The mainstream way in which we teach our kids to read and write has changed very little in several centuries. It is, perhaps, the only teaching practice that remains unchanged as time goes by – or the one that has changed the least.
Yes, there have been some strikes of innovation here and there – but at the end, we end up doing practically the same things that have been done for ages: we teach the letters, their sounds, and the way they interact with each other. We start at six, sometimes a little later or a little earlier. We follow the same steps with all children. We make them drill and repeat. Until they can read. Or not.
Some might say, if this method is still being used across centuries, it must be tried and true. It means it works, and therefore we should keep teaching that way. Right?
Wrong. I believe our traditional systems are somewhat successful in teaching kids to read and write. But they are an absolute failure in creating readers and writers.
There is a difference between being able to read and being an avid reader. UNESCO reports that the world literacy rate is nowadays around 86%. In my country, México, as it is in the United States, almost 100% of people 15 years old and older are literate. However, in México, 55% of the population in this group did not read a single book last year. The same is true for almost a third of Americans. At the same time, UNESCO reports that 6 out 10 children “are not learning a minimum in reading and math”
The world is changing rapidly. Our students need to become life-long learners if they are to keep up the pace with the challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is already presenting them.
If you want life-long learners, then you need life-long readers. It is that simple.
What are we doing wrong?
I believe that our education systems are teaching our kids too little, too late and too badly – at least regarding early literacy instruction.
For centuries it has been believed that tiny children cannot, and should not, be taught to read. Many have warned us against the perils of teaching a child who is “not ready”. But children are born with brains primed for language. And reading is language.
Instead of taking advantage of the powerful and plastic brains of tiny kids, we make them wait six longs years before giving them the gift of literacy. We wait until their brains are no longer as eager for language as they were on their first years of life. We allow the window of easy, meaningful language learning to fade away.
Of course, if we tried to teach a 3-year old to read in the same fashion that we have been teaching our 6 year olds, he would most certainly hate it. This is because the traditional techniques for reading instruction break apart language, presenting letters –devoid of meaning- instead of words within a context. By the way, I do not believe that we should teach the six year old this way, either.
What should we do instead?
Babies begin to learn to talk at birth – reading should not be different. We can expose tiny children to lots and lots of words, oral and written. We speak to our babies in high pitch, with lots of intonation and color. We should present reading words the same way, in large print, very brief sessions, and with great enthusiasm. When kids are young they are able to absorb huge amounts of information easily if presented properly.
We should begin early, exposing our children to a rich vocabulary within their context, enjoying language. Reading and playing are not opposing terms. They are not mutually-excluding activities. Reading is a gift and a privilege, not a task or a punishment.
Early reading could also be the answer to inequity, a way to reduce or even eliminate achievement gaps. Poor kids are lagging behind their affluent peers by the time they enter school. First grade is already too late for them to catch up.
Before becoming a teacher, I taught my own kids to read at home, at a young age, following the programs of The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. The easy and joyful learning I witnessed made me fall in love with teaching. I the following 20 years, I have taught, directly or indirectly, hundreds of little kids to read way before the age of six – and watched in awe as they became avid readers.
Last month I began a project that will last a couple of years: I will travel to as many countries as possible, visiting schools and talking to teachers, to learn how little kids are learning to read around the world, and write a book about those experiences. Finland is, according to UNESCO, the most literate country in the world – and the place where I decided to go first.
Here is an excerpt of my interview with a very experienced Finnish teacher, Kirsti Savikko (in English, with Spanish subtitles)
New literacy practices need to be generated in our schools – and I believe that will happen somewhat soon, as brain research and innovative technologies evolve. Whether on a book or a screen, those who read will be able to rise above the uncertainties ahead. The world, now more than ever, will belong to readers.
As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: To what extent do you believe the literacy skills required for a new world will be more or less the same as they were before? Will new literate practices need to be generated and does that mean that new literacies be required? If so, what do you think these new literacies will be and how can they be learned?