Terry learns to read

Here’s a story of a little girl I watched learn to read in the other half of the semi-detached house we purchased when we were just starting a family.

The summer before kindergarten, Terry learned to read from her 7 year old Aunt Becky, who had just completed grade one. Becky showed her regard for school by stealing every reader she had used. Becky’s method was simple. Beginning with the easiest book, Becky read aloud each sentence, touching under each word as she read it aloud. Then she told Terry to point to each word as she read the sentence. If Terry made a miscue, Becky lightly slapped Terry’s hand. “No,” Becky would say and read the sentence again. I often eavesdropped on the daily lessons as Becky led Terry though the books from easiest to harder and harder.

Terriy read so well by September of her kindergarten year, the school recommended that Terry skip to grade one. (If the school had really supported this acceleration, they would have recommended Terry attend kindergarten even though she could read. The school should have realized that the grade-eleven school-drop-out parents–Terry was on the way–hated school and would probably do the opposite of any request.)

I videotaped Terry early in Kindergarten at a faculty of education facility and her word recognition skills were at the sixth grade level. She could pronounce a lot of words correctly in passages harder than that, but they didn’t make any sense to her. On three IQ tests, Terry scored dead on average.

Her family was very sexist, favouring a younger brother. During the time I knew the family, Dad was in and out of jail for theft.

How did Terry do later in her school career? She ended up specializing in hairdressing at the vocational school and left the year she turned 16.

Rapidly recognizing in print words you can speak or understand is essential to progress toward proficient reading, but not enough. A student must also continue growing a vocabulary and learning more about the world, particularly the information essential for school success. Learning this background information means that a child is likelier to know the information the writer of, for example, a textbook, assumes she needn’t state explicity because all the readers will know this. Terry just didn’t live with a family that talked about the world at supper, watched National Geographic specials, supported extra-curricular activities or museum visits.

If you have a story of someone learning to read, I would like to hear it.

Baby’s First TV

I’m a little older than the desired demographic, but as an early childhood educator, I was fascinated by the cable station, Baby First TV was first launched (230 on Rogers Cable). Is it a good idea to encourage babies and toddlers to watch television?

Some programming delights: I watched babies and parents playing with stuffed-toy dogs as they listened to “Oh, Where, Oh Where, Has My Little Dog Gone?” Karaoke-style lyrics show on the TV screen as first a woman and then a man sing the lyrics. Parents will surely scrounge up a toy dog to join in this hide-and-seek game.

Some programming mimics real-life activities: A voice tells how to place the animal pieces into a 3-D wooden puzzle. Toddlers who watch will doubtless learn more quickly how to complete puzzles like this. And the quiet, steady voice encourages a powerful reflective learning style. In “Peek-a-Boo, I See You!” an appealing creature hides and reappears from behind a bureau. Parent viewers are reminded how much babies like this game. Babies can even watch a kaleidoscope on the TV; the colours and motion are sure to capture their attention. So will a simple segment showing a mobile going round—from the perspective of an infant lying in a crib—and another just displaying a babbling brook.

Some of the programming is simply puzzling: An animated boy without a violin body visits a house where a maestro with a face like a music stand displaying an open score gives him a violin front that becomes the trunk of his body. Talking animals made of fruits and vegetables tunnel through the Earth and walk upside-down when they reach the other side. I’m not sure why adults so often seem to think children will find this anti-science more fascinating than real life, say the birth of a colt or the growth of a rainstorm.

Is it good or bad for babies and toddlers to watch such TV? I worry that infants might hurt their vision development if they watch for a long time: Is it good for them to gaze for a long time at just one focal length? And the incessant music—so much of it sounding like a music box—may cause infants to just ignore it. It’s almost like the creators are afraid of natural sounds. Surely kids would enjoy hearing the water coursing about the stones of the video of the brook! Kids do learn from observation: A child who’s looked at Thomas the Tank Engine may be startled by the size of a real train, but she already knows something about them. I wish the channel showed more segments of gardeners, bricklayers, bakers, bus drivers, grocery store clerks—with natural sounds. To encourage an appreciation of music, why not show more video of real musicians making music? Lucky infants will live with parents who occasionally watch Baby First TV with them and just chat about the curious things they see. Really, how different is that from looking at a picture book together? The station should also close-caption all the shows: Deaf and hard-of-hearing parents are watching, too! And spend the money to properly capitalize and punctuate the captions. Displaying captions will even help some viewers learn to read.

Talking About Films and Books to Learn More About the World

When adults talk with kids, kids can learn information that helps them understand more about the world and more about how to express that knowledge—in speech and writing. Sometimes it’s hard to get a conversation started, but almost everyone likes to talk about films they’ve watched. Making comparisons between books and their film adaptations can really get parents and their children talking.

The film of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is a successful adaptation partly because the short novel has enough material that the creators of the film didn’t have to make up too much new material (unlike the crew that made a forgettable film out of the memorable children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are). Fantastic Mr. Fox is a favourite of kids who’ve learned to read words efficiently and now enjoy vicarious adventures through reading chapter books, some kids as early as grade two and most by grade four. Young readers strongly identify with the enterprising Mr. Fox as he battles the local mean-spirited farmers. A little preparation before heading off to the cinema or streaming a film to your television will help kids learn a lot as well as enjoy a rousing story.

Before viewing the film, read the book together. If your youngster can read aloud 99 percent of the text with correct word recognition, listen to her read the book. You can slip in any words missed or paused on as long as long as she can read at least 95% of the words correctly. If the book is harder than that, you read it to your son or daughter.

Watch the film together and talk about it afterwards. If you refer to notes you took about significant similarities and differences, you’re sharing a powerful technique for understanding and remembering information and writing about it. But even if you don’t, you’re demonstrating how we discuss works of art. That knowledge will come in useful every time your scholar-in-training studies literature at school.

Since books often lead to movie adaptations, families will have lots to compare and contrast, lots of opportunities to argue for whether book or film is better. Preschoolers can discuss the very different way that Curious George leaves Africa in the book and film. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs will work best with middle schoolers. By junior high, some students will enjoy comparing adult novels like Kathy Reich’s Deja Dead to the Bones TV series based on it. Parents, if you play your cards right, you can continue your exclusive book club into high school and compare the HBO Dexter series to Jeff Lindsay’s first novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Make it a family tradition at gatherings to swap book-DVD combinations like I Love You, Beth CooperNick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Thank You for Smoking. That reading and conversation build vocabulary and information making it easier to understand and read about the world.