To Be Or Not To Be Literate

Living abroad as an expat is hard enough for some, especially if the reason for the move is not out of personal choice, but when children start coming then you add the second language dilema, and when they reach primary school age, then another layer Chinese writingof complexity appears, Literacy. [Read more...]

Bright, colourful and musical Spanish language learning

Tren de vocalesLong gone are the days of chalky fingers and monochromatic lessons delivered in a monotone voice heavy with the local accent. Just like the monkey-man in 2001 A Space Odyssey set up a long chain of events when he realised that using rock as a tool was a lot cooler than trying to open a coconut with his teeth, language geeks all over felt the Eureka moment when the first computer entered their homes.  [Read more...]

The Myth of Early Literacy or Memory at Work in England

One of the main worries of most parents just before their children enter school is the level of Literacy of their children. There are more and more systems to get your child reading quickly, earlier, a lot of the systems even claim that they can help children to start reading at the tender age of 3 or even earlier. This reminds me of that crazy but lovely 80s movies where Diane Keaton plays a power-driven New York tycoon who inherits an orphaned toddler and soon starts bringing her to toddler classes to boost her intelligence.

The thing is that your kid may be reading at age 3 and other kids will be reading at the age of 8, by the time they are 11 you will not see the difference between one or the other. One of my kids started walking at the age of 10 months the other 14, my nephew did not walk before he was 18 months old. You can’t tell the difference now.

Bilingual ChildrenA recent study from the University of Otago in New Zealand has presented quantitative evidence that there is no advantage to learning to read at 5 instead of 7, for instance.

So, with so much evidence cropping up everywhere, from alternative education methods, to home education, to other school systems, why do we insist to force-feed letters to our kids? There are many factors, but in the UK I can think of one of the most important ones, the one that everybody knows there is something wrong with, but nobody dares speak out about, the elephant in the room.

The End of Reception

The last day of reception, almost at the end of July, while all our European cousins have been on holidays for over a month, parents gather at the gates and look expectantly at the teacher’s report. Some will post happy picture and comments on their Facebook pages and comment how their kids can read fluently. Over 80 % of parents will reserve judgment, as most kids struggle to keep up with the draconian levels set by the government.

Are our kids different? No, of course not. That is the main reason why most kids in British primary schools are and will remain for most of their compulsory education years permanently “behind”. They are not really behind, they have had the misfortune to find themselves in a system that is wildly out of sync with normal cognitive and physical development.

Language immersionWhile Otago’s study sheds some light into this issue, one could think that it is just one study after all, more are needed. However, we have plenty of real life examples to support our suspicion that something is wrong in the Kingdom of Britain. When our little 5 year olds, let’s not forget that some of them will still be 4 until the 31st of August, are required to read and write full sentences that start by a capital and end in a full stop, count up to 100, do addition and taking away, because the following year they will have to learn multiplication, their European cousins will be still playing most of the day, filling out worksheets to develop fine motor skills, at the most learning letters and numbers up to 10 or 20. And let’s not forget, they have longer summer holidays.

Parents whose children are fluent readers meeting the government’s targets will swear by the school and the system, while most of the others will probably complain about the school and the system in private, but may think that it’s just the way it is for their child. However, from my own observational experience, most of the kids who become fluent readers early have either extra coaching at home or were eager and ready to learn long before they were 4.

Many children are early readers naturally. Many of them have good visual memories and remember things easily, those few would have learnt to read with or without school. However, those who do need proper, well planned and age appropriate tuition, are those who are failed by the system. Instead of developing a logical, structured, phonics based system from age 6 or 7 and work in the early years 4-5 on setting a good strong base, the current system focuses strongly on memory. Although officially the government pushes for phonics teaching, the truth is that when working with children that young teaching proper phonics takes time, and so to meet the targets a lot of work is done on memorisation of official lists of spelling words, and a lot of the work consist in reading books that are not based on phonics.

Although your child is and will always be the most precious thing, however they are, with the current system it’s no wonder that sometimes parents may feel disheartened and assume that the issue lies with their child rather than the system. More parents should speak up and demand a more age appropriate curriculum, full and adequate phonics training, and teachers that are not just familiar with the systems used in primary school, but that have a deep knowledge of English and how the rules work. Most of us should look at the spelling lists from schools and then we would realise that most words can be worked out phonetically if taught properly. We should demand that “good memory” is taken out of the equation by adapting the teaching to the right developmental stage, provide comprehensive phonics training to both teachers and children, provide plenty of practice opportunities and rely on the logic of the English language where over 70 % of the words can be worked out following spelling rules.

What are your thoughts and experiences?