Context matters. For just about everything. And that's really hard to remember.
In this modern life and culture we thrive on organizing things. Categorizing. Breaking things down into component parts.
We separate work from home. Housekeeping from child rearing. Food production from food preparation. Education from application. Adults from children. Meaningfulness from satisfaction.
At least, we try.
In the long run, these separations are not sustainable. It's not just that these separations create toxic systems when taken to extremes, it's that they fail to speak to our soul. They leave a void where something special is supposed to be. Education and literacy currently have the same problem.
We have separated letter and word recognition from comprehension. We have separated comprehension from critical analysis (I would argue that the combination of comprehension and critical analysis is vital to true literacy). We have separated learning to read from reading. And most importantly, we have separated reading from real life.
Reading isn't just the ability to derive coherent meaning from a highly symbolic system for combining a finite set of abstract images. It is a social act. Reading allows individuals to learn about themselves and others, acquire skills, and gain greater depth in their understanding of their social and cultural context. It also provides a tangible link between past and present, material and immaterial.
Betelheim points out in On Learning to Read that children are best able to acquire literacy when they know both the skill and the reading material play an important role in real life and are valuable to adults. That's why children who learn to read from the Bible usually have an easier time of it than their textbook-taught peers.
Children need to know that what they are learning to do is relevant, that it fits into the "grand scheme of things," and that it will increase their overall abilities (rather than summarize what they already know, as modern textbooks do). In short, they don't compartmentalize the way adults do.
Storybooks can allow access to things children know intuitively but are too complicated for children to express on their own. When the stories these books contain are too sanitized to do that, they, by definition, talk down to the reader, leaving the impression that nothing is to be gained from reading. Worse, the child can quite understandably assume that the person who handed them the book is aware that the book is insipid, and therefore does not think well of the child. It's worth noting here that a child's response is consistent with that of an adult in a similar situation, although the child might not be aware of or willing to admit to their reaction. As Betelheim notes, it is very difficult for people who are just acquiring a skill to get up the confidence to assert that presumed authorities in that skill are wrong.
Homeschoolers have the wonderful opportunity to provide a rich learning environment that takes a holistic view of life--not a segmented, partitioned one. We can teach our children to read from real books, and make sure that they have a good first impression of literacy that is not proved false later on. We can also treat our young charges as the fully human, intelligent creatures they are. The more I watch my children grow, the more I believe that the most important thing I can bring to the table in their education is to make a point of adopting the attitude that they are "fearfully and wonderfully made."
Next week I'll discuss a few tips suggested in On Learning to Read for creating a successful learning experience for beginning readers.
This post has been linked to Welcome Home at Raising Arrows.