A new reader

An incredible thing happened on Monday. After a couple of years of, admittedly intermittent, attempts to teach Katie to read, she finally got it. I can’t explain what happened except that it seemed like a light bulb went on in her head. Unlike her sister, who took to reading very quickly when she was four years old, Katie has struggled, not recognising simple and repeated words from one line to the next, able to sound out letters but not able to put the sounds together to make words. Every attempt at reading ended in frustration and despair for Katie. No matter how much I tried to convince her I would help with words, our attempts more often than not ended in tears.

Her aversion to reading and the distress reading caused her was the reason why I took up the teaching baton intermittently. I didn’t want to push her if she wasn’t ready and I certainly didn’t want that anxiety and fear to lead to a longer-term aversion to books. I am a firm believer that, given the right conditions, children will learn to read when they are good and ready. They may be ready when they are three years old or when they are twelve years old. There is pedagogic research to suggest that children who learn to read later on quickly catch up with their peers who have been reading from an earlier age.

In the formal education system we are often too quick to label children as having learning disabilities because they haven’t yet learned to read to a certain level by a certain age. Dyslexia and related disabilities are very real and if not diagnosed and supported can disadvantage children, but being a late reader does not mean a child has a disability. The difficulty for education professionals (and, indeed, for parents) is figuring out whether a late reader is simply a late reader or is someone with a learning disability. Not so easy!

Katie found reading distressing, so I didn’t push it too much. But our home and our lives are filled with books. Julian, Lily and I read to Katie, and we read to ourselves and to each other. Katie loves books and loves being read to and can recite the entire text of her favourite Julia Donaldson books. She has recently learned to read Spanish which, with its simple and straightforward pronunciation rules, is a much easier language to read than English. When Lily received Diario de Greg (the Spanish language translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) for Christmas, it was Katie who wanted to read it first, and she’s been slowly making her way through it since Christmas Day.

We hadn’t read together for a few days, when on Monday afternoon I took out a level three phonics book from our Oxford Reading Tree box. She read the story surprisingly quickly (for Katie) and with virtually no help from me. She recognised common but tricky words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’ (these had repeatedly stumped her before), sounded out new words correctly, and worked out other words from their context. She continued to mix up ‘b’ and ‘p’ but, instead of becoming overwrought, worked out which letter made most sense (‘boy’ not ‘poy’ and ‘pick’ not bick’, etc) in each case. She read with such unusual ease that I wondered if she’d already read this book recently with her dad or sister, and was now reading it from memory, but she assured me she had never read this book before.

Instead of the despair and anxiety that has accompanied our reading sessions in the past, she flew through this book and then asked if she could read something else. So we tried a level 3 First Stories book (the First Stories are a little more difficult than the phonics books of the same level). Once again, she sailed through the book with glee. It was time for Lily’s afternoon half hour of maths (I am a cruel and sadistic mother), so Katie took herself off to my cabin with Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man stickman2.jpgand read it by herself (aided by what she knew from memory). Then she asked Lily to help her read, and Lily chose a level 4 phonics book. (Wow! There have been times when I never thought we’d get past level 2, never mind level 4!). She read it for Lily, struggling only over the words ‘odd’ and ‘pongs’!

Since then Katie is beside herself, and is reading with gusto. In the space of only a few short days she has moved on to level 6 – the highest level in our Reading Tree set. She is picking everything up and reading it. Lily is going to have to figure out a way to protect the privacy of her journals and the notes she’s so fond of writing, because all of a sudden her sister can read them! This light bulb moment, this spark of recognition of how to read, is astonishing to me. It is something we have all experienced, when we struggle to master some new skill and suddenly, as if by magic, we get it. Of course it’s not magic. It’s practice, the creation of new neural pathways and connections, the brain and body sparking and sparkling. Katie can’t read perfectly, but she’s worked out how to read – how to put sounds together to form words, how to pick up clues from the context or the neighbouring words, how to learn by heart some common words that don’t sound anything like how they’re written (two, said, the, we). The realisation of how to do those things was her light bulb moment.

A couple of weeks ago she learned to ride a bicycle and that opened up a whole new world of freedom and independence to her. This week, suddenly discovering that she can read has opened up another world of freedom and independence. Her first question these past few mornings has been ‘Can we do more reading today?’ You bet!

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Out and about education

One of the myths about home education is that it happens at home. People sometimes think it’s just like school but, instead of a classroom, kids sit at the kitchen table all day doing school work. One concern people often have about home education (and people seem to have lots of concerns!) is that home schooled children lack opportunities for socialisation. Of course the parents of home educated children (at least those I’ve encountered) spend a good deal of time planning and organising opportunities for their children to socialise with a great variety of people of all ages and backgrounds.

Home education is a misnomer. Home is just one of the places where children learn, and home educated kids spend a great deal of time away from home. Maybe some kids sit at the table all day sticking to a strict curriculum, but for the most part, home educators follow a very different educational model. Like many of the home educators we have met or have read about, our pedagogy is one of learning by doing. So, in any given week, Lily and Katie probably spend no more than three hours sitting down at a table engaged in ‘formal’ learning. Three hours per week! It might not seem like a lot (it’s not!) but the only things I want them to do in that time is learn some basic maths, reading and writing. Lily’s mastered reading and she enjoys writing independently, so we really only do maths with her now; and we’re still working on the basics of all three skills with Katie. And we’ve all been studying a little Spanish recently.

The rest of their time at home is spent playing and doing whatever they want. What they want to do might be reading, writing, drawing, building, creating, researching (online or from books), imagining, inventing, etc. We might all be involved in a project – sewing, baking, making, etc. Or they might be helping with chores – dishwashing, laundry, cleaning the boat, tidying, etc.

But a lot of our time is spent away from home. The girls help with everyday activities such as shopping and banking and they participate in decisions about what to buy, and so on. Our walks in the countryside are opportunities to learn about plants and animals, and in towns we seek out museums, art galleries, and (free or inexpensive) activities of all sorts.

Now that we’re back in the UK for a (hopefully short) while, I’ve been finding interesting and educational activities for all three of us to get involved in. (Blowing another home education myth – that the parent is the teacher – out of the water. In our pedagogic model, we all learn together, irrespective of age). Right now we’re dividing our time between my father-in-law in Coventry and my mother-in-law in Leamington Spa. Before coming here a few weeks ago I didn’t know either city very well, because I’ve always blindly followed Julian around when we’ve come on short visits and I’ve never had any reason to check out the education potentials. So, from the first day I got back I’ve been discovering a bounty of resources to keep us busy and engaged with the community around us.

On our second day in Coventry, we joined the local library in Stoke. We’re each allowed to borrow 20 books at a time (although I limit it to 5, because I’m certainly not going to carry 60 books up and down the street every couple of weeks!!). But book-borrowing is only one resource the library offers. There are days when we go to simply sit and read quietly in the large children’s section, which also has some art resources. Twice a week Katie and I go to Rhyme Time, for under 5s. Following half an hour of singing nursery rhymes the big play boxes come out and Katie and the other children play together while I sit with the other mums chatting and drinking the complementary coffee! On Saturdays, Lily joins us for an hour of Story Time followed by a craft activity, aimed at 4-11 year olds.

We walked from my father-in-law’s house into Coventry city centre on our first weekend and discovered a resource that we can’t get enough of. The Herbert Museum is one of the most child friendly museums I’ve been to, putting even the RAMM in Exeter in the shade! Right now it is hosting a fantastically joyful exhibition on the history of children’s television, with lots of interactive displays – the girls have dressed up as Scooby Doo, Daleks, Princess Sofia and Robin Hood; they’ve played with famous TV hand puppets and they’ve watched the TV shows Granddad and Dad watched as lads! (UK children’s TV is alien to me. I grew up with Wanderly Wagon, Anything Goes and Bosco!)

But this exhibition is merely the icing on the cake of an otherwise excellent museum. Each gallery has activities that include children and help to bring the exhibits alive. The Old Masters room has a dress-up box for dressing up like the people depicted in the paintings. Last week Lily dressed up as and posed beside King George III. The Lady Godiva exhibit has a story-room attached, where myths and legends from around the world are presented in books and on an interactive screen. There are costumes for dressing up and Lady Godiva-inspired art to do. In the sculpture gallery the children can make their own sculptures using large foam blocks and there are large coffee table books about art and sculpture that children are welcome to sit and browse through. In the Elements gallery we’ve done brass rubbings, touched narwhal tusks, crystals and a variety of exotic seashells, and listened to birdsong. Each gallery is similarly welcoming to children and it will be a long time yet before we exhaust the possibilities of the Herbert Museum.

I was keen to meet other home educating families in the area and get involved in activities, so I joined a couple of home education Facebook groups. They’ve provided a wealth of ideas for activities in the area. The one we have immediately become involved in is a weekly informal gathering of home educating families in FarGo on Far Gosford Street in Coventry. The gathering is hosted at Allsorts, a magical place, run by a wonderful woman called Margaret, where children (and adults) can indulge in all sorts of arts and crafts, or simply play. The first week the girls made and played with play dough, made block prints, and got to hang out and play with other home educated children ranging in age from 11 months to 12 years old! And I got to hang out with other mums and shoot the breeze for a few hours.

Going to Allsorts for the first time, I discovered my new favourite place in Coventry – FarGo. This old industrial estate has been converted into a site of pop-up shops, second hand shops, shops selling up-cycled, recycled, new, old, organic, and sustainable products. There’s coffee a-plenty, and space for meeting with friends, relaxing and reading, in a very child-friendly space. It’s Shoreditch in the Midlands. My favourite place, apart from Allsorts that is, is The Big Comfy Bookshop – a second hand community bookshop that serves refreshments and some devilishly delicious-looking cakes. Once a month it runs Sheroes, which celebrates female heroes from history; it has poetry readings and music sessions; and I think I need a grandparent to look after the kids so I can take Julian there one night!

Granddad has taken us twice to Ryton Pools and Wood midway between Coventry and Leamington. It’s on the site of an old quarry that has been landscaped and turned into a country park. There’s a huge and exciting adventure playground, a sensory garden, a small but very informative information centre and walks around pools filled with ducks, geese and moor hens. The first day we went, Granddad took us off the beaten track into the woods, to show us where his dad used to hunt pheasants. The woods were carpeted with bluebells and we found badger setts and evidence of muntjac. Our only regret was that we hadn’t come earlier in the day, because we could have happily spent hours playing in the woods.

In Leamington Spa, we’ve discovered the rather formally landscaped Jephson Gardens
which Lily in particular loves because of its profusion of squirrels, bumblebees, pigeons, ducks and Canada geese. She insisted on bringing a notebook the second time we went and decided to survey the wildlife. She made a list of all the animals she had seen in the Gardens previously and then each time she encountered one she put a tick beside it! Watching Springwatch before going to bed every night seems to have made an impression on her. Jephson Gardens also has a sensory garden and The Glasshouse, a hothouse featuring exotic plant species from around the world. Lily was particularly intrigued by the method of pest control used on The Glasshouse – using tiny trichogramma wasps to keep the population of pantry moth caterpillars down. I tell you, the kid’s a naturalist in the making. No, strike that. The kid is a naturalist.

Across the road from Jephson Gardens are the Royal Pumprooms which house a museum and art gallery and an excellent library where we have whiled away the hours reading and doing research.

Besides all of these we have uncovered an endless round of free music concerts in the parks of Leamington, Warwick and Coventry; we’ve been to one parish fête so far, where the girls played games and won prizes, and we’re on the lookout for more fêtes, agricultural shows, open gardens, summer festivals and anything else that takes our fancy over the next few weeks.

We have our quiet, stay-at-home days too. We pitched the tent and camped in Granddad’s garden for two nights, and the girls have been learning to ride bikes, play basketball and badminton at Grandma’s house. They’ve sown cress with Granddad and chard, courgettes and lettuce with Grandma, and they’ve been caring for their plants. It was with great excitement that they added their own home-grown cress to the sandwiches last week!

Given the to-ing and fro-ing at the moment, it’s difficult to develop a routine. But what I have is a diary full of alternative activities, with dates for one-off events and on-going activities, and no matter where we find ourselves, we can always pop along to something or other to meet interesting people, discover something new, a learn a little more about life in the Midlands.

Observing and learning

DSCI3940Katie says she doesn’t want to learn. What she means is she doesn’t want to be taught. She’s learning all the time. She’s four, she can’t stop herself. She refuses most formal attempts at education: sulking, clamming up, monkeying around or storming off whenever Julian or I offer an opportunity to read or write or learn some basic maths. She even resists games that might have an educational purpose, so we have to be very subtle. If she gets the slightest whiff of something being ‘taught’ she gets mad.

Yet the other day, when I asked Lily ‘What is 4 times 3?’, Katie whispered in my ear (while Lily was still thinking) ‘12’. And when left to herself, she writes letters and numbers, spells a few words aloud, and solves number problems.

While it’s generally not helpful to compare siblings, or any children – one was doing this by this age, so why isn’t the other one – I think observing differences in learning styles is instructional. And Lily’s and Katie’s learning styles are radically different. It’s difficult to put those differences into words. There are subtle and not so subtle differences, and methods used to facilitate Lily’s learning have not worked with Katie.

Lily seems to progress gradually, going from step A to step B to step C. She takes constructive criticism and wants to please us by doing good work. We can look back over a month or a year and (if we were so disposed, which we are not) plot the steps she has taken to get from where she was then to where she is now.

Katie, on the other hand, can give the impression that she is not learning anything, until one day she does or says something that stops us in our tracks and we scratch our heads and ask ‘When did she learn that?’

Her handwriting went from chicken scratches to legible seemingly without any intermediate steps. While Lily’s writing gradually improved over time, after Katie’s first attempts she sulked and refused to write for months. Then one day took up a pencil and her chicken scratches had become writing. I guess in the intervening time her manual dexterity had improved by doing other things like drawing, colouring, painting and using cutlery.

And then there was the day when Julian was showing her some animal words on flash cards, and asking her to spell the words aloud. At first she seemed not to know. Indeed, she kept saying ‘I don’t know’. But then a light went on in her head and she seemed to realise that if she told Daddy what he wanted to hear, then he would leave her alone to get back to the fun stuff. She rolled her eyes, put her hands on her hips, sighed and flawlessly spelled the words on all the cards Julian held up to her.

As parents who take sole responsibility for our children’s education, dealing with such different attitudes to learning can at times be challenging. While Lily generally enjoys written and mental maths and writing stories, lists and letters, we have had to learn to give Katie more space to learn on her own. Formal approaches to teaching don’t work (or at least they don’t work at present – they may work in the future). But more subtle forms of learning – playing, helping with number-based chores such as laying the table, sharing out food, following recipes, etc, all allow her to learn without realising she’s being taught.

The rest of the stuff that isn’t reading, writing and maths – the geography, history, science, art and languages – are all the stuff of our day-to-day lives that we all learn together, each one of us delving in at a level appropriate to our ages and life experiences. Katie is gradually making her way to independent reading, writing and maths, but she’s taking quite a different route to that taken by her sister. Julian and I are learning to step back, give her space and trust her to learn in a way that makes sense to her.