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Reclaiming the Delight of Learning to Read

~ by  Angelique Chaverri ~

For many, reading is one of the great joys of life. We find adventure, beauty, insight into the human condition, new skills, and even the courage to face the dragons in our own lives.  Homeschooling families often delight in read-alouds while snuggling on the couch, at the kitchen table around tea and cookies or even in Momma’s bed before launching into the day. These are the times that the souls of our children begin to taste beauty and adore goodness. The Truth contained in the fables, poems and prose takes root in their hearts. The characters and plots build a framework of joyful instruction within them that they will refer back to all of their lives. 

Children are naturally filled with wonder. To the classically-minded parent, modeling recognition of the goodness, truth and beauty of God in stories, in the Holy Scriptures, in nature studies, in the order of math and more prepares them for the life ahead. A child taught to delight in the glories of God all around him will have a storehouse of sustenance stowed away in his or her soul to help weather the lean times of life.

Read-alouds can last for many years, even into adulthood. Many families, in times before television, often listened to a loved one reading from the Bible or from a beloved, oft-repeated book while the rest rocked, knitted, darned clothing or smoked a pipe. After all, “the best teacher is a good book.” Reading Scripture and the great books is something we do over and over again. At succeeding points in our development, we are able to relate to the characters and their experiences in a different way. We ask different questions and come up with different, more nuanced answers. Each time we do this, we become a better version of ourselves and gain some new nugget of refreshment for our journey.

At some point, though, it is time to teach a child to read for themselves so that they too can wrestle with the great questions. This is a daunting process for some parents. God, in His great kindness, has hard-wired a developmental process into the bodies of our children. Let us take a breath and remember that children learn in stages and that it is meant to be a blessing.

Who hasn’t sat with a young child who rattled off a long list of facts about their favorite animal or recited song after song from their current, favorite movie? This is when they are learning to name everything and memorize easily. Children will memorize entire books, poems, songs and nursery rhymes. They learn simple, foundational facts and skills that will be built upon in the next stage of development. 

There is the grammar of reading (letter names, sounds, etc.) but there is also the grammar of movement. The stages of motor movement learning impact all other types of learning and function. The grammar of movement is often overlooked in the training of a child but is incredibly important. 

The human nervous system is developed and refined in stages. This begins in the womb and continues throughout life. The first flutters of movement felt in the womb are actually reflex movements designed to bring on cascades of neurological development. Reflexes awaken and integrate, building systems within systems of function throughout the first year of life. As the child begins to engage in age appropriate activities, specific skills are developed and focused. Listening to various words and sound frequencies at different volumes and rhythms attunes the child’s brain to language. Balancing on two feet, one foot, the two wheels of a bicycle, and a tree branch all develop the child’s inner ear and cerebellum which, in turn, control the eyes and the head as the child scans a printed page, looks back and forth from the whiteboard to his or her desk and from the book to the page where he or she is taking notes.

Childhood was once filled with intuitive activities that developed the nervous system. Children ran, climbed, used their hands (a lot), looked near and far, hung upside down, whirled on merry-go-rounds, rolled down hills, learned to play instruments, carried heavy things, shot marbles, were taught to sit up straight, and sang nursery rhymes.  Each of these childhood activities played an important role in preparing the child to learn, and most were once an expected part of Western classrooms. In our modern world, we have short-circuited this process.

This process of physical development in Classical Education was known as gymnastics. Children participated in activities and games before starting formal schooling. Once in school, however, their physical training took on a prescribed approach. The movements and tools of gymnastics reach beyond ancient Greece. Like our familiar grammar, logic and rhetoric, gymnastics had three progressions; on the ground, off the ground and self-defense. As with any other type of learning, the basics were taught first, building to higher order skills. The students would begin with simple movements on the ground. They would then repeat those same movements on balance beams, stall bars, rings and pull up bars. The movements would become more and more complex and multiple different movements would be put together to create patterns of movement. Rhythm, timing and moving in unison with other students were integral parts. Besides the obvious, life-long physical benefits, all of this constantly polished and improved the functioning of the entire nervous system.

Through modern science, we have learned that these activities greatly improve the functioning of the cerebellum, where a “brain-clock” exists. Mis-timing of that brain clock is implicated in everything from dyslexia to Parkinson ’s disease. Since all communication within the brain is routed through the primary motor-cortex, any improvement there results in more efficient processing in the rest of the brain. The importance of skillful movement can hardly be overstated. Thankfully, children delight in movement.

As children are mastering the grammar of movement, it is time to add the grammar of language. Children are intended to repeat the same songs, Scripture passages and books over and over. Repetition builds neural pathways. Repetition builds mastery. When directly taught, children take joy in reciting phoneme sounds and spelling rules. Simply daily drills give students the tools they need to decode new words instead of having to memorize hundreds of sight words.  

We can break the sounds of all of the languages (hidden within English) down into approximately 72 phonemes and 24 spelling rules. These can be taught with little explanation. I introduce each one by writing it and saying its sounds. I give an example word, ask them to write the phoneme in the air while repeating the sounds with me and…,  that’s it. We continue with “I say and you repeat” until they are able to repeat the sounds without me prompting them. In this way, we work through the alphabet and multi-letter phonograms. Every day, we recite the previously learned phonograms one at a time. Going through all of them takes less than 75 seconds. Children enjoy such predictable drills. 

For fun, we can repeat the phonograms in silly voices, while standing on one leg as the students take turns leading the chanting. The students often have ideas about how to make reviews fun and engaging. There are a million ways to keep learning interesting. The very best way to build new neural pathways in the brain is to repeat a phrase or action at high repetitions, to a rhythm (chanting/singing) using bi-lateral movement (both sides of the body – clapping, hopping, walking, pointing while crossing mid-line, etc.) This is a wonderful way to learn, for “repetition is the mother of memory.” With each passing day, the students build more confidence as they remember more and more of the phonemes.

Over time, we add in spelling rules. At first, we are only asking the students to recite the spelling rules. As they master repeating the rules, they will naturally begin to see the rules in action in words. We also point out the action of the rules within new words or words that seem tricky. This leads to discussion. We may talk about where the rule came from. Is it Latin or Greek? What other words follow this rule? When does this rule not apply? Isn’t this fun? How is this phoneme alike or different from other phonemes? What are different ways to spell this sound? How fascinating! Slowly, they begin to master the building blocks of language. All the while, we are incorporating physical development and pointing everything back to Christ.

We add in decoding skills, fluency drills and comprehension practice when the students are ready. One stage leads to the next while continually circling back around into deeper and deeper levels of understanding and mastery.

There is an important saying that shaped much of the classical world, “Make haste slowly.” It means that one must master the foundational skills of something before moving on to more difficult tasks. Mastering the building blocks of the English language should literally be child’s play. Preparing the nervous system, body and soul for such endeavors is a natural process that is hard-wired into human bodies when we don’t disrupt it. Childhood should be a time to develop a love of learning, to sing, explore and delight in the wonder of God’s creation. Let us return to a time when childhood songs, games, and play were the good and proper work of children.

Angelique Chaverri holds an MSEd in special education from Missouri State University and a BA in psychology from Southwest Baptist University. Angelique has spent her adult life working to understand the underpinnings of learning. After initial interests in physical therapy and neuropsychology, she found her way into special education. Four years after entering the public school system, Angelique went into private practice. She worked for a year in a learning clinic under a neuropsychologist before starting her own business in 2005. Angelique then began cross-training in various therapy modalities usually used by medically based therapists in hospitals and rehab clinics.

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