Post No.: 0290
Whereas listening to and speaking a language comes quite easily to children, even if they’re not explicitly taught it and some start later than other kids – reading and writing is a different matter. (For more about children and literacy and numeracy, please check out Post No.: 0236.)
Reading is clearly critical for learning many things, such as science, philosophy, following stories or current news affairs (the things that shape our beliefs and how we see ourselves in the universe). Reading and writing is largely the way we pass on our culturally-accumulated knowledge and ideas, and it allows new generations of people to stand upon the shoulders of the pioneers, inventors, discoverers and creators before them, and to then build upon that input for future generations to do the same. Without being able to read, we will individually and collectively miss out on so much in life.
Written language involves decoding visual symbols on a page, and this is a very different skill to listening to a spoken language or even following a sign language. Written language also frequently differs to spoken language in style, structure and vocabulary. The way we speak and write can often be very different, especially when trying to read texts from another time period – spoken language continually changes but written language is usually relatively slower to change. This all means that reading and writing isn’t just about a straight mapping of spoken language onto a new set of symbols – it’s often akin to learning a new dialect (the ‘written language register’) with new words (e.g. unless reading it, no one tends to say ‘e.g.’ or even ‘exempli gratia’ but rather ‘for example’) and structures (such as the way parentheses/brackets are sometimes used in written sentences).
Phonemic alphabet languages, such as English, use phonemes that just represent the sounds that a language uses and these can be combined so that we can pronounce any new word we come across; whilst logo-syllabic alphabet languages, such as Chinese, use symbols that represent things that cannot be combined in quite the same way hence essentially require brute memorisation to learn. (The Chinese language includes ~50,000 different characters, with the average person only learning about 8,000 words, and it’s possible to function with less than 3,000 words.) Some languages use a hybrid system, such as Japanese, with logo-syllabic kanji (derived from Chinese but then went on its own evolutionary path), phonemic hiragana (used for ‘ordinary’ Japanese words) and phonemic katakana (mainly used for words that are loaned from other languages, such as English, or for new scientific or technical terms).
If the language(s) we were personally brought up with doesn’t possess the phonemes for a sound from another language we subsequently wish to learn, we tend to approximate with the closest ones we have in our own initial language(s) (e.g. saying ‘ze’ instead of ‘the’ in English for a speaker who was brought up with the French language because there is no ‘th’ phoneme sound in French).
Like anything else that’s not quite innate but requires the environment to teach us it – the more you are exposed to something, the more you’ll pick it up. Good language development and reading ability are related to frequent parent and pre-school reading experiences because these expose children to the ‘written language register’. So the more children get to read, the better they’ll become at doing it. It can therefore only be morally right that every child should have good and equal access to books and other educational reading resources. Woof!
You’ll want to increase their ‘phonological awareness’ by exposing them to as many phonemes as possible and practising them. Help them to recognise that words and sentences are basically composed of smaller units of sounds. We can test their phonological awareness by testing how well they can identify rhymes and pronounce non-words (e.g. splick, yuff) they’ve not seen before. They can then learn the specifics of the written code (e.g. different letters can often sound like the same phoneme, such as the K and C in ‘kite’ and ‘cub’, and individual letters can often represent more than one phoneme, such as the A in ‘fat’ and ‘fall’).
Children need to learn how to map the letters of the alphabet to their phonemes in their language. This can be achieved initially and primarily via phonics, which means being explicitly taught the sounds that each letter can make in which specific contexts, and then later combining letters and therefore sounds into whole words. And then by whole language methods, which means learning entire words at a time and encouraging the child to work out the context to figure out what a word is and therefore how it’s pronounced. Children will naturally use both techniques spontaneously though.
You could give them things like a phonics app that they can play with as much as they want (but perhaps just that app alone) from 18 months old onwards. But overall, there is no evidence that shows that teaching a child to read earlier has any lasting advantages at all. So as long as you read with your child and they go to a school with a solid curriculum, you don’t need to panic about getting them to read at the age of two, although there’s no harm if they enjoy it at that age.
Overall, whatever the subject being taught and learnt – rather than strictly following any teaching method to the point of dread for the child – parents should focus primarily on creating positive experiences around learning. Lessons that are boring at one extreme or overly taxing at the other can be a sure-fire way to discourage a child from ever wishing to learn or stick with something. Regular repetition and doing lots of something is also the key for making progress and reinforcing memories (e.g. 30 minutes of reading just before bed every night). A risk is that boredom can start to set in though, particularly as a child grows older, thus one needs to switch things up or around in fun and interesting ways now and again. The child’s mind will do a lot of the work in the background as the child tries to make the connections him/herself and sleep on things.
Since parenting has less influence on a child’s achievements and outcomes than much of the mass media suggests, it’s better to not push them in activities that they don’t enjoy if they have constructive activities they’d rather do more of. For children to thrive, they need to love what they do, and the parents’ role is to support that. Parents still have a moral and social responsibility to raise a child with good values and of course to raise a happy child, but stress less as a parent if you are under the impression that you must, or even probabilistically could, academically-intensively shape your child into a future athlete, musician, engineer, superstar singer or whatever.
Woof. Kids will automatically do more of the things they enjoy – and this will carry on as they grow older and more independent too – but they won’t necessarily automatically enjoy the things that they are pushed or pressured to do more of. So for children of this young age in particular – focus on the fun!