Is it still worth the time for children to learn cursive handwriting in this day of computers? What do you think?
Remember learning to print when you were very young, and later switching to cursive writing, which also had to be learned? Many of us were raised before children had access to keyboards and we learned to use typewriters when we got to high school unless we didn’t want to. So our entire elementary school success depended on our ability to write with pen or pencil on paper. Even in college, we used composition books for tests.
Today things have really changed. Some schools believe cursive writing is obsolete and no longer worth teaching in the schools. Has Handwriting Become Extinct? explains some of the reasons that it’s still worthwhile to learn this skill. Handwriting seems to be especially valuable in helping us organize our thinking and in helping those who are beginning to suffer from memory loss. Seemingly writing our lists and notes by hand imprints them more firmly in our minds.
What do you think? Is handwriting obsolete or not?
Sometimes as teachers, our attempts to help students find deeper meanings in literature may have unintended consequences.
This afternoon I’m weeding through some of my books and came across one by a favorite children’s author, Jean Little — Hey World, Here I Am! On page 28 I came across a poem, “After English Class.” It’s written in the first person in the voice of Kate Bloomfield, who describes how she used to like the Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” She liked the sound of the words and their rhythm, and the imagery. She could see the snow and hear the jingling bells. I think that’s what Robert Frost would have wanted.
The next lines explain how the teacher ruined the poem for her:
But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for.
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep—
They all have ‘hidden meanings.’
It’s grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don’t think I’ll bother to stop.
Sometimes as teachers, our attempts to help students find deeper meanings in literature may have unintended consequences. Just as a student of biology may prefer a living whole frog to the dead one they have just dissected, the students who read a poem may just want to enjoy it and respond to it with their own imaginations. Does the dissection the teacher provides keep students from gleaning meanings they might have discovered on their own?
Photo courtesy of http://pixabay.com/en/users/PublicDomainPictures/
So what about socialization? Is the socialization in schools a good reason for children to be there rather than be taught at home? How much does school socialization help students get along with people in the real world of work?
Many people believe one of the virtues of sending children to public school is their socialization. This article claims this is not necessarily a good thing.
Home schoolers have known for years that life in the real world does not consist primarily in dealing with people the same age you are. I had a public junior high school teacher tell me that he has little influence over his students — that the real influence on them is the peer pressure from the other students. When my daughter was in fourth grade her elementary school principal told me there wasn’t much that could be done about the sexual harassment Sarah got from the older boys on the playground, since the teachers couldn’t see everything that happened during recess periods. That was the last year my children attended public schools. The next year I discovered that some private schools also have problems with socialization that’s not well supervised.
It’s my opinion that no student should be forced to go to an unsafe school when there are alternatives parents could choose. No student should have to face cruel peers for months on end because a law meant to be a blessing has become a curse for many children and their parents. Public education used to be a privilege and students and their parents could choose to drop in and out of according to their families needs. It would be interesting to see how many of today’s public school students believe getting their education is a privilege.
There’s a lot of science to be discovered around a river in winter, even if it’s half dry. Check the tree branches and trunks for mosses and lichens and even buds. Explore large rocks near the river for life, and if part of the riverbed is dry, check for interesting rocks and notes their differences and learn how they were formed. A science teacher with a camera can produce a lot of her own visual aids on one river walk.
Whether you are a home educator or a classroom teacher, if you have a river nearby, you have a wonderful educational resource. I live near the Salinas River and often hike the Salinas River Trail in Larry Moore Park in Paso Robles. It normally has water only a few months of the year, and only if there’s a normal amount of rain. Most of the year the Salinas River is subterranean. You don’t see the water. The river normally appears during winter, and I usually start searching for water around January. This year, though, we had our heavy rains start earlier than usual. So I went out in search of the river today, December 28, 2012. I found it.
I followed the river bed for some distance, since I always get excited about what I see. Today it struck me how much science there is to investigate in the river and the riverbed.
As I walked along the edge of the river, I saw these small clumps of willows everywhere. Those closest to the west channel, which always stays full of water the longest, seemed to live on top of brush piles. Let’s take a closer look at one of these. Do you think a child might wonder how all this material happened to be under this willow? Might one try identifying different types of trees from what’s in these piles? What might one learn about a river by observing this small tree?
Although the overall impression as one walks along the river in late December is colorless brown and tan branches and dead leaves, some plants show they are very much alive, or host things that are. On the ground beneath are new weed seedlings. There are red buds on some of the twigs. Moss and lichens also add color. Children turned loose with a hand-held microscope would have fun discovering this variety of mosses and lichens of different colors and identifying the new weed seedlings.
Children would also be fascinated at all they can see growing on a rock.
Not all growing on this rock is moss or lichen. We also see green seedlings. They need soil. How did soil get on this rock? How about the weed seeds? Is soil created on the rock itself? Or does it all blow into crevices? And why does the rock itself look the way it does? How was it created? There is geology as well as life science to be learned. All these questions can be answered through research and observation. As a teacher, you can inspire the curiosity that will make students want to solve the mysteries.
If you aren’t in a position to take your students on a field trip, you can at least make the trip to the river yourself with a camera. Take the pictures that will arouse interest in what you want students to learn. And don’t forget the videos. Watch the river’s current. Study the rocks in the riverbed to try to understand how they became what they are. You can even collect a few rocks to bring into the classroom. Here are some specimens I found.
Is there anything more important to teach your students than how to break limiting thought patterns and believe they can actually achieve more in their lives than they thought possible? Here’s one suggestion on how to do that.
Do your students visualize bright futures for themselves? Or do they have low expectations? Perhaps you’ve made goals for yourself this year. But have you made measurable goals for your students beyond the objectives for individual lesson plans? How about this for a starter? Challenge students to write what they want to be doing with their lives when they are 22 and /or make a visual page for it.
It’s easy to make a page to visually represent a goal in life, short or long-term, using pictures from newspapers or old magazines. If those aren’t available, students could draw their own pictures. Invite them to do this as homework on the first day of school or as a first-week project after coming back from the winter break.
Part of the reason our students don’t get where they’d like to be in life and have trouble breaking out of old family patterns is because they can’t visualize anything better. Even if they may secretly dream of going beyond where their parents have been in life, they may have no idea of how school might relate to getting there, or what baby steps to take or short-term goals to set in order to climb the ladder to where they’d like to be.
One of the most important things you need to do as an educator is to inspire your students to aim high and help them begin to see what is possible for them in life. If they are proactive in setting short-term goals to achieve long-term goals, they have a target to aim at and the arrows to shoot at that target.
If taking some time to do this exercise with your students will help even one to break out of old thought patterns and a tendency to just drift toward the future, you will have given your students more than any math, social studies or science lesson could. Those who aim at nothing will achieve it.
What will you do to inspire your students to build a better future?
New research shows how important explaining things to mom is in a child’s education. Problem solutions explained to mom help young children retain what they have learned and be able to transfer that learning to new situations. Having to explain helps develop critical thinking skills.
I’ve written a lot about the need to read aloud to young children often and in past posts we’ve given a lot of hints on how to to that, especially in When You Read Aloud, Ham it Up. I haven’t said as much about the other technique we used to see how much the children understood. That method was to ask the children to explain something to us or to put something they had read into their own words.
Now in the article referenced above, a study suggests that explaining something to Mom (and I think the same would be true of Dad) is the best way to fix the problem solving method a child uses in his brain so that the information will transfer to a different situation. The study used four and five-year-old children and gave them some classification problems to solve. Some were instructed to just solve the problems and repeat the solutions. Others were asked to solve the problems and explain to themselves how they did it (while recording), and the third group was asked to explain to their moms how they solved the problems. (The article will give you several pages of details on this experiment and the data generated.)
The results showed that those who explained the solution to themselves or their moms did much better at retaining the information than those that just repeated the solution. But those who explained to their moms did better than the other two groups at transferring what they had learned to solving different problems.
Explaining a solution forces a child to think critically about his method. Explaining to a parent is even more helpful. I would imagine that this would also extend to explaining to a teacher or tutor, but it illustrated once again how important verbal interaction with significant adults is in student learning. It’s not just important to get an answer correct, but also to know the process of getting that correct answer. Remembering that process is much easier if the student has explained it to an adult.
If we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? If a child can’t comprehend spoken language, he’s not likely to understand what he reads, either. We all learn to use spoken language before we learn to read. Almost any parent or teacher has those moments when they are quite sure a child has not understood a word they said, though they also might believe the children did not want to understand and didn’t really listen.
It still follows, though, that if we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning. One of the first things they teach children is how to talk.
I know few parents who have taken an educational methods course in teaching children to talk. They are able, instead, to zero in on the child’s own desire to interact with them. If the parents talk, the child will want to talk. If the child wants something, he has to learn the words that will communicate his needs. He also begins to learn what the parent expects of him, and even the meaning of the word “No!” The parents will teach the names of the objects and living beings in the children’s world and some basic concepts such as over, under, through, run, push, and all the rest. By the time the child reaches kindergarten, he’s supposed to have that basic grasp of language. He will, if the parents have spent enough time interacting with him.
However, many parents are too busy and too tired at the end of a day to meet all the child’s interaction needs. Many children live with a single parent who also works outside the home. At the end of a day, the temptation is to put the child in front of the television or a video game rather than interacting with him. Thus the child has no need to to actively use his brain to understand, but can sit passively and absorb or, in the case of the video game, develop hand/eye coordination, but not improve communication skills.
What’s the solution? Reading enjoyable stories to the child for twenty minutes each night, maybe just before bed, can be a big help. The parent can go to the public library once every couple of weeks and check out books that look not only appropriate for the child’s age and interests, but that also look like they would be fun for the parent to read. Keep these books so the child has access to them at certain times of the day, and then let him pick one of them for you to read to him. There are some good suggestions in this previous post: Choosing the Best Children’s Books, Part 1. Another previous post, When You Read Aloud, Ham it Up, might also inspire you — especially if’s there’s a bit of the actor or actress in you.
We found that our own children looked forward to story time, and when we read stories to them during summer vacation, they would often round up their friends to join in. As we discussed the stories, it was easy to talk about the meanings of words they might not know, ask what they thought might happen next, ask why they thought a character behaved as he did, and so on.
Let’s take some examples from a story you may remember from your own childhood : The Little Red Hen.
As you sit with the book in your lap and your child next to you, begin the story. The process of making bread as it’s described here may be entirely new for your child, so you can talk about what the hen is doing and why. Here are some questions that would be perfectly natural:
What is the hen doing with the wheat? Why?
What other jobs does the hen need to do to make the bread?
What does the hen ask the other animals to do?
Do they want to help her do any of the jobs?
Why do you think they don’t want to help her?
When the bread is ready to eat, do they want to help her eat it?
Does she let them? Should she have shared? Why or why not?
These questions will not only help you make sure the child is understanding the facts in the story — what’s happening, but also will let you know what the child is thinking about the story line itself. Does the child think the hen should have shared? Did the child think it wasn’t fair for the hen not to share? Does he see the point that the animals didn’t want to help with the work, but thought they were entitled to the result of the work whether they had helped or not? This involves higher thinking skills than just knowing what happened.
Almost any folk tale lends itself to a good discussion as you read it aloud. If you have a discussion like this several times a week when you read a story together, your child will naturally learn the comprehension skills they will later try to teach in school : main idea, figurative language, context clues, reading for detail, inference, cause and effect, drawing conclusions, fact or opinion, logic and reasoning, and predicting outcomes. If he can figure out the main idea orally, it will be easier to find it in a passage he reads in school, because he will know what a main idea is. He has learned that the main idea in The Little Red Hen is that those who do not want to help with the work should not expect to share in the results of the work. To see if they can apply this to other situations, you might ask them for examples of this same main idea in what they observe from life. (If a child won’t share his toys with others, should he expect the others to share their toys with him?) You get the idea. Now, if you apply it, your child will be well on his way to improving reading comprehension later on.
He recognized that some of our most often used words in English don’t follow the rules of phonics. He is widely recognized for his list of 1000 Instant Words which are intended for children to recognize by sight after a series of exercises, drills, games, flashcards, and other memorization aids. Some of these words, such as in, on, he, be and fish, also obey phonics rules and can be sounded out, but when a child is first learning to read, it’s discouraging to have to stop and sound out every word and lose track of the meaning. It’s very satisfying to be able to read a complete sentence or story without having to stop often and sound out words. Think what it would do to our adult reading speed and comprehension to have to sound out every word we read? By learning the most common words by sight, a child or illiterate adult can have the satisfaction of really reading, not just decoding words. She will understand “A doll is a toy.” if she reads it at a normal speed instead of struggling over every word.
On the other hand, as a child continues on the path of learning to read, it would be burdensome to have to memorize every single word he will ever need to read. Dr. Fry recognizes that understanding the sounds attached to letters is also necessary for a child to become an and independent and proficient reader. He brings these two approaches together seamlessly in his Spelling Book Grades 1-6: Words Most Needed Plus Phonics.
Let’s look at the first lesson for first grade. Only ten sight (or instant) words are introduced: the, of, and, a, to, boy, girl, man, woman, baby. Though the teacher is given teaching suggestions, this is not a workbook. The student pages may be reproduced for student use, but the teacher decides how to best teach the words.
Under the list of words is a list of phrases using the words so that the students can practice seeing and reading the words in context. Samples of the phrases are man and woman and to the boy and girl. Students could practice reading these aloud and the phrases could also be used for dictation exercises, since this book also teaches spelling.
The last parts of the lessons involve age-appropriate word study. In the first grade lesson we used as an example above, students learn about how the phonogram an is used in man,ran, can, and pan. Then they learn in the phonics section below about the short vowel a. The included notes to the teacher in these sections spell out the rules and explanations, but I seriously doubt that the first graders will have to memorize, “The Closed Syllable Rule states that when the syllable ends in a consonant, the single letter vowel is short.” (Examples are taken from Lesson 1 of the book linked to above. ) At this stage of the game, the student may not know or care about syllables, open or closed.
When I learned to read I taught myself in much this fashion. First I memorized a very simple picture book my mother read to me over and over and then I read it back to her. She knew I’d memorized it, but I knew which word was which, so I had learned some sight words that I could recognize in other contexts. My mother would tell me about the sounds that the letters made until I was asking her for the ones I didn’t know yet. I started asking my dad about the letters I saw in the headlines of his newspaper. I was only three, but I could read. By the time I hit first grade, I was sitting in the class library section reading whatever I wanted while the teacher taught reading to all the rest of the class except another student who shared my first and middle name, who could also read.
My mother was a wise woman who realized that although I was reading above grade level, I had holes in my phonics understanding, so she sent me to a private school for a semester to learn phonics in a systematic way. (This was in the late 1940’s, when the “look, say” teaching method was in vogue.) After my phonics instruction, I flew in my reading skills. I think I would have thrived with Dr. Fy’s approach, since I would have learned the sight words in and out of context, as well as the relationships of the sounds to the words I learned every week. Seeing those relationships brings this method of teaching beyond rote memorization to understanding. I think Justin Snider, the author of the blog that inspired this one, could live with this approach. Maybe he will stop by and let us know.
Just how much did socialization help Jaheem Herrera? How I grieve for his family, who will miss socializing with him the rest of their lives. How glad I am that when my son died, it was not like that, but while he was out at the lake with his friends, where he rode a jet ski to Heaven.
What Bullying Can Lead To
I just read this story on the CNN site and it made me very sad for the family and angry at whatever made this happen. As a former teacher of children in public schools, I saw more than my share of playground behavior. Even students in private schools can be very cruel. When my son was still in public school, he was happy in the classroom and miserable on the playground, even though he was friendly and outgoing. At the time he was still a foster child and some of the other kids knew it.
How My Own Children Suffered from Playground “Socialization”
My daughter, in another school’s special ed program, was perfectly happy for two years with a wonderful teacher. Then that wonderful teacher had a sabbatical midyear and her class (in which Sarah was the only girl) got a male long-term substitute who didn’t mind pushing values that were different from ours (and the former teacher’s) at his students in the 3-4 grades. But it was the playground that was the worst problem. Our daughter would come home and complain that the boys were always propositioning her during recess. (She was a very attractive fourth-grade girl.)
We complained to the principal and were told that the teachers on duty at recess can’t see and hear everything. As to the classroom situation, the best we could get was that Sarah would be moved to a resource room with a female teacher after her female teacher aide went home the last hour of the school day. These are the things that are part of the background of my reading this news story.
I also lost my son, but not this way. My heart goes out to the mother and sister who got the terrible shock of seeing their loved one hanging in the closet. It’s a terrible thing to lose a child. You don’t ever get over it. But to know that your child was so unhappy at 11 that he would take his own life — that is one of the very worst ways to lose a child. There is only one way I can imagine that would be worse, and that way always makes the news, too.
Finding the Right Education Solution
On our journey to find the right education solution, we tried private schools. We finally found one that would take both my bright son and his sister, who was behind due to some emotional baggage she was carrying from her life with her birth parents. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, as it turned out, the school closed after one year.
The next year we found a principle approach private school that was just right for the next two and two-thirds years. I had always wanted to homeschool, though, and that last third of the last school year, I got my chance.
My husband was on a contract job in the Seattle area and we all went up to see him during Easter break. We went with another family to let the children play in the snow, and my daughter’s sled got stuck. When my husband freed it for her, he tore a ligament in his arm that required surgery, and he needed us to stay and help. I called our principal at home, and he convinced my husband, who was always the one who objected, that I would be perfectly able to teach the children, who were then in grades 5 and 8. I had been teaching English part time in his school for a year.
Washington was a marvelous state in which to begin the homeschool adventure. Although we had textbooks at home that were used at the school we were coming from, they were still at home and we couldn’t leave for a couple of weeks to go and get them. So we used the Auburn Public Library, near where we found a house to rent. The school district was also good to us when they heard of our situation.
So What About Socialization?
We loved homeschooling, but we heard what almost any other homeschooling family hears from friends and neighbors. What about socialization? Many people think that home school children sit home with their books all day and never see anyone outside the home.
Maybe they don’t realize that children who study at home still play soccer, go to youth group, join the scouts, play with the neighbor children, and learn to get along not only with their peers, but also their families and people who are younger or older than they are. Jason’s social life improved 100% when he started studying at home. He could actually get along with children who couldn’t get along with anyone else.
In public school, Jason had been teased because he was small for his age and because he was a foster child during his kindergarten year. He often came home unhappy. He loved learning and was naturally compassionate and helpful. I had watched him comfort younger children in the neighborhood who were crying when he didn’t know I was watching. He didn’t know how to respond to the meanness he encountered at school on the playground. Is this what a child needs to be considered socialized? To learn to respond to bullying and meanness from others?
One of the boys who lived next door to us was also an adopted child, and he had been abandoned in Korea by his birth father — just left at the train station. He was also handicapped — he had a leg brace. He was dealing with a lot of issues. Jason had lived in his house first, and that’s how we met Jason. I will call the other boy X since he became the neighborhood bully who delighted in getting the younger boys in trouble and then would disappear just before the adults came on the scene.
There were enough adults around, however, to make sure things didn’t go too far, to give comfort after such an event, and to try and help prepare our children for the next temptation to misbehave X lured them into. X never was able to overcome his emotional baggage, and he caused even bigger problems in his adoptive home than he caused in the neighborhood. Eventually, he had to go back to the juvenile system. Meanwhile, though, while he was still around, all parents kept a watchful eye when the children were all outside playing.
The Dark Side of Socialization
So just what is socialization? According to my American College Dictionary, to socialize is “…to make fit for life in companionship with others; to make socialistic; establish or regulate according to the theories of socialism.” The application for education is “to turn from an individual activity into one involving all or a group of students. ” For the moment I won’t ask just what part of this definition others are concerned about when they ask how homeschoolers will socialize.
What I don’t see here is that to socialize means to accept bullying, learn to be insulted at a young age, subject oneself to verbal abuse and just shrug it off. On one hand, we are told how devastating it is when a parent or other adult is verbally or physically abusive. If such socialization occurs at home and it is reported, the children are often removed from the home.
Yet we mandate by law that children must go to school where they often receive this kind of abuse and more from their peers, and the principals and teachers say they can’t really prevent it — in spite of their anti-bullying programs. That’s what it says in the CNN article. That’s what I found in my child’s school in a good neighborhood. This doesn’t just happen in the inner city.
Learning to Socialize in a Healthy Way
I do not think socialization is good in itself. In my opinion, there is good socialization and bad socialization. Children get their first introduction to socialization in their families, learning to speak, share, take turns, sit and eat and talk with the family, etc. They learn to get along with their siblings. They still do all these things when they study at home. They also, as mentioned before, socialize in sports, community, church, and homeschool groups with children and adults. My son’s friends’ parents were amazed that my son always chatted with them when they came to pick up their own children from youth group.
Their school-socialized children avoided talking to adults unless they had to. My son enjoyed talking to them because he considered adults people, too. His very best friend was a fireman who had acted as an adult mentor when my husband was on those contract jobs. But the friendship went two ways. Jason tried to comfort Terry, too, when Terry’s marriage was breaking up. Both Terry and his wife were Jason’s friends, and the break-up was hard on Jason, too.
When Jason died in an accident at 14, I was amazed at all the friends of various ages he had. Some were younger children he played with. Some were his own age. Some were boys and some were girls.
Many were adults we didn’t even know he knew from around the neighborhood. He would ride his bike around and start talking to any adult who appeared to be doing something interesting outside, especially if they were doing something mechanical. (That’s actually how I met Jason when I was working in the garden in the front yard.) These became his new friends. He’d get up at 6:30 AM to go visit with a construction crew in the neighborhood while they had their coffee before starting their work day. They even let him watch them work for a bit before he had to come home for breakfast and to start his school day.
One day he came home from a construction site in the afternoon. (He often went back when school was over for the day.) He was very excited because he’d met the geologist who was checking the area around the site for signs of faults. He also brought home clay from the soil on the site the geologist had given him. He was excited because the geologist told him they were building the homes on a fault. What a tie-in to a science lesson.
I think Jason had a very active social life — more active than he ever had when going to school. He also kept ties with friends made in his last school by joining their Boy Scout Troop. His Scout friends played an active part in his memorial service. And Terry stood there and cried, along with about 399 others.
So what was missing in Jason’s socialization? Being bullied? Being subjected to peer pressure to do drugs? Learning words that would not really enhance his vocabulary? He got enough of some of those things just playing with the kids in the neighborhood. Would it have been better to get more of it on the playground where there were not enough adults to intervene? Just how much did socialization help Jaheem Herrera? How I grieve for his family, who will miss socializing with him the rest of their lives. How glad I am that when my son died, it was not like that, but while he was out at the lake with his friends, where he rode a jet ski to Heaven.
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.
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 the 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.