Literary Freaks

Posted: October 2, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

My oldest daughter started Kindergarten about a month ago. Since then, she has been on a mission to inform her mother and me all about the world.  She has taught us what fiction and nonfiction means.  We now realize that people ACTUALLY LIVE in Africa!  Evidently, she also has been taking some gymnastic courses when we weren’t looking, because she looks like Gabby Douglas on the monkey bars.  What she is most proud of though is her developing ability to read, spell and write.

Watching her struggle through Dr. Seuss, ‘popcorn words’ and homework has made me realize a few things.  First, the English language is ridiculously confusing.  Second, vowels are a pain in the a–.  Third, and most importantly, reading is not the natural state of being.  What do I mean by that third statement, you may ask?  Well, let me explain.

During the past few decades, genetic research and psychological studies have discredited the idea that the human mind is a ‘blank slate’ at birth.  Babies are born with a brain ready to be structured and ‘programmed’ by its

Little Albert Einstein

environment.  The findings of the last thirty years have proven that babies have an incredible amount of ‘folk- knowledge’ that surprises even the most loving parent.  I think the most interesting of these is the ability babies seem to have to understand rudimentary physics.  Now, this doesn’t mean that babies are little Albert Einstein clones. This means that babies understand that things usually fall to the earth, and not levitate toward the heavens.  They intuitively grasp that if a big object bumps into a smaller object, that smaller object should usually react.  Isaac Newton, eat your heart out.

Though parents may not have realized their babies have a rudimentary knowledge of physics, they undoubtedly have noticed that babies are ready from the first moment to communicate.  Babies immediately cry for food; within the first couple months they make and hold eye contact; within a half a year, most babies coo for their parents, often copying adult sounds.  As babies turn into toddlers, they begin to read the emotions of those around them, they make more recognizable noises, and they will use hand gestures, such as pointing.  Of course, this leads to the most important communication development for humanity; speech.  Kids say ‘mamma’; then ‘mamma uppy’; then ‘momma I want uppy’; then ‘mom please pick me up’; then ‘mom, please do not touch me in front of my friends.’

What is amazing is that children don’t need to be purposely taught such syntax development. It just happens by them listening to the people around them.  Children growing up in France speak French.  Children in Japan, speak Japanese. Etc, etc.  Nature and nurture work together for language development.  Some kids get a leg up, and some start in a crater. It has been estimated that children who have parents that read books to them  will have heard 30 million more words in their lives by the time they start school than those that have non-reading parents. No amount of ‘nature’ can overcome this ‘nurture’.

Now back to my daughter in Kindergarten.  As a baby, she had precocious verbal skills. All I had to do was talk to her. Her brain did the rest, and did it quite simply it seemed.  Therefore it was a bit of a surprise that reading and writing does not come as simply.  I have had to remind myself that all kids find reading an incredible challenge, and my daughter is no different. She needs to concentrate like she never has before.  She needs to deliberately and gruelingly sound out each letter of every new word.  As she gains memory of how each word sounds by just glancing at it, she reads more smoothly, but it is no easy task.

Her slow development of skills helps me realize how recent reading became a human skill. It has only been around for about 5000 years.  There is no brain ‘program’ for reading.  It is not picked up by watching others.  It takes hours and hours of deep thought.  What strikes me about this is just how natural we as Americans often think reading is. Words are everywhere, and why not, since 99% of Americans are literate.  Unfortunately, this means that the 1% illiterate is often seen as unnatural outliers.  But, watching my little girl try to work her way through “Fox in Socks”, I get a sense for the freakishness of this ability.  Now we need to make sure all children can become literate freaks.

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Comments
  1. Trish says:

    Whoa. The “30 million more words” comment is the most significant, here.

    I always ask students to describe their own reading habits. One student said she doesn’t read much because she has two kids, a perfectly reasonable explanation. Until I offered, “but you read to them, right?” She shrugged. She shrugged???

    Sorry for the excess end punctuation, but come on! We all know how important it is to read to children, and now, I have a frightening statistic to back it up. Oh, how I adore a statistic to scare the reading back into a household!

    • PG says:

      It’s hard to imagine not being read to while growing up, but I’m not surprised that it doesn’t happen in some homes. Some 25 years later, I still remember what books my dad and I used to read together.

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