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Teaching Your Baby to Read
I recently realized that Physiotherapist Dr. Glenn Dorman celebrated his ninetieth birthday. His book How to Teach Your Baby to Read, co-authored by Janet Dorman forty years ago, started a whole new approach to teaching reading to very young children.
It all started while Glenn Dorman was teaching brain-damaged preschoolers to read at the Philadelphia Institute for Human Achievement. Dolman claims that a baby will learn written language as easily as spoken language and may even learn to read before learning to speak. .That is, on the basis that the written word is presented repeatedly and in capital letters. His book presents step-by-step teaching lessons, starting when the child is two years old. There are many daily periods of less than five minutes each. In a sample session, the parent touches the baby’s toes, says the word “toes,” holds up a large sign with the word on it. It is important that each session is a “game” that both participants find “happy” and should always end before the baby gets bored.
Dorman’s approach was and still is controversial. No one has any problem with parents reading to their babies from birth. However, claims by experts that most reading problems could be eliminated if reading was taught from an early age are not actually proven. In Finland the literacy rate is 99.9%, but students do not start learning to read until the age of seven. Four of the top ten countries do not start formal reading instruction until the age of seven.
Certain physical and mental skills must be developed before a child can learn to read. The child must be able to correctly hear the differences in vocal sounds, must be able to accurately move his eyes on the page. They must be able to sit still and concentrate and of course be able to understand what is being read. These are all skills that improve with age.
Educators and child psychologists are generally skeptical about the value of teaching children to read at a very young age. They don’t doubt that some parents can teach some three- and four-year-olds to read. They feel that the motivation for many parents is that it “represents the status”. Some critics even fear that early education may be harmful. Dr. Paul J. Kinsella, director of the Developmental Reading Clinic in Lake Forest, believes that a young child’s hearing and vision are so disorganized that parental pressure to read can only confuse children or create emotional barriers that they will permanently damage their reading. Burton White of the Harvard School of Education even goes so far as to call homeschooling “part of the overemphasis on brain development.”
However, there are no reliable studies on the long-term effects of parental preschool instruction. There is, however, a general consensus that impatient, stressed parents should not start early reading programs with their child.
Proponents of the Gentle Revolution suggest that tiny children have the ability to learn virtually anything while they are tiny. They believe that what children learn without any conscious effort at the age of two, three or four can be learned only with great effort or may not be learned at all in later life.
I personally do not doubt that very young children can be taught to read. But like so many other ideas today, one has to ask whether in the long run it increases the chances of producing good people who can cope with life. I know a Jamaican surgeon who taught herself to read and was reading the newspaper at the age of two and a half. He was clearly an exceptionally gifted child.
Babies are beautifully programmed to do things at a time that is right for them. A baby learns to hold his head up, sit up, stand up, crawl, walk when he feels ready. I really wonder if a nine month old should have their brain energy directed towards learning to read. Some programs even recommend starting reading at this age.
Starting to teach three or four year olds is a different matter. About thirty years ago I started using Dorman’s book to teach my then three-year-old son to read. He was clearly intelligent and loved books and had an extensive library of his own. Despite his interest things did not go well. I was very patient, not pushy, but convinced myself that I was a hopeless teacher. I soon stopped the program because I didn’t want to risk my son feeling like he had failed academically before he even started kindergarten. This son was a very late reader, as was I, and for the same reason.
In his second year at university, my son was diagnosed as severely dyslexic in certain areas. This was at a time when dyslexia was not known to many teachers, let alone the general public. Neither my son nor I had any special help to deal with our reading problems. My late father, who was a doctor, was convinced that I was intelligent and never gave up on me despite my teachers’ attitude towards my abilities. I keep thanking him for this Both my son and I reached a point where everything suddenly fell into place and we could read without any more problems. My son and I, although we learned to read late, went to university. He is now an excellent secondary school teacher.
Looking back I realize that I had failed to apply one of Dolman’s most important rules, namely to be “happy”. It was only as a dance therapist and film educator with children with special needs that I learned to be happy in my teaching. Being truly happy completely changes the student teacher dynamic. The feeling of joy is powerful, contagious, creative, self-empowering and nurturing. In this troubled world we should try to live our whole life with this energy. Joy and wonder can still be found in the midst of destruction and conflict if we know where to look.
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