Raising a Reader, Naturally
                     Through Sensitivity, Guidance and Grace
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Chapter Seven
A Little Partner’s Learning Pace
When to Giddy-up and Whoa
Today, most of us look upon children as eager and primed to learn. But it has not always been that way. Well into the 50's, 60's and even the 70's, parents listened to child-raising experts like Jean Piaget, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Sigmund Freud. These were the authorities who advised parents that it was best to wait until the proper time or age before teaching children new skills.
Each skill had its place on the child development scale to which children were largely expected to conform. Parents, fearful they might interfere with their child’s normal course of development, dutifully complied. Some (including the author’s own mother), carefully recorded each event as if reassuring themselves that indeed their child was right on track.
Most parents accepted the advice that it was best to delay teaching their children letter sounds, new words, or helping them learn to read until a certain maturational level was achieved. Rather than encourage early learning it was more important that a child remain within the “normal” range of development.
Don't "Push"
Every skill had its own proper time and place on the learning and development scale. Piaget, in particular, saw learning as an evolutionary process. According to his time line, parents had to wait until their child developed, inch by inch, stage by stage, before advancing to the next step. Parents should not interfere with this process or “push.” It was best to wait for a child to “spontaneously” learn to talk or to pick up new words on his or her own.
In so far as reading went, the children themselves were expected to take the initiative – to show their parents they were ready to begin sounding out letters or reading words -- even if it meant waiting until they entered first grade, which it often did. Parents dared not interfere with a child’s prescribed pace of development or maturational process.
“Pushy” parents would risk wrecking their own child, thus preventing him or her (at that time the emphasis was mostly on the him’s) from growing into an intelligent, loving, and functional human being. It was too easy, or too tempting, the thinking went, for overzealous parents to try to create an Einstein or Mozart where one didn’t exist.
Of course, no reasonable parent would think of accelerating their child’s physical skills by strapping a ping pong paddle to their infant’s arm to get a head start on producing a future tennis star. Likewise would they would force a toddler to mechanically spell long lists of words on a daily basis to produce a future spelling champion.
Nevertheless, parents were not to be trusted. One thing at a time, the experts said -- each lesson in its own time and place. Wait until your child shows that he or she is “ready.”
Sensible Parenting
Thankfully, even then, there were plenty of sensible parents who couldn’t help themselves. Right from the beginning sensible parents held meaningful conversations with their infant, encouraged their child to learn new words and to make connections between words, objects and events in their child’s world.
There were also plenty of parents who read stories and pointed out words on the page and sounded out letters long before their child could even respond – and despite the fact that a lot of other maturational stuff was going on within the child at the same time!
But then these otherwise inspired parents were forced to quietly glance the other way when they delivered their “educated” and mostly literate child to the first-grade teacher -- where they had to leave their child to sit in the little chair across the table from the properly “illiterate” offspring of those other parents who followed all the rules. There the literate child was forced to relearn all the skills along with those children who were not yet reading. After all, a developmental chart applied to everyone.
In the late 60's I recall delivering to the first grade classroom my own first born, Teri, who had already become “tainted” by her talent for reading before she entered school. “Have you been working with her?” the teacher asked suspiciously. After all, teaching a child to read was the teacher’s domain.
I confess my reply was nothing less than cowardly, “Oh, no. She learned to read on her own.”
This wasn’t too far from the truth. To begin with, at that time I didn’t know how to teach reading (my education came later), and furthermore I had to spend most of my time juggling the needs of three children including a set of twins.
In retrospect, however, being a reader myself I made a point of reading regularly to Teri right from the beginning. Perhaps most importantly, in respect to her language development, I made a point of holding extensive conversations with her, especially when most hours and minutes found both my arms fully occupied with my newly arrived set of twins.
I suppose it was guilt that led me to shower my then three-year-old with conversation instead of being able to spend time sharing other activities with her. But the result proved to be vastly rewarding in respect to her language development and ultimately her reading and writing skills.
Unfortunately, too many of the fears of an earlier era still linger today. Will encouraging (pushing?) a child to learn even in a natural and pleasurable way warp a child for life? Old thinking saw danger in encouraging a child to talk or make connections to new words. “Pushing” could lead to stuttering. 
Will patiently and gently pointing out words on a page while reading a story and encouraging a child to learn to “read” a story on his or her own, cause that child to rebel against future learning experiences? Up-to-date research says, “No.” And dedicated senior partners say, “No.”
 Today's Parent
Today’s reading partners know that a little partner’s intellectual development depends upon early preparation as well as encouragement. They know that sensitivity and a commitment to their own child’s personal needs is the key to raising a secure and successful reader. Today’s parents know that. They know that it isn’t the method that counts – it’s the parent.
Today’s parent:
  • Prepares baby for talking by engaging baby in very early conversations.
  • Encourages baby to talk
  • Encourages baby to learn new things
  • Engages baby in reading activities to prepare their child to read on his or her own.
Reading partners, who have already witnessed a little partner’s delight in early conversations and have established reading routines, understand how eager their child is to learn. They understand that nurturing their child intellectually is as necessary to their child’s development and growth as encouraging their child to walk or to show him or her how to manage emotions in reasonable ways.
Dedicated senior partners know that leaving a child to fend for herself or himself in the intellectual arena, holding a child back until a universal guideline says he or she is “ready,” falls into the category of neglect – and just like any neglected child, the child suffers the consequences.
There is simply too little time to acquire the vast amount of knowledge a child needs to succeed in today’s world and too little time to try to catch up. Today, we know that the keys to a child’s success are simply those that unlock his or her own natural talent and potential.
 Planting New Words
So there is no time like the present to rectify the sins of the past. Modern reading partners:
  • Recognize that infants are mentally active, intelligent human beings.
  • Recognize that even infants can and do gather and organize information.
  • Understand that infants can in fact form rather complex ideas.
We all know that within a few short months after birth, babies can form words – and even communicate. Through their actions, their cries and their coos, babies let us know what they want, what they are thinking. As baby grows, each new word he or she learns and utters doesn’t just happen to filter into baby’s brain one second and pop out the next. Someone “planted” it.
From the beginning infants store words they hear their senior partner speak and which have meaning for them within the context in which they are spoken. Then when baby is physically capable of speaking, baby delights in using those words.
This is baby knowledge. “Baby,” “No,” “Mama,” “Dada” and “Bye-bye” have all been stored in baby’s brain, undergoing processing until just the right moment – when baby talks. Don’t ever underestimate a child’s intellect or sense of timing. Even the youngest infants know how to impress parents.
Of course, these words didn’t become baby’s own without some assistance. Baby needed someone with greater knowledge to help him or her become familiar with the words, to make new connections as to their meaning, then to communicate these thoughts to those who have breathlessly waited to hear baby’s first words.
New Words
So by listening or participating in your early conversations, baby has made enough sense of human language to produce his or her first words, “Momma?”  “Dada?” And from these first meaningful utterances (sentences?) it just doesn’t stop. By the time you light a candle on baby’s first birthday cake, complete with gooey frosting, you’ll find conversations that once seemed more like monologues will now become engaging and interesting, but still simple, dialogues.
New Sentences
Within months new words lead to simple sentences. Newly formed sentences become more complex sentences expressing new, and sometimes unusual, thoughts. Before long, new words, sentences and thoughts become stories with rudiments of beginnings, middles, and ends.
Undecipherable crayon scribbles become “things,” important things. Stories or “events,” are soon accompanied by lengthy explanations designed to convince senior partners of their veracity -- to help them understand. And so in only a few short months, baby turns the table on all partners – especially mom and dad.
Baby’s Natural Learning Pace
Throughout this period, a senior partner’s proper role is to be careful not to artificially speed up or slowdown baby’s journey to literacy, but to take every opportunity to make the trip natural, enjoyable and rewarding.
This means that anxious parents or overzealous partners must learn to be sensitive to their child’s particular learning pace. Everyone has their own individual pace or learning moments at which they learn easily and best, including infants and toddlers. I should say especially infants and toddlers.
A sensitive senior partner will learn when baby is most receptive to new directions or information and take advantage of these important moments. If a young partner becomes cranky and frustrated, it’s a good indication that you are trying to move too fast. Stop and wait until another time, another week or so.
The point is to turn your little partner on, not off.  At other times a child seems to learn so rapidly that he or she becomes easily bored unless new information is quickly forthcoming. And sometimes only repetition will suffice. A child’s individual learning pace or mood is not easy to predict -- or modify. Be patient.
It is always preferable to spend maybe five minutes today pointing out a donkey, goat and horse in a picture book to a marginally happy baby (complete with sound effects of course) and save the 20 minute “educational” stroller ride around the neighborhood for a time when baby seems more appreciative.
Or skip learning events altogether if baby is tired or cranky. We don’t learn very much when we are unhappy.
But we love to learn new things when we are rested and find ourselves in a caring and supportive environment. Most of all we love sharing new ideas and information along with someone else. What joy it is to take a trip to the zoo and share the experience with someone else. How lonely it is to see it alone. Sharing events and learning together is best of all.
Ruin a Reader?
At any age, a sensitive partner knows when to say “Whoa!”
A writer colleague of mine recounts how she tried to teach her young daughter phonics. The child was only three and her senior partner recounts sitting on the bed and drilling her young daughter, demanding that the poor child produce the proper phonemic sound for each letter. The child hated it.
Today her daughter is in her teens and refuses to read anything but her required schoolwork. Her mother, a writer and avid reader herself, laments that she “ruined” her daughter. She laments that to this day her daughter cannot enjoy reading for fun.
It just goes to show that even a modern parent can make mistakes. But a sensitive and knowledgeable partner quickly learns how to avoid these mistakes and in the end raise a happy, secure and avid reader.
Biding Time
Also keep in mind that at times a young (and old!) mind requires a longer period to absorb an idea or concept.
One of my young partners, Jack, once became so absorbed in a learning experience, that we ended up sitting through Chicago’s Field Museum’s staged rendition of a camping trip complete with meteorite shower and sound effects five times before the toddler was satisfied that he had learned all he could, at least for that session. As for myself? I not only learned a lot about staged camping trips, but I also learned a lot about the value of patience and respect.
Sensitivity and Patience
Sensitive partners show respect for baby’s learning pace by:
  • Rewarding baby’s efforts and responses
  • Encouraging baby to try new things only when baby seems interested or receptive to learning
  • Making learning time enjoyable
  • Knowing when to stop
In addition to providing a supportive learning environment, keep in mind that since every child is an individual, each has their own tastes. Even infants have their likes and dislikes. There are things we are delighted to learn about. There are things we don’t like to learn about at all. Babies are no exception.
Whenever baby resists learning, a wise partner stops. A wise and sensitive partner waits until another day, or reconsiders and finds another way.