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Early Homeschooling Can Save American Schools

Teaching toddlers to read at home is the silver bullet for school reform.

Successful Schools

This week Diane Ravitch wrote of miracles and revealed the solution to school reform in America in one sentence: "Families are children's most important educators." America can erase the achievement gap and raise test scores if we retool the child's first reading teacher--the parents. (Perhaps we should fire some of them as well.) The key is starting at home with baby/toddler reading. It's a miracle that can work!

In "Waiting for a School Miracle" (Op-Ed New York Times, May 31, 2011), Ravitch dropped a bomb on President Obama and No Child Left Behind. Case by case she showed that the very schools Obama is touting as successes in his speeches aren't really working. But the ending of her essay is what got my attention: "The achievement gap between children from different income levels exists before children enter school." So why not fix it at the source?

Baby/Toddler Reading Directly Connects to School Reform

Kindergarten is ground zero for America's achievement gap. Forty-three percent of American children enter kindergarten not ready for success with reading and writing. This unequal playing field is littered with poor black and Hispanic children. They often enroll in their 4's as the youngest children in the kindergarten classroom because their parents can't afford to hold them back or pay for an additional year of day care if they are working. On the first day of school, these children can't write their name or tell about a favorite book. They may not have had experiences drawing a picture, holding a pencil, or answering who, what, when, where, and how questions. If they went to preschool, too often it was glorified babysitting. These kids don't have the 16,000 word vocabularies typical of 6-year-olds from affluent homes where parents talk to their children positively and read to them often.

With testing mania driving the American curriculum, these kids enter a kindergarten where play, socialization, music, and art are forsaken for formal reading instruction. Yet the brain of a 4-year-old isn't ready for the kind of formal reading instruction that greets them in kindergarten. That's why wise wealthy parents hold their children back until they are 6 or 6½. So you get the 4½-year-old nonreader in the same class as the 6-year-old who is already reading first-grade-level books or higher. Or more likely you get clusters of similarly unprepared or prepared kids in different schools, depending on the neighborhood. The affluent neighborhood kindergarten is where the kids are well prepared. We're sending our poor kids to kindergarten ready to struggle and fail. This being said, it takes less than a miracle to get them school ready if we start early.

Any Parent Can Teach Their Child to Read

A revolutionary shift is occurring in the field of baby/toddler reading. Rather than believing that children who read early are exceptional outliers, experts are now recognizing that early reading may really be the norm if parents know what to do and have a few easy tools. The learning is joyful and intuitive as opposed to the direct explicit instruction needed for a 6-year-old nonreader. Baby/toddler readers thrive on early brain capacity for perceiving patterns, memory recognition, novelty preference, repetition, imitation, and word learning. "Lessons" are joyful interactions with parents, of short duration, where bonding is the goal and early reading a fringe benefit. The instruction goes beyond reading aloud but it requires only five or ten minutes a day, five days a week. Parents who don't speak English would need some support.

Unlike formal instruction in school, baby reading doesn't begin with learning the alphabet; it begins with recognizing words. Flash techniques and multisensory approaches are time-tested for babies and toddlers. A baby-sensitive curriculum makes it easy to slowly move from words, to couplets, to phrases, to sentences, to easy and happy picture books. Enthusiasm, attention, imitation, and fun drive the curriculum--no testing! The five-minute process is engaging for the child and easy for the parent. Technology may make early word reading, which jumpstarts more sophisticated reading, even easier. Imagine cuddling with baby to do the word slides on the computer.

Good Uses of Technology

Click. There's variation. (Remember novelty preference? Baby loves variation.) The Mom card has a picture of Mom. The This is Mom! card has her voice. A cursor lights up the word as the word is repeated on the screen. Customization personalizes the lesson. The key to success is keeping your baby/toddler's attention.

The ability to download brings extra content to your fingertips. Remember novelty preference, recognition memory, and pattern recognition? Your son wants the dinosaur cards? Click. You got them. You daughter wants the alphabet song? Click, choose from many versions. You want cat cards with pictures and names? Snap, chick. There's Buzz. Snap, click. There's Ghost. Snap, click. There's Miss Kitty. Five minutes of this and you are ready to move on, but your child loves it.

How Does It Work?

We all know it's easy for a child to pick up two languages between birth and age 3 and it's harder for them to learn two new languages at age 6 or after. If a wife and a husband speak Spanish and English to their child from birth to age 3, the 3-year-old amazes everyone when she goes to the Spanish-speaking grandparent's home and speaks Spanish, but naturally switches to English at the English-speaking grandparent's house. She just picks it up--no one really knows exactly how she did it. There are few research studies proving that she can, but she does.

After thirty years of experience in teaching beginning reading, I now believe it's easier to teach baby/toddler readers joyfully and informally than it is to teach a 6-year-old nonreader formally through the slogging toil of beginning reading instruction in school. Do babies and toddlers have a special right-brain capacity to read words that is lost by age 6? We don't know. But we do know there are many 2- and 3-year-old readers who intuit phonics and decode unknown words. They aren't just "exceptional" babies. They simply have exceptional parents who teach them at home. These parents are the outliers. We need a generation of American parents just like them to fix the achievement gap. Who ever knew that homeschooling would fix our schools! Ravitch is right. Families are children's most important educators. Baby/toddler reading is the miracle that can save our schools.

(Dr. Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write--from Baby to Age 7. Available on Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.)

Raising Confident Readers
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