Learning to Read, Reading to Learn

You never stop learning.  You can’t help it.  You can fight it- try to go through a day without thinking or solving a problem and thereby building your mental repetoire.  Not possible, unless maybe you stay drunk or stoned for twenty-four hours. But even if you do that, you will have some brilliant insights.  Too bad you won’t remember them the next day. 

Kids begin trying to make sense of the world around them from the moment they are born.  Natural problem-solvers, thinkers, dependent on others but working towards independence, driven to satisfy needs and wants; they are born to learn.  It is one of the most unfortunate realities that the first time most kids meet nonsense, it is in school.  What a sin. 

How does learning occur?  The easy answer is that it is different for everyone.  The challenge, as a teacher, is that it is different for everyone.  Learning is often chaotic and messy, although for some it is linear and neat.  I love the ah-ha moments when they happen for kids, and being the one to help them happen makes me very happy.  We all learn new information by building on what we already know.  It’s called, in pedagogical terms, scaffolding and schema, and it simply means that it is way easier to truly understand something on a deeper level and retain it in long term memory if it makes sense and has somewhere in your brain’s filing cabinet to hang.  That being said, life experiences and social community are the two most important things that help learning develop.

For me the most fascinating part of my job is helping children develop as readers.  Sometimes it just seems like magic- how do these squiggly, seemingly random lines (if you don’t think the lines are random, try learning to read hebrew, arabic or chinese) come together to make sense?  How do we wrap our brains around the fact that 26 letters can represent over 50 different sounds (depending on where in the English speaking world you live)?  How do we come to understand homophones (see/sea, their/ they’re/there) and homographs. How do you pronounce the word “present?”  What if I wrote, “Today I will present my thesis on learning?” Cool huh?  How about this:

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghi t pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

The brain is so damned cool.  My Master’s degree is in an area of learning called psycholinguistics, which has to do with how the brain learns to read.  There are as many schools of thoughts about this as there are people.  Each has a theory that has been proven by statistics.  But Statistics 101 teaches that every theory can be proven, so there you go. I stand by my  own theory that we don’t even know what we don’t know about how people learn to read.  As a teacher and a parent, the best I can do is expose kids to the written form of language alongside the verbal form in as many ways as humanly possible and then watch to see what sticks and how it stuck.  I provide experiences revolving around the idea of “learning language, learning through language and learning about language,” and I act as a guide and coach. Constant assessment via observation, along with my growing bag of tricks from doing this for thirty years, help me help my young learners. 

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: who has a better job than me??  I have much more to say on this, but it will wait for another day…

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