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.