Monday, 26 November 2012

Learning to read - for parents

Dear Parents,

Last weekend I experienced deja vu, I was with my five and seven year old grandsons and was given the task of listening to them read. Their school uses the Oxford Reading Tree and the experience was equivalent to pulling teeth.  They had to be persuaded, cajoled, bribed and threatened to complete the task.  The books were unremittingly boring, the characters unrealistic, the plot contrived. I noticed that 7 year-old Ciaran had been on the same book for two weeks and the message to parents in his reading book was to ensure he ‘read it again without mistakes’.  He did make mistakes, but none of them spoiled the sense of the book.  He showed me that he was a real reader, predicting what would come, not reading every word – we know that no one does that – but because he had made mistakes he had to continue with the book until he was word perfect.  He was so frustrated! What was he learning? That the teacher valued his ability to accurately decode the words, not his ability to predict words which more accurately demonstrated his reading skills.  I’m afraid I wrote in his book that he had read the book without error and hope they would give him a new book on Monday.

I then showed him a book I had recently bought.  It is a picture book that is written as a dialogue between animals. I invited Ciaran to read it with me and take the main part. His initial reluctance “not reading again, Nana”, turned to enthusiasm as he realised that this was a real book with a real story with issues that needed thinking about.  Over the next 30 minutes Ciaran had read this book to his mum, his dad, his Grandpa, his baby brother and his 5 year-old brother. Each reading demonstrated his capacity for reading with expression and even 1 year old Max was engaged by his telling – what a contrast to the dull, unexpressive, boring way he had read The Oxford Reading Tree.  Five year old Lucas, an extremely reluctant reader – we had not yet managed to get him to read his reading book – also wanted to read the book and they decided to read it together taking the different parts in the book. The book had plenty of repetition for the beginning reader and Lucas was soon able to read the book independently and was enthusiastically reading it to his dad.  Not because he wanted to demonstrate his success in reading, but because he wanted to share a good story.

So what about my feeling of deja vu? This whole experience reminded me of the distress experienced by my own daughter, now 36 who had to work her way through an equally dull reading scheme – The Village with Three Corners. The characters of Jennifer Yellow Hat and Roger Red Hat are indelibly embedded in my mind. Each day she would bring home flash cards – she had to know her flash cards before she was given a book. She kept getting ‘was’ and ‘saw’ mixed up and the more we tried the more she got it wrong, leading to fear of even looking at the cards. Every evening after school was ruined with the daily battle to read the words. I remember her screaming, “I just can’t do it!”  I didn’t know then that she was dyslexic and would struggle with reading all through school – yet she loved books and loved being read to.  This month she has just achieved her PhD but it has been a long journey to overcome her loss of self-esteem because she couldn't do what the teachers expected, to believe in herself as a competent and highly intelligent person. Her upset when she wasn’t allowed a new reading book because she couldn’t read all the flash cards broke my heart.  It had nothing to do with her intelligence – she had a learning difficulty that unfortunately schools in those days didn’t recognize.  My other two children had no difficulty learning to read – immersed in books from babyhood they just learnt to read by being read to, by being exposed to books that they loved, books that were real, not the artificial creation of a reading scheme.  My son was three when we moved to Wales and his school used Ladybird Readers. Despite the fact that by five he could already read, the teacher insisted he worked his way through the reading scheme.  I remember one page of the book asked, “Where is Janet?” – he threw the book across the room shouting, “I don’t care!” Of course he didn’t care – I couldn’t understand why was he being forced to work his way through these dull stories when he could be reading real books. Fortunately we had lots of books at home and he is still an avid reader.

So why in Wales do we have 30% of adults functionally illiterate when all this time and effort is put into teaching reading? Why do we have children who are reluctant to read? Why is reading a source of conflict in homes up and down the country as children are sent home with their reading books? The answer is that the reading schemes are boring! They do not engage children. They are seen as a chore, or a competition to get onto the next book. They are a way to rank children into good and poor readers – when in fact all children can learn to read. What children need is immersion in story – every child loves story.  But when those stories are specially written to teach reading they do not appeal to the children and in my experience children learn to read in spite of them, not because of them. 

My fervent wish is that all my grandsons could move to Wales and attend a lovely Primary School that I know well.  Here I see children who love stories, who are immersed in stories everyday, who are seen as writers of stories, who love reading and love writing.  I visited the reception class last week to tell them a story and they sat enraptured.  They didn’t want just one story – I had to tell two. Then they showed me the stories they had dictated to their teacher – wonderful stories, which showed that these four-year old children already know what stories are about.  All the stories had characters and setting and plot and they sat and were fully engaged as I read all 25 stories to the class.  The stories the children write become part of their reading material and the children experience what it is like to be an author. When I asked them if they liked stories every child said, “Yes!” When I asked who liked writing stories, all of them put their hands up.  The majority of these children will have no problem learning to read, they don’t need a reading scheme, they need real stories and real books to feed their imaginations and expand their vocabulary.  And for those like my daughter who experience difficulties, the school will put in the support necessary so they can make progress. 

What can parents do? Share stories with your children, go to the library and borrow books, buy whatever you can, tell them traditional fairy tales, encourage them to tell you stories and write them down for them and read them back to them. Let them act out their stories – give free rein to their imaginations – and you will be rewarded with children who will gain a lifelong love of books and learning – the greatest gift we can give them.  I feel so sad when I think of the battle that goes on in my grandchildren’s home every week as the children have to be forced to sit down and read their reading books – that is not what reading should be about – it is stressful for children and parents.  Imagine how much happier everyone would feel if every evening the whole family shared a wonderful story instead.  It makes sense.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Childism and Love

Childism and Love

Let me lay my cards on the table. I believe that our society is childist. In the same way that racism discriminates against people of colour and sexism against women, childism discriminates against children. Childism is a prejudice against children by adults that objectifies children and uses them to serve adult needs. Because childism is so deeply embedded in our society it will be hard to convince people of its existence. Adults who behave in childist ways are not accused of childism because their behavior is not recognized as such. Society condones and legitimates childist behavior because childism is so embedded in our society it takes on the appearance of behaving naturally, but I believe that childism is a prejudice against children that means their rights are not respected and their needs are not met. We have to name it, examine the prejudices that legitimate it and seek to eradicate it. I will argue that childism is deeply pervasive and damaging and denies the right to be fully human to the youngest members of society.

There are plenty of examples of children being treated badly that can be cited to illustrate childism and most of us will disassociate ourselves from such behavior and believe it is the minority that behave in such ways and claim it is not illustrative of society as a whole. In thinking about the concept of childism I what to start not with hatred of children, but with what most of us would recognize as love of children. I want to think about how something as seemingly innocuous as bestowing affection on a child is actually a manifestation of childism in action, and reveals how widespread childist views are. Recognising this does not make for comfortable reading, it challenges the very core of how we behave with children. I struggle with it and the more I explore the concept of childism the more I find myself standing in the dock and pleading guilty. I ask you to come on this journey with me as I share my thoughts and ask you to examine the role of childism in your life.

Most people have never heard the term childism, even less know what it means and hardly anyone sees it as a problem. In seeking to name childism I want to uncover the systemic institutionalization of childism in society and begin the long journey to eradicate it. I hope you will join me and together we can create a movement to end childism and childist exploitation which I believe will benefit us all – adults and children alike.

Let me start by asking you to think about when you were a child. I wonder how many of you, like me, remember with feelings of revulsion the relative who expected us to hug or kiss them; of being told by our parents to ‘give aunty or uncle a kiss or a hug’ and furiously resenting it. I believe that such behavior is an example of adults exploiting children for their own purposes. They are using children as love objects. In such circumstances most people in my experience think the need of the adult to bestow their ‘love’ on the child should be prioritized over that of the child's wish to reject it. I want to question this – why should a child give way to the adult demands?

I am a grandmother and I love Charlie, my first grandson. At the time of writing this Charlie is almost two and when I am with him I have strong feelings of wanting to hug him and kiss him and am delighted if he offers to hug me. But what about Charlie, does he want my signs of affection? What does he feel about being hugged and kissed? What right do I have to impose my desire for cuddles and kisses onto Charlie? If a male or female relative of mine thought they had the right to hug and kiss me regardless of whether I wanted to be hugged or kissed or not I would be very uncomfortable. It is time to name this behavior as childism. Does that feel harsh to you? If it does I think this shows how prevelant childist attitudes are and I know many if not the majority of people would want to disagree, but stay with it.

What does it say about an adult who puts their own feelings of entitlement to a ‘hug’ before that of the child’s feelings of not wanting the hug? Many adults don’t even notice if the child is reluctant, or even worse do notice and do it anyway. How many parents admonish the child, ‘just give Gramps a kiss’. This signals to the child that their feelings don’t count; if a relative, or even an adult stranger, wants to touch them (pats on the head are common) they should comply (I cringe as I write this - I know that I have had overwhelming urges to pat small children on the head). What does this say about our general attitudes to children, if the child’s feelings are allowed to be over-ridden in this way? If I can feel it is OK to make the child an object of my affection. Awareness raising is definitely needed.

When I watch Charlie at play I am delighted by his spontaneousness, his playfulness, his energy and enormous capacity for wonder and delight. I am also moved when he is sad or angry. But what right do I have to indulge these feelings and bestow physical affection or comfort? I am not trying to say we should not hug and kiss and comfort children, but I am saying we need permission from the child first. We do not have the right to move into a child’s space without his/her permission. We all feel threatened if another adult moves into our comfort zone, why should this be any different with a child? Children should have the right to refuse to be the focus of someone’s physical affection and not be made to feel bad about this. We need to allow them to set the ground rules on how our relationships with them proceed.

If children are expected to give and receive tokens of love on demand, how will they develop the capacity to express what they really feel? If we think we have the right to be affectionate to children whether they like it or not, and if we think that imposing love and affection on them is how we teach them to be affectionate and loving, we are wrong. They have to be able to say ‘no’. Children must be accorded the right to refuse to smile, or hug or kiss: none of us can freely give love if we don’t have the unquestioned right to withhold it.

I think many people will find this hard to understand. Don’t children need love - lots of it? Surely we can’t give them enough love. Don’t children who aren’t loved grow up damaged? I am not denying that babies do need a lot of human contact and will suffer if they don’t experience it. But by the time they are four-six months, they have their own well-developed purposes, needs and preferences. They like some people and not others. They may enjoy play on the floor, but don’t want to be picked up. They will show us by their responses what they like and don’t like. And I believe we must respect that if we want them to experience autonomy and independence. We must recognize children’s capacity for being active agents and judges of what is good for them, we must learn how to read their signals and respect them.

So, this is my starting point – I shall go on to argue that the way we treat children in society today is prejudicial to their capacity to grow and develop. I firmly believe that children from a very early age have the capacity for choice and expression of interest and that we should respect that capacity. When we impose expressions of ‘love’ on children and expect them to reciprocate we are guilty of childism.

Please let me know your responses to my first tentative step into finding answers to the question, “What is Childism?” I hope you want to be fellow travellers.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Charlie in the woods 23 months

In my last blog about my little grandson he was 15 months old and I described our time spent in the woods behind his house. Charlie is now 23 months and now when we go to the woods together I let him decide which way we should go. I ask him, ‘shall we go this way or that way?’ He looks towards the different possible directions before choosing. I give him the choice because I want him to feel independent and trusted to explore the woods and feel at home there, I want to give him the chance to exercise and satisfy his curiosity. Charlie is a regular visitor to the woods and he knows his way around. As I watch his sureness and confidence I am certain his frequent visits to the woods have enabled him to make a mental map that means he can find his way around. He negotiates his way through the paths of the wood with surety and confidence.

On this occasion I had been away for two months and I was curious to find out how he would respond to the woods – would he have changed? Certainly his curiosity had not been exhausted by his almost daily visits and he frequently stopped to examine something that attracted his interest. As he ran through the woods chasing Mabel, his dog he came across some tree branches that had fallen from a tree; ‘broken’ he said. He is just beginning to talk and mainly uses single words. Stopping he bent down to examine the broken branch and then picked it up and straddled it making noises like a horse trotting: ‘clip-clop, clip-clop’. He then put the branch down and wandered around a bit before looking intently at two pieces of branch some little distance from each other. Then he began to move the two pieces closer together, (it became obvious that once they had formed one branch) and he put them back together again. He then stood up and looked at his handiwork and clapped: he was clearly very pleased with himself. Looking around he noticed two more pieces of branch and brought these two pieces together. These did not fit, one being a quite different shape to the other. He removed the ‘odd one out’ the one that was wide and flat, not round and slim. This paddle shape branch became a digging stick as Charlie used it first to scoop dirt to create a hole and then to shovel dead leaves into a pile. Satisfied with this activity he resumed his journey through the wood.

After a short while Charlie noticed a small, white, fluffy feather from a baby bird on the path. He picked it up and began throwing it into the air and chasing it as it slowly floated down. This caused him to laugh with delight. He played for a while and then moved on. The next place he stopped was the little slope where he liked to play the ‘up-down’ game I described in my last blog. Charlie had advanced in the two months since I accompanied him to the woods. He didn’t need me to hold his hand now and not only ran up and down the slope but showed me how he can go down backwards. He is careful, he knows he is more likely to fall, but clearly enjoys this more demanding activity. We play running up and down and going ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’ and sing “the Grand Old Duke of York”. After five minutes at this game Charlie sets off again.

He leads us deeper into the wood taking a narrower path. Charlie finds another little feather and this time he experiments pushing it gently into a hole in a tree. His fine motor skills are impressive as he holds the fragile feather and pushes it into the hole. He stands back and looks at the feather in the hole and then pulls it out and turns to another hole. Altogether he tries five different holes; sometimes the wind blows the feather out of the hole and with squeals of laughter Charlie chases it and picks it up before experimenting again by placing the feather in a different hole. Suddenly he appears to change his mind and decides to bury the feather with brown, crunchy leaves. We move on again.

Altogether Charlie and I spent almost two hours in the woods and then he turned to me and said, ‘Home’. I asked him if he wanted to go home and he said yes and put his arms up to show he wanted to be carried. Charlie knows exactly which direction we should go in and where we need to turn to find the gate from the wood into his house.

The next day we set off for the woods again. This time Charlie made a beeline for the common, an area of more open grass with trees around the edge. He stops for a while to run around a small track made for bicycles and then decides to head back towards the woods. On the way he notices a puddle and runs towards it to splash and jump up and down in his wellington boots. He then stands a short distance away and adopts a preparatory stance. I join in and say, “1, 2, 3 – GO!” Charlie runs and jumps into the puddle. He then looks at me and says, “No Nana, 1, 2, 3, 4,” before returning to the ‘starting line’ for his next run and jump into the puddle.

In two months my grandson has changed and developed. His vocabulary is growing but most of all he has developed his understanding of the world through interacting with it. He is now using metaphor to aid his play, turning a broken branch into a horse. He understands the concept of tool making as he uses a flat branch as a shovel. His understanding of causality is demonstrated as he describes the branch on the woodland floor as ‘broken’ and imagines what it would be like to ‘mend’ it and patiently tries to fit the two pieces of the branch together. He gains satisfaction from this activity and claps his handiwork. He is exercising agency as he acts on the world to his own satisfaction.

Charlie delights in the movement of the feather as it floats on the air and laughs as he throws it and it glides through space while slowly sinking to the ground. I think he is laughing because the feather is not behaving as a stone or piece of branch behave when he throws them and this discovery delights him. Later he experiments with placing a feather in a hole in a tree trunk. He laughs when the winds blows it out but doesn’t give up, over and over again he practices putting the feather in different holes until final he decides to bury it in leaves – I think he knows that the leaves will prevent the wind from blowing it away.

What can I learn from this experience about Charlie’s capabilities? He is obviously showing his capacity to use his imagination by playing ‘let’s pretend this branch is a horse’; he acts on the world to intervene and change it by trying to ‘repair’ the branch and by experimenting with the feather. He understands the concept of a tool as he uses a branch to dig into the ground and shovel up leaves. I believe he is demonstrating his capacity to imagine, ‘what would happen if…’ and then experimenting. He has causal theories of the world and is considering possibilities as he moves the broken branches around, or tries to harness the flight of the feather. He is entertaining the possibility of something being other than it is now – a broken branch – by imaging how it was in the past, not broken but whole.

Through his exploratory play Charlie is learning about the world. I understand properly for the first time that such play is the work of the small child. Watching Charlie in the woods I see a child that is open to all the richness of nature. He pays attention to the new and unexpected and he learns from this; he actively does things in order to learn. In the woods he is actively experimenting on the world and this experimenting will shape what he thinks and knows about that world. As he engages in his experiments he is expanding and shaping his causal understanding of the world around him. And no one is teaching him. He is following his natural instincts to exercise the gift of being human and curious.

What a privilege to be a grandmother and have the time to spend in the woods with Charlie; the time to watch him as his innate curiosity allows him to learn about the world around him. I realise that it is vital for Charlie to be allowed to gain confidence in the world outside by being in it, by experiencing the freedom to experiment and learn for himself what the world is like. And I feel sad that more children can't escape from the confines of their homes to experience the joy of exploring the natural world.