How Children Learn by John Holt. Initially published 1967, revised 1983.
When I first became interested in ‘non traditional’ methods of early childhood education, several sources directed me to the writings of John Holt. From a background of initially politics, then teaching in a range of schools and serving as a visiting lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, he became an early proponent of the homeschooling movement and had a key role in several important pieces of legislature. At the time of publication in 1967, his writings were seen as somewhat revolutionary.
Several key topics are covered: Learning about children; games and experiments; talk; reading; sports; art, math and other things; fantasy; the mind at work; and learning and love. Initially he starts by describing his observations of several young children with whom he was acquainted. He would simply watch, observe, look for patterns, describe what he saw. Some of this was familiar to me as a parent with young children; for example, how to one person a child may seem to be ‘fiddling’ whereas in fact they are trying to explore the world around them and make sense of this. He defies certain myths, such as that children have a short attention span (have you ever watched a young child who is utterly engrossed in something for a prolonged period?), or that children must not be let near precious or delicate things (he describes the way children would respond when given a typewriter, or when trying to produce a note on his cello).
But today, I want to discuss his ideas and observations regarding how a child learns to read. This is particularly relevant to me at present, as my two oldest boys (aged 4 and 3) are starting to recognise letters and words, and starting to show an interest in making their own letters and shapes with pencils and crayons. I have been wondering whether I should follow any particular method or curriculum to capture their current interest and excitement; in fact what I have read from John Hold steers me away from this line with a note of caution.
How do children learn?
Children learn as they start to make sense of the world around them. In terms of talking, this almost invariably involves a period of babbling, of trying out many different sounds to see which are recognisable, useful words. Similarly with reading and writing, there is often a time of experimenting, of testing boundaries, of seeing how things fit together; if an adult clumsily tries to force the child to do something a certain way, it can crush their confident explorations and may put them off the endeavour.
John Holt describes several young children who challenged his stereotypes of learning. He noted that nobody really understands how a child learns to read, but that they reach a point where a lot of new words can be deduced from context, their understanding of phonics (a bit more on that later!) and general recognition. He also describes some children who loved to 'read' even though they were either remembering the story, or making bits of it up from the pictures, but were adamant that they were 'reading'; this type of behaviour is positive, and should not be discouraged. One of my sons is currently doing this a lot, and is becoming very confident and pleased with his reading; it would not be right to tell him that he is not doing it correctly, as this will become clear to him in the fullness of time. For now, he is exploring in his own way the relationship between the black squiggles on the page, and the words he hears.
Why testing and questioning may be counter-productive
He cautions against frequently checking up on and ‘testing’ the child’s comprehension. Several key educationalists are quoted in their observations that children may be insulted by both the basic material they are expected to read, and the questions they are asked.
Children may answer questions incorrectly for several reasons. One may be ignorance of the subject matter. Or it may be that they feel the question cannot be so straightforward, and so do not trust their initial hunches. Others become anxious when feeling they are being tested, so give an incorrect answer; all of this may result in loss of confidence. This undermines the belief that children can be trusted to learn. One can easily see that in a classroom type setting, there is little option; large chunks of a curriculum must be covered, and there need be some way to determine whether the children are meeting the targets and jumping the hurdles; however, this approach can be counterproductive. I found this interesting, as my middle son will often give an incorrect answer when interrogated, when we know perfectly well that he does know the correct response. I wonder whether by asking too many questions, we are forcing him into such a category.
Motivation is key. What are we trying to achieve?
An important point is the child’s motivation. Are reading and writing simply skills which must be acquired, or are they invaluable tools which enable communication with others in the world? There is a vast gulf of difference between the two.
Reading should be a fun process for everybody involved. It is the transfer of information; it is not merely an end in itself. ‘Even children who like being read aloud to don’t like it when the parents don’t like it’. ‘There’s no reason to feel that we must always read aloud to little children from ‘easy’ books that they can ‘understand’. If we are reading something we like, with great expression and pleasure, a child may well like it... After all, children like hearing adults talk, even though they can’t understand much or all of it.’
‘When they learn in their own way and for their own reasons, children learn so much more rapidly and effectively than we could possibly teach them... we can afford to throw away our curricula and timetables, and set them free, at least most of the time, to learn on their own’ . Interestingly, in the 1983 edition, with another 16 years of educational experience behind him, Holt reflects, ‘I would now say, ‘all of the time’. Children do not need to be made to learn, told what to learn, or shown how. If we give them access to enough of the world, including our own lives and work in that world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to us and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than we could make for them’.
Concerns about phonic-based approaches
And this is one reason why some of the modern phonics approaches are not helpful; rather than consisting of engaging stories with rich, challenging vocabulary, these texts tend to include repetitive sounds and syllables, and often a storyline which is unexciting, unrealistic and which does not capture the imagination of the child. It is interesting to note that Holt wrote in 1967, before phonics had become such a big thing in primary education. However it is clear that he could see a worrying trend and I wonder what on earth he would have made of some of the materials in existence today. I hear echoes of Charlotte Mason, as she describes ‘twaddle’ and ‘stultefying’ materials, again, many years ago.
‘If, as is more and more true of school reading books, there is no meaning in the text, just a few easy words repeated in almost nonsensical ways over and over again, or if, as is also too often true, whatever meaning there is in the text seems uninteresting, unreal, and false, children will either refuse to read the text at all or, by changing words in it, will ‘correct’ it to make it more interesting and true.’
I’ve had my own concerns about phonics for some time, but it helps to read some of these clearly articulated by one who has studied early childhood education in depth. A valuable quotation is that ‘children who read well certainly know a lot of ‘phonics’, but they have probably learned at least as much phonics from words as they have learned words from phonics. No one taught me that the letters PH say the sounds ‘fff’. I figured it out, probably from hard words like ‘photograph’ and ‘telephone’.
Challenges with strict curricula and inflexible timetables
Another observation is that children are able to recognise their own mistakes, and going back to their basic principles, can often correct these; however this process takes time (and a variable time in different children) and so in a classroom type setting, there may be insufficient time and space to allow this process to occur. ‘If a child cannot correct his mistake immediately, someone else will correct it for him’.
‘One of the most important things teachers can do for any learner is to make the learner less and less dependent on them’.
‘Many children learn to read like Scout Finch, heroine of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. She learned by sitting in her father’s lap while he read to her aloud, following with her eyes the words as he read them. After a while she found she knew a lot of them and from what she knew, had enough information or intuition about phonics so that she could start figuring out words for herself’.
The observations are often very simple and commonsense; Holt does remark upon the culture of mainstream education, whereby it is assumed that the school system and teachers are right, and that we should not question what goes on within educational establishments. However, taking a simple step backwards and looking at the bigger picture, looking at how our own children learn, we see a voice of reason standing out against the prevailing trends of society. And to re-iterate, this book was initially written nearly 50 years ago. I do wonder what Hold would have made of today’s rigid curricula, heavy use of simplified techniques including phonics, and the frequent requirement to undergo testing, even at primary school level. It is as though all of his wisdom has been overlooked by the mainstream educators, and as the author points out, possibly correctly, the wellbeing of each individual child is not the primary motivating factor as regards political decisions relating to education. But I will not delve into politics here!
‘If from the start they could think of writing as a way of saying something, and reading as a way of knowing what others are saying, they would read and write with much more interest and excitement’.
And in terms of curricula, of anxiety about the attainment of specific milestones at set times, he first illustrates several examples of children who appeared to be ‘late’ in attaining a certain stage, but in fact later excelled, but also remarks that ‘we act as if children were railroad trains running on a schedule’. They learn in fits and starts. And when there is a real interest and desire, much can be accomplished quickly; the converse also being true.
In summary, through reading this section of John Holt’s book, I am both encouraged and challenged as I consider how we are teaching reading to our sons.
Things that we will continue:
· 1) Reading out loud to them, often, using books they have chosen
· 2) Reading the ‘adult’ Bible rather than a simplified version (both linguistically and spiritually, I see important reasons not to go for a simplified or potentially diluted version)
· 3) Regular visits to the library
· 4) Starting some stories which do not have pictures
Things that I may change/ work on:
· 1) Give a little more time for the children to read ‘by themselves’; as they concentrate on the words of a familiar storybook, they may well be working out the words and systems for themselves
· 2) Reading some of my favourite childhood stories; immediately Tolkien springs to mind (I remember being mocked by my schoolmates for reading Lord of the Rings when I was seven, but as John Holt argues, there is no need to put literature into age brackets)
· 3) Trying to ask fewer testing type questions and give them a little more space to learn by themselves
· 4) Not comparing to others! I’ve linked to some helpful blog posts about this issue, but it is a temptation!