by Joyce Reed and David H. Albert
David:It is 5:30 in the morning, and I am lying there in our family bed, eyes not yet open, my wife on the other side, and 14-month-old Aliyah in the middle (she is now 17, but it feels like yesterday), and I hear her murmuring softly, almost in a whisper:
"O is for Obelisk. I is for Ibis. H is for Hyrogrifix."
"Oh, my", I’m thinking. "She must be the most brilliant child on the face of the planet. Should I awaken and express my satisfaction and give her a kiss? Or wake up and kiss my wife and let her in on this little miracle? Get out a tape recorder?"
For the record, I did none of the above, but simply savored the moment, which is hereby recorded for posterity. Hyrogrifix had appeared in our household as a gift from grandma, an alphabet book based on items from the Egyptian exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
It’s a funny idea when you think about it. Alphabet books usually assign letters to objects with which children are familiar, the idea being that the child will form an association between the object, the name of which is already known, and the sound or at least the name of the alphabetic symbol, which is not. But in this case, obelisks, ibises, and hieroglyphics were not going to make an appearance in Aliyah’s world for another decade. So what we had created (and she adopted) was a mantra of disconnected sound and sense, probably having as its most important referent the fond thought of sitting on mom’s lap, and grandma, the great but distant source of odd but interesting presents.
Neither of my kids, as it turned out, ever showed more than a passing interest in learning about hieroglyphics. Aliyah, like so many other children, did at one point develop her own imaginary code and language, but there was no one she could readily share it with, least of all her younger sister Meera, who was (and is) a "just the facts, ma’am" type of girl. Neither Ellen nor I ever entertained any illusions that we might be raising Egyptologists.
I, however, did develop at least a passing interest in the Egyptian way of writing, and have spent some hours trying to puzzle at least a few things out. So here’s the little I know (all you real Egyptologist homeschoolers out there: Write me if I get anything wrong):
Hieroglyphics, or at least those of Middle Egyptian – the classical period (2200-1800 B.C.), are written left to right, or right to left, or up to down, but never down to up, though there are exceptions in the order of symbols written vertically. To find out which way to read, one finds a picture of a bull or a woman or a vulture or some such and determines which way it is facing, as it will always face toward the beginning. Alternatively, if there is a speaker, like a god or a king, a picture of the speaker will be facing in the direction the text is to be read.
Egyptians made a fetish out of eliminating as much empty space as possible, with rock face and papyri apparently being at a premium. So rather than being written in a straight line, there might be a nicely filled square.
In hieroglyphics, there are both ideograms – pictorial representations of objects or actions – and phonograms, representations of phonetic consonant values (no vowels), consisting of one, two, or three letters. There is a problem, however, in the fact that they may overlap. As ideograms, a picture of a duck is a duck, two legs signify walking or running, and a rectangular box with an opening in the bottom is a house. However, a representation of a duck can also be a phonogram for the consonants in the word for "son". So "a duck is running into the house of Rameses" and "Rameses’ son is walking in the house" (or, perhaps "Rameses’ duck is running around the house") might be written exactly the same way. To read the hieroglyph properly, one has to figure out whether the duck is a close familial relative or a kind of poultry, and whether one is already ‘enboxed’ or just soon to be.
Words written phonetically can be a challenge. The Egyptian word for "beautiful" consists of a lyre, a worm, a mouth, and a squiggle. I can only begin to guess how one might attempt to write, "A squiggly worm was eating the beautiful lyre." You do see the problem, don’t you? (My suspicion is that one doesn’t write it in Middle Egyptian.) My first name is written "hand-arm-viper-three feathers-hand-man-seated-on-a-stool (the sign of a masculine figure)". If you would like to find out how to write yours, visit:
Now if a word happens to contain the part "god" or "king" in it, there is what is called a "respectful inversion" – the pictorial representation of the god or king has to come first. Problem is, one has to know which things belong to god or king. "Incense", for example, is that which is burned upon a god’s altar (no aromatherapy here), and the ideogram for god has to come first. Works for "cemetery", too, although I don’t remember whether that one is god or king.
Thoroughly confused? Like to know about verb forms? Tenses? Single, dual, and plural nouns? I think that’s probably enough for now, though if you wish to explore further, don’t let me stop you. Hieroglyphics were apparently thought to be difficult to write, and the training of scribes could take years. But it is unlikely that they were thought particularly difficult to read. Imagine Khenemetamen and his son Amenhotep walking hand-in-hand in the park in Memphis (Egypt, that is) where they come upon the latest obelisk.
" Let’s read it together, " says Khenementamen. And away they go. " The king and an army of a thousand chariots rode toward Thebes. The head of the army…," Amenhotep looks puzzled, "was Pharoah’s duck." " Now, Amenhotep, do you really think the army was led by a duck? "
" No," says Amenhotep, "It must be…son." " Such a smart boy," said Khenemetamen, patting little Ameny (yes, they did have nicknames) on the head. And on they continue, haltingly at first, as Amenhotep gains more and more confidence, until, in a few weeks or months, or maybe a couple of years, finally he is able to make things out for himself.
I’m not sure whether reading hieroglyphics would be harder or easier than reading English for a child to learn. On the one hand, there were many more scripted characters to memorize. On the other hand, the pictograms are just that, and a duck is a duck is a duck (except when it is a son.) In contrast, one would require a very vivid imagination to find anything in the universe that resembles a capital "G ", though I did see some odd looking chairs on Star Wars. I imagine the same holds true for other, non-hieroglyphic, nonalphabetic languages as well, such as Chinese.
Both of my kids and Amenhotep (and, likely, most of your kids, too) learned to read languages using non-phonemic symbols before either English or Middle Egyptian. For Aliyah and my younger daughter Meera, it was Arabic numerals; for little Ameny, it was early Egyptian ones. For Aliyah and Meera, the numerals were wholly symbolic; for Amenhotep, they at least had some referent to numbers of things: the number and concept of one would be depicted by a single stroke or a stick, nine by nine sticks; ten would be represented by a hobble, a leather band or rope placed around the legs of cattle; 90 by nine hobbles. One hundred would be represented by a coil of rope; one thousand by a lotus plant; ten thousand by a finger; one hundred thousand by a tadpole or frog; one million by the figure of a god with arms raised above his head. " 234,567 " would be written as two frogs, three fingers, four lotus plants, five coils of rope, six hobbles, and seven sticks. And when the symbols appeared, for either my children or Amenhotep, they could not only read them; they could translate them into speech as well. Ameny had the additional difficulty of knowing when a frog wasn’t frog at all.
One thing is certain, though. Knowing the names of the letters (I don’t think there were any in Middle Egyptian), or decoding the sounds wouldn’t have been much help in learning to read. Oh, it would be occasionally useful, but one would be more likely to learn the sounds of things from conversation, or by analogy to that which had been previously learned, rather than any kind of phonemic awareness being essential to the process. If in the course of your existence, you had not yet come upon a viper or some incense, you were just out of luck. What I am sure of is that reading didn’t consist of a conscious process of figuring out left-to-right vs. right-to-left vs. up-to-down, ideogram v. phonogram (meaning vs. sound), etc. When reading happened (and I think that is the best way to describe it), all of these processes took place simultaneously in the brain, without any conscious thought at all. Think of it like riding a bicycle: one doesn’t consciously name the muscles involved or the particular actions required of each, or the parts of the bicycle, or Newton’s laws of motion, or the physics of gears, or the changes in brain chemistry associated with balance. One gets up on the seat and starts to peddle. The opportunity to observe others, a little bit of courage, and a bit more of daring soon offset any physical difficulties. If you are not "ready", you simply wait for a time when you will be. Though you don’t consciously wait at all. In the meantime (which you don’t know is the meantime), you kick a soccer ball, play with model trains, talk to imaginary friends, pick on your older sister, or dig holes to China in the backyard. No "pre-biking" is necessary; having bikes around, and people who take pleasure in them or find them useful, likely is. It helps if you have a place you want to go, or a group of friends on bikes with whom you want to go along on your ride.
Meera learned to read music before she could read English. From an early age, it was clear that she was a gifted pianist, and learned her music by heart, without any reference to the printed page. This posed some difficulties when she actually wanted to learn to read printed music around age 6, as the "Big Bird Big Note" method wasn’t going to work for someone who already played Bach and Beethoven. She was jealous of all the older kids who took their music up to the piano during recitals. To "read" was simply the more grownup thing to do. We found a teacher who had figured out this conundrum.
"She doesn’t need to know the names of the notes on the staff yet, other than middle C" said Mark, somewhat to our surprise. "After all, the names don’t really refer either to printed music, or to the keyboard, but to particular frequencies of sound vibrations. Getting the right sounds to her head so that they form the necessary musical patterns is all that really matters – the rest just gets in the way."
And away they went. In six months, by learning about, playing, and listening to chords and chord relationships, and their depiction on the printed page, Meera could sightread virtually anything. And as time went on, the names of the notes (about which any audience couldn’t care less!) fell into place as well. Meera’s music reading and little Ameny’s construal of hieroglyphics were, in fact, very similar. Both were successful efforts at deciphering various chicken scratches on flat surfaces and finding in them things that made sense. (And both were accomplished without either having learned names for the assorted scratches.)
When it came to reading English, Meera had figured out the names of letters and a bunch of associated sounds well before it happened. What pushed her over the edge was a compact disc of Michael Feinstein singing Gershwin songs, and a music book. She would play the songs on the piano, and would allow her eye to follow the printed words underneath the music, until she was able to sing along. Reading provided her with gratification in that it gave her power to entertain. And to this day, for Meera, power is what reading is all about.
Actually, power is what reading is always about. It can be used instrumentally, as Meera did (and still does). Or it can be used purely for pleasure, to entertain oneself through entry into the worlds of other people and places, or into imaginary realms. Usually, it is a combination of the two, as a child finds a new avenue (just one of many, and not necessarily the most important one) that provides her with the power of extending her knowledge, skill, understanding, and imagination beyond her immediate experience or that of the limited circle of people around her.
Yes, some children read earlier and some later. Problems are too often created when children don’t learn on someone else’s timetable. It has been intriguing to me how much the identification of the problem (if one actually exists) takes on an existence of its own. "Late readers" are labeled "slow learners" – often, or even usually, untrue, it quickly becomes identified with a lack of intelligence, and the need for lowered life expectations. Ask anyone who has ever managed to escape the "special education" stigma, and you quickly find out how damaging this stamp can be to a seven-year-old. Or children find themselves labeled as "insufficiently motivated" or "malingerers", the implication being that they are guilty of the mortal sin of sloth (like all "underachievers"), and hence morally reprehensible. (This is compounded by the fact that parents or teachers feel themselves convicted of having failed to protect the child from sin, knowing full well that if he doesn’t know his vowel sounds by six-and-a-half, the mark of Cain identifies him as destined to become a drug-addicted homeless criminal. Strict discipline and punishment might not heal the malingering, but are at least likely to assuage adult feelings of guilt.) Or children are tagged as "learning disabled", meaning that special accommodations are certain to be necessary, or "disordered", suffering from a mental health ailment requiring long-term pharmacological intervention, the sickness a dysfunction having been built into his very genes. [I don’t want to dismiss the notion that there are children who have difficulty learning to read because of organic brain syndromes, uncorrected vision problems, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or, most commonly, some form of undifferentiated post-traumatic stress syndrome, often, largely the product of school environments. All of these might benefit from some form of medical or psychological intervention, but difficulty in reading would be only one of a panoply of symptoms, and not necessarily the most important one.] And woe unto the "late reading/slow learning/learning disabled" child who gets angry about all of this, and disruptive as a result. A diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder might not be long in being added to the already toxic mix. The thing is, regardless of the diagnosis or the label, the general remedy for "late" reading is the same as that for "late" bicycling" – give the kids more time!
When there is power to be realized and pleasure to be gained, one is likely to do more and more of it. All of which is to say that, when all is said and done (and all is never said and done), learning to read, like learning anything else, ultimately comes from the inside, from insight and reflection based on inference and experience. In learning, we meet up with and remake ourselves. We take in from the outside, we reorganize, we test for coherence, for consistency, for agreement with that which we think we already know, and create anew. Every time we learn something new our entire brain-mind is reorganized, fresh connections established, and others fall by the wayside. It is as unnecessary to teach a child to learn as it is to teach her to grow. She already knows how, and all you will succeed in doing is making her self-conscious of the process.
It is a truism among reading experts of every stripe that the best way to become better at reading is to read, much as the best way to become better at hitting a baseball is to hit lots of baseballs. No expert as far as I am aware suggests continuing any kind of phonemic exercises once reading has been achieved. Once I have identified through print that Spot is Sally’s dog, I am not assisted by learning that her duh o guh is named suh puh o tuh, or that her cat is called puh oo fuh fuh. (I remember being forced to sit through months of this, having learned to read a full year before they handed out the readers.) I recognized Spot from the illustrations as belonging to the family of canines, not by focusing on and naming aloud his four legs, black nose, or the suh puh o tuh suh on his back, but by instantaneous, silent comparison with my experience of every other dog I had ever seen, in books or out. And once I was able to read the word "Spot", I made sense of it in exactly the same manner.
So the only real issue is what to do with the kids before they break the code. In my experience, the best way to enable a child to read is to expose him/her to a literate culture, read to them, read with them, and read together, until finally they can read to you. It’s just not so complicated. And it doesn’t have to be books, either. Street signs, advertising circulars, ads in store windows, or the back of video boxes or soup cans will do just fine. Reading is not difficult to learn, nor is it easy. Like growing, there simply will be occasional growing pains. It will happen when it will.
But I left out the most important part. The one thing you can teach them, though it works best by example, is that reading can provide both power and pleasure. It can allow one to make sense of the world, and become part of the process of making one anew. Let your kids see you learning new things from print and deriving pleasure from them (something I never witnessed from any of my teachers), and your kids will be well on the way to opening the houses of wisdom for themselves.
So what about phonics? For most kids it is probably unnecessary, not because they don’t need to learn the sounds, but rather because they don’t need to be explicitly taught them. It will only be helpful at a very exact moment before they can suss things out for themselves, but after trying to make sense of the chicken scratches is no longer an exercise in frustration. The very last thing one wants to do is obviate the potentialities of power or pleasure to be found in the exercise of the skill in the learning of it. You may think you have taught the kids to read (as above, I highly doubt it); but you also run the risk of ensuring that they won’t want to. Take a look at kids coming out of schools these days – including those who are academically "successful" – as empirical evidence.
So phonics before they are reading? Oh, maybe. But I’d suggest something no reading expert has been willing to dare put to the test. Let the kids go about the business of childhood, building competence in other areas that require effort – hitting baseballs off the tee, riding their bikes, identifying the flowers in the backyard, playing "Mary’s Lamb" on the piano, feeding the gerbils and cleaning the cage, building birdhouses – and they will feel more confident, more in charge, and better prepared to take risks in plunging into the challenges that lie ahead.
Joyce:Mmm, that was very satisfying, David! First of all, I always so enjoy your story-telling -- all this weaving, this embroidery, this dance . . . and then whoosh . . . the knife, the needle, the straight talk . . . "when reading happened". . . (and I, too, think that is the best way to describe it!) . . . "All of these processes took place simultaneously in the brain, without any conscious thought at all." Right!! So when and why does it "happen"? For some kids, it can happen at age two. For others, they see no need for that skill until age ten, or twelve. How wonderful, WONDERFUL it could/would be if we simply allowed children to learn to read when they wanted to . . . when they were good and ready. I truly believe, I am utterly convinced, that barring a truly physiological ‘quirk’ that completely prevented a child from being able to see and perceive the written word, children would want to know how to read (and to learn how) as much as they want to be able (and show us their ability) to scoop ice cream from a container, or peel a tangerine. It’s natural! We do it; they want to do it . . . especially, of course, if we have shared the joy of reading with/to them . . . all those lovely, visually delicious, tempting stories and books! Mmmm, Good!
Frankly, I think that even the child who had demonstrable/diagnosable ‘problems’ that might affect reading ability could, if encouraged and allowed to focus on his/her abilities rather than disabilities, develop a system or approach that would work for him, and would likely ask for any assistance that s/he wanted or needed. Indeed, I have seen this happen repeatedly, and not only with my own children.
I am glad you pointed out that Aliyah, Meera, and little Ameny all started ‘reading’ by understanding the non-phonemic symbolism of numerals. . . yes! I have five children. For many years, the younger four (all 2 years apart) shared a ‘nursery’, a large room with four beds and four windows and bookshelves, and around the top border of the room were the Greek alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet, and the modern English alphabet. In that room, I read to my kids for probably two hours or more a day (not all at the same time! There was morning, nap-time, bed-time…) And one of them started to read by age four, one at around eight, one around ten…, and frankly, I forget when the fourth started. The fifth and oldest ‘broke the code’ and started to read at four as well. For each of them, it was the perfect time, and so it "happened".
Elizabeth, the first-born and (for nine years) the ‘only’ child, wanted to sit around and read, as her parents delighted in doing, of course! She loved being read to, but couldn’t ‘get enough’ that way. Second child, Ben, was clearly and demonstrably dyslexic, but when he was around ten, I became too ill to read to the children for a while. Ben took care of his needs in his usually capable style. After recuperating, I found he had read The Hobbit, and was well on his way through the entire Tolkien trilogy, which he has subsequently read over and over.
So indeed you are right, David. Power IS what reading is always about. It’s about gaining the power of self-control and the power to interact with a complex environment, and the self-confidence that comes with that power. Ben started to read because he missed the stories I read to my children daily, and because he wanted to build a computer and needed to decipher the instructions. He has since co-founded three successful computer/technology companies. And he reads, voraciously. Indeed, a big, fat book is still never far from Ben’s hands, who is now in his mid-thirties. School often sucks the self-confidence out of children who are not meeting the ‘standards’ at the ‘expected’ times, and they see themselves as powerless.
Power and pleasure, you said. Rebecca read when she was tired of trying to get older sister Maria and best friend Laura to play with her, instead of lying silently (reading) on their beds for hours, while actually flying through fantasy lands. She saw and felt their delight, and had to join in.
Power is what reading is always about – even in the terms of ‘school’ assessment. Here is another of those true school stories that is almost enough to curl my hair. Through his eighth summer, my grandson, Gabriel, enjoyed reading the Taran, Wanderer series by Lloyd Alexander (wonderful, heroic books!). I think he was close to ending book three when school started for him, in late August. When he came home, he had no more interest in the Taran books – said they were not ‘on the list’ the teacher had given them and that students would be rewarded (in some truly meaningless fashion) for the number of books they read from the list in a given time. Now, Gabriel is a smart boy. He came home with a stack of the shortest, simplest books he could find (from ‘the list,’ of course) and whipped through them in order to achieve his ‘points’, not his pleasure. No wonder schooled children don’t read! Eventually, Gabriel’s curiosity overcame his competitiveness and he finished the third and fourth of the Taran, Wanderer books. He enjoyed them so much he begged to name his new baby sister ‘Eilonwy’, after the heroine – and that is now Sophia’s middle name. It could, however, have been otherwise, at the potential consequences of which I shudder.
Did you see this statistic lately in a recent George Will Washington Post editorial? "Americans age 8-18 spend an average of 6 hours and 21 minutes a day with media of all sorts, but just 43 minutes with print media." I will never forget the stab of horror and sadness I felt when, in the late ‘90s, I spoke to a senior at Brown University who told me (not ‘confessed’, mind you – but informed me, with equanimity) that he had never been inside the main library at Brown. Never! He was very comfortable getting information ‘on-line’. He was the first of many such young scholars. I shuddered because of what he was missing and because of what I, too, was missing. It doesn’t necessarily make my resources ‘better’ because they are (or were) the ‘standard’, because I am more comfortable with them, because I like the smell of libraries and the heft of old books.
Ah, there is SO much more to say on this topic! The shape of reading and the rest of the ‘Three Rs" are changing as necessary tools. They are both more, and less, and we need to look closely at each child’s perceptivity – how s/he take in information, models, and paradigms.
I will close with this: At the very least, schools/teachers/educators at all levels, and parents, too, should take the same oath that doctors do --"First, do no harm." Standards focus on ‘shoulds’, which by their very nature imply limits – the limits of what is already known/perceived/agreed upon. To serve God, man, nation, and the planet, education must be about ‘coulds’, not ‘shoulds’ – about the level of excellence, of mastery, of perceptivity, of creativity, of which each fresh young mind is capable, and can contribute to the human experience. Enough! I will stop . . .but we are far from through with this topic, dear friend! (Fun is high on my list, too! and this is definitely that!) J.R. & D.H. A.
David H. Albert is a homeschooling father of two, and author of Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery, And the Skylark Sings with Me: Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education, editor of two books on storytelling called The Healing Heart, and co-author of the new book about his Indian parents, The Color of Freedom. He speaks all over the North America, and if you would be interested in having him come to your community, contact him through his website at www.skylarksings.com or e-mail him directly at email@example.com.
Joyce Reed is a life-long professional educator as well as a ‘vintage’ home-schooling Mom. Her family of five children lived, loved, learned, and laughed at home in a remote (no electricity! no telephone!) part of the Big Island of Hawaii in the 1970s, and moved into a small Island community (with electricity, a stop light, and a library) in the 1980s. They prepared themselves, with her guidance and community input, to enter highly selective East coast colleges and universities in the 1990s, and to graduate and create exciting career paths. In 1990, Joyce returned to her alma mater, Brown University, as an Associate Dean of The College, a position which she held for 14 years, addressing the academic support and success of first and second-year students at Brown. Retiring in 2003, Joyce established College Goals (www.CollegeGoals.com), an education consulting practice helping families with college selection and admission, and coaching college students to achieve academic and personal success.
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