It is time to explode the traditional model of teaching. We have such a narrow vision of what needs to happen for kids to grow up to be successful adults. When it comes to learning how to read, the pressure is really on.
When we apply an arbitrary standard to a child—an expectation, a rubric—we change their relationship to learning. It creates a tension of expectation. It changes the nature of their natural pursuits. If a child is not ready for that learning, we create an anxiety. Whether the child is not ready because their fine motor skills (e.g., hand-eye coordination) are not developed enough, they are not yet interested in reading or they have not yet developed the symbolic connection to the story and the written word—in applying pressure, we create a negative emotional response that holds the whole process back. As soon as a child feels less than, or bad about their abilities, the learning stops. We do this to kids all the time. I would go so far as to suggest we may even be creating future reading problems when we force children to learn to read before they are ready. There is a lot of brain research that suggests that stress in a teaching situation actually shuts down the ability to connect and learn.
There are kids who thrive at that timely moment—who are ready, who leap to try—some to please, some because of interest, and some who are just hungry for the knowledge. I would love to see those studies—the ones that analyze readiness, interest and emotion in learning. We are still asking the wrong questions. We are so focused on the “standard”—how do we motivate, force, cajole kids to perform the way we want them to, i.e., “how do we make them learn”? How do we get this going so we don’t all fail and lose this big game we created?
This is not to say, as a reading specialist, that I don’t bring to the table lots of conscious, educated ways to teach reading—but using those tools when the time is right and if needed is the key. It’s really about paying attention to the child, rather than having a predetermined notion of who they should be and when.
Imagine a world where we didn’t obsess about when kids learned to read, but supported them in the way they learned best, when they were—where we provided a space rich with joy in language, books, reading, reading aloud, being read to, sharing books, writing stories and poems, playing with rhymes, and singing songs. Maybe we could actually solve those problems we are most obsessed with. If we just took away some of the pressure, maybe we could create the love of learning and reading we so desperately seek.
Further reading: If you fear that your children are “merely” reciting from memory and that this is not meaningful to their “learning to read” job, please check out my post on Memorization and Learning to Read.