Your baby CAN’T read

and what’s more, why would you want them to? Obviously, as an education professional, and a librarian to boot, I am an ardent, passionate and involved advocate of all things reading. There is no greater gift to give a child than to flick that switch and help them discover the magical world that waits for them in between the pages of any picture book worth its salt.

But notice the key phrase “book”. Not television. Not ipad. Not computer screen. Book. A book read in the familiar dulcet tones with which the child is so familiar.

I’ve a great number of issues with the “Your Baby Can Read!” program, not the least of which being that it plays on parental anxiety and targets vulnerable members of the community. However, my biggest issue is with the name. This program doesn’t do what it claims to do. It doesn’t teach a baby to read. It teaches a baby to respond to stimulus, much like one of Pavlov’s dogs. It “teaches” a baby to memorise a series of shapes and cues, and to respond accordingly. It’s no more reading than it is for me to open a packet of fish fingers, put them on an oven tray, and call it cooking.

Real reading is a complex process. It begins with the understanding that certain shapes (letters) correlate with sounds, and, that by stringing these sounds together, you can assign names to the things around you. Once these names are strung together, you can create whole lines (sentences) of names (words) which can convey meaning about what you see, hear or imagine.

Once you’ve got that sorted out, you learn that lines can be joined to other lines, and pictures can be added to support what you’re hearing, and what do you know, you’re reading!

Reading is about comprehension. It’s one thing to know that “c-o-w” says cow, but also about the frames of reference needed to support that.  “Cow” only becomes meaningful with the life experience and exposure to know that the concept “cow” correlates with a large animal that chews cud, moos and produces milk.

The transferable skills of phonemic awareness mean that a child who can read can take the sounds “c-a-t” and make “cat” “act” and “tac”. Rote learning that the combination “c-a-t” equates with “cat” will allow the child to read exactly that -“cat”. Nothing more and nothing less. If the norms are moved away, the lesson is lost.

The program “works” for 2 reasons. 1, any parent who is invested enough in their child’s learning to shell out $200 + for a set of DVD’s is attentive enough to talk to them and seek out opportunities for them to expand their world view. These are the same parents who are buying the “Brainy Baby” series of schlock, and supporting any toy which claims to have “educational benefit”. Any parent who is invested in this way is going to be supplementing the program with talking, reading, singing and play. All the things which are the foundations for reading, without the program in place.

Reason 2 is very simple- correlation bias. You want to see a return on your investment, so you do. You want other people to comment on your child’s party trick of touching their ears when they see a certain card, so you say “Hey Jane, watch this, it’s so amazing! I show Jonty this card, and he touches his ears!” Jane, being your well meaning and affable friend, will of course say “Wow! That’s wonderful”.

One of two things will then happen. Jane, feeling the pressure to keep up with the parenting Joneses, and not wanting Algernon to be at a disadvantage, will purchase the program too. Or Jane will sit down, think about it rationally, and write a blog post about it.

In honour of world teachers’ day

I wanted to share my story about the teacher I will always remember  – we all have one, at least, who we remember for good reasons. Her name was Miss Newman, and I was blessed enough to have her teach me  twice.

She was everything my other teachers weren’t. She was young, and spunky and full of a genuine passion for what she did. She’d been so many other things before she was a teacher – she’d sold ice creams in a Mr Whippy van, and gotten fired for making them too big. She’d worked in Kalgoorlie. She’d been an absolutely hopeless waitress, and she told us about all these different lives.

In Year 3, I had to start wearing glasses, and she got wind of the teasing that came along with this. Her response was to sit our class down and explain that people who wore glasses were lucky, because they got to see the world in a different way. Then we all had to write a narrative about what we would see if we all had magic glasses on.

When we learnt about compound words, we had to make a sculpture using found objects, to illustrate our newly formed words. I made a shoe tree. She taught us about classic myths and legends, and we got to be mythical beasts for a day. For the art show, she gave us string and took us to the edge of the oval to dig up clay to use as a background. I looped my string around and around and called my piece “video tapes rewinding” – she didn’t think it was stupid. In fact, she said she rather liked it.

We made a dragon as a class, for the book week parade. We all learnt how to do running stitch to sew him together; using materials she went and got for us from Reverse Garbage. Miss Newman was wonderful, and I idolised her.

In Year 5, she decided to offer relaxation as an alternative to all the traditional PE activities, and sometimes, she’d get us to sit cross legged on the floor, in a darkened room, with softy music playing, and she’d read to us. Selby Speaks and The Witches and The BFG. Heaven for the book loving fat kid.

When learning about community, she sectioned off parts of our classroom, and we all got to work in our cubbies, with friends and decorations of our choosing. We sang all the time, we made a video for BtN,  we did tapestry. We all were given a character in a fictional town, and we made paper mache puppets, and wrote biographies for them. We performed a play for the Principal. I got so into what I was doing that my character, Miss Lilly, the florist, said “Bloody kids”. Quite the scandal.

We did a unit on super heroes, and she was “super math”, with a belt that had a calculator attached. She told us she was sent to help children be saved from the terrors of complicated mathematical problems. She was wonderful, and I idolised her.

I happened to run in to Miss Newman (by then Mrs Barr) in a suburban shopping mall one school holidays. I had my infant son with me, and she had a daughter of 7 or so. I was so happy to see her, and to tell her that she’d inspired me to go into teaching. “Oh” she said. “In that case, I apologise”.

She’d had all her passion drained from her. All her creativity. All her energy. We spoke for a while, and it wasn’t the kids that did it. It wasn’t the parents either (at least not entirely). It was “the system”. It was the fact that every 5 years or so, everything was overhauled, and re regulated and there was the “new” English or the “new” math.

She ended up doing what so many teachers I know have done – staying where she was physically, but checking out mentally. There has to be a way to make teaching less of a talk fest and more about doing.

We don’t need everything overhauled every 5 years. It’s not about pedagogy, or curriculum, or the “new” anything. It’s about supporting those who have the passion to work with the future, and standing out of the way and letting them get on with it.