J. Richard Gentry Ph.D.

Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers

3-R’s Prepare Preschoolers for Olympics or Harvard

Find out what parents need to do to teach any important skill.

Posted Nov 02, 2012

USA Gymnastics Hall of Famer Garland O’Quinn, a member of the 1960 Rome Olympics USA gymnastics team and distinguished professor of kinesiology, taught me that preparation for the Olympics or raising an academic genius can start in preschool with 3 R’s. Dr. O’Quinn and I independently discovered that preschoolers learn to throw a ball much like they learn to read. If you want to raise an Olympic champion, academic genius, or just a smart, well-balance child, start in preschool with 3 R’s that all parents and teachers need to know.

3 Baby/Toddler Steps in Learning and Developing Skills

The 3 R’s can be demonstrated in three simple steps for both ball throwing and reading that Dr. O’Quinn describes in his book chapter entitled “Learning and the Development of Skill.” While Dr. O’Quinn deals mainly with bodily kinesthetic intelligence, I found that linguistic intelligence and early reading emerge from the very same experience:

 1)      Repetition (Recurring Experience)

“Children can learn almost any skill that is required day after day or that brings about a highly desired result.”—Dr. O’Quinn

Whether the skill is ball throwing or reading, the first step is exposure—over and over. “The child examines a ball, it rolls away, and she is off to another adventure,” Dr. O’Quinn remarks. He says that children are born with natural curiosity and interest in the world around them; they are attracted to almost everything in their environment. We may think they are easily distracted or not interested. But just as you can walk through the mall and ignore thousands of interesting products until you find what you are shopping for—the new line of Coach bags on Level 2 next to Neiman Marcus which you know from having been there—a very young child’s attention can be focused through recurring experience. 

Help focus your child’s attention by repeated exposure to important learning experiences. Put the ball in the toy box and roll it to the toddler and watch him grab for it. Play this game over and over just for fun. It’s a bonding experience. Read the bedtime story aloud every night for just five or ten minutes and talk about the story as if the baby understood. When she starts to babble back, say “That’s right, ‘da, da, da, da, da,’” and repeat the same sounds the baby made. This focuses her attention. Let her pull the board book out of the toy box and explore it with her lips because lips are great for exploring even before eyesight is fully developed. Read that favorite book over and over even though you already read it one hundred times. She likes it and she likes your attention. These recurring experiences with books lead to deeper and deeper levels of recognition just as recurring experiences with the ball leads to motor intelligence.

2)      Recognition

“Recognition marks the beginning of skill development.” “Each time a child comes back to a previously experienced task new elements of understanding can be added.”—Dr. O'Quinn

Benefits of reading the same story to your child promotes recognition, the emergence of understanding, and the beginnings of reading skill. The first time you read Good Night Moon to your one-day-old baby he/she may focus on the rhythm and cadence of your voice. Within three days he will recognize that it’s you. In later readings sounds and lip movements are recognized that he or she will try to imitate. Grammar and vocabulary emerge in the patterns of language as your child begins to take in data and organize his brain according to the patterns in the grammar of the language you are speaking. By 9 months of age she may even be noticing patterns in words. You’ll experience her recognition and understanding of first words and marvel at her capacity for new concepts. Babies are  smart and they are constantly picking up on patterns recognized from recurring experiences.

Repeated reading of the same book helps the baby brain reinforce already laid-down circuitry and make new connections. These shared book experiences elicit discoveries on a plethora of levels—all important for the development of reading skill: your child is learning about sounds, words, book handling, and book concepts such as where the front of the book is and which way is right-side up. Finger-point reading helps the child’s eyes and brain focus attention on the voice to print match. When you point to the word that begins with a sound just like her name you are teaching phonics. Baby will find more things to notice and discover with every reading.

All these early levels of recognition lay a foundation for higher levels of understanding, meaning and accomplishment. Comprehension spirals upward: “Oh, this story has a beginning, middle, and an ending.”  Recognition grows from pointing to the pictures and responding to “Where is the cow?” or “Where are the bears?” to having the child explain that the story is really about a little rabbit getting ready for bed and that as the room gets darker and more quite, it’s time to go to sleep. The child eventually feels the lovely, soothing and peaceful gentleness of the story and has empathy for the little rabbit. She loves the rabbit and  thinks, “That rabbit is just like me.”

The repeated reading of Good Night Moon during the baby/toddler’s first three years of life can move from voice and sound recognition to deep levels of meaning and emotion. The first exposures are simple, unfamiliar, unrelated, unexplored activities but repeating them often moves the child to deeper and deeper levels of recognition. By age three— possibly 300 readings later—the child can read Good Night Moon back to you by memory. By the end of first grade the child can read chapter books or pop t-balls out of the park using coordinated skills that developed over time from added-on linguistic or motor requirements, respectively.

3)      Reorganizing Brain Circuitry—Anticipation

“After the task has been recognized further accumulation of experience will create an alignment so that the mind can anticipate the needed actions.” –Dr. O’Quinn

Reorganization or realignment of brain circuitry is a requirement for learning any new skill. At each intervening skill level the child anticipates motor actions for throwing or creates the ability to anticipate how word’s work in reading. Cognitive science tells us that the firing of the reading neurons become increasing more selective with repeated activity and new recognitions, and these cells apparently being to communicate with neurons across the brain in language areas connecting reading with understanding. Something similar happens with sports and motor skills.

3 R’s for Developing Skills in Early Word Reading

When your child learns something new, he or she has developed new synapses or rearranged circuitry with new connections. A specific reorganization process for beginning word reading has been mapped out scientifically. It happens in 5 phases moving from seeing a printed word and guessing (Phase 0), to finally chunking English letters into complex phonics patterns (Phase 4) allowing skilled English readers to read words such as eight, Bordeaux, ghost, and laugh with ease.

When we zoom in on the very young child as a word reader and look at what skill he is using, researchers see five explicit occurrences of brain circuitry reorganization. At each phase described below notice how the child attempts to engage in word reading and anticipates that words are read a particular way, but after recurring experience his or her recognition moves to a more sophisticated level of thinking:

5 Early Skill Levels in Word Reading Followed by Mental Reorganization

Skill Set for Phase 0: The child sees and says a word without knowledge of sounds and letters. She might point to the word Crest on the tube and exclaim “This says ‘toothpaste!’”

Skill Set for Phase 1: After learning to write her name a child understands that “words” have “letters” but she doesn’t know that letters represent sounds. She still uses arbitrary cues such as the golden arches for reading McDonald’s.

Skill Set for Phase 2: The child learns letter/sound correspondences at the beginnings of a few words and begins to pay attention to them. The d in dog may cue “dog.” Anticipating that d in dog cues “dog,” the Phase 2 reader will say that dot, did, and dud also  say “dog.” Research confirms this phase of partial phonemic awareness.

Skill Set for Phase 3: The child can supply a sound for each letter and decode (read) or encode (write) with a letter for each sound: /c/, /ă/, /t/; says cat, and /r/,/ă/, /t/ says rat. In the same phase, NIT spells night and KAM spells came.  Paying attention to all letters and sounds in a word comes in the Phase 3 alignment and  reorganization of  brain circuitry for reading. But, in fact, English doesn’t always work by supplying a letter for each sound. The child must eventually realign once again with a new theory that recognizes and anticipates that English words are chunks of spelling patterns.

Skill set for Phase 4: The child recognizes over 100 one-syllable words on sight and automatically recognizes scores of letter combinations that are the chunking patterns of English. Interesting is read in-ter-est-ing: That’s how English works. Phase 4 is when children can become proficient independent readers—their brain reads just like your brain reads. They still have lots to learn. They are spelling everywhere as EVREWHAIR and united as YOUNIGHTED because spelling correctly is harder than reading due to the complex chunking patterns of English.

So from age one or two until learning to read independently the child has repeated experience, recognition, and reorganization allowing him to realigned his theory of reading from 1) guessing, to 2) arbitrary cues, to 3) cueing on beginning sounds, to 4) a sound for each letter, and finally to 5) sounding out unknown words in chunks. Each phase requires accumulated experience and realignment of brain circuitry offering growing levels of competence. In each phase the child experiences the 3 R’s: repetition, recognition, and reorganization.

Dr. O’Quinn and I had a meeting of the minds when we realized that both developing the motor requirements for throwing a ball and word reading work the same way, namely, in a spiraling staircase model of learning where the child begins by mastering a simple concept. As information is reintroduced or repeated, the child is able to build responses at gradually more complex levels of understanding leading to greater accomplishment. For preschoolers this is accomplished largely by repetition, recognition and reorganization in a happy bonding context and not through force or formal instruction.

How do parents enhance this kind of learning? What should you do to become your child’s first reading coach or put him or her on the path to Olympic glory? Dr. O’Quinn and I will answer that question in a future post.

Click here to read "Learning and the Development of Skill" by Garland O'Quinn, PhD.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.

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