Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Rush, Little Baby

The Boston Globe ran a fascinating (and, warning, rather long) piece on the infant education industry a little over a week ago. You can read the piece, "Rush, Little Baby," here.

Author Neil Swidey reaches the standard conclusion of these pieces. For most children, early formal instruction (before the usual start of first grade or at most kindergarten) does little good. Early readers are not really reading, they are memorizing and, in fact, children who are pushed to read too young are less avid readers later on. All the commercial products out there to maximize infant brain development may in fact retard such development. After all, just look at the recent study pointing out that Baby Einstein video devotees had less well-developed vocabularies than children who didn't watch such videos.

Swidey puts a lot of the research in one place, and is good at pointing out the absurdity of some claims -- and some parents. My 6-month-old son has never seen a flashcard in his life (he has seen Sesame Street, but that's because we found out it shut him up the other morning when my husband and I were both trying to get things done. We were surprised that Sesame Street had kids learning about the number 18, though. Maybe this is a testament to the infant education movement's reach. We didn't think Sesame Street went past the number 12!)

But what is true for the average child -- that kids parroting back Dick and Jane books are not really reading -- is not at all true for the highly gifted child. Swidey does mention that maybe 3% of children are truly early readers. That is, they comprehend what they are reading on the page, and how each letter or letter combination corresponds to a sound, and how stringing those sounds together makes a word. These children are able to figure out words from context. Readers of this blog -- who have seen their five and six year olds devouring Harry Potter, reading silently -- know that these children are, in fact, reading. Generally, these kids haven't been pushed at all. They learn to read because they want to discover what wonderful things are in books.

The problem is that the research cited in this piece, and the general tone of "oh those crazy parents" is often used to say that early enrichment for gifted kids isn't necessary. After all, kids all even out by third grade or so, as Swidey says. This is why many gifted programs don't start until third grade. By then, the effect of early parental striving has allegedly disappeared, so we can get down to business of figuring out who is "actually" gifted. But believing that toddlers can't actually have advanced intelligence that needs to be nurtured is as absurd as showing a 6-week-old baby a flashcard. Many parents of gifted kids have the experience of being labeled "pushy" at some point or another, and articles like this certainly add to the adversarial nature of the relationship between parents and educators. Maybe some brilliant kids haven't been pushed at all. Maybe they push their parents. Trying to hold them back is silly, and stating that they may possibly become less avid readers later on just adds to parental insecurities.


InTheFastLane said...

It is interesting. But, yet, my two children who are great readers, really didn't read well until sometime in 1st grade. I was never pushy, but they were exposed to letters and books and numbers from infancy. But, in the end kids will learn in their own time (gifted or not).

It made me a little sad that my friend was telling us that her two year old knows all her letters and letter sounds and she is trying to teach her how to put the sounds together. Whether or not this just-turn-two-year-old is ready for this (probably not) is not so much the issue. The issue to me is that unless kids are teaching themselves these things at this age, then let them be kids. By all means expose them to the concepts. But, that is different that forcing information on them that they don't need at that age.

Anonymous said...

Words, like letters, are symbols which are used to organize and disseminate information, to express ideas and occurrences. Whether a child reads by sight or phonics isn’t the point. The important point is whether or not the expressed and implied meaning is understood. The assertion that a child is not really reading unless they are piecing together letter sounds is ridiculous.

My children were never taught to read-they figured it out on their own. The schools did instruct phonics, but that skill is reserved for when a word is not obvious to them. Since they have well developed vocabularies and strong memories, it is not used often. They, like other highly gifted children, read for pleasure and information-not “show and tell”.

BTW-3% (give or take) is not such a tiny percent of children in need of a differentiated education.

Anonymous said...

Adults don't read using phonics. Phonics are only useful for unfamiliar words. My kids were early readers and are now avid readers. My daughter begged me to teach her to read when she was three. She was clearly ready and caught on quickly. My son taught himself to read by watching a children's phonics video at age 2.

If kids are interested in reading there's nothing wrong with teaching them! If kids are memorizing books and sight words, that's a great start to becoming a reader.

Anonymous said...

All kids level out in Grade 3? I'll need a lot of convincing please. The top 5% must be so small in number, that they are not statistically significant enough to prove that remark wrong.

My Grade 2 daughter just told me that she had
peeked at a report lying open on the teacher's desk. The reading levels of the children in her class is ranging from more than 6 months behind the child's age, to almost 60 months ahead of the child's age. Level out in a few months' time? I certainly hope not, for my daughter's sake!

Laura, don't miss an episode of Sesame Street for your baby. It does wonders to hold very young children's attention and make learning FUN! It taught my daughter all the digits and alphabets by 18 months, and I had to stop a woman in the park one day, testing and rewarding her with all the alphabet biscuits that my daughter pointed and read out. (Thank you, Children's Television Workshop!!)

I have no experience with flashcards, but if a certain baby responds to them, why not?? No one should rule them out as a legitimate medium of early learning, just because we never got to use them in our own infanthood.

We should keep reminding ourselves that whatever applies to "most children" has little relevance to those at either end of the Bell curve.

For those parents who suspect their toddlers are advanced, I'd like to recommend "What to Expect in the Toddler Years", or any other parenting books which list out the benchmark development of young children by the month - what they should and could accomplish at that age. If you find that your little darling consistently fits the descriptions of much older toddlers, your suspicion is true. In that case, letting her learn what she wants to learn is letting her be herself, not forcing her into pre-conceived molds of "being kids".

Anonymous said...

The thing I have learned, parenting a highly gifted child, is that when they are infants and toddlers no one is pushing them. We are just trying to keep up with them. This is the qualitative difference in their development that no one seems to understand unless they've BTDT. When your just turned 3 year old starts to spontaneoulsy write not only his own name, but the names of every kid at his daycare center, no one believes you that he taught himself!

He is now 6 and still prefers to "teach himself". We are having to work on actually getting him to attend to instructions and learn from others. He is so used to discovering it all for himself. I am having a hard time "teaching" him anything!

Anonymous said...

I was an early reader myself at 3 yrs years old, read chapter books by age 4, and was past high school reading level by 5th grade. My son knew all his letters and sounds by age 2 but didn't read proficiently until kindergarten. With young gifted children, the parents follow more than they push. He taught himself addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and the concept of fractions before he ever set foot in a classroom. I didn't need to push him; I just had to stay out of his way!

Anonymous said...

I was reading by age 3 because I loved stories and couldn't wait for busy people to read to me, but I also grew up in a house full of readers. We were read stories all the time and books were held out as wonderful mechanisms for time travel and adventure. I can remember my brother holding a book upside down and pretending to read as an infant in diapers because everyone else in the family room was reading, and I guess he figured that's what people did. He later began reading by about age 3, as well.

We did have phonics instructional materials that an aunt had given us but that set came after I was 5 at least and I remember it mostly as being useful for helping "sound out" big unfamiliar words. The thing that was most helpful for us was that our parents never told us a book was "too old" for us. We grew up in a rural community and I read every book in the childrens' section of the library by the time I was 10. (Except the Hardy Boys. I hate the Hardy Boys.) I can remember my mom going to bat for me and *making* the county librarian give me unrestricted access to the "adult" section of the library because that's where they kept the science fiction and that's what I was into that summer.

As an aside, I'm old enough to remember when Sesame Street first came on the air and, while I can visualize the 1-12 psychedelic pinball game, I think they've always done numbers up to 20. To this very day, I count to 20 in Spanish to the tune I learned from the Children's Television Workshop. :)

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether my kids are gifted or not - I found this post on a search for what to do with early learners. I've been so frustrated when people hint that I'm pushing my kids. My 5-year-old wakes up thinking about math and outer space. He'll solve math problems in his head as long as I can stand to think them up for him. My 3.5-year-old just read her first little book, sounding out each word in the story. It made her so HAPPY. My kids are like vultures hovering over my brain, trying to pick more out of it... I feel guilty for wanting a break sometimes. No one would understand any of this. I dodge questions to hide what the kids are really learning. It was nice to read this post and vent a little, anyway.

Evan Adams said...

I'm profoundly gifted, particularly in verbal skills, but was 7 before I was reading fluently, because there just wasn't much need. Basically, what happened is that my mom got a job, and was no longer available to read to me constantly, so I had to do it myself. All the early readers I know, both their parents worked (or they were raised by single parents, like me, but weren't on welfare the first seven years of their lives.)