Let’s talk about teaching a young child how to read. People have debated back and forth for decades as to which reading method is the best one to use – teaching phonics or teaching whole sight words. So, which one do we believe is best? The truth is that both have their place and both methods work if they are done correctly. Some children learn best with one, some with the other, and most children will at some point use both.
Before getting into our approach to reading, I want to emphasize that reading is a neurological function just like understanding, speaking, writing, and walking. Therefore, the first step in teaching a child how to read is to provide plenty of opportunity to develop good basic brain organization in the first year of life. If a child’s brain is healthy and well organized, the method used to teach reading becomes much less important because the child will be ready to learn no matter which method you choose to use.
Now, having said that, when it comes to babies or toddlers there is no question in my mind that teaching the whole word is the more sensible and effective way to go. Think about it, children learn to understand spoken language by hearing whole words over and over again! Eventually, as their understanding increases and becomes more sophisticated they begin to understand abstract thought and emotions. We do not speak to children by spelling out a letter or using one sound of a letter at a time. We say the whole word, right?
Recognizing a whole word in print or written form is the visual equivalent of the spoken form. Letters by themselves have no meaning. So, with the very young child showing a whole word instead of letters or sounds is best because it means something to the child. We just need to make sure we follow the same principles that we follow when developing understanding. Remember them? See them here.
When it comes to teaching reading, we want to make sure we use Frequency, Intensity, and Duration in a way that is appropriate for the child’s level of development. How do we do that? Let’s go through it step by step.
INTENSITY – The younger the child, the more emphasis we need to place on intensity. Why? A young baby does not yet have well developed visual and auditory pathways to the brain. Therefore, the information needs to be big and bright so the message can easily reach the brain. So the words should be in the color red on a white background. And, they need to be big.
Can you see how much easier it is to read the word Mommy when it is big and red? We want to always make it easier for a child to learn. The younger the child, the higher the intensity needs to be. It even needs to be bigger than it is above. Let’s say 1 ½” to 2” for a baby or young toddler.
FREQUENCY – The next step is to show the words very frequently. High frequency. Children first understand the words that they hear most often. Words like his or her name, mommy, daddy, no, nurse, hug, kiss, bottle, water, and so on. Again, the same principle applies to written words. Your child might need to see and hear the word twenty, thirty, or forty times before she begins to recognize it. The younger the child the higher the frequency needs to be.
DURATION – When it comes to duration, it is the opposite of intensity and frequency. The younger the child the shorter the duration should be. Attention span is directly related to brain organization and brain maturity. We cannot expect a 6 month old to have the same attention span as a 1 year old, and the 1 year old does not have the same attention span as a 2 year old. This is because they are not at the same level of brain organization. Young children will switch their attention from one thing to the next faster than an older child. Therefore, you should only show a few words at a time. Ideally, we want to stop showing the words before the child is ready to stop. It is good to leave the child with an “I want to see more!” feeling. When we do this they are eager to see the material the next time around. So, only show 1 or 2 words at a time.
If you pay attention to how you use Intensity, Frequency, and Duration you will be well on your way to developing a happy reader and learner.
Here are a few more things that are important to pay attention to:
- If you are going to show words to a baby or young toddler, it is more fun if you include pictures. However, never put the picture and the word on the same page. The only way we can be certain that the child is looking at what we want them to see is to show one thing at a time. So, first show a picture of Mommy and say Mommy. Then, show the word Mommy and say Mommy. One followed by the other, not side by side.
- Pictures, just like the words, should be big and precise. When showing the picture of Mommy there should only be Mommy, not Mommy in a group of other people. The picture should be pasted to paper or cardboard of a contrasting background. If the picture is colorful, a white background is best. Make it clear!
- Make the material you are showing pretty and of good quality. Children are attracted to bright, colorful, nicely made things. No one likes to look at things that are sloppy.
- Show material with enthusiasm! If you are excited to teach your child, she will be excited to learn. It is that simple!
- Resist the urge to test your child! Teaching is input, not output. We are all guilty of showing a book to a young child and then asking them to point at different pictures to see if they know them. We have been trained by our schooling that output must follow input so we know if the child is learning. Relax. Trust your child. Remember, if your child is having fun and is eager to look at the material, she will learn it and at her own pace!
Finally, keep in mind that if you are having fun so will your child! Enjoy the ride!
What should you look for when purchasing books for your kids? Let’s break it down by age.
Newborn to 3 months:
At this stage the most important thing is to have books with bright, big, contrasting pictures or shapes. They should be simple, only one picture per page, and the picture should have few details. The written information is not as important. Short duration is key here, so the book should have no words, one word, a couplet, or a phrase per page so you can flip through it fast. At this age the visual stimulation is more important than the auditory information.
Example of a good book for this age level: Look, Look!
3 to 6 months:
Continue with bright, contrasting pictures but now the picture can be more detailed. The written information now is important to begin developing understanding. Here, begin with books that have one phrase per page and as the baby grows you can read books that have one to two very short sentences per page. Books that rhyme and have a nice rhythm to the language are good. The duration should be kept very short so you want to flip through the book fast enough to keep your child’s attention. Later on in this stage or early in the next stage, books with harder and thicker pages are good so that it is easier for your child to turn the pages on her own as you read the book.
Examples of good books for this age level: Flip a Face – Colors
6 months to 1 year:
Information content should increase and even more details in the pictures. Up to 2 or 3 short sentences per page. Of course, if your child loves to have stories read you probably can read books that have more sentences on a page. Here, the type of pictures are important because the more details there are in the pictures, the more things your child has to look at as you read the book and the more likely you will keep her attention as you read. Books about animals, babies, clothing, toys, transportation, etc. are good. Peek-a-boo type of books are fun at this stage.
1 year to 2 years:
More information and more detailed pictures. Pictures can be smaller and have more things on a page for the child to look at. Even more so at this stage than the previous one, the more things a child has to look at, the more details, the more likely you will be able to keep her attention as you read all of the information on a page. You can now have books with a paragraph or two. Pop up books are fun! Books that teach body parts, colors, opposites, shapes, space and such. Books that give children information in a concise and simple manner. As you read to your child pay attention to what types of books she shows more interest in and foster that interest. Begin to introduce books that come from a series. Your child will enjoy seeing the same characters in different stories.
Examples of good books for this age level: Duck and Goose
2 years and up:
Keep increasing the amount of information. Books can become more and more sophisticated in terms of the information they contain and have many paragraphs on a page as child’s attention span increases. Books that come from a series have more sophisticated stories. Books that talk about feelings, that help with toilet training, and that teach life lessons are good. Books about nature, cultures. or any other subject that interests you and your child. By now you will have a good idea of the types of books your child enjoys.
Examples of good books for this age level: Cars and Trucks and Things That Go
The important thing to keep in mind is to keep the reading sessions frequent and short when dealing with a young baby and, although the duration increases as the baby grows, you always want to stop reading when you see your child beginning to lose interest or even before so the next time you offer to read a book your child will be happy to read!
In our previous scientific blog, “Where There Is a Need, There Is a Facility”, we talked about the importance of this third law of brain development. It’s an important law to pay attention to so as not to delay or interfere with the development of motor function in our children. It’s ultra simple. Take away the need for children to use motor functions and we deny them the opportunity to develop those functions.
Here are some easy to understand examples – if we carry a child all the time we deny the child the opportunity to learn to move, if we (or others) speak for the child we deny the child the opportunity to speak, if we always open things, button buttons, tie shoes etc. we deny the child the opportunity to learn to use his hands. Seems pretty obvious, right? Yet, you’d be amazed how many times we parents do things that deny our children the opportunity to develop just because we are not paying attention to our actions! So, first, be aware. Be mindful! The more opportunity (need) we give to a child, the better.
Today, I want to shine a spotlight on a function that this law applies to that is not so obvious, reading. That’s right, reading! Let’s look at why it’s important, how to create the need for your child to learn to read, and how to make sure she becomes a successful and happy reader!
We start with the fact that reading is a neurological function. That’s right. Reading is an ability that all human beings have the potential to develop because we all have a human brain. Along with understanding, speaking, and writing it is an aspect of our language ability, the sophisticated ability that we human beings developed in order to share our thoughts and experiences with each other.
In a pre-Stone Age culture, hunting and foraging for food are the most important survival skills that children need to develop. Most of the truly pre-Stone Age cultures in the world (sadly, there are not many left) have no abstract thinking and, therefore, no abstract language. Knowledge and tradition is transmitted orally from one generation to the next.
In our culture, the ability to read is the most important survival skill. It is not possible to be completely independent if one cannot read and those who read poorly face many problems as a result. For our children, the consequences of not learning to read are just as devastating as not learning to hunt and forage would be for a pre-Stone Age child.
So, how do you provide your child with the need to learn to read? How do you make learning to read fun? What are the first steps to make sure your child continues to be an enthusiastic learner and a good reader? In a future post we will give you specific step by step instruction on teaching a child to read. Here we just want you to begin creating the need and the love for reading. This is, in fact, the most important step! Here are some tips on how you can begin to introduce reading to your child without pressure.
- Read to your child starting from birth. Read to your child regularly. Read to your child frequently. Remember to keep the duration short.
- Read to your child with enthusiasm. Your enthusiasm when reading to your child is the beginning of them wanting to learn to read.
- Make sure you provide your child with lots of opportunity to develop good brain organization. A well developed and well organized brain is the first key to successful learning, especially learning how to read. For more information on how to develop a well organized brain see our free email course and previous blog post on Kickstarting Mobility.
- Provide your child with plenty of opportunity to converse. Ask her questions that are interesting. Ask not to “test” her, but to encourage her curiosity and to let her know that you care about her opinions and her feelings. Answer her questions no matter how simple or how sophisticated they are.
- Show her how enthusiastic YOU are to learn new things. Make learning together part of your “together” activities!
- Write little notes using big print in red ink and give them to your child. You can place the notes on their toys, in a snack box, by her meals, on her bed, and so on. Write one word per card. Keep the notes simple. For example, you can write the following words, one per card – LOVE, YOU, ROCK, SMILE. Read the word to your child. Do it frequently and she will begin to recognize the word and will become interested in learning other words. You will be creating/developing her need to read. As she learns the words LOVE and YOU you can combine them into couplets – LOVE YOU. Later you can teach MOM, DAD, SISTER and then combine them to form MOM LOVES YOU, DAD LOVES YOU, SISTER LOVES YOU, and so on.
- Read her favorite books over and over again. She will most likely memorize them and will begin to pretend that she is reading them. That’s wonderful! Compliment her when she does this and let her recite the book to you whenever she wishes.
Why is encouraging reading from an early age important? Because learning to understand written language is no different than learning to understand spoken language. It is a matter of opportunity. Little children want to do everything that their parents can do and reading is no different.
Again, when it comes to learning to read as well as all other learning, there should be no pressure and no testing! This experience should be just plain enthusiasm, celebration, and fun. I can not stress this enough! If your child learns to read and loves it, he or she will be an enthusiastic reader for life. In contrast, if your child feels pressured or judged when learning he or she will learn just to please you or “the teacher”, and he or she will only read when asked or forced to do so.
So, creating a need must not equal pressure. It means to demonstrate to your child just how much fun it is to understand written language in much the same way that they understand spoken language. It is an avenue to more growth and freedom for your child. Then get ready for the pure joy that comes with that. It is so much fun to see a young child realizing that he or she can read. First a word, then a couplet, a sentence and finally a paragraph! Begin by reading to your child and stay tuned for what follows!
If you’ve been following along since we started posting about the science of child brain development, you now know far more than most parents do about what is actually driving all of those amazing changes in ability that you see in children in the early years of life. So far we have looked at two simple laws that govern brain development.
The first law is the very basic law of nature that says that function determines structure. The end result of this law for us is that the human brain grows through use in very much the same way that muscles develop and grow when we get regular exercise.
The second law is a basic law of neurology that influences how effectively information (stimulation) can reach the brain. The law states that in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.
By applying this law we can ensure the growth of new neurons and dendrites and the production of more myelin. This increases the speed with which the brain takes in and processes information, turning the brain into a neurological superhighway.
The third and final law that we want to look at is also something quite simple. Just like the other two laws it has a tremendous effect on brain development and the development of functional ability. The third law says… where there is a need, there is a facility.
Doctor Temple Fay, the brilliant neurosurgeon who pioneered many of the ideas that form the foundation for much of what we do, was one of the first people in the medical field to relate this idea to the brain. Speaking about the development of speech in early humans, Fay said, “Man came to speech and verbalized means of communication not by extra cortical cell layers alone but because of the physical contours of the face, jaw, teeth and tongue. Which came first – the chicken or the egg? We may be sure that first there was a need, and then a facility!* Nature is an opportunist! Can you blame her for wanting to put “words” to “song”? *my italics
When saying that nature is an opportunist, Fay was referring to the well established biological phenomenon known as opportunism. An opportunist organism is generally defined as a species that can live and thrive in variable environmental conditions, and sustain itself from a number of different food sources, or can rapidly take advantage of favorable conditions when they arise, because the species is behaviorally sufficiently flexible. The human species, homo sapiens, is a master at adaptability.
Here’s another way to think about this law. Remember Aesop’s Fables?
One of Aesop’s most popular stories is The Crow and the Pitcher. Here’s the text of the fable (translation by George F. Townsend, the standard in English since the 19th Century):
A Crow perishing with thirst saw a pitcher, and hoping to find water, flew to it with delight. When he reached it, he discovered to his grief that it contained so little water that he could not possibly get at it. He tried everything he could think of to reach the water, but all his efforts were in vain. At last he collected as many stones as he could carry and dropped them one by one with his beak into the pitcher, until he brought the water within his reach and thus saved his life.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
The expression “necessity is the mother of invention” is another way of saying that “where there is a need, there is a facility”! So, how does this law work in the brain and in the development of functional abilities? Basically, what the law means is that before a baby can develop an ability there must first be a need for that ability. Increase the need and it is more likely that the function will develop. Decrease the need and it is less likely that the function will develop. While the law applies to the development of both sensory and motor functions, it is particularly applicable to the motor functions of mobility, language, and manual ability.
To give you a sense for how this plays out in everyday life, here’s a scenario that we encountered many years ago. It’s happened a number of times since. A friend, the mother of three young children, contacted us concerned that her youngest child was not speaking. He was nearly three years old so she had some good reasons to be worried. Because functional problems rarely occur in isolation, we asked her about his other abilities. Was there anything else about his development that concerned her? No, everything else was going beautifully. He was well coordinated, bright, curious.
Basically, he was developing very well in every way… except speech. That was our first indication that the problem might not be in him but in his environment. So, we got together so we could spend some time observing him and the family dynamics.
We found that, just as his mother had said, his development looked really good in every way except for the fact that he didn’t speak. He could communicate with gestures and the occasional sound but didn’t say any words. We also found that his older brother and sister doted on him constantly, making sure that he was always happy, and serving as his interpreter.
He had virtually no need to speak because his brother and sister spoke for him! And he was perfectly happy to go along for the ride! So, the good news was that there was really nothing to be concerned about. He was, in fact, developing very well. He just needed more need to speak. We talked about that with his mom, gave her some ideas for how she could increase his need to speak, and within a few months she couldn’t keep him quiet!
One of the popular parenting trends today is teaching baby sign language. Sign language is a wonderful form of communication for children who are deaf and who do not have the potential to develop spoken language. It can also be helpful for removing frustration from children who are struggling with the development of spoken language. Of course, a baby can learn how to sign just as easily as they can learn almost anything else. Indeed, most babies will develop their own sign language all on their own. Pointing fingers and reaching out with arms are perfect examples. But, when used with a baby who has no hearing problems there is a very real risk of delaying spoken language when signs remove the need for speech. And there is really no reason to take this risk if your baby is developing and functioning well. It’s a fad that we discourage because of this.
The same process that happens in speech is also at work in the development of mobility and manual ability. Here’s another great example of this. Since the development of velcro, and its use in the manufacture of shoes and sneakers, the age at which children learn to tie shoes has been dramatically delayed.
Forty years ago most children learned how to tie their shoes by the time they were four years old. Today, few children learn to tie their shoes before six years of age and many do not acquire this ability until they are nine or ten years old! That’s a huge difference! Why? No need. It all boils down to removing the need to develop sophisticated manual ability.
Most likely you’ve heard the expression “dumbing down”. It means the purposeful lowering of standards and expectations and is usually used in reference to intellectual and academic pursuits. This is a physical version of dumbing down. The issue is further complicated by the fact that so many children today are using iPads and iPhones. We often hear people marvel at the fact that a young child can tap an icon on the screen of an iPad and knows how to swipe their finger from left to right. What?!! Seriously?!!
There is simply no comparison between the manual ability required to use an iPad and the manual ability required to build with Duplos / Legos, let alone tie shoelaces; no comparison in terms of the complexity of the task and no comparison in terms of the degree of brain development required to carry out the task.
So, the moral of the story is really quite simple. If you want your child to develop the sophisticated motor abilities that lead to independence, you have to make sure they have enough of a need to develop those abilities.
This means stepping back and allowing your child to learn through trial and error. It means slowing down and taking more time, because learning how to use motor ability takes time. It means you either have to allow more time to get ready to leave the house or you will probably be late occasionally, perhaps often, because letting your child button his buttons and tie his shoes (instead of you doing it for him!) takes time.
When you get anxious because you are not getting done what you think you should be getting done, sit down with a nice cup of tea and remind yourself that it is a good thing to slow down and smell the roses. And know that you are participating in the greatest adventure of them all, the miracle of your child’s brain under construction.