriate and can be made entertaining. Using manipulatives and using math concepts that apply to daily life as you run into them is probably in the same class as learning vocabulary and early science concepts as one explores the world and uses language. Reading counting books together, measuring things, telling time, can all contribute to laying a foundation for later math instruction. That’s not quite the same as sitting in class and being taught with assignments to do. It’s a great time for hands-on experiences.

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  3. I couldn’t agree more! I added your link to my blog. Thanks. :)

  4. Mary Katherine Moreland

    I know many people who have given up on trying to learn at an early age. I think part of this is because they were not ready to learn formal concepts and became extremely frustrated when they could not get the right answer. This carried with them for a long period of their life. I think the most effective way of teaching younger students is by play and experience. Teachers can still teach young students lessons that are usually done formally, informally. I believe that younger students learn best when they learn by doing hands-on activities. For example, when learning about sounds of the alphabet, a teacher can hand a ball to a student and have him or her say the sound that the beginning makes. I do think that learning formally in earlier years of school does burn out students and they usually struggle to get back into the willingness to learn.

  5. I have to say that I believe it is never too early to teach a child math or science as long as it is relevant to their schema of thought. If it has meaning for them they are not too young to learn it. Take, for instance, something simple like those beads that change colors when exposed to UV light (http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/product/1228) My first grader loves them – not just because of the WOW factor when they change, but she knows if her beads change colors she should be wearing sunscreen. My fourth grader also loves them because he now has an inanimate visual to prove that SPF 50 provides greater skin protection than SPF 15. Same silly toy provides two ways to teach higher level thinking and suddenly something as abstract as UV light now has meaning for both a 6 year old and a 9 year old. It is not what you are teaching it is how you are teaching it!

  6. I think most of the replies have misread this post. It isn’t saying don’t teach children anything until they are 10 or older. It is saying let them learn naturally and encourage and support their natural curiosity with developmentally appropriate activities. Those would not be worksheets requiring the child to work endless variations of the same skill, like happens in school settings.

    From personal experience, I can attest to the idea of not pushing the “formal exercises of learning”. When I just work the skills into everyday occurrences then eventually my children burst into levels of understanding about the skill without the sighs and gnashing of teeth that accompanies sitting down with “grade appropriate” worksheets.

    As a society we need to make learning a more holistic experience. A good first step would be to abandon, or at least use to a very small degree, the current Greek model of education which separates all knowledge into small packets without much regard for the whole. If education would start with a picture of the whole, then get progressively detailed and keep relating the details back to the whole, so many subjects would become much more comprehensible to many students who struggle.

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