Monday, April 13, 2015

How to Overcome a Modern Disadvantage to Learning How to Read

How to Overcome a Modern Disadvantage to Learning How to Read 
 (article length)

I am probably preaching to the choir (again.) But from the comments I’ve received over the years, I know you don’t mind.

On the first warm day of spring the Man-of-the-House treated us with frozen custard at “The Meadows” in Strasburg. Their custard is rich and creamy-scrumptious. Near the ceiling of this little ice cream parlor is a wide-screen TV. While my scoop of rich vanilla was disappearing I said, “Oh, this must be one of those house make-over programs. My menfolk looked up and nodded.

I watched. A man spoke a few words. Then scenes appeared in lightening-sequence. The new owners were demolishing the old kitchen cabinets. Splintered wood crashed to the floor in a cloud of dust. A moment later the wife was picking out wallpaper and paint colors. “What was that color they chose? I didn’t catch it,” I said to my menfolk. “I guess I’ll find out when the show starts.”

“Mom, this is the show,” my adult son said.

“You mean this isn’t the sneak-preview introduction?” I queried.

“No,” he said. “It’s the way shows are made these days. Everything flickers and flashes. I can’t watch it.”

“Neither can I,” I said, disappointed. It jarred my senses. I turned my attention to my melting custard and gazed out a window at the blue sky over the parking lot. 

“How do they film it?” my son wondered, thinking out loud. He was already crunching on his cone.

“Good question,” I said, “It must be a piece-of-work to cut and paste all those separate segments rather than rolling the camera.”

The Man-of-the-House added, “Rolling” is a word associated with film-making of the past.” I felt old.

Today, children aren’t watching the camera roll. What is being made for them (for all of us) is a choppy presentation of individual images on a screen. And with computer games children themselves are in control of the fast-paced animation – a deeply satisfying experience of creating the next and next new experience - a continual feast of novelty. 

I sympathize with this generation of home teachers. Never before has there been such a big disadvantage to teaching a child how to read. The disadvantage is in the form of a multiplicity of irresistible screens. Yet, beautiful books and quality audio are in abundance. Can screens affect the ability of a child to focus on lessons? Children naturally learn at different paces even without any such thing as screens but those who closely study how children learn say “yes.” They see a correlation.

a disadvantage to reading

A lack of focus and ability to remember are symptoms of a child spending regular time riveted to fast-paced entertainment. Many television programs and computer games grab attention by a heightened sensory experience. The viewers give involuntary attention. Attention is seized by exaggerated animation – portraying a distorted use of force (slapstick), bold sound effects, dazzling explosions of color, blasts of music, a wide range of emotions – all in a cacophony of vignettes that change hurriedly. It might be surprising to learn that among all this busyness brains are passive while the screen is active. Furthermore, when children are acclimated to the over-stimulation of screens they are set on habits that are antagonistic to academic learning.

Voluntary attention is the kind needed to learn how to read. Dr. Jane M. Healy says,

“Reading involves sustained voluntary attention from a mind that can hold a train of thought long enough to reflect on it, not one accustomed to having its attention jerked around every few seconds.” *1

In comparison to viewing, reading is a slow business. It isn’t instant access to ideas or instant gratification. Accustomed to the “instant” a child may be restless at lessons. He gets impatient with himself. He gives up if he doesn’t immediately get it. Ideas picked up from reading do not seize the reader’s mind like entertainment does. Words on a page stand still. The very fact that they are stationary and not calling attention to themselves make it difficult for some children to focus.

A Skill Developed in Slow Tempo

children's early readers
Photograph by Michael Drummond

The early readers I gave my children have one sentence per page and one picture. The words and pictures are stationary. But the characters are active. A mini plot unfolds with action. A sort of animation is encouraged and launched in the mind of the reader by the vivid verbs in the sentences. Described and pictured in the story might be a dog with its snout wide open, barking at a cat. A boy runs making energetic strides in mid-air in his brand new sneakers. Dad hammers nails as he builds his children a tree house. The children, all smiles, climb into it. They also ride bicycles, throw snowballs, blow out candles on a birthday cake, etc.

With each reading lesson an important critical skill is gaining power. I don’t mean the decoding of phonic blends or the recognition of sight-words (although this is necessary work, too – and basic). The skill I’m talking about is imagining. With each lesson the ability to imagine gains power. This important skill is what holds the interest of a reader – at this slow tempo. The fruit of this skill, developed by slowness, is mental perseverance.


Screens make the power to imagine unnecessary. All the work is done for us. With reading the act of imagining not only keeps the reader connected with the text “but also it is a very practical way to keep track of and remember what has been read.” *2 This is why reading aloud to children, for some years prior to reading lessons, is immensely helpful. Children need lots and lots of good slow exposure to language. It starts them developing their powers of imagination as their minds create pictures from the words read to them – pictures other than those in the picture books. It gives them experience at projecting things and animating things - on “the screen of imagination.”*3

Later children will read books with no pictures. Living books for history and science as well-written fiction, will contain sensory language: words and phrases that describe action, sounds, colors, smells, textures, and emotions. All this must be interpreted by our brains in our imagination.*4

Some children have the ability to bend their brains around the written word, easily. It magically makes sense. They piece together phonic clues, nouns, verbs and pictures, within the grammar of a simple sentence. Others, including bright children, have a hard time of it. Readiness and ability vary greatly. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay says that reading lessons “should be carried out in a friendly, quiet, regular, and structured way. A child should never be made to feel that he is lagging behind others of his age.”*5

Patience Does More Than Push

Turning seven - Maryland - April 1996

Given the same lessons some students, boys for one, will crawl forward and not without much effort. Such was the case with my son. (I had taught two girls before him.) Patience was my friend. Practice was his. But it must be interesting practice. I remember sitting beside Nigel on the sofa daily, listening to him read aloud, around the age of 7 to 8. I tried not to sigh or interrupt (unless I was asked a word). I tried to not let my thoughts race ahead to all the many other things needing attending-to before lunch. I sat back comfortably and enjoyed the experience. He took his time within a reasonably short lesson. He could relate to the characters and plot of the little story. They held his interest. The sense of accomplishment he derived from his effort was a quiet happiness for both of us. From what has reached my ears over the last 30 years this crawling-issue with boys is not uncommon – even up to the age of ten or so. Slow is a legitimate "way to go."

Miss Charlotte Mason says,

We forget how contrary to nature it is for a little child to occupy himself with dreary hieroglyphics – all so dreadfully alike! – when the world is teeming with interesting objects which he is agog to know. But we cannot excuse our volatile Tommy, nor is it good for him that we should. It is quite necessary he should know how to read; and not only so – the discipline of the task is altogether wholesome for the little man. At the same time, let us recognize that learning to read is to many children hard work, and let us do what we can to make the task easy and inviting.*6

Limited Animation - A Step-down

In the pre-computer, pre-gadget days, I learned that television had an affect on a child’s ability to focus during lessons. Therefore, I was careful. I rationed screen-time like I rationed sweets. I developed ear-skills over eye skills with reading aloud, conversation, singing, music and audio. And the outdoors was a sensory experience for them.

When we lived in England (1980s) my little girls watched limited animation such as the early BBC TV Postman Pat. Years later my son watched the early Thomas Tank Engine videos narrated by Ringo Starr. Both of these (stop-motion) programs have since been “improved” for modern viewers. A favorite of ours is the British clay-mation film Wind in the Willows (based on Kenneth Grahame's classic story). We enjoyed, too, the television series with further adventures made up about Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger. We had books with all of these story characters.

Although they are becoming rarer in the U.S.A. you can still find copies of Wind in the Willows and The Tales of Beatrix Potter (another favorite of ours) on DVD. (Look for versions that are region 1 - U.S.A. compatible). Beautifully produced these programs are a decided step-down compared to today’s techno utopia.

When the children were older on Friday evening we'd watch an old movie together as a family – with popcorn. If you asked my children what Saturday morning cartoons are, they couldn’t tell you. Although I tried to use video sparingly I was discrete. I followed guidelines I made up for myself. It was just how we lived.

Arm Yourself

bored children, creativity
In March our grandsons were digging for diamonds in their front garden.

You might decide that you would like your child be more screen-deprived than he is. Consequently, he may experience symptoms of withdraw.

First, arm yourself with the notion that it is okay for people (adults and children) to be uncomfortably bored, even bored stiff.

Second, it is okay to make messes. Cleaning up afterwards is a worthwhile activity too. It’s training in orderliness.

Active, creative brains bounce back and forth between boredom and creativity.

A list of alternative activities will suggest themselves to you. Recently, the Man-of-the-House and I were driving along a country road between two wide fields. The wind was blowing steadily across them. “This would be the perfect place and the perfect day for a kite,” he said. I agreed. When we returned home I decided kite-flying would add a light touch to the end of a serious article and found a painting by John George Brown. His children seem to have kite-flying-clumsiness in common with Charlie Brown, don’t they?

End Notes
Lavender Sachets
*1, 2, 3   Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., Endangered Minds – from the insightful chapter: “Sesame Street and the Death of Reading,” pages 231, 232.

*4  Exercises in recognizing and writing with sensory language are provided in my book Story Starters – for 4th grade up to high school.

*5  Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake, page 36. I have an autographed copy.

*6  Charlotte Mason, Home Education, page 214 The chapter on reading could be quite helpful to you.

Lavender Strawberries
Here you see Stacey’s Lavender Strawberry Sachets. Her mother sent her a kit for Christmas. It looks like Stacey is getting ready to make another set of sachets with the pretty fabric on her table in colors also in keeping with springtime. Thank you, Stacey, for sending us your photograph. You’ve brightened my day.

Feel free to share my article with this generation of concerned mothers.
If you like to read product reviews see below.

Until next time,
Karen Andreola 

Captivated – finding freedom in a media captive culture

Review by Karen Andreola

After viewing Captivated several years back and reviewing it for CBD I went on a buying spree. I bought a quantity to share. I’ve since given them all away.

Its message urges us to establish screen-time guidelines. Technology is a good thing but caution is needed. Christians and unbelievers alike are recognizing the powerful pull media has over the behavior of young children, teens and adults. The influence of screens, media and gadgetry is stronger than we like to think. Beginning with our littlest and most impressionable children it can quickly produces both aggressiveness and inattentiveness. It can distract teens and adults enough to mar productivity and hinder spiritual well-being.

If we humbly look how captivated we’ve become by screens we’ll be more open to heed the warning to control them so that they do not control us. Authors, pastors and people in different walks of life, reasonably and candidly share why to unplug. Although many a tragic story of serious addiction could be told, it is not told here. In this message reason, not sensationalism, pleads with us to make choices – big or small.

Media can drive a wedge in relationships as it isolates us in our own little worlds. And yet, seeing the faces of our friends on-line makes us “feel” sociable. How far we’ve come from the days of neighborhood play and of talking over the fence.

After listening to the comments in the extended interviews a conviction arose in my heart. I sought to make application to my own life. I enjoy visiting blogs and window shopping online but chose to unplug at least one or two days a week. May the message of Captivated be a blessing to you.