Early Childhood Literacy And Bragging Rights
By Martha Pascal

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Dear Quack,
My child is eighteen months and knows all his letters.  Now what?
Sincerely,
Little Miss Awesome

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Dear Little Miss Awesome,

Wow, that iPhone app must have been really effective.  I’m sure your son spent some quality time with that iPhone while he learned his letters.  Well done.  Awesome.

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Do you mind if I cut off this sweet little story with my own anecdote?  When my child was two years old he couldn’t care less about his letters.  We bought those foam alphabet letters for the bath mostly because it was the only bath toy for sale at our good-for-nothing drug store and little Nick enjoyed them immensely.  He would chew on them for hours on end, begging for more bath time so he could devour those delicious foam shapes.  When we occasionally mentioned something like, “that’s an ‘L,’” little Nick looked at us as if we were saying “smuffle kinst rawf biss.”  Nick was clearly unready to read, and it seemed silly to teach him the names of all 26 squiggly lines against his will.

So that’s lesson number one:  don’t get snooty about your precious little angel knowing all his letters before his second birthday.  It makes other parents feel like they’re doing something wrong and they’re not.

Anyway back to my little Nick.  At one point around his third birthday, when he had long since abandoned chewing on the letters and had moved on to pretending like they were action figures, Nick picked up the foam ‘T.’  “Look Mommy!”  he exclaimed.  “T for tree!”  Lord knows where he gleaned this bit of wisdom.  Perhaps I mentioned it off-handedly during some late-night bed time story hour.  Perhaps I should give credit to his father, who I sometimes forget is also capable of teaching things.  In any case, I decided to pounce.

See, if Nick hadn’t expressed any sort of interest in reading until he was seven, that would have been fine, too.  Truly, Little Miss Awesome, I don’t give a shit about the eighteen months part of your story.  I actually find it rather distressing that you would see fit to mention such a thing.  Stop bragging, it’s unbecoming.

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In any case, we decided that as soon as Nick showed ANY self-driven interest in reading, that we would accept Super Sarah’s suggestion and begin right away with that Teach Your Child to Read book (whose cover has FINALLY been updated).  Please note:  we read to Nick all the friggin’ time.  This is not a game of hands-off, let-him-find-his-own-way sort of parenting nonsense.  We just knew that it was no use trying to teach him to read if he wasn’t ready.  And (I’d like to reiterate) it didn’t matter to us if that moment of motivation didn’t come for years and years.  If he turned nine and still wasn’t interested, well, we’d maybe take a different approach.  But no sooner, certainly.

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(Caption: We lost the purple pen and hoped the different colors wouldn't act as a prompt. We also made teeth inside the 'e' which was our only gimmick. He was having trouble so we reminded him that it's the same sound as when you brush your teeth. Clever, right?)
So there we are with an eager three-year-old and a text that doesn’t let you mess up.  We would write each sound that he learned on a post-it note and tape it to a lower cabinet in the kitchen so that the sounds (and NOT the letter names, Little Miss Maybe Not As Awesome As You Thought) were part of our daily visual experience.  Sometimes we’d walk by and merely read them ourselves without any instruction or invitation for Nick.

“Mmmmmm.  Sssssss.  Man, I love reading,” and then we’d walk away.  This invariably piqued his interest and he would usually (let’s just say about 90% of the time to be accurate) voluntarily repeat those sounds.  We would also change the order regularly so that once there were more than two sounds, he wouldn't just learn the order by heart.  Hello, teaching moments during breakfast!

Oh did I mention the star chart?  Sorry, maybe I’m not as awesome as I thought I was.  We introduced a star chart right out of the gate.  “Okay, Nick, whenever you want to do a reading lesson, you’ll get to color in a star here.  As soon as all these stars are colored in, you get to pick a prize!”  Enter prize box.  This has been my mothering jackpot.  Because we can use it for an incentive for all kinds of behavior, both anticipated (“Look, you’ve colored in all five stars!  Let’s go pick a prize!”) or unannounced (“Wow!  A dry overnight diaper!  Go pick a prize!”).  We can also throw all kinds of otherwise disposable bullshit into the prize box.  I especially love to make him earn back his birthday presents.  Yeah, that’s a good trick.

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(Caption: We let Nick color in his own stars and we make a note of the prize he chooses each time. Then when he throws a fit about not getting a prize EVERY time, we can remind him what he got LAST time.)
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So there are five stars in each little cloud that we’ve drawn (we learned the hard way that 10, then 8 was just too many!), and sometimes we’ll give him a star just for reading the sounds hanging in the kitchen.  (Now we’re up to m, s, r, t, e as in eat, a as in asshole, i as in igloo, d.  Remember these are all SOUNDS we’re teaching, NOT letter names.  Because really, saying ‘are’ ‘aiee’ ‘tee’ has nothing to do with saying ‘rat.’  I mean, what exactly is an araitee?  Does it even resemble a rat?)  Sometimes if it seems like he’s capable but just distracted, we’ll remind him that at the end of the lesson he’ll get to color in a star.  Sometimes if he’s just too frustrated, we’ll let it go.  Sometimes (read:  often) we’ll repeat a lesson until the new sounds/ skills are totally mastered.  It’s taken us three months to do fifteen lessons, but who cares? I mean, jeez, he’s only (hair flip, carefree eye roll) three.

It’s cool though if you think your instincts offer a better methodology for early childhood literacy.  Do what you gotta do.  Some people get all uptight about the whole phonetics approach.  (I don’t mean to act like a salesman here, but the Teach Your Child to Read book addresses silent letters from the beginning.  They print them noticeably smaller than the pronounced sounds and the instructions you give your child say ‘remember, we only say the big sounds.’)  They’d rather have their child read by guessing the word based on the picture.  Because that’s how reading works, right?  You just use the illustrations to guide you through that New Yorker article?

If this is getting too bossy for you, Little Miss, remember that you’re the one who asked.  Run don’t walk to buy yourself a copy of my new favorite book. I hope this post answers your question.  And please let me know when your little angel starts trigonometry.  I do hope it’s soon.



Most Sincerely,


Martha Pascal

 


Comments

Nana
10/29/2012 4:43pm

You are a fab teacher Martha. So loved my chat with Nick last night.

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