ICanReadSystem girl readingAn interesting debate continues in respect to the benefits or detriments of early learning. One side believes that early learning is the way to go while the other believes it’s preferable to wait until a child is at least at school.  We have all heard the different views expressed in respect to protégés like Tiger Woods (playing golf since the age of 3) or Mozart et al. Some say it’s a terrible thing to foist specialised activities on a child and others argue it isn’t. Is something ‘destroyed’ by such early learning or does the child give early birth to the educated adult, and the earlier the better?

What about literacy? What about learning to speak well and learning to read and write? What about the issue of early literacy learning? Developmental psychologists study childhood development; we measure learning outcomes along the spectrum of childhood, measuring what can be learned and what cannot. We know that within 3 months, a baby will use his/her arms to prop him/herself up and that by 7 months will sit in the tripod position. Babbling and sounding starts at around 6 months. Symbolic thinking starts by 12 months and empathy begins between 18 and 36 months.  The ability to sequence kicks in around 2 years. So what about early literacy?

Literacy may be defined as a holistic skill encompassing the ability, willingness and desire to speak and listen to others, to read and write independently, and to be able to self-teach. Other literacy-based skills like spelling and grammar knowledge could be included, but the thinking, listening, talking and reading are in the front row.

I’m not talking about rote learned skills. I’ve had 2.5 year children ‘read’ to me, much to the immeasurable pleasure of their parents who often didn’t want to hear my remarks about the efficiency of their child’s memory and how emphasising memory as the primary learning mechanism may well destroy or delay cognitively-based approaches to learning.

The research recognises two main approaches to learning to read. One is basically a memory dependent approach, a ‘look-memorise and say’ range of approaches. These approaches provide an immediate positive outcome and can impress in the short term or at least until the brain’s capacity to memorise (recognise) reaches a capacity of sorts for that age. For many children, it results in an immediate and short term increase in apparent learning attended by a tendency to slow down with the passage of time. Learning to read by looking – then saying by recall – may produce what looks like progress but cannot produce a learner who appreciates how spoken language is represented by symbols or how those sounds combine, represented by visual symbols (letters) into complete words whose pronunciation is accessed by processing the sequence of sounds into what we call co-articulated outcomes or words. I’m not suggesting for a second that we try to convey either this terminology to children or the meaning thereof. But most children develop some interesting early literacy skills by about 3.5 years.

For instance, by 3.5 years onwards, most children start to become phonologically aware. This means that they can do things like play ‘I Spy’ because he/she can attach the first sound to words that start with that sound. At two years of age, the game ‘I Spy’ won’t work because “I spy… something beginning with /cuh/” is likely to bring a random response because that phonological association has not yet developed.

What does it mean to be phonologically aware (in terms of the service we provide) or being in a position to learn how to be phonologically aware? Phonological awareness allows a child to appreciate that a spoken word is a sequence of meaningless sounds which when they are combined, produce a word. Once the child appreciates phonemes and can manipulate them orally, it’s a short step forward to attach the sounds to letters and learn how to process them in sequence. If only English was phonologically consistent, it would be one sound-one letter and learning to read would be so simple. English isn’t consistent. It’s a hybrid, melting pot of a language that begs, borrows or steals words from just about every other language on earth. It’s a wonder anyone can learn to read!

But they do and here’s why. The brain uses its appreciation of an invariant sound to letter association called the alphabetic principle and learns to process these sequences represented visually using the alphabet. Children with strong innate phonological skills (up to 60% of children) will most likely learn to read irrespective of the teaching methodology because their brains make the connection required to process the visual textual information. Most children by 4.5 can do all this and if they do, then by the age of five years, they will be reading. Not only that but they will, if our experience is anything to go by, enjoy it, feel empowered, attain an expanded vocabulary and be more confident than many of their peers. They will look forward to attending school and can’t wait to enjoy being literate. This is easily attainable by five years of age. I’d recommend addressing early literacy, no doubt about that!

Annabel Seargeant

Australian Registered Psychologist