Literacy skills for a new world

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?

“Let them play!” Reflections on Early Reading

Mary Cassat, "Family Group Reading". Picture taken at Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Mary Cassat, “Family Group Reading”. Picture taken at Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Whenever we suggest that it is possible to teach reading to very young children -before they are six years old (even before three), we get of all kinds of comments.

On one side are, of course, the enthusiasts, who know or sense that young children have enormous potential and that it is good to teach them to read along with other things like music and art as soon as possible. Many of them have had rewarding experiences in teaching their children or students.

We also have the cautious: people who agree “half-heartedly”. They recognize the potential of young children but are not sure wether it is a good idea to encourage early reading exposure. Their comments generally indicate some hesitation or concerns that the pressure of teaching may adversely affect some children.  They would say, “If the child is ready, she could learn to read, but we must not pressure her”, or “Every child has his own time”.

At the opposite end of the enthusiasts, we have the reluctant. Usually, they display the same energy level than the enthusiasts, but in the opposite direction. They appear to be offended at the idea of teaching young children to read. Their comments show a vehement rejection of early learning, sometimes with sharp criticism and outright opposition.

It is not surprising that any paradigm, when confronted with new ideas and counterarguments, can generate a wave of uncertainty and provoke the flashing sparks of controversy. This is even truer when, in the heart of the debate, lies what he hold most precious in any society: our children.

The reluctant can be staunch defenders of the “status quo”, the order of things. If for so long it has been argued that the best age to teach reading is six or seven years, there must be a good reason for it. The cautious are aware that things may be different from what tradition has dictated, but are concerned about the consequences of a change of route. After all, the unknown, even if it looks promising, does cause some fear.

The main argument from the cautious and reluctant against early reading is the assumption that teaching reading at a young age is to somehow eradicate the sacred and innocent space that should otherwise be dedicated to play. They believe that teaching a child to read at the age of three steals from her the time that should be given to the enjoyment of just being and existing without any responsibilities, to grow in freedom and, at least for some time, avoid the restraints of “formal education”.

The problem is that we have confused learning with education, and education with obligation. Learning to read is automatically associated with formal schooling and with the long hours each day children spend “chained” to their desks, when their young, six-year-old souls want to fly free, beyond the inevitable prison (school) walls, to learn about the world in the way they have always wanted: through personal adventures and not through incomprehensible and tedious exercises.

In Spanish, there is an old saying that literally states: “You have to bleed to learn to read” (La letra con sangre entra), a phrase that seems to sum up the experience of many of us in our first schools. Children “had to” learn because that was their “only obligation”, and not because learning was itself a natural and joyous process. Unfortunately, many of us grew up viewing school as the undeserved punishment to which we were condemned without trial and without the possibility of an appeal.

Of course any mention of children and blood in the same sentence scares the hell out of us. We would never want our kids to be in any kind pain, much less to bleed. Therefore, when someone dares to suggest that even a three year old could learn to read, the image that comes to the mind of the reluctant is not that of a child learning to read with ease and enjoyment. Instead, he pictures an innocent child, cornered and forced to enter, before his time, to the straitjacket cruelly created by selfish teachers or parents that seek to teach the child out of their own egoistical purposes, as if they could pin the expected accomplishments to their own chest as a medal to glorify personal ambitions.

They see something similar to an intellectualized version of those mothers who take their young daughters to beauty pageants, forcing them to practice for hours the poses and smiles that “suit” them and decorating their innocent frames with makeup and bulky dresses that they do not need and that hinder each move.

If that were early reading, of course I’d be very angry with anyone who dared to suggest it, too. After all, enthusiasts, cautious and reluctant are not so different from each other: we are all defenders of childhood. Is there anything more cruel than stealing the child’s joy for learning?

But that is not early reading. Reading is not a school subject. Reading is a brain function*, like walking or talking. Tiny children learn one of the most sophisticated human skills, language, very quickly and seemingly with little or no effort. They do so because the environment is full of auditory stimuli and the brain is especially receptive to stimulation when they are very young.

Reading is also language, but it comes to us through a different sensory channel: the eyes instead of the ears. But reading stimuli are not present in our environment with the same intensity and frequency as auditive stimuli. Only because of that, most children do not learn to read spontaneously, as they learn oral language. But it does not mean that their brains can’t do it. When we prepare the environment to include relevant visual stimuli, the child will learn to read, almost without realizing it.

Teaching a young child to read does not imply, in our proposal, to put a burden on him or her. Reading is not the antithesis of play. Reading is fun!

“Let them play!” is the outcry of some and the demand of many, as if learning to read at a young age left time for nothing else. But that is just not true. It is possible to read and play, read and enjoy, read and still be a child. Reading is a privilege, not a punishment.

Of course, we do not teach a three year old to read in the same way that schools have traditionally taught six year olds. We use a different methodology, easy going and much more “natural”. We never force a three year old to read or bore him with repetitive exercises. We do not make her write and rewrite letters that have no true meaning. Rather, we teach in a contextualized manner, which increases the child’s enjoyment of reading.

Reading is not a death sentence for childhood. Reading is the birthplace of imagination and the inexhaustible fountain from which intelligence and curiosity find nourishment.

Reading is one of the best gifts that civilization can give our children. The sooner we read, the sooner we become true citizens of the world.

Is not this what we want for our children?

Video: Why Early Reading? Presented at the World Innovation Summit for Education, in Doha, Qatar, November 2015, as part of the panel: Early Childhood Education: The Great Equalizer?

Click here or over the image to see video.

Reading is not he antithesis of play

This post was originally published in Spanish here.