Sunday, October 28, 2007

Teaching Reading IS NOT Rocket Science!

I remember watching a program on PBS about teaching children to read. One statement that stuck out was “teaching reading IS rocket science…” Good thing I didn’t have a mouth full of liquids at the time. I thought it was a joke when I first heard the statement, but they were serious. A web search for “teaching reading is rocket science” brought up the article which I assume the PBS show was quoting. My reaction to the statement was “Only if you try to teach 30 children before they are developmentally ready!” For the average child learning how to read isn’t difficult; we make it difficult by expecting results so early.

Two of my children taught themselves to read. Any teaching on my part was purely accidental yet 100% effective. It wasn’t rocket science but my methods would be just as difficult to transpose to a classroom setting. I spent one on one time with each child for several hours a day. When my son was an only child I would read a stack of books to him during the day and another stack at night to try to get him to fall asleep.

Reading was an important part of our world. He lived 24/7 in a home that placed a high emphasis on reading and he spent much of his time sitting in front of a book or having a book read to him. We also wrote books together. He would say the words and I would write them down. I would fold the pages in half, punch holes in the paper, and secure the pages with ribbon or I would fold the pages down the middle and staple the folded area to create a spine. Our "readers" were written by the child. We created these books whenever we could and he could read these little books because he was the author.

Our refrigerator was decorated in refrigerator magnets shaped like the letters of the alphabet. We had alphabet puzzles, alphabet building blocks, alphabet shaped water toys, and many “ABC books.” Each day as we read side by side on a comfy couch I would point out a letter of the alphabet and then I would challenge my son to find the letter as I read to him. The only plan I followed was mother’s intuition. We did this almost every day until he learned how to recognize all of the letters. Eventually, I would challenge him find three letter words or common words. This family reading time eased him into becoming a reader. I didn’t teach him to read on purpose, it was purely accidental and natural. I followed a curriculum of love and a scope and sequence driven by mommy's intuition.


My daughter also taught herself to read but maybe because my time was divided between her and her brother she learned at a much later age. She and I didn't read 10 books a day. Still, I had confidence that she would eventually learn to read so I didn't force her to become a reader at an early age. At some point, using educational toys, she figured out how to read. She might be considered a late reader but she reads just fine now and she learned with little or no instruction.

I have one child who was an early reader and one child who was a late reader but both taught themselves how to read. I think the secret to their success might have been that they weren't taught how to read. They were allowed to learn when they were ready to learn – late or early. They lived reading and were read to often. Learning to read might be a lifestyle instead of some expensive miracle program.


There’s a point to all of this. Either children are smarter than rocket scientists or we are trivializing something that should be simple and natural. Are we trying to teach many children how to read too early thus making something as simple as child’s play seem as difficult as rocket science? Waiting until the child is developmentally and physiologically ready to learn would make teaching reading as easy as pie!

I know if I were teaching in a classroom I would be forced to observe the conclusions of the article that I mentioned and to understand why some people think that TEACHING reading is like rocket science. A child who is surrounded by love, books, and plenty of time and patience will find learning to read is as easy pie most of the time.

You want a nation of proficient readers? Then you want everyone to be the same and that's not reality. Read to your children daily, model the importance of reading by reading, and don’t expect all children to read so early. Let them learn when they are ready. I think children are better learners than we are teachers, anyway.

Here is the article "Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science." You have to give some of these people credit. They are masters at making something very easy and natural look like a very daunting task. Glad I didn't read this article ten years ago when I started homeschooling. They make a pretty strong case with their big words! As a homeschool mom I felt like the message of this article was "Don't even try it. It's too hard for you! Leave it to the 'educated' 'qualified' 'experts.'" Fact: Many homeschooled children are learning to read without these "experts" and some times before mom gets a chance to try to teach! I wish our public school teachers had to freedom to allow more time when it comes to learning how to read....

Friday, October 19, 2007

Homeschool burnout indicates a need for change.

A discussion of “free schools” over at the local Homeschool Yahoo! Group reminded me of one of my favorite memories of homeschooling my children. It was a time in my life when I had come out on the other side of a bout with "burnout." Burnout is terrible but it forced me to rethink “school” and “learning” and to decide which would take precedent in our home.

All teachers and students know what burnout is. For the teacher or homeschool mom it’s when going through the motions of school becomes drudgery and the family is stressed out. For the student or child it’s when the mind just doesn’t absorb anymore, the ability to focus is lost, and eager learning has been replaced with frustration; a learner’s block. Just going through the motions of school had replaced the excitement of life and learning in my home.

Burnout was inevitable, but it caused me to take an honest look at my goals for my children’s education. It forced me to ask myself some very important questions. Was I homeschooling my children so that we could play school at home or was I homeschooling my children so that we could take advantage of their unique learning styles and their individual personalities and interests? Was I homeschooling my children to play school with them or so that they could learn effectively? Was I trying to engage their short term memories or to change their thinking and their lives? Who should be in charge of designing curriculum publishing companies or children? Should a school day have a beginning and an end or should children be free to learn from their community all day long?

The answers to these questions were obvious to me. Burnout was the symptom and change was the only cure. I put the school books away and I told my children that they were now in charge of what they would learn. I told them to make a list of everything that they loved or wanted to learn about. My daughter dictated her list and her list consisted of various fluffy creatures that you would find in a zoo. How’s that for a curriculum? We took our two lists to the Victoria Public Library. I told each child to checkout books about one or two of the items on their lists. My children took home about 20 books each and we spent the next few days on the living room floor surrounded by several piles of books. My daughter couldn’t read at the time so I read to her.

I remember that my son’s long list contained the word “rocks.” I remember “rocks” from that list because that topic took him on a self directed journey through various topics and subjects. It was amazing to watch my son’s list of interests morph and flow through these various topics. He was in about the 5th grade and his curiosities lead him from gems and minerals to a focus on diamonds which led him to try to memorize the periodic table of elements and then to learn how to convert Celsius into Fahrenheit – all knowledge that would never be tested on the fifth grade TAKS test or some standardized achievement test! One of the books on gems and minerals gave boiling and melting points in Celsius only. A reason to learn!

I remember my knee-jerk reaction when he handed me the periodic table of elements and said, “mom help me memorize this.” My first thought was, “But 5th graders don’t have to know this.” Isn’t that sad that my old mind-set would creep back in and limit my child? Allowing him to follow his interests actually freed him to learn about concepts that his 5th grade math or science texts didn't address. That year I learned about myself and my preconceived notions about children, learning, schooling, and testing. Do you think I learned to respect the TAKS test and it’s results that year?

Sitting on the floor in a pile of books exploring topics that my children were interested in was rewarding on a whole new level. I was connected with my children, learning with them, and my children were actively engaged in and in charge of their learning. I was a part of that learning journey and it did take us all, as a family, on a roller coaster ride through various subjects. Because they were learning about the things they enjoyed their days were filled with excitement and our home was full of eager learners once again!

When I feel burnout creeping back into my home these discussions of free schools, democratic schools, interest driven learning, and unschooling remind me to be more flexible and that change is needed in my home; a change that will free my children so that they can learn without frustration or drudgery.

We have experimented with many different educational philosophies and approaches over the years but that was as close to a "free school" as my family had ever been. I'll share other examples of my favorite memories of homeschooling later.