Sunday, September 30, 2012

Raising Children to be Readers

Many parents believe that the best way to help their children to learn to read is to teach them the alphabet. However, studies have shown that the best things they can do begin when the child is born. Raising children in an environment of love allows for their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional developmental goals to be met. A 4-year-old who is socially well-adjusted, has self-control, is well-behaved, who knows what he wants to do, has enough self-confidence to do it, persisting until he has completed the task; and is able to carry on a conversation, is ready for school and will not find learning difficult.

The first requirement for these goals to be met is proper nutrition—preferably breast-milk for the first 6 months of life, followed by weaning onto a balanced diet. The second is for his mother to respond to his needs, so that he learns to trust, and to show affection. A neglected baby feels emotions of disappointment and anger, which later lead to defiance, intentional hurting and feelings of guilt.

The third is for adequate stimulation, so that the baby learns the properties of objects. He learns that objects and people are still there when he cannot see them, and develops the ability to hold an image of objects in his mind. This is the beginning of memory. He learns that he can be a causal agent and can predict the outcome of his actions. This is the foundation of an adult’s ability to make a plan, carry it out and judge its success. When a baby can creep he should be allowed to explore a safe environment. Parents could baby-proof part of the house instead of restraining the baby.

In the toddler years (ages 2 and 3), a great deal of development takes place. I’m choosing four things to emphasize. Firstly, the importance of fantasy play, which children use to come to terms with their physical and social environment. Many children talk to imaginary friends. (They are not talking to duppies, as some people think!). When they make imaginary friends scapegoats, they show that they are learning the difference between right and wrong.

Secondly, the purpose of punishment should be to develop self control. When a child has misbehaved, parents need to explain why the action was wrong. Discipline should be administered as close to the action as possible, should be appropriate but firm, and brief. A toddler can be given ‘time-out’. Where the child is in a loving home, the occasional slap can be effective, but intense, frequent, harsh punishment leads to emotional distress (including depression) which later leads to arguing, disobedience and destructiveness. Toddlers learn by imitation, so will copy caregivers who behave in a violent manner.

Many children all over the world, including Jamaica, suffer from undiagnosed, untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from abuse, loss of loved ones, fires and other disasters. In these children, the ‘wiring’ of the brain develops in such a way that they are on constant alert, and are unable to concentrate on school work. They need professional help.

Lastly, and of paramount importance for a child to be able to learn to read, is the development of language. Parents need to communicate with their children as much as possible, beginning at birth with non-verbal communication. By the time a child is 4 years old, he has learnt the grammatical structure and a sufficient number of words to be able to converse in his mother-tongue. While there are children who are bilingual in Creole and Standard English, the many who speak only Creole face the difficulty of acquiring literacy in Standard English. Much research has been done on this by Dr. Meta Bogle and Dr. Beverley Bryan (UWI).

A bedtime story

 I agree that one of the best ways for children to learn Standard English is to hear written stories read to them out loud, preferably every day. However, I doubt whether the parents of our at-risk students are able or willing to do this. Many of them are completely overwhelmed by day-to-day problems, and see nothing wrong with raising their children in the same way that they were raised. Studies have shown that mothers like these can be helped by social support, such as was given by the Rural Caregivers Programme and the Rural Family Support Organization operating in Clarendon.

Illiteracy in Jamaica is a national problem—it impacts all of us. Whole communities need to be involved, not just parents and teachers. For example, in addition to providing books, volunteer ‘reading aunts, uncles, big sisters and brothers’ could be on hand to read to at-risk children. Service Clubs, Churches and NGO’s need to mobilize to give social, emotional and economic support to the neediest families. Drama groups could present role-play, showing preferred methods of parenting.

The parameters of the solution to the literacy problem are much wider than simply teaching children to read.


Natalie said...

You can't really blame Jamaican parents for focusing on the alphabet as the necessary precursor to reading. They're merely repeating what was done to them, and what is still being done in schools. I've even encountered resistance to doing anything else besides emphasizing letter recognition.

Never mind that there are at least FIVE other aspects of reading that need to be emphasized as well:

Letter Knowledge - what they look like, how they sound, that they work together to make up words, how they are different from each other

Narrative Skills - being able to describe things, tell a story, predict outcomes

Phonological Awareness - hear and play with sounds, make up words

Print Awareness - being able to see print all around, recognise various forms of print, and know how to relate to a book

Print Motivation - being interested in writing, in books, writing own stories, seeking out books

Vocabulary - know how to name things

When it comes to learning and teaching techniques with regard to children, Jamaican institutions are woefully behind the times. Some of that is about laziness and insularity. There's no other explanation when the knowledge is publicly available but the entities responsible for passing on information don't even make the effort to gather the information and pass it on.

We need more and diverse kinds of community initiatives to counter the misinformation that has taken root. We can't wait until the powers that be decide to change their minds about what matters.

Helen said...

Thank you, Natalie. I hope that everyone who read this post also reads your comment. I will hightlight your points in a future post.