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People always comment on how smart Jack (5.5 yrs) is; how maturely he speaks, how quickly he understands, how focussed he is, he must be a dream to teach, they say, ….
If I am being honest, it is difficult to hear this so often and not have it influence your attitudes. Unconsciously at first, I started to develop an idea in my mind; an idea of a smart child, what they could do, what they should be able to do.
It wasn’t until I caught myself thinking about Jack’s reading and writing (and his indifference towards both) that I realised I had created this persona of him; a persona which was completely external to who Jack actually was.
I have a smart kid, I thought. People keep telling me that…but still Jack isn’t reading and writing…. Surely a smart kid would be reading and writing by now!
If Jack was so smart, why couldn’t he write?!
Learning to read and write seem to be part of those foundation skills that we are all so desperate for our children to master. There seems to be a generally accepted age of 3-years-old to 6-years-old where children learn to read and write.
If our children learn when they are three or four then that’s fantastic, ….if however they are reaching six and still can’t read The cat sat on the mat, well then we start to get a little worried…. particularly when people keep telling you how smart your child is!
I was truly shaken to my core when I realised this construct; these expectations, which I had created.
Against everything I know about how children learn effectively, I found myself searching for reading and writing programs (most with ghastly worksheets) so Jack would learn to write and do it quickly!
I soon realised that these programs didn’t even make sense. They were so far removed from natural language. They didn’t convey reading and writing as an extension of speaking. They didn’t teach reading and writing as a way to communicate meaning.
They chose simple words for their readability (with no consideration of context) and drilled, some under the guise of games, but drilled none the less, these words into the child.
This was not how I wanted Jack to learn to read and write.
I cleared my mind of those nasty expectations. I saw Jack for who he is. Not an age group. Not a ‘late’ reader. Just Jack.
And so I backed right off and wouldn’t you know it, just like John Holt said and just like the teachers in Reggio Emilia know, Jack began to communicate his thoughts through words; his own words.
I did away with all notions of drills and worksheets. I made blank books for him to draw and create stories, I put an alphabet chart at his eye level and stuck another on his desk. Not to drill him but to give him independence in writing.
I added a little mailbox for swapping messages and writing letters. And I added a keyring of blank slips of paper for Jack to write the words which had the most meaning to him. Not cat, sat, mat, hat but Batman, Joker, Spiderman, Help! Ahhh! and many others.
And the messages and the stories came. Little notes popped up in the mailbox and characters with speech bubbles filled the blank books.
Sarah (3.5yrs) has also been inspired to write; copying her brother as she shows me what I knew all along, that writing is simply another way to communicate. And when we keep reading and writing firmly planted in meaningful context, allowing our children to create words and read words naturally, they start to discover for themselves the joy of putting their thoughts to paper. No drills. No worksheets necessary.
This has definitely been a lesson in patience for this mama.
Jack’s little mailbox is from Sweet Elephants.
The alphabet sticker is from Pascal Press. They come in a pack of 3o. Plenty to share round.