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Itâ€™s common knowledge that kids are not keen on learning historyâ€”a reaction due, in no small part, to the dreary manner in which it is often taught. More's the pityâ€”because the past is replete with amazing stories that would tantalize childrenâ€”if they only had a chance to hear them.
If you would like to get your youngsters interested in the past, you may find that the telling of real tales goes a long way. For a start, you might share, with them, the following story.
Though it seems almost farcical, it was actually documented at a recent meeting of the International Medieval Congress in England.
Hundreds of years ago, when our European ancestors lived as peasants, they naturally wore outergarments, but undergarments were quite another matter. Basically, they did not exist. Then, starting around the 13th century, major changes took place as peasants left the land to move into the rapidly expanding towns. Once there, they were pressured into abandoning their rough and ready ways. This included covering what they had previously not thought of covering. So they adopted the practice of wearing underwear.
As inevitably happens, the garments wore out. But they were not to be discarded. On hand to rescue the fabric were the new class of bookmakers who rose during this period. They were in desperate need of supplies to make paper for their books and anxious to find something cheaper than the parchment that they had, up till then, been using. Lo and behold! The rags from discarded underwear cost much less than the parchment. The bookmakers happily took advantage of this opportunity.
With a cheaper product, more books could be made and sold. That is exactly what happened. As a result, literacy spread and was far more common in the Middle Ages than is commonly thought.
And it was all due to one of the early instances of recycling where rags were turned into reading.
When I lecture on reading skills, I often talk about "memory for visual sequences." Because this topic is almost never discussed, the initial response is usually "If they're so important, what haven't we heard about them before?"
The question is legitimate since the role of visual skills in reading is almost never discussed.Yet, despite the neglect to which they have been subjected, they are critical to reading success. Further, until instruction catches up with this reality, vast numbers of children will continue to be condemned to a life of reading difficulties.
In trying to get a handle on what these skills are, it's useful to consider some pairs of words such as pots-stop, evil-live, ear-era, teas-seat,time-item. As with many sets, these words are instantly perceived as totally different--even though the letters in each pair are identical. The only difference is the sequences of the letters but that makes all the difference.
There is an old saying that "familiarity breeds contempt. In this case, it would be right to say that "familiarity breeds neglect." We are so used to this component of reading that we are blind to its significance. It is only by removing the blinders of familiarity that we can begin to see the situation in the light that it merits.
That is where phone pads come in. They are a useful tool in helping us take off the blinders blocking our perception. The first step in the process involves a relatively straightforward request; namely, leaving your phone in your pocket and relying solely on memory, make an accurate drawing of all the key elements on your phone pad.
Someone somewhere must exist who can meet this challenge. But I have yet to find that person. Everyone to date ends up nonplussed as he or she puts pen to paper. Almost instantly they realize that they do not know the precise arrangement of the components and they start grappling with questions such as "which letters go on which numbers?" and "are there letters on all the keys?"
At first glance, the response might seem amazing. After all, each of us has seen phone pads on a daily basis for decades and we have all pressed the keys more times than we can count. How is it possible that we do not have a clear representation of this ever-present instrument?
But if viewed within th context of meeting life's demands, this should not in any way be seen as a "deficiency" Indeed, it is a sensible behavior. Why on earth should anyone waste valuable brain space memorizing things that do not have to be memorized? When needed, the phone pad is always right there and all the relevant details can be spotted immediately--simply by looking at them. There is no reason to remember the ordering or sequencing of the elements.
What is remarkable is the extent to which reading differs from this and almost any other common visual experience. Life constantly calls upon us to deal with complex visual information (e.g., seeing a crowd of people, locating a car in a parking lot, etc.). Many features play a role in our handling this information --but sequencing is not one of them. For example, you will still see a "crowd" as the same "crowd" even if the various people move about and change places.
That, of course, is not the situation in reading. From very early on, tiny differences in the sequencing of minute units matter enormously. Even a first grader is expected to know that tap is not pat, that pan is not nap and on and on.
Further, recognition of the sequence is not enough. in direct contrast to our treatment of the phone pad, the sequences of letters must be put in memory. If this does not happen, a child is condemned to "sounding out" every word--regardless of how often the word has been seen and sounded out before.
The repetitive, draining and ultimately counterproductive path of repeatedly sounding out words is, unfortunately, the fate of vast numbers of children. In fact, this behavior is so common that it is often accepted as the norm--as the "thing" children are expected to do. In reality, it is a clear sign that the visual memory skills required for reading have not been put in place.
So in contrast to the situation with the phone pad, visual memory failures in reading do represent a serious deficit. But with teaching guided by systems that are blind to the importance of visual skills, the situation is rarely seen for what it is. The end result is that little, if anything, is done to foster this vital skill.
As is always the case, some fortunate children develop the necessary skills on their own. Their native abilities, however, in no way justify the teaching systems which leave so many children in the dust.
The good news is that it is not difficult to foster the necessary skills. What is needed is (1) the recognition of the role this area plays in reading and (2) the development of well-designed programs of instruction. The Sequences in Sight component in Dr. Blank's Phonics Plus Five is an example of what can be done. When used with young children prior to the teaching of actual reading, the skill can generally be developed within 4-6 weeks. For older children who, in an effort to cope, have developed inappropriate patterns, the time is a bit longer--but still the skill can be attained usually within a 2-3 month period. If you would prefer to design your own material, it is easy to do. Simply follow the guidelines provided in The Reading Remedy.
When Mark Twain was writing his masterpieces, the term attention deficit disorder (ADD) did not exist. Nevertheless, his Tom Sawyer creation was an ideal candidate for this category. And the difficulties he forced his Aunt Polly to deal with are much like those that today's parents confront.
Happily, parents can now breathe a well-earned sigh of relief. For years, the focus has been on the dire outcomes that loom in these kids' future. The typical report stressed how adolescence was likely to bring delinquency, drugs, alcohol and other woes. But the results of a recently completed three year study at Columbia University show that most children treated for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder improve greatly within a few years.
The research conducted on almost 500 children was published in the August issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
And the news gets better, particularly for families that are concerned about using medication. About a year into the program, the kids given medication, with or without behavior management, were doing better than those who got just therapy. By the end of the study, though, the advantage of taking medication disappeared and the improvement covered all groups--medicated and unmedicated..
The research also yielded some insights about the reasons for the previous dire predictions. It did find that the children overall were more likely than the average child to break laws and take drugs by early adolescence. But the ones who get into trouble tended to be children with other mental disorders, not just ADHD.
A behavioral pediatrician Lawrence Diller, author of The Last Normal Child, summed up the good news when he said, "It looks like the Tom Sawyers we see out in the community have a much better prognosis."
When their children enter first grade, legions of parents find themselves facing an unexpected, perplexing situation. Up till that point, all seemed well. Their children seemed so bright and alert--and they were. Then suddenly, when faced with the small squiggles on the printed page, the youngsters' confidence is drowned in a sea of confusion. Almost no parent expects this but with the reading failure rate nationwide consistently hovering at about 40%, this is what a million of more parents face each year.
The parents' response entails not simply anxiety but also, and quite naturally, a search to determine what the cause might be.
A host of reasons have been offered--ranging from inadequate nutrition to unsuspected learning disabilities to the near-ubiquitous attention deficit disorder. But one factor is rarely considered--even though it is central to what is happening. That factor is the difference between learning that is self-directed (spontaneous) and learning that is imposed by others. Yet in everyday discourse, the distinction is rarely made. Learning is the single term used for both forms --even though they represent totally different worlds..
Self-directed learning does not mean that a person is learning something totally on his or her own. For example, imagine a person deciding to learn a new skill such as tennis or a foreign language and then hiring an instructor. The learning that takes place is still self-directed in that it is contains the key factors undergirding that form of learning. These include the learner (i) electing to be in that situation, (ii) being motivated to master the skill and (iii) at all times, feeling in control (e.g., knowing that he or she can decide to continue or withdraw at will.)
Now think about the school setting. The difference is striking. Indeed, the classroom is the mirror image on all key parameters. And the reading failure rate that plagues our nation is one of the terrible outcomes that result. Plato, thousands of years ago, warned us of the pitfalls when he wrote that "knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."
Does this mean that we are fated to endure the overwhelming rates of reading failure that currently exist? Naturally, I do not believe that to be the case or I would never have designed Phonics Plus Five and other reading programs. But the situation that we face does mean that, if they are to be effective, the content of teaching programs must be designed to overcome the profound disadvantages that are built into imposed learning.
One of the keys to success for any program is how effectively it leads a learner to mastery. Mastery, the sense of having real command over a particular realm, is one of the most powerful sources of motivation. At all ages--from infancy on, people relish the feeling of mastery. So when a teaching program imparts that feeling to a learner, imposed learning can be amazingly successful.
The problem is that most current reading programs fail dismally when viewed through the perspective of mastery. Among their weaknesses are the following:
(i) they induce high rates of error thereby causing a child to feel inadequate and demoralized
(ii) many of the tasks, while associated with reading, do nothing to actually foster reading. As a result, they take up time without offering any significant benefit. Unbelievable as it may seem, for example, the months spent learning letter names in kindergarten and first grade does not actually aid reading itself
(iii) the exercises take far longer periods of time than necessary --thereby draining the learner's effort
(iv) they are rarely fun--as you can see if you simply take some of the hundreds of worksheet pages devoted to isolated sound analysis and keep working at them for months at a time
So when you are selecting programs for your child, you might find it helpful to keep these criteria in mind. Programs that are designed to foster mastery are programs that are going to succeed!
We hear a lot about globalization and the many changes it is bringing. One -- which has not achieved much attention -- is the need to learn other languages. If we are going to compete on a world-wide basis, our children are going to have to be fluent in a range of foreign languages. Now some of our English-speaking compatriots across the ocean are trying to do just that through a pioneering plan that has been started in the schools.
Specifically, several major areas in England are offering children in the early primary grades the opportunity to sample six different languages. The children can then decide the ones they would like to pursue when they transfer to high school. The goal is to eventually have the children start foreign language at seven years of age. The results of the program will be published later this year. At this point, it represents an intriguing idea that we ought to think of pursuing on this side of the Atlantic.
Social scientists have, for many years now, been telling us about the role birth order plays in making us who we are. In general, the first-born in families are the big achievers. So with that in mind, the New York Times recently ran a quiz listing the following high achieving (though not always charming) celebrities. For each, there was one of three choicesâ€”first born (F), middle (between first and last) (M) and last born (L).
If you would like to take the test, hereâ€™s the list.
Charles Darwin; Mother Theresa; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Dick Cheney; Betty Friedan; Mao; Picasso; Woody Allen; Andrew Carnegie; Michael Jordan; Sacha Baron Cohen; Martha Stewart; Stephen Hawking; Marie Curie; Katherine Hepburn; Rupert Murdoch.
And here are the answers, listed in the same order as the names
M; M; M; F; F; F; F; F; F; M; L; M; F; L; F; M.
In case youâ€™re not a first-born, don't be disheartened. Being the first child in the family is not critical to success. And you can always take comfort in thinking about the following: Ben Franklin, youngest of 10 sons; Stephen Colbert -- youngest of 11 children; Dalai Lama-the fifth son in the family (but 11 more came after him) and of course, Joseph-the 11th son of Jacob.
Children often find writing to be far more difficult than reading. If that comment fits your situation, you may find it helpful to adapt the suggestion of a parent who recently wrote to me. She described the way she transitioned her son from reading to writing in the following way:
"I pulled my youngest child out of public school two months ago and am undertaking one of the biggest challenges of my life. As I started reading your blog posting on Children Reading Before Speaking, I realized that reading is so much easier for him. So a couple of weeks ago I decided to apply a technique I heard you lecture about some years back.
I wrote short, one page stories without any pictures. Then after my son read a story, I had him repeat after me after every line--perfectly. At the end, I asked him to tell me the story. HE DID!!!! And he did it without pictures (though up till now, he always had to rely on pictures)! I am trying to extend his ability to retain information without the help of photos or pictures.
Then this week he came up to me and said HE wanted to write a story and asked me to write what he said. He has never done this before! So far, he has dictated about ten stories to me this week alone and he is so excited as I write his words down. He watches me for accuracy and corrects me when I don't use his exact words. He does not like to write. Because I am so excited about his desire to use his words to write these stories I am not insisting that he write them himself. I am hoping to get him to do so, perhaps on the computer, in the future. I am going to read your newsletter diligently as try to put together a complete home program for my son."
Summer! Vacation time! For many American families that involves a trip to Disney World, Disneyland and/or the Disney Cruise Line. And chances are that one or more family member has a special need such as a child with ADD, a pregnant mom, grandparents with declining mobility, a child with food allergies, a teen-aged daughter "converted" to vegetarianism. To help with these and many other everyday needs, there is a new book that will prove useful. It is PassPorter's Walt Disney World for Your Special Needs: The Take-Along Travel Guide and Planner! by Deb Wills and Debra Martin Koma. This guidebook offers 400 pages of information, photographs, maps, charts, and advice covering 24 special needs categories that will ease your trip from start to finish.
A friend, knowing my love of words and my interest in visual sequencing, recently sent me an intriguing set of words. In each pair, the letters are identical -- but the sequence has been altered. The result is ingenious and entertaining -- a lovely combination.
ELEVEN PLUS TWO
TWELVE PLUS ONE
BEST IN PRAYER
THE MORSE CODE
HERE COME DOTS
CASH LOST IN ME
IS NO AMITY
ALAS! NO MORE Z'S
A DECIMAL POINT
I'M A DOT IN PLACE
THAT QUEER SHAKE
There is a new book in the long line of books aimed at explaining how great leaps or breakthroughs come about --whether they be the invention of the printing press, the development of radar, or the cracking of the DNA code. The title of this book, which is filled with wonderful tales, is Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas by Richard Ogle. The publisher, quite appropriately, is the Harvard Business School.
While few of us will ever get to play a role in truly revolutionary ideas, all of us throughout our lives are fortunate to experience some components of the breakthrough experience. The term commonly used to characterize this experience is the "aha" moment.
And children--who are in a much more active phase of learning than adults-generally experience it from more than we do. You can see it happening
when you are explaining something to your child and he or she suddenly looks up and with eyes bright with pleasure says something like "Oh, I got it."
When this happens, it is a sign that a real connection has been made. It means that whatever you have been discussing has really "clicked." It is a great marker to look for--since it both a delight to see and a sign to encourage you both to many more discussions that will lead to more "aha" experiences.