‘The behavioural neurologist Norman Geschwind suggested that for most children myelination of the angular gyrus region was not sufficiently developed till school age – that is, between five and seven years. Geschwind also hypothesised that myelination in these critical cortical regions develops more slowly in some boys; this might be one reason why more boys are slower to read fluently than girls. To be sure, our own research on language finds that girls are faster than boys until around age eight on many timed naming tasks.
Geschwind’s conclusions about when a child’s brain is sufficiently developed to read received support from a variety of cross-linguistic findings. The British reading researcher Usha Goswami drew my attention to a fascinating cross-language study by her group. They found across three different languages that European children who were asked to begin to learn to read at age five did less well than those who began to learn at age seven. What we conclude from this research is that the many efforts to teach a child to read before four or five years of age are biologically precipitate and potentially counterproductive for many children.
In reading readiness, as in life, there are always exceptions. … For children like (these), by all means let them read! For the rest, there are excellent biological reasons why reading comes in its own good time.’
Reading is the great milestone when it comes to children’s development; it’s the one thing we all want to happen, no matter how casual we appear about it.
Reading is not only important for easy access to adult life, it opens internal and external worlds to us that are harder (though by no means impossible) to access in other ways. It also just makes life easier, if not for the child then for those around them, who are freed up to scribble a note, wave at a bookcase or open up google instead of being on constant call to answer the ‘what does this say’ and ‘how can I get to…’ questions. There are far more learning opportunities open to the non-reader than you’d think from the typical focus placed on reading by schools; but in terms of independence, reading helps. And let’s face it, it’s a nice home ed tick-box to have when the doubting relatives start asking.
So, when we were at ‘that age’, reading was something I thought a lot about it. I was determined that this wouldn’t involve pushing; above all else I wanted the children to have the experience of deciding for themselves that reading was a thing they wanted to do, and then doing it. But how this would happen was fascinating to me. Phonics, whole-word recognition, ‘real’ books, easy readers, a gradual progression to fluency or a sudden shift… what really goes on when we make that barely-remembered leap?
The details of our and others’ experience is another post for another day (spoiler: it varies), but during this time I came across the fabulous ‘Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain’. It’s a book about the power of words, the neuroscience of reading development, the ways this process can be supported, and even a discussion of the ways in which reading may be changing along with the technology available to us… all my favourite things!
This is not a book that will tell you how to teach a particular child to read (though it will offer some useful ideas, and reassure you that all you do in the pre-reading stage – reading and listening to stories, having involved conversations, playing with songs and nursery rhymes – is immensely valuable). Wolf is also coming from a school environment point of view – while she recognises the influence parents have, she doesn’t consider the possibility that that could actually be enough, and that reading could develop outside of a formal teacher-led environment for everyone, not just in a few isolated early-reading examples.
Possibly she’s influenced in that by the experience she has dealing with children who have struggled to read. She’s involved in a dyslexia clinic and her own children also have dyslexia – a section of the book deals with the struggles and benefits of the dyslexic brain. She writes heartbreakingly about the way children with dyslexia still often struggle in school, despite all we now know about it (which is not, yet, as much as you’d hope). Again, it’s not a how-to in terms of dealing with dyslexia, more of a call to arms for a different way of viewing the issue, and more study into what is actually going on.
What this is, though, is a testament to the power of written language, and an insight into just how complex and amazing this thing called reading is. It might just make us think about what we are actually asking of our children when we expect them to do it on demand, rather than for their own reasons, in their own time. But it also reminds us why it’s worth the work – something that our children, growing up in a literate environment, can’t help but recognise too.