Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Growing into Literacy - Guest Post

It is often a challenge for parents who enroll their children at The Clearwater School or other Sudbury schools when their children choose not to learn to read until they are 9 or 10 years old or even older. With the permission of Abbe Vogels, a founder and staff member at Rising Tide School, our sister Sudbury school in Olympia, we are reprinting her blog post about how she handles her own fears around this issue. This post was originally published on her School It Yourself blog on October 2, 2011.
The photos in this post are of Clearwater students and were not part of Abbe's original blog post.

Growing into literacy

As the parent of self-educated children, I often come up against fears about their development. The core of the fear is: ”Maybe what I know in my heart to be true about learning is actually false, and the dominant educational paradigm is right. What if I’ve totally screwed up!” Pretty normal fear for anyone walking a new road, but scary just the same.

For me, and other Sudbury parents, it often comes up around reading. I fear that by supporting my kids to read when they’re ready, they’ll never learn, or they won’t read well. I’ve been very happy that I’ve stared down this fear so far, as I see tremendous benefit to my kids as they grow into literacy in their own time.

Before I had my own children, I worked as a paraeducator in a local school district. That’s when I first became aware that many people can’t read, or can’t read fluently, even when they’ve been schooled their whole lives, and even when they’re of an age where we’d expect reading ability (11, 12, 13 years, and even older). Because reading is the skill upon which all academic schools are based, reading difficulty prevents a person from participating in classroom activities, and was accordingly surrounded by a great deal of fear, worry, and extra work for the kids who weren’t comfortable readers.

The older these children were, the more that the fear surrounding their non-reading caused them deep shame. Their lack of reading skill became something to hide and deny. And the more they hid and denied, the less likely they were to be curious about reading, interested in learning how to do it better, or comfortable asking for help. To me, the situation often appeared hopeless–some students seemed more likely to drop out school than to brave the shame of learning to read at age 13 or older. Completely understandable, given the environment!

When kids come to RTS [Rising Tide School] from other schools, they often don’t read well. I’ve come to realize that it’s really common for people who’ve been schooled their whole lives to not read, write, punctuate, or spell with any degree of fluency. At first, kids are sometimes ashamed of their reading level, and reluctant to ask for help. They avoid situations in which they’ll have to spell, read out loud, or compose a thought on paper. 

Luckily, at Rising Tide School, it’s a-ok to be where you are in your learning, in any area. When that becomes clear to people, they begin to make progress. When a 14 year-old realizes that they won’t be shamed or punished for not knowing how to spell a word, they simply ask how it’s spelled or look it up. Then they remember it for next time. There’s no negative judgment or pressure, so the learning can happen, and it can stick.

What about kids like mine, who’ve never been taught to read? I can say that yes, they do learn, and that my daughter is participating in her learning process with a self-awareness that is delightful to observe. Here’s a snapshot of how reading and writing has unfolded for her. My daughter, who turned 9 this summer, has been interested in letters and words since she was 4 years old or so. She also started drawing complex objects at around age 3. So she learned the alphabet somewhere along the way, and has been able to form all the letters for some time. (In contrast my son, who is 4.5, recognizes a couple of letters. He doesn’t draw much at this time, and he’s somewhat interested in written words, but it’s not a huge draw for him right now. He does sit and look at books by himself, but more often, he wants to play with vehicles and be active. So right from the start, you can see that each child will have their own journey toward literacy, informed by their interests and circumstances). With this interest in letters, a steady journey toward literacy began.

What strikes me with the learning is that it is gradual and continuous. My daughter learned to write her name, then she learned other isolated words (cat, dog, and poop were the first). Then she started spelling words on her own, and writing sentences. She spells more things correctly now, but she often spells phonetically. Nobody told her to spell things phonetically, she just seemed to understand that if she made an attempt at a word, people might be able to read it, even if it wasn’t correct. However, the phonetic spelling is changing each time I see her write. She includes vowels more frequently now, and there are spaces between each word. She uses punctuation more often. There’s a constant feedback loop between her desire to communicate and her ability, and with each question that she asks, or with her observation of patterns in language, her ability grows stronger.

Right now, she can read an easy chapter book with help, and it takes quite a lot of concentration to get through a chapter. A year ago, she could read very little. I’ve spent a total of probably under 10 hours sitting with her, actively being available to her as she works through a book chapter, so she’s had very little “instruction” time. She’s commented to me that as she grows, it just feels easier to read. Her ability increases, but not necessarily because she’s practicing. It’s just coming naturally, as she spends more time actively puzzling out the written word, and as her brain develops.

For me, the best part is that she remains joyous and excited throughout her learning process. When she’s puzzling out a hard word, she never criticizes herself or gets angry and frustrated. She’ll just say “Hmmm…” in this contemplative little voice, then she’ll make an attempt. And another attempt. And then, often, the light will dawn and she’ll see the word. The glow of achievement is so wonderful to see. It never crosses her mind to say “I’m 9, I should know that word already, I’m so dumb!” I am so thankful that she not only is learning successfully, but that she feels successful.

I’m also so thankful that she’s having fun with it, and increasing her skill because it brings her joy and feeling of empowerment. Why? Because the way you learn one thing is the way you learn anything. Your attitude and self-talk follow you to each to new capacity you attempt to integrate. My daughter will have this reading thing well under control by adulthood. But learning never stops.

As adults, we all want and need to learn new things. And how often are we hampered by the voices in our heads, cultivated in childhood, saying “I’m dumb, I’m stupid, I should be better at this already, I couldn’t do it on the first attempt so I’m a failure, I look ridiculous” and on and on? I think and hope that her self-talk around learning will be more like this: “Hmmm. Let me try again. Ok, one more try. I’ll do it a little differently this time. Hey, I did it!”

Are there any disadvantages to being a 9-year-old emerging reader? So far, none that have been significant. She doesn’t go to a school that requires people to learn on a certain schedule, so that’s not an issue. She has plenty of people around her, and usually there’s someone who can help her with reading if she has a question. She’s simply still learning, getting more skilled every day. There’s no problem with that, since we don’t make it into a problem.

There’s more to say about this reading-in-your-own-time thing, maybe for another time. But for today, I hope you can see from this story that it’s a real option, and has benefits in many dimensions. Not only will the reading happen, but the inner resources that we need to learn anything will get the opportunity to develop. The process of learning to read will have great meaning for your reader, because it will have been their idea. And they’ll integrate great feelings of confidence as they master this subject through their own concentrated efforts.
If you have any questions, let me know! I’d be happy to talk in more detail about this part of the learning journey.

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