A Word A Day

Those familiar with Glenn Doman know he insists that the easiest time to teach a child to read is in the years before he or she is school age. He says it is easier to teach a child to read at four than at five, at three than at four, at two than at three, and at one than at two. He says that once a child is five or six years old, the window for ease of learning has passed, and while it is possible to teach reading once a child is of an age to be in school, it will not be done as quickly or as painlessly as it could have been done earlier. My parents were not familiar with Doman or his work, but they did teach me to read early. They just saw it as part of a natural progression, and not something unusual or mysterious. I believe that their approach gave reading consistently positive associations for me, and avoided the stress that is often part of learning to read in school.

Interestingly, they say that they did not actively teach me letters. They just happened to watch Wheel of Fortune in the evenings, and they say that I was fascinated by it and learned the letters by seeing Vanna turn them. I do not remember this. My father points out that Wheel of Fortune uses an almost ideal teaching method– someone clearly says the letter, then the letter is shown. Eventually someone reads what the letters spell. They did not realize that I was making connections between written letters, their sounds, and words until one day I looked at the cover of a baby book and said “B-A-B-Y. Baby!” My mother was shocked, because no one had gone over letter sounds or making words with me. Thanks, Pat and Vanna.

This falls right in with Doman’s theory. He says that when very young children are shown written words, and when those words are pronounced clearly, the child will begin to figure out the sounds associated with letters on his or her own. This is why he advocates using the whole word method with babies and moving to phonics when children are older. Phonics are essential– he just contends that older children are more suited to phonetic learning, and that children who were introduced to words as young babies will have much of it figured out and have an easier time learning phonics when they are older.

The next thing my parents did, and something common to many parents, was to label things in the house so that I could see the words. So at one time a visitor to our house would have been greeted with helpful signs: “chair”, “table”, “wall”, “cabinet” etc. There was even a label on the ceiling.

Once the household words were old hat, my father began doing something that I think helped me tremendously in building vocabulary and learning how to spell. Every day he brought me a new word written on an index card. My job was to learn the meaning of the word and how to spell it by the next day. Upon demonstrating that I knew the word and its spelling I was given a new one. This was a delightfully fun game, and I waited eagerly each day for my new word. This ‘word a day’ game laid a broad vocabulary foundation for me which gave me much more confidence once I got to school. My father says that he could have started bringing me words earlier, he just didn’t think of it until I was almost four years old.

Doman would agree– children can learn written words from the time they are babies! And new words don’t have to be introduced one at a time. The younger a child is, Doman contends, the faster the child learns and the more– and more quickly– words can be introduced. A child who reads early is not more gifted than a child who does not read early. The early reader has just been given the tools to be able to do so. I am really grateful to my parents for providing an environment that was conducive to learning to read naturally and painlessly. I am excited about providing the same opportunity for my child from infancy.

Education and Personhood

One of the highest priorities for me as I anticipate the birth of my child is his or her education. I believe that a real education grants access to the collected discoveries and achievements of mankind. It also invites one to further those discoveries and achievements. This has been called entering in to the “great conversation” that links those who lived before with those living now and those who will live in the future. Essentially, a person who has been given access to education enters fully into the human experience.

That all sounds abstract, and I am interested in the concrete methods and benefits of offering my child a chance to become an educated person. Mortimer Adler said that to become an educated person is a lifelong endeavor, and a diploma is not the end, but merely a recognition that one has the tools needed to be a lifelong learner. To think that education is accomplished by the age of eighteen or twenty-two, he asserts, is to accept an emaciated imposter and to miss out on the real and beautiful original. Working from this view I see clearly that I am not an educated person, and my desire to pursue authentic education over the course of my lifetime is ignited. I also see that my experience in American public schools did not prepare me to be a life long learner, or even seek to foster that desire.

Unfortunately, the goal of K-12 schooling seems always to be to get into college. The goal of college seems to be to get a good job. I have nothing against employment, but when this is the main focus of sixteen or more years of one’s life it becomes an impoverished end. Shouldn’t the main focus of schooling, from early childhood through graduate school, be the development of the person?

Free and equal public education is a noble idea. Sadly, the education system in place where I live is not living up to that worthy goal. I truly believe that my time in the public schools stunted me intellectually and socially, and I have spent years undoing the damage. I can not in good conscience entrust the formation of my child’s mind and character to a system that I believe to be deeply flawed. What, then, are the alternatives? Private and parochial schools have much the same structure as the public schools. Some may be more rigorous, but they are based on the same system. I would consider a Montessori school, but the cost is very often prohibitive. I do not know much about Waldorf schools, but they do intrigue me and I will investigate them further. As of right now I am planning to take responsibility for my child’s education on myself. This does not mean that I think I am an extraordinary teacher, or that I have all of the answers. I do believe that I can provide my child with a better philosophy of education and the goal of human life than traditional schools. Due to the sad outcomes for high school graduates, I feel that I can afford my child a better chance at academic proficiency than can a public school.

I do want the public schools to improve. Unfortunately whenever education reform is discussed the answer seems to be to increase the education budget and/or increase classroom time. Spending more time and more money on the same flawed system will not improve results for students. I can not gamble with something as vital as my child’s education. I hope the public school system is one day improved, but I believe that will only happen once more and more families opt out.

I don’t like the term “home schooling”, because to me it implies that learning best takes place in a school and that school is being replicated at home. I believe the opposite: learning is an essential and natural part of life and schools exist to make it easier to provide large groups of people with access to that essential and natural learning. A school is a tool, not an end in itself. So, I prefer to say that I will take full responsibility for my child’s education. There are many curricula available for “home schooling” families, most of which I don’t like. I had decided to build my own curriculum, but then I found the Great Books Academy and its sister program the Angelicum Academy. Both programs are essentially the same, the Great Books Academy being secular and the Angelicum Academy being Catholic. The difference is that the Angelicum Academy adds Catholic materials to the curriculum. The core remains the same, based on a “good books” literature program for younger students and a great books program for high school. The core program was designed in conjunction with Mortimer Adler. This is the kind of curriculum I was hoping to put together, but I would not have been able to come up with something nearly as good or thorough. I am currently reading through the whole curriculum so that I can make an informed decision as to whether this is the route I want to take with my child’s education. I can say, though, that finding this curriculum brought real hope to me.

Has anyone out there found a good educational alternative? What works for you?