Getting involved

We have been doing plenty of silly rhymes about ants and pants, and the ark in the park in the dark. We’ve also been grouping words in categories, such as lists of animals, and menus of food. Then we wrote this together and read it a couple of times.

Noahs Ark Part 1-001

Part 1

 

When we reread it about five days later, I pointed to the letters in turn, insisting if she misread something, and I read THE each time it came up (it was new), but otherwise said nothing. The only word which gave her trouble was “squirrels”. The next time round she was word perfect. It helped that she already knew the basic story, and it helped to reread it several times. But what made the most difference was that she wrote it with me. She chose from various ways of expressing the story, and of course she decided which animals got to go into the ark. It shows how a kid’s implication changes everything, as she couldn’t normally read for meaning to that level.

Part 2

Part 2

 

Perfect timing for me to come across Célestin Freinet.

The basic tenets of his teaching are thus described:

  • Pedagogy of work (pédagogie du travail): pupils were encouraged to learn by making products or providing services.
  • Enquiry-based learning (tâtonnement expérimental): group-based trial and error work.
  • Cooperative learning (travail coopératif): pupils were to co-operate in the production process.
  • Centres of interest (complexe d’intérêt): the children’s interests and natural curiosity are starting points for a learning process
  • The natural method (méthode naturelle): authentic learning by using real experiences of children.
  • Democracy: children learn to take responsibility for their own work and for the whole community by using democratic self-government.

In fact, a lot of this ties in very closely with what Máire Mullarney believed in – Montessori, too, especially the concepts of work and exploration. Although there is a string of schools which follow Freinet’s pedagogical theory, I can see how teaching at home allows more liberty to follow it. Mullarney writes about how she taught maths as they baked cakes, multiplying the quantities for their large family. And how one of her sons learnt to read when he realised there were books about birds, his passion. I can’t speak for group-based work, as baby number 2 is only eight months old, but what I have done so far with my little Beiruti harmonises with a good few of these points, especially the centres of interest. If you set a time-lapse camera to watch the words that come and go on our terrace you’d know who we’d seen, where we’ve been and what we’ve had for dinner. I also like the idea of providing services. So now I’m out to brainstorm new ways to make learning relevant and fascinating – and helpful, why not.

Keeping it simple

Teaching my 2-year old to read in English took a fair bit of thought. But French is a whole different ballpark. It is really hard to come up with short, common words which are easy to spell. We have been playing around with a multitude of short, easy English words which are read pretty much as they are written, letter for letter, such as cat, mat, rat, frog, sit, run, just to cite a few of the top of my head.

In French there just isn’t the same abundance of phonemic words for tangible, everyday items. The same words in French require a much better level of reading, or a lot of guesswork. We have chat, tapis (or paillasson), rat (with a silent T), grenouille, s’asseoir (or m’asseois for first person), and courir (or cours if it’s I run). French is positively littered with silent letters, nasal vowels and strings of vowels. And verb endings are more varied too.

I have really had to work to pull together a respectable selection of words to help my daughter start reading in French. They follow a couple of patterns:

  1. Baby talk: papa, pipi, dodo, bobo, etc (daddy, pee, beddybyes, hurty/owie)
  2. Short words that by some amazing good fortune refer to things a child might be interested in: sac, bol, vélo, bus
  3. -ir verbs and their past participles (ending in i): poli, fini. (-er and -é endings are a step further away)

However, French does have quite a lot going for it, from the viewpoint of a young (but not entirely novice) reader, that is. After all, French doesn’t have the random opaque pronunciation that English does. It isn’t full of contradictory patterns and churning with the exceptions that result from the English language’s mixed breeding. There is no French equivalent to the rough-cough-though-through conundrum or the difference in stress between the verb “to produce” and the noun “produce“, or the differing pronunciation of “I will read” and “I have read“, and other illogicalities. In fact once you can read in French, then you can read any French word, because pronunciation is quite consistent.

Also, in French basic reading does get easier once the children can take on longer words (e.g. nombril) and once they are ready for a silent final ‘e’ (e.g. balle, nage, dessine, culotte).

We are just about getting there and I can see that she has pretty much grasped that words are often written differently to what one would expect. She also reads well enough to be able to start taking on board the context whereas earlier all her concentration was focused on the letters. Now if we are talking about animals and she reads ‘KAN-G…’ she guesses that it says kangaroo long before reading all the letters. Much more like we adults read. This should help her to swallow nasal vowels and not pronounce chien as chienne or ballon as ballonne.

After the complexities of English and French, when she learns Spanish at school, it will be a breeze, with it’s simple consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel patterns. The spelling reform certainly helped. As Wikipedia puts it, Spanish has “a relatively consistent mapping of graphemes to phonemes; in other words, the pronunciation of words can largely be predicted from the spelling.” Phew (or should I say Fyoo?).

Mystery box game

I got the idea for the mystery box game from a blogger who uses it to spark a guessing game when teaching English as a foreign language. The basic concept is mystery and I just adapted it for learning literacy skills. First I discreetly put an object in a large box and then we look how heavy it is and what sound it makes when we tip it. Next I write the name of the object on a slip of paper and tape it to the box (with the sticky tape that comes off easily). Motivated by the desire to discover the mystery object my daughter quickly sets to reading the label and opening the box to verify.

mystery box

mystery box

The mystery element definitely livens things up and the game also provides a strong mental link between objects and their written name. Labelling objects with post-its does too, and we’ve played at reading labels and then sticking them on the relevant objects all around the house, but the idea of an item hiding in the box waiting to be found provides higher motivation.

We then moved on to hiding an object of my daughter’s choice in the box and writing the name of it in French to take to her dad to discover. I had to guide her choice of object to things with simple names (sac, bol, etc). I thought that seeing daddy accurately guess what had been secretly placed in the box would drive home the wonder of literacy, the way it can evoke so efficiently what is unseen. However, at 2 and 3/4 I think she still believes us to be all-knowing and all-seeing (long may it last). What’s more she had trouble not telling daddy what she had put in the box well before he got close enough to read the label. Nonetheless, she had a whale of a time sharing her game while shouting out the contents.

The next phase was to turn the box into a lucky dip of actions. I wrote messages like jump, hop, run fast, get a cup, sit down, stand up, put a peg in a box, hug mummy, and so on. We take turns drawing a slip of paper, since that adds to the suspense, but we both do the actions together. I would never have thought teaching my daughter to read would leave me this breathless.

A random note on the side: I have known a couple of children who will write their name backwards – a perfect mirror image. When it came to ‘GET A [top line] CUP [bottom line]‘ my daughter surprised me by reading: A TEG CUP. So she still needs reminding occasionally to start from the top left. I won’t be starting on Arabic just yet.

A cat and a hat

One morning this week my daughter had just (slowly) read “window” and went in a corner to scribble a row of swirls on the terrace. “I wrote ‘window’”, she announced. “Nice,” I said. “You could write the word CAT if you want.” I wrote C and made room for her to copy it below. She started with a diagonal line. I outlined the curve of the C again and she did a wobbly C of her own. Next the A, which didn’t quite meet at the top. Then a fairly respectable T.

This isn’t the first time she has written letters. Even back in Beirut she was pointing out the Ns or As which emerged unintentionally (I assume) from her scribbles, so a year ago, well before her second birthday. But this was the first time we attempted to line up her letters in a word. Actually I haven’t put much emphasis on her writing her own letters at all as I can see it is hard work whereas reading is only pleasure. It’ll come later, maybe when she is three or four. Or so I thought.

The first word she wrote

The first word she wrote

After lunch and nap time and all sorts of distractions, we were once again on the terrace. I had my laptop. She came asking, “Can we write HAT?” “Sure,” I said, even though it seemed a bit simple for a kid already reading words like rabbit and basket. So I began writing H. “Like over there!” said my daughter. When I looked where she pointed, there was H and A already lined up. She had already started writing HAT. “What’s the last letter that’s missing?” I asked. “T” she said, “like cat.” And she took a new piece of chalk and added the T. And that was that.

Clearly the cat in a hat which sat on the mat deserves some credit here.

Of the “three Rs”, she began reading two and a half months ago, and funnily enough both writing and arithmetic made something of a début this week. More on the numbers another time, but if anyone has any experience with Colour Factor or Cuisenaire Rods feel free to share, as I think it will be my next purchase on Amazon.

Phase 2 of reading for toddlers

Phase 2 words

Phase 2 words

The phonics approach has worked really well so far for my 2-year old. Having a limited, fixed set of sounds is reliable and manageable. But now we have pretty much reached the limits of my initial brief. Until recently we stuck to words which are strictly phonetic using only about 25 sounds (that is, one per letter of the alphabet, minus one as she only knows the hard /k/ sound for both C and K). Stand is about as hard as it gets. She was reading 60 or 70 such words without needing any context or clues. I can hardly even think of any more words that we actually use commonly and which fit these rules, and we are getting a teeny bit bored of peg, frog, plum, hand, etc. It’s time to move on.

I have had to think hard about what groups of words would be most logical to move on to. Over the past three weeks we have been adding the following groups of words. I’ve come up with six categories and three sub-categories.

  • Double letters which don’t affect the sound:
    doll, bell, kiss, egg, fuss, fill, dress, 

    • Also: words ending with CK which phonetically might as well end in KK or CC:
      neck, black, pack, back, 
  • Words ending in Y when it sounds like ‘ee’:
    mummy, funny, happy, nappy, silly, bunny;
  • Words with a vowel+R which gives that lengthening effect, and where the R doesn’t really sound like an R (in my British English):
    car, arm, dark, fork, star, start;
  • Words where the vowels vary slightly from my initial strict phonics rules:
    open, put, full, bag; 

    • Certain diphthongs:
      owl, toy, boy, way; 
    • Words containing the schwa sound:
      basket, lemon, melon;
  • Very short words which are written strangely:
    I, is;
  • Words with ‘sh’:
    fish, shop, shorts, flash, splash, push.

I didn’t follow a specific order as I think they are fairly equal in complexity (save the first which seems easiest). I just let myself be guided by her interests. Some types can be taught as rhyming words which of course adds to the fun. Once you combine all these patterns the vocabulary becomes vast. Making sentences becomes much easier. We’ve also been writing menus (egg and melon, anyone?) and labelling body parts and clothes on life-size drawings of people.

Just now she was talking about un singe with her dad, so I wrote MONKEY on the edge of a drawing. From the other side of the paper she read it upside down in a flash.

We still work our way around confusing words, so the girl in a dress wears socks and sandals instead of shoes, which could easily be confused with shows, but arms can have fingers and elbows since halfway through the word the reader has already guessed the meaning – just as we adults do when reading. Needless to say none of our terrace ladies have tights yet.

Next up will be ‘ch’ for chin, ‘oo’ as in moon, and soon enough we’ll have to include long vowels (e.g. face). But by that time she will be “sight-reading” some words, and even getting context from the sentence, instead of deciphering each word entirely separately.

To bridge the gap between the cat-dog phase and the famed irregularity and randomness of English spelling, we make sure to acknowledge that things are not always written exactly as they are said. She’ll need to grasp that pretty well in order to read even very basic French, anyway. More on that can of worms later.