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Children learning to read in English - start early or when they're ready?

Carmen reading in English and comments on performance.

Carmen learning to read in English

Date of writing: 9th October 2016.
Age: 7 years and 3 months.
 

Although I've commented on Carmen's performance in the bilingual children's forum, it's been three years since I last updated the series of articles! In this article, I'm not going to discuss levels and advances. I'll save that for another I'm still planning. Here, I want to share something I believe will help other parents of the forum and their concerns regarding their bilingual children and reading skills in English (their L1b or second mother tongue).

In many "traditional" schools in Spain, there exists an approach to Spanish (L1) reading skills that perhaps verges, in my opinion, on the neurotic. Young children are pressured to learn how to read and write from very early ages. My daughter, Carmen, started tracing letters at pre-school from the age of three and when she started primary at five, accurate reading and precise writing took precedence. At seven years old, Carmen, writes joined up Spanish text with the precision or a calligraphy expert and reads fluidly and easily texts designed for her age group.

All this may sound like a proud dad expounding the virtues of his daughter's academic achievements. Not a bit of it! I'm quite frankly not impressed. I wish my daughter could receive an education that centred on more creative learning and self-discovery such as the Montessori technique and leave reading and writing skills either to later or let them build slowly together with other more right-brained school activities. But this is a huge tangent to go off on so I can't expand more on this point. Nevertheless, I need to state clearly here Carmen's Spanish reading skills due to the very probable influence these have on her L1b (English) reading ability and possibly, just possibly, revelations about Carmen's reading in English might help me give a "told you so" elbow in the ribs to the "traditionalist" Spanish educators and their "younger the better" conviction regarding L1 reading instruction.

I started reading activities with Carmen when she was six. I can see this from my first entries to the forum on reading with bilinguals here.... This was rather out of my own interest as a teacher and researcher rather than necessity. I read a bed-time story in English to Carmen every night but I didn't see it as necessary she should read on her own at that time. From recommendations we began with the seven Jolly Phonics books with lots of letter clusters, colouring and pronunciation. From the August 5th 2015 post at the forum I notice I say that we abandoned the Jolly Phonics course after book 4. It got too complex with more and more diphthong and consonant cluster patterns to practise and too many exceptions to make it retainable. I stated in the forum, that Carmen needed some more "practical work" and thanks to my family in the UK got sent some classic Cat in the Hat books by Dr Seuss. But I still wasn't happy with the way things were going:

"I see it's a case of just recognizing complete words. Now she does seem to say "like" correctly as it occurs frequently (thanks to the layout of the text in the books). So at the moment, I get the feeling the process is going to be awfully slow. It's not enough to learn the letters - you have to learn the words." Forum August 5th 2015...

Then, about six weeks later, I make this frustrating comment on the forum:

"Carmen is struggling with reading the Dr Suess books.

She can read quite well in Spanish now and admittedly that knowledge is more beneficial to reading English than detrimental. It helps her letter-by-letter spell words like H-E-L-P just by applying Spanish phonetics (well the H is not Spanish). She is also recognizing some important letter clusters TH, SH, EE, etc. But of couse, even these vary EA can be /iː/ or /e/...

Then there are words, as Raquel points out, called "sight words". Words which are difficult to decipher but are common: "some", "like" etc. Carmen has mastered some [of these] but others I need to remind [her of] again and again.

It seems we go slow word by painful word. So, I'm applying my own beliefs I use for teaching English: rapid input with lots of teacher help is better than slow input with student doing all the work.

So my techniques now are, for example: I read the page, then Carmen reads after me and regardless of whether it is easy or not..." Bilingual forum September 19th 2015...

Well, that technique didn't last long; it all just seemed too arduous so I gave up and I made no more entries to this thread.

Over the past few weeks, I have noticed Carmen taking more interest in the written text of the stories I read her before bedtime. She asks me to tell her where I am reading and sometimes says she wants to read a sentence herself. I got hold of the Ant and Bee books by Angela Banner (another classic from my own childhood!), which have occasional words in red that the child reads out loud while the parent reads the bulk of the story which is in black text. They're fun books as it's a joint task between parent and child and the latter feels she is contributing to the story reading. Then Carmen started asking to read the black words, which she did now and again. Carmen's reading in English skills just began to evolve slowly without any systematic approach and without any instruction or explanations.

Finally, and most recently, Carmen became interested in reading to me other than the bedtime story sessions. Just yesterday I recorded a session you can hear below. It's from the original "The Cat in the Hat" by Dr Seuss, a book we abandoned a year ago as it was tougher to read than the simpler books in the same series. We read alternate two lines each and to make it more fun scored points if you read words with double letters - one point for each double letter. I've edited that part out as it made for a longer recording but the remaining audio is the untouched version of Carmen's rendering of the read text. A reading not rehearsed previously.

You'll notice that Carmen's rendering of the text is fluid and it is pronounced like her spoken version of the language. I suspect that the word "said", which she sometimes uttered as /seid/ was due to her oral English rendering of the word through phonetic error and not from L1 transfer, which would be /said/ (pronounce with Spanish phonetics) - correct version = /sed/. In fact, I detect no L1 phonetic influence at all and errors are renderings of other English words eg. "fish" for "wish", "we" for "why". I find three reasons to explain Carmen's startling improvement in her English reading skills compared with one year ago:

1) Carmen's Spanish reading skills have helped; especially the dynamic of reading - being accustomed to recognising letters on the page and linking them into words with meaning.

2) Bedtime reading (stories read by me) where the text was always available in the book to look at so she could gradually associate sounds with written words and meaning despite not actually participating herself in the reading.

3) And the most important: Carmen just grew up. With age, a child is more cognitively developed and meta-linguistically aware. Learning to read is much easier for a child of seven than a child of five and definitely much easier than for a child of four or three! A child of five struggles with some tasks that a seven or eight year old finds much easier to cope with and can acquire more quickly.

Another point could be that Carmen's spoken English has improved, which may help her to recognize words more readily yet even a year ago I made the comment in the bilingual children's forum that:

"...if we teach reading AFTER the child has good competence in English speaking, the child will compensate for sound differences [between the phonetics of the two languages] - well, my daughter seems to be doing so." Bilingual forum August 6th 2016...

Carmen was not, even a year ago, reading text she did not understand.

Conclusions.

It seems that in Carmen's case, the learning to read process in her L1b (English) has become more effortless at seven than when she was six. There is presumably some accumulative learning effect involved influenced by her almost implicit exposure through stories as well as her very explicit instruction in Spanish text reading. However, Carmen needed to acquire English "sight words" (words with little phonetic help to their sounds). As this did not occur at school, it must have taken place during the exposure to text at bedtime story sessions. The explicit instruction I gave and halted a year ago seems to have had little effect on her present knowledge of recognising written words in English. Furthermore, the natural interest in reading did not occur at three years of age nor at four, nor at five nor six. But as Carmen developed cognitive skills through maturity and meta-linguistic knowledge through maturity (not instruction), so her ability to read emerged and manifested itself in her own requests to read aloud to me from her books. She requested it because she could do it. Children quickly become disinterested in anything they are unable to do well - it's too hard and hard is not fun.

So then we ask ourselves, does reading instruction in the mother tongue need to take place so early in a child's schooling? I'm not saying explicit instruction does not work. My daughter is a testament to its "success". She has learnt to read in Spanish predominantly with this approach. Yet, as my wife will attest, it was gruelling work as she got the brunt of the school-commanded hours-long homework sessions standing over Carmen while she repeatedly and painstakingly wrote out ma-me-mi-mo-mu etc. This is a blood, sweat and tears approach that children (and parents) could be spared if we wait until they are older and more receptive and willing. And regarding L1b learning of reading, we, as parents, owe it to our children to bide our time and wait till they show interest in reading, which I'm certain they will, wherever the home environment is positive and encouraging and books, stories and reading materials abound in our households.

Finally, there may be concern from parents to think that their children should leave reading skills until later in the school curriculum agenda. Get it done and out of the way as soon as possible is an understandable reaction. On the other hand, perhaps instead of spending hundreds of hours "letter-bashing" at ages where children's cognitive ability just isn't receptive to it, those millions of Spanish schoolchildren could be involved in a broader range of other learning activities suited to their maturity levels and more effective at providing a less stressful and more rounded education for all.

I leave you with Carmen reading from The Cat in the Hat...

"I know some good games we could play,"
said the cat.
"I know some new tricks,"
said the Cat in the Hat.
"A lot of good tricks.
I will show them to you.
Your mother
will not mind at all if I do."

Then Sally and I
did not know what to say.
Our mother was out of the house
for the day.

But our fish said, "No! No!
Make that cat go away!
Tell that cat in the Hat
you do not want to play.
He should not be here.
He should not be about.
He should not be here
when your mother is out!"

"Now! Now! have no fear.
Have no fear! said the cat.
"My tricks are not bad,"
said the Cat in the Hat.
"Why, we can have
lots of good fun, if you wish,
with a game that I call
UP-UP-UP with a fish!"

"Put me down!" said the fish.
"This is no fun at all!
Put me down!" said the fish.
"I do not wish to fall!"

"Have no fear!" said the cat.
"I will not let you fall.
I will hold you up high
as I stand on a ball.
With a book on my hand
and a cup on my hat!
But that is not all I can do!"
said the cat...

(The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss)

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