Raising a Reader, Naturally
                     Through Sensitivity, Guidance and Grace
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   Chapter Six
   The Well-Connected Baby:
How Baby Learns
Family Interests
Not long ago, I came upon a family who was spending an afternoon at the Seattle Art
Museum. They happened to catch my attention initially because of their appearance.
Attired in clothing somewhere between the 60's and the Northwest woods. Their
daughter, however, was dressed in a very ruffled and frilly pink dress.
She could not have been more than four years old, yet her knowledge of art was astounding. I couldn’t help but listen as she discussed with her mother the movement and rhythm she saw in Jacob Lawrence’s paintings.
As the family continued through the exhibition, I noticed their daughter followed along as her father read aloud the information on the cards accompanying each exhibit. I don’t know if she was actually reading the information herself, but if she was I would not have been surprised.
An Exceptional Child
She was obviously an exceptional child, and one well-blessed at that. Her family not only showed a genuine interest in art (they were perhaps artists themselves) but they were sharing this interest with their daughter at a very young age. It was interesting to see them discussing their own interests with their daughter, and reading rather advanced material to her – without fuss, or pressure, or drills.
They were naturally and genuinely making a very big difference in her life. They were giving their child knowledge – knowledge of art as well as language – which coupled with their attention and their love would become the foundation for their child’s future literacy skills.
Keep the Conversation Flowing
To a child it really doesn’t matter what their parents or senior partner’s interests happen to be. Art?  Baseball? Cars? Crafts? Just plain old work? And it doesn’t matter what income or educational level the senior partners have attained. Rich? Poor? Working Poor? Grade school diploma? High school diploma? PhD?
The important thing is that parents or senior partners share their interests and knowledge with their child, right from the beginning. For infancy is the very best time to start building your child’s base of knowledge and future vocabulary. This is what successful and literate children’s parents do. And so can you.
And you don’t have to be specific. Even general, everyday knowledge will do.
How Baby Learns: New and Meaningful Information
How does an infant learn, anyway? Learning something new – new words, new ideas – actually require an amazing series of events to take place in baby’s brain before baby can lay claim to possessing knowledge.
First of all, just to capture baby’s attention, any new information must be experienced in a way that is meaningful to baby. For instance, overhearing a stranger repeating a phone number, or hearing a stock market report or hearing the latest diplomatic news about an obscure country will not make a significant impact on baby’s mind. Baby will just ignore it.  Baby’s attention or baby’s brain will only shift into full processing mode when the new information is personally meaningful to baby and relates to his or her very limited world.
New information becomes meaningful when baby’s brain (or anyone’s for that matter) makes a connection between new information and information that is already stored in baby’s memory or to what baby already knows. New information must always make some connection to what is previously known if a child is to retain this information and make use of it.
While it has been said that children can learn just about anything given time and effort, one thing is clear, no child – in fact, no one –  can learn something from nothing or from information that is not personally meaningful in some way.
Meaningful events that occur throughout an infant’s or child’s day, explanations about these events, and conversations with someone who cares about them are readily absorbed and processed by a little partner’s brain. Such connections are usually quick and effective. Baby remembers these. This includes language formation – learning new words, learning to put sentences and thoughts together, and eventually learning to read.
Those Very First Words?
But what about the first words that a newborn hears after birth?  What about your first “hello?” What did that connect to?
There was obviously no words or ideas planted in baby’s brain before birth. How could baby possibly make a connection to the very first words baby hears?
In fact, an infant is born with a predisposition to language (and from what is now known to number concepts). This is what allows a human being to learn language right from the beginning.
As discussed in previous chapters, right from birth, baby’s brain is equipped to distinguish all the sounds of human language -- any and all languages. It is this ready-built foundation that enables infants to begin to make sense of spoken language and ultimately to build their own vocabulary and language proficiency. Reading and writing skills come next.
In other words, right from birth babies have a built in propensity for language, or they are pre-programmed, if you please. As they associate sounds (words) with a meaningful experience they can process this information and make these sounds (words) their own.
Although right from birth baby’s brain is pre-programmed to learn language, baby still has to hear the words and all the rest of the components of language before baby can talk. This is why hearing impaired children have such a difficult time learning to talk – and learning to read.
"Mommy Loves You"
For example, when baby hears the sounds (words), “Mommy loves you” for the first time, baby’s brain connects these “sounds” to other experiences going on at the same time. These experiences include Mommy’s tone of voice and her actions (hugs and kisses) which accompany her feelings and words. Thereafter, whenever baby hears “Mommy loves you” in the same context, i.e., warm and gentle mommy holds me close, and takes care of all my needs, kiss  kiss, hug hug, then these words coupled with this experience take on enough meaning for the infant to begin to categorize the words “Mommy,” “loves,” “you,” as well as the concept of love.
In this same way, connections and categories accumulate one after the other (or maybe, simultaneously) leading to something we call knowledge. Knowledge in this case is knowing “that mommy loves me.” This is how our brains work, right from the beginning. This is how we learn. And especially during the early years, children never seem to stop learning.
Kitty? Puppy? What’s the Connection?
Learning to make connections – rather young or old—involves an amazing process.
For instance, say baby is now six months old and a new experience, a kitty sidles up to baby. Now baby has never seen a kitty before. Baby screams.
“Nice kitty, nice kitty.” mommy says, trying to calm baby. “That’s a kitty.”
Because information from mommy is usually reliable, baby gets the idea and before long not only makes a friend but establishes a new category in his or her very active brain, kitty.
Later on, say a few months and a few kitty encounters later, baby is in the park on a beautiful day, contentedly playing with dandelions and blades of grass. A puppy runs up to baby expecting to play.
 “Kitty, kitty,” baby squeals, and reaches for the fuzzy four-legged subject.
 “No,” says mommy. “That’s not a kitty. That’s a puppy. Puppy. Puppy.”
Now, after some thoughtful study and consideration, baby makes the distinction between kitty and puppy. A puppy is not fuzzy, its ears droop, and it barks and wags its tail.  Now baby can add and store another mental category, puppy. This now brings baby’s total mental-animal categories to two: kitty, puppy.
Prior to this revelation, baby could be forgiven for his or her confusion between kitty and puppy. After all baby’s first category, kitty, included all the small, fuzzy, two-eared and four-legged creatures he or she had ever seen (kittens). So when a small, two-eared and four-legged non-kitty appears called “puppy,” baby must study the similarities and differences between this new creature and what baby already knows about kitty and then create a new category, puppy.
More Four-Legged Animals
When bunny and horsey come on the scene, baby is left to search all known similar categories (in this case, kitty and puppy), weigh their similarities and differences, then compare these traits to the newly introduced bunnies and horsey’s. From there baby builds two new categories.
In an amazingly short time, baby not only builds kitty, doggy, bunny, and horsy categories in that small, but wonderful brain, but with all this knowledge baby is soon able to create a larger more encompassing category to accommodate all the fuzzy, or hairy four-legged, two-eared creatures. Baby can now form the category, animals.
And so it goes with every new word, object, or event learned. Always categorizing, always building. Let it never be argued, that children, even tiny infants, are not only intelligent human beings, but extremely hardworking connectors.
Busy, Busy Brains
Important research conducted over the last twenty years and reported in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School finds that our brains are most active and are minds are most receptive to learning during our earliest months and years -- particularly in respect to language. From birth through the preschool years, children’s brains are at their busiest – processing what we say, how we say it, and what they see and hear.
A child who is left to learn language on his own (if this is even possible) will be missing out on the opportunity to become a literate and successful adult. Among the consequences? Too many years, and too much energy wasted -- just trying to catch up.
 New Memories
Granted, in reality, learning is a very complex process and the examples that I have used are over-simplifications. A child’s brain is not a warehouse where categories are neatly filed one on top of another as if added and stored based upon precise or neatly connected thoughts. Rather, every concept or bit of knowledge that is stored in our brains is connected, however mysteriously, to every other category in our brain.
In fact, everything we know is connected in some way. And it is all held in reserve – in something we call memory. Therefore, all we know, all our knowledge, is appropriately labeled (connected) and stored (memory) by what it means or in how it is meaningful to us.
For infants who are just beginning this process, this means that sounds, words, and events make their way into the small child’s memory only when they are personally meaningful. That’s why trying to teach a child new but isolated words out of context doesn’t stick. There is no meaning, no connection.
An unknowing senior partner could recite lists of unrelated words, or worse read from the dictionary, all day long and baby’s brain wouldn’t connect to much -- except maybe to wonder why?
Buttons – Clothes
Through friendly assists by a knowledgeable senior partner, it is possible for a little partner to become even more expert and efficient at building new categories. One way is through labeling. Labels are simply the words we use to explain or identify things.
Baby learns to connect words and ideas to their labels, but only in meaningful ways.  For instance, start by saying the word “nose”. Notice that the word all by itself doesn’t get you very far. But say, “Nose (label),” then point/touch, “Here is your nose,” and baby makes the connection. “These are noodles. Good noodles. Noodles taste good.”
By labeling objects, partners can help infants and toddlers learn new words and increase their knowledge. “Noodles” connects to food, good food. Thus baby’s food category grows larger.
 “Snaps?” Snaps on clothes. Mommy snaps the snaps on my clothes. Snaps must be important. Thus snaps find a location somewhere in category-land between Mommy, clothes, warmth, and other amazing but useful ideas and objects. Baby can take these familiar objects and the experiences associated with these objects and use them to reason and learn something new.
Thus for baby (and all of us) new words (and categories) are not simply added, but are actually imbedded, or connected to existing knowledge which then becomes useful to connect to or lead to other new words and ideas. In other words, baby can think.
Let’s go to McDonald’s®
Baby’s thinking processes can be further reinforced, enhanced and even accelerated through new experiences. For instance a trip to the zoo offers many opportunities to expand baby’s “animal” category. Elephants and even squirrels are just waiting to be connected to baby’s rapidly expanding animal file.
Trips to the grocery store also help introduce new labels (words, concepts) and expand baby’s knowledge. “Cheerios® or Trix®?” Let your toddler choose. Then at breakfast time let your little partner expand or reinforce this newly established category in the course of a family meal, “Milk?” “Sugar?” “Bananas?”
“McDonald’s®?” Every child knows this label (logo). What do you do at McDonald’s? (According to one of my small partners you slide the window and they hand you food). It is all part of learning, learning to add to and build new categories in preparation for understanding and ultimately communicating with and about an ever-expanding world.
The more baby knows – the more, and the quicker, baby learns. An alert senior partner takes advantage of new learning opportunities whenever or wherever they occur.
The Big, Black Box
Well then, what about television? That’s a big world too – and filled with logos and labels.
Sitting a young child (studies show older ones too) in front of a television and expecting them to learn very much is probably an exercise in futility. Slouching in front of a television screen is a very passive activity. Ask any couch potato.
Besides, how much meaning does a constant blur of motion and color have for a young and inexperienced child? Plenty of new labels or concepts may be presented, but to a toddler’s mind it all simply materializes through a voice or images hidden somewhere in back of the television set. This all means little, or nothing, to a little partner.
Take, for instance, a little (and lonely) partner left to sit in front of a documentary about dolphins. As fascinating as this program might be to an older child or adult, don’t expect a toddler to learn much when his or her only experience with a body of water and its occupants is a bathtub filled with a few plastic fish swimming around. Any connection to a huge dolphin cruising the open seas requires a far greater stretch than a toddler’s brain is ready to make.
Computer? Like television it is all distant and impersonal. Baby might learn to click a mouse to activate the animation, but not much is leaned about language. Although it has become increasingly prevalent in many sectors, computerized teaching material actually teaches very little without a personal, or real hands-on, assist. Especially when baby is mostly starting from scratch.
Big Bird’s Lessons
But there is one television opportunity that is worth paying attention to. A senior partner who is willing to watch a program with a child and interact with the child during the course of the program can help a little partner learn from this experience. By elaborating and commenting on characters or events (labeling), the senior partner whom the child knows and trusts can give importance to at least some programming on the screen.A partner’s shared observations help a little partner make sense of what is being viewed.
Remember, a young child has yet to build the necessary knowledge (categories) to find meaning on his or her own from a mirage of unknown places and people traipsing across the screen. But with a partner who is willing to share....
Other notable exceptions are children’s programs like Sesame Street that make an honest effort to reach out to and engage children. These programs invite young children to interact with appealing and easily identifiable characters, to repeat numbers, letters and letter sounds.
This is why children who have regularly watched well-produced children’s programs, even though they have not had the advantage of having an especially nurturing partner in their lives, still show greater reading readiness when they enter school than those children who have not watched these programs at all.
Having said this, however, having a partner present with whom to share Big Bird’s lessons, who can add value to the child’s learning, who can carry the lessons into a child’s everyday life is still the best of all possible worlds.
Just as technology can never replace teachers, Sesame Street can never take the place of a dedicated, understanding partner who is willing to take the time to share in a child’s television experience. And the same goes for computer programs.
Mice’s or Mice?
As I’m sure you have figured out by now, a child’s (even an infant’s) mind is never idle. Naturally curious, young children show a strong desire to learn, particularly when it comes to language.Self-motivated, children actually seek out new challenges, new ideas, and new words. They work to understand the rules, but sometimes they conclude that “mice’s” is better than “mice.”
This is because a young child’s reasoning skills are not yet well developed (a skill that takes more categories or knowledge than a toddler has stored up at this point). They still struggle to push round pegs into square holes. They confuse all four-legged animals with bunnies (I once accompanied one of my small partners, Ryan, through a county fair where he was convinced that absolutely every animal, including chickens, was a bunny). Lacking the thought processes we call upon to correct errors (reflection), round pegs and square holes tend to remain a source of frustration for sometime to come.
And so will your little partner’s attempts to master language. Upon seeing a train for the first time, a small child will still call it a “bigggggg truck.” No matter how motivated, it still takes one word, one concept at a time. Moreover, it takes time (and effort) to build a broad foundation. Be positive, but don’t expect too much too soon or expect those connections to take place all at once. Most of all don’t give up.
Simply Success
Each day you make a significant contribution to your small partner’s learning is a giant step in your child’s journey or race to literacy. It doesn’t take a family of PhD’s or a family of unlimited resources to be accorded the privilege of escorting a small child who is fluent in language and already reads and writes, or is ready to read and write, across the threshold of the preschool or kindergarten classroom door.
Success stories abound of mothers and fathers, however poor in resources or limited in academic achievement, who recognized their own child’s potential and who dedicated themselves to fulfilling their littlest partner’s intellectual needs, just as they nurtured their child’s physical and emotional needs.
A well-balanced and well-prepared child doesn’t just happen. Someone cared. Someone cared enough to make that child’s intellectual growth not only a pleasurable and happy task, but a priority as well.
The prize? The best seat at the best table in the first-grade classroom’s best reader circle; the self-confidence that goes along with it; and a child solidly prepared to continue learning throughout what could well be a long and productive life.