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?

It’s the Season to be Jolly…

Merry XmasIt is indeed the Season to be Jolly for those who celebrate Christmas. But of course as every year, I feel that cultural differences are at their peak here. I still find it strange to talk about cultural differences between two European countries so close in space and with so much history in common, but Christmas is lived differently in England and Spain. [Read more...]

How come your child responds in Spanish?º

“How come your child responds in Spanish?” Substitute the word  “Spanish” for whichever language you speak at home, and voilà, I am sure you will have heard that many times from bilingual families whose children refuse to speak the language of  their bilingual father/mother. This is exactly what a dad with a Spanish wife and a child who, although seemed to understand Spanish, was                         unable/refused to speak it. asked my husband this summer. [Read more...]

Flexible language for food labels.

In a recent health food conference, Anne Heughan, Director of External Affairs at Unilever, claimed that labels on food should not just be a list of ingredients. She felt that some thought had to be put into the wording of these labels, taking into account the linguistic culture of the target country. As an example she quoted England and Germany, she said that while in Germany consumers prefer technical information in England consumers would prefer the information about the product described in a more emotional way.

While it´s easy to understand how many people would find it difficult to find an emotional way of describing a recipe of aspartame, E-numbers, mixed in with some vegetables and potatoes, there is an important message here: “localization. localization, localization.”

Wikipedia, the dictionary-lazy-person-bible to everything, defines language localization as: “the process of translating a product into different languages or adapting a language for a specific country or region.” In our day and age, knowing a language or being able to speak a language to a certain standard is very important. However, to be able to use it in a professional environment people will need to know also the culture and cultural nuances linked to that language.

Culture is something that is not really that easy to get in a foreign language class once or twice a week. To learn culture you need to live it and breathe it, day in, day out. Some teachers are fantastic at inspiring young students and pass culture on. However, MFL in the UK is not a priority subject. There are many schools where it’s not compulsory and MFL teaching jobs are scarce. It is not infrequent for MFL teachers to teach up to three languages. Are they gifted and multilingual? Far from it. Don’t misunderstand me, of course, some of them surely are. Most of them end up teaching their main degree language, a second language that they picked up along the way, maybe they did it for a year or two. But more and more MFL teachers are made to teach a third language that either they don´t know at all, they struggle through a summer intensive course in Spanish, or they did at school about 20 or 30 years ago. And when it comes to language for primary schools, well, most primary school teachers don´t speak any foreign language and have sweaty nightmares when thinking about having to teach something that they probably hated themselves in school. Some primary schools do buy in specialist language teachers from outside. However one or two sessions a week with a French teacher learning colours and days of the week in French hardly represents what I´d call immersion in the culture or the language.

All of this takes me back to my original point “localization”. Speaking and understanding the language and the culture. Being in a bilingual family I intend to bring up my daughter bilingual. I will not learn the language but acquire it, through daily immersion in the language, by talking to her Spanish family and taking part in as many holidays abroad and Spanish speaking activities locally as she can. I am not French and I speak French with a foreign accent, however for me the choice is clear. I don’t want my daughter to be completely fluent at saying the colours and days of the week, or talking about GCSE topics. I want her to speak to children her age in French, about life and games, with a strong accent if you will. The aim is called communication, with or without accent. By learning to speak a foreign language in early life, children will also be exposed to the culture. Let’s take French as an example, children would be able to watch French movies and absorb the cultural connotations and sub-meanings. They will be able to converse with other children their age in that language, thus acquiring new vocabulary, learning the social non-written rules, and being exposed to the “right” accent (for those who do worry about accents).
If we talk about personal fulfillment, I think the fact of being able to communicate with others and enjoy literature and cinema in that language will be enough for a lot of people. However, some people may also want to achieve professional fulfillment. In this respect, think about 20 years in the future. The EU, UN, multinational companies, etc will be needing people who speak several languages and understand the culture. Those people who have been brought up speaking at least 2 languages at home will have the upper hand. They will understand not just the language but the cultural nuances.
Does this mean that people who study GCSEs and A levels now won’t have a chance in the future? No, of course not. If they love languages they will keep at it and spend years after school improving that language to get to near native level. This is very hard work, as I am sure many of the people reading this know, because you are either bilingual yourself or you know somebody who is, and has had to learn the second language.
By the Principle of Least Effort, why would you want to go through the struggle of years of studying and learning, when you can acquire the language from a tender age? I know I wouldn’t.
For those parents who do speak a foreign language fluently because they, themselves, went through the verb ending learning process, the choice, in my opinion, should be clear. Don´t worry about accent, teachers in school will probably also have the same type of accent as you do, or worse if it´s their third language. Don´t worry so much about grammar and saying things wrong, think that your kid is getting much more immersion speaking it at home and using it for real interaction, than at school learning about holidays and school uniform. If you worry about grammar and vocabulary reading children´s books and watching the news will also be a good revision for you. Also, think that if your kid can hold a conversation with native people in that language, it means s/he is getting the message across. (By the way, saying the numbers and pointing at stuff that you want to buy doesn’t really count).
Finally, if we want our children to compete in the world of the future, of being those people who will be able to market products to foreign countries, to use the right lingo, the right nuances, to know that Germans like their food technical and the English prefer it pretty, let´s pass our knowledge down the generations.