I turned on the TV at 2 in the morning to discover the infamous commercial that I have been asked about: “Your Baby Can Read”, a revolutionary new product that guarantees children of all ages will be able to read through some phenomenal brain/eye stimulation process. I thought it certainly looks amazing, so I began to do some research.
What did I discover…what I already knew. You can teach association to children of all ages. Pavlov did the same thing with a dog…remember from Psych 101? Pavlov teaches a dog that when it hears the bell, it gets food. Eventually, after only a few sessions, the dog begins to salivate at just the ding of a bell. This is called, in fancy child development language, association. So, with this program, a baby sees the word, sees the object or action and associates this set of letters with the object or action. Is that reading? Not hardly. That is merely a teaching tool that relies on the child’s memory to produce results.
I taught 4th grade for about 4 years at the beginning of my teaching life and I used to see this all the time – children who new the words when I asked, but when I asked a question about the story itself or what might happen next, the children gave me blank looks. They knew the words, understood that this combination of letters equals this object/action, but they missed the concept. There was no comprehension or ability to make meaning of the written print. Most of these children were taught the words by flash cards alone.
So what is reading and how can my little one read? Reading begins with foundational communication.
An infant begins to learn communication on the day of his birth. He cries and is comforted. He learns right away that his actions, even instinctual result in an action.
When an infant first learns language, they are actually building on their understanding of this basic communication. He hears the parent say “cat” and sees this fur ball that meows. He says “cat” (or at least his variation of the word) and the parent produces this same fur ball. He begins to learn that these two things go together. He also learns that when he says “cat”, he, in return, receives the cat. Eventually he will use the word to communicate what he wants.
Yet, a child with little exposure to the world will think anything furry is a cat if this is his first experience. Why is that? Because he associates what he has heard with what he was shown and since his experience is limited, a cat to him looks like anything furry. It is the child’s experience that leads to the understanding that there are categories, like animals, a group of things that look the same, but are fundamentally different in nature.
So, how do we get to reading from there? Well, reading is communication. It is the relaying of ideas through written word and sometimes pictures that leads others to understand the world from someone’s perspective. It is more than just matching a picture with an index card.
I see it everyday. I have this book…I read it every night and have done so since my son was 2. It is Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss. Normally, I wouldn’t suggest a parent read a Dr. Seuss book to a two year old. They are LONG and attention spans are short and Nathan has been fascinated by books his whole life and so I encouraged that and started to read it. That was 18 months ago. Today, I can tell you the story without the book and I inwardly groan when he discovers it buried behind his toy chest (my feeble attempt to move on from it!).
Recently, Nathan has taken to “reading” on his own. He turns the pages and tells the story, almost verbatim! And, God forbid, I try to skip a page. He will again recite word for word what I missed. So, is he reading? Absolutely! He is not recognizing the printed words, but he comprehends that a tale is being woven through an intricate mixture of words and pictures. He makes up things about what the characters are doing at really weird times (he is associating this character with some other event in his life) and he even asks questions about the things that happen in the book. That’s the key to true reading…building an understanding that the author is relating a message and that the message is meant to incite other ideas.
When we think that reading means knowing all your letters and matching a picture or an object to print, we devalue the human reason for needing to write in the first place. How do we communicate with others? We text, we email, some author books. Reading is about the fiber of communication…someone has something to say…they want to share with others their thoughts, their ideas, and their worldview.
Teaching a child to read starts with teaching a child to know that the story is more than just words. Eventually, my son will learn the words, too. I mean, already, when I read a title and point out each word….he can go back and point to the word that I ask for. But that’s not what will truly help him gain knowledge.
No, true reading doesn’t start with memorizing words and regurgitating facts. Reading is about connecting with another person’s perception of the world and indulging that ideas are born from our interaction with others.
So…your little one can read! Just read to them and continually encourage their ability to think about what others have written. Ask them questions about their reading and encourage them to ask questions as well.
Who knows, maybe you are growing the next Dr. Seuss.