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Teaching Your Baby to Read
I recently noticed that the physiotherapist dr. Glenn Dorman celebrated his ninetieth birthday. His book, “How to Teach Your Baby to Read,” co-authored with Janet Dorman more than forty years ago, pioneered a whole new approach to teaching reading to the very young.
It all started when Glenn Dorman was teaching brain-damaged preschoolers to read at the Institute for Human Achievement in Philadelphia. Dolman claims that a baby will learn the written word just as easily as spoken language, and may even learn to read before learning to speak. .This is based on the fact that the written word is represented multiple times and in capital letters. His book lays out step-by-step teaching sessions, starting when the child turns two. There are several daily periods of less than five minutes each. In a sample session, the parent touches the baby’s toes, says the word “toes,” holds up a large sign with the word on it. It is important that each session is a “game” that both participants find “joyful” and must always end before the baby gets bored.
Dorman’s approach was and still is controversial. No one has a problem with parents reading to their baby from birth. However, claims by experts that most reading problems could be eliminated if reading was taught from an earlier age have not really been proven. In Finland, the literacy rate is 99.9%, but students don’t start learning to read until they are seven years old. Four of the top ten countries do not begin formal reading instruction until age seven.
Certain physical and mental abilities must be developed before a child learns to read. The child must be able to correctly hear the differences in sound sounds, he must be able to move his eyes accurately across the page. They must be able to sit still and concentrate and of course they must understand what is being read. These are all skills that improve with age.
Educators and child psychologists are generally skeptical about the value of children learning to read at a very early age. They do not doubt that some parents can teach some three-year-olds to read. They believe that the motivation for many parents is that “it represents status”. Some critics even fear that early teaching can be harmful. Dr. Paul J. Kinsella, director of the Developmental Reading Clinic in Lake Forest, believes that a young child’s hearing and vision are so disorganized that parental pressure to read can only confuse children or cause emotional blockages that would permanently impair their reading. Burton White of the Harvard School of Education goes so far as to call homeschooling “part of an overemphasis on cerebral development.”
However, there are no reliable studies on the long-term effects of parental preschool instruction. However, there is a general consensus that impatient, stressed parents should not engage in early reading programs with their child.
Proponents of the Gentle Revolution propose that young children have the ability to learn almost as long as they are young. They believe that what children learn without any conscious effort at the age of two, three, or four can be learned only with great effort, or not at all, in later life.
I personally do not dispute that very young children can be taught to read. But like many other ideas today, we have to ask whether, in the long run, it increases the chances of creating well-rounded individuals who can cope with life. I know a Jamaican surgeon who taught herself to read and was reading newspapers at the age of two and a half. She was clearly an extremely gifted child.
Babies are beautifully pre-programmed to do things at a time that suits them. The baby learns to hold his head up, sit, stand up, crawl, walk when he feels ready. I really wonder if a nine-month-old needs to focus his cerebral energy on learning to read. Some programs even recommend starting reading at this age.
Starting to teach three or four year olds is another matter. About thirty years ago, I started using Dorman’s book to teach my then three-year-old oldest son to read. He was clearly intelligent and loved books and had a large library of his own. Despite his interest, things did not go well. I was very patient, not violent, but I convinced myself that I was a hopeless teacher. I soon ended the program because I didn’t want to risk my son feeling like he had failed before he even started kindergarten. This son was a very late reader, like me, and for the same reason.
In his second year of college, my son was diagnosed with severe dyslexia in some areas. It was at a time when dyslexia was unknown to many teachers, let alone the general public. Neither my son nor I had any special help to deal with our reading problems. My late father, who was a medical doctor, was convinced that I was intelligent and never gave up on me despite my teachers’ attitudes towards my abilities. I continue to thank him for that. My son and I both got to the point where everything suddenly came naturally and we could read without any problems. My son and I, although we learned to read late, entered university. Now he is an excellent high school teacher.
Looking back, I realize that I was not able to practice one of Dolman’s most important rules, ie. to be “joyful”. It was only as a dance and movement therapist working with children with special needs that I learned to be joyful in my teaching. Being truly joyful completely changes the dynamic of student and teacher. The feeling of joy is powerful, contagious, creative, self-empowering and nurturing. In this troubled world, we should try to live our whole life on this energy. Joy and wonder can still be found in the midst of disaster and conflict if we know where to look.
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