Did you need a book outlining the latest methods for teaching a child to walk? Barring a physical or neurological delay, the vast majority of children learn to walk with little fanfare and certainly without a well-implemented lesson plan. This is often to the chagrin of a new mother not ready to have her house taken over by a roaming toddler. Yet, they walk because they have used the powers of intuitive learning to see that people walk and how to do it.
However, once we label an activity as "academic" and worthy of instruction, our belief in intuitive learning flies out the window. How can a child learn to read without being taught and drilled in phonics rules? Surprisingly, they learn to read in much the same way they learned to walk, to talk, to have a conversation, and to ride a bike.
How can we use the power of intuitive learning to help our struggling readers in a way that harnesses their innate desire and capacity to learn?
Intuitive Learning as Building Blocks
Research shows that children learn to read by taking what they already know and then adding to it. All new knowledge needs to start from what is known. Think about the process when babies learn to speak. The babies have spent nine months in the womb. During that time, they've heard their parents' voices. The famous Cat in the Hat study showed that when mothers read to their babies in utero, after birth, the babies not only recognized their mothers' voices but recognized the content.
Even babies' cries reflect their native language. French babies cry with a rising sound; German babies cry with a falling tone.
When babies learn to speak, they begin by recognizing that "da" is "dad" and "ma" is "mom." Then they practice saying those single syllables, correlating the sound to the person. They are always experimenting!
They increase their vocabulary over time, and as they learn more words, they speed up how quickly they learn new words.
Also, babies learn to speak when it's developmentally appropriate. No one would dream of growing irritated about a child not being able to say, "Please give me chocolate cake" at six months old. That would be developmentally and neurologically ridiculous.
The Role of Parents in Learning Naturally
Dr. Karen Holinga told me about a video she watched in her Ph.D. program. A mother was preparing lunch for her three children, ages one, three, and five. The class watched in astonishment as the mother effortlessly navigated between three different languages. Not literal languages — the whole family were English speakers — but the mother was using single syllables with the one-year-old, a different set of words with the three-year-old, and another set with the five-year-old. She did this intuitively — no training required.
When babies are little, parents intuitively capitalize on what they do well and respond positively to things they want their children to say and do. They catch them doing something right. The baby says, "Ma," and the mother proudly replies, "That's right! I'm your mama!" — and often follows this up with a hug, kiss or a smile.
The parent points out what the child is doing well and builds on that. Can the child make the initial sound? Great! Let's add a vowel. Can the child say one syllable? Fantastic! Let's add a second, identical syllable.
The mother doesn't say, "No. You're doing it all wrong. If you don't say, "Mother," I can't understand you. Now try it again, a little more perfectly this time."
Can you imagine? May it never be!
Instead, the mother takes what the child knows, and builds on that, further encouraging what the child is doing well.
This is how children learn to speak. It doesn't start in a vacuum; it's not created out of random bits of information. Instead, from the very earliest days, children always build on what they know.
Teach Positively to Strengths
Now think about this in terms of reading and writing. Can you find ways to continue the intuitive process that began at birth?
When my son was reading, "Freddy is a speckled frog," and he said, "Freddy is a . . . spotted frog," I didn't say, "Umm, no! You biffed the vowel and everything after that!" He was already a bit uncertain, and a negative response would have shut him down completely.
Instead, with a delighted voice, I said, "That's a great guess! It does start with the sound sp and spotted means pretty much the same thing, but this word is speckled. Let's keep going! What happens on the next page?"
I know my son will get it.
Or let's say your daughter copies four words, but only puts a (tiny) space between two. The intuitive mindset, continuing the process from infancy, would be to think, How amazing that my child is learning to write! What has she done well? And then to say, "What a wonderful job you just did! I love how you put this nice space here between these two words. That's what advanced writers do, and you just did it perfectly, even though you're a beginner! Wow!"
Over time, the child starts to include more spaces. Maybe not the first time — most babies don't immediately begin to pronounce words correctly after one attempt.
You're calling out the good and emphasizing that, in a spiral of positive reinforcement. Continue the intuitive method of interaction that started at birth and teach to your child's strengths.
Desire to Learn
We are born with an innate ability and desire to learn, and young children are the most eager. When we capitalize on their natural inquisitiveness and receptiveness, we make the process of learning to read and write pleasant and less daunting.
So as we help our children acquire the building blocks needed to become fluent users of the English language, let's remember how we helped them with walking and talking. It was a natural process not mired in doubt and corrections. It was through support and encouragement to try again.
It was intuitive for them and us, which made it the best way to learn.