Should children learn to read and write before five years of age? – Two ISASA schools weigh in

| November 8, 2011 | 0 Comments

Give them the time to develop the skills they need

By Cathy Fry with Theresa Munks, Margaret Marshall, Dana Altini and Helen Steyn

In preprimary and Grade 0 classrooms across the country, very young children are being introduced to formal schooling.

In the process, they lose out on the important facet of learning through play and the development of perceptual skills that must occur before formal learning can take place.

Occupational therapist at St Andrew’s Junior School, Theresa Munks, believes that young learners need time to explore, investigate, implement and master various foundational gross motor, fine motor, language and perceptual skills before learning to read and write. The skills instrumental in the acquisition of efficient handwriting skills, and which therefore require optimal development themselves, include trunk and shoulder girdle stability, upper-limb dissociation, hand and finger muscle strength, in-hand manipulation, ocular motor control and sensory integration.

Development of these areas and their associated skills may not necessarily be acquired within clearly specified age bands. Moreover, it’s important that children are given sufficient time and exposure to play activities that enable them to discover these abilities and facilitate their development.

In today’s world, children denied opportunities to develop

Unfortunately, today’s lifestyles are not always conducive to such development outside of the school environment. Many children travel great distances to get to school where they spend long days because of the hours of working parents. Many children live in townhouse complexes without large garden spaces for explorative play, and few children have the option of exploring their communities due to safety issues like heavy traffic. Busy working weeks often leave families with little spare time to explore unstructured leisure pursuits that facilitate the development of these skills.

Many younger children are also assisted in their activities of daily living (e.g. dressing, grooming and feeding) instead of learning to execute the tasks themselves. It’s therefore important that these skills be actively facilitated within the school curriculum, and not overlooked in the interests of concentrating on more formal literacy development.

Adults take postural development for granted

Margaret Marshall, neuro-developmental treatment physiotherapist at St Andrews, states that one of the key elements to consider when learning to read and write is postural control, the development of which begins at birth.

Adultlike postural control is achieved at around the age of six-and-a-half years – but since no two children are alike, this age will depend on the interaction of a number of complex systems. Furthermore, it is the culmination of the interaction between the individual, the environment and the task that create the moment when a child is poised to read and write.

Exposure to different positions during self-initiated, goaldirected, purposeful play will help these systems to mature and accommodate to changes in both the environment and the task at hand. An immature postural system will affect the child’s ability to remain in an upright position against gravity for extended periods of time, as is required during both reading and writing.

It is therefore important to make sure that tasks are attainable and that expectations are not so high as to result in the child being discouraged by repeated failure.

Learning to read a complex process

Dana Altini, St Andrews’ speech therapist, believes it’s paramount to help a child acquire a vast background knowledge, strong oral language, phonological decoding and phoneme awareness before introducing them to formal reading.

In contrast to learning to speak, which develops naturally, learning to read is a complex, effortful process that requires active teaching and active learning, across all areas of childhood development. While it’s true that neural plasticity (functional development within the brain) is at its best the younger we are, there is a fairly broad period of critical development for a number of splinter skills to advance to make a successful attempt at learning to read. There are five phases along the continuum of reading development. Each must be cultivated fully to move to phase six in adulthood. Early reading is only phase three, prior to which children need to experience roleplay reading and experimental reading. The cognitive skills required to begin formal reading include: attention, memory, perception, language comprehension and reasoning.

It makes logical sense that each skill needs time and stimulation to develop optimally. A child must also be able to discriminate between similar sounding words and sounds e.g. moon/noon. They should also be able to identify and generate sound patterns in words and be able to hear and manipulate syllables and phonemes in words. A strong linguistic base is necessary for comprehension and anticipation of text. Life experience and early education provide ample opportunity to enrich and extend language. Words and sounds are symbols. Before children can be expected to learn a third set of symbols (letters representing the sounds of language), they should be sufficiently skilled in the symbolism of linguistic representation i.e. language.

Consider metalinguistic awareness

In “Malleable Minds: Environment Shapes Intelligence”, Dr Jane M. Healy1 posits that “before brain regions are myleinated, they do not operate efficiently… trying to ‘make’ children master academic skills for which they do not have the requisite maturation may results in mixed-up patterns of learning.”

Helen Steyn, our remedial therapist, believes that the early stages needed for reading are vital building blocks; including rhyme recognition, syllable blending and syllable segmentation. These skills begin to emerge at the age of four and develop in a progressive manner until the child is six years of age. Another aspect that needs to be developed before reading can take place is metalinguistic awareness, which is made up of knowledge that adults take for granted:

  • understanding that letters make up words and that written
  • words must be linked together into meaningful sentences
  • knowing what a word is – a bunch of squiggles with white
  • spaces between
  • knowledge that we read from left to right
  • knowing the meaning of the terms – and use of visual
  • clues, title, cover, author, beginning of word/sentence,
  • illustrations

Bring back play! Expectations of children in the school environment are increasing the world over. Parents demand more and more from teachers without understanding that the sand pit, paint and dough, crayons and paper, pegs, beads and building equipment are all vital to the effectiveness of learning in a formal environment.

Reading, writing and ’rithmetic should be easy and fun. Instead of pressurising children into formal learning, give them the time to grow, to play and to develop individually. Give them the time to develop the skills they need to make formal learning a success.

Cathy Fry is Headmistress at St Andrew’s Junior School in Senderwood, Johannesburg.

Reference: 1. See http://education.jhu.edu/newhorizons/future/creating_ the_future/crfut_healy.cfm

Category: Summer 2011

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