Thursday, 5 March 2009

The first baby steps...

Now that the foundations are laid, we may proceed further.

Making sure that the children are ready for the not always easy task of reading and trying to keep it fun and undaunting are prerequisites to a good reading ( or beginning to read) program.

I have been a voracious reader. I devoured books- my love affair started when I was still in pre-primary or kindergarten. The lovely picture books invited me into a world I could not visit physically. The words had a musical quality for me. I may have been sounding them out ( a little more of that later. We will address different learning styles to make learning to read an effective process) and therefore, have still the memories of early words I read.

In class I, when other children were taking early tottering steps in trying to make sense of school text books, I was reading outside the curriculum simply because I loved it! To top it all, we had a teacher who knew not a word of our first language. She was Mrs Nair, a tall, somewhat heavy woman from south India who spoke even English in a heavy south Indian accent. To say the least, she was difficult to understand. For mere six year olds, it was a difficult task. I became the interpreter by default! I could read and speak both Hindi and English, fluently. And I loved the opportunity to be able to do something extra that many others in the class could not do.

In short, reading was a natural talent. I never really faced any difficulty or struggle.

Take a different scenario. A few years preceding my linguistic adventures, another child was trying very hard to fit into a system he found difficult. He could not make much sense of the squiggles people called print and did not want to write. He was not lazy. He was not intellectually impaired. He could learn most of what was read to him without difficulty. However, if he were to read it himself, his eyes had to go back to the beginning of sentences to re-read and form a continuity that kept breaking despite best efforts. This boy, somewhere along the way figured out how to crack the code and went on to top the Medical entrance exam, and further to earn himself a Gold medal in a field that required tremendous hand eye co-ordination as well as fine motor control that is precise and LASER like in quality! He became an eye surgeon.

I am relating my husband's childhood and mine. Two very different skill sets. It was impossible for me to understand the existence of an entity called struggling reader, let alone accept the fact that such a fun activity can indeed be tiring for anyone!

Needless to say, I have struggled with the realisation that reading may not be easy for some children. My daughter finds it tiring to read and write. She is a brilliant girl who is multi-talented and does several activities with an enviable proficiency. She, however, finds it just a little bit too much of a task to read and somewhat more so to write.

Her grasp of verbal instructions and her early efforts to fit into the schooling system made her a teacher's pet. This made the identification even more difficult.

The baby steps then in beginning to read are really in first identifying when and which child is ready to read.

My son began early and revelled in each new successful attempt. So... I have experienced a child who has had a degree of difficulty and one who has had it rather easy in terms of beginning to read.

The first baby steps involve BEING INVOLVED with your children. Provide a rich linguistic experience to them. Read books. Sing songs. Carry on conversations. Introduce words. The more words we are able to give to a child BEFORE he/ she enters the school, easier is the transition into reading.

Most children respond well enough to the early story reading attempts and begin to 'read' the story by rote! Encourage these early decoding attempts. A full throated Hurray! goes a long way in keeping the child at the task of reading. Much longer any way than a blunt or mute response to failed or partially successful attempts to read.
The children will begin to form a visual impression of teh early words that can serve as building blocks for further progress. The first 'o' leads quite easily to 'no', 'go' and 'so'. Then we can move on to 'to', and 'do'. The children always laugh at the travesty of the language that treats the same symbols so differently. But they have formed a memory peg to start their journey. These words often do not pose any problem for the beginners.

The phonics way is my preferred way to go beyond these early attempts. I would suggest introducing the concept of vowels through such poems as Old Mac Donald and creating awareness of the short vowel sound to start with. The concept of 'bat', 'bet', 'bit', 'pot' and 'but' is not very difficult to teach. It is helpful to make an alphabetical grid and help the child along for these early sounds...

'at' sound
  1. bat
  2. cat
  3. fat
  4. hat
  5. mat
  6. pat
  7. rat
  8. sat
The next steps depend upon and are decided by how well these early steps are taken. Bat could well transform into battle or cat into cattle if the phonics and phonology are clearly laid out for the child.

Struggling readers may need more time and different strategies. These are not difficult, only different. These children are not stupid, they are different! They are smart. And they are tenacious. They hang on to their self esteem despite realising that they may become the butt of class jokes. Or they may crumble.

Early attempts at teaching and learning can define the direction that a child takes.


We can help the process. We must.

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