Alphabetical Friends

Learning to read requires a middleman to help the child decipher what's involved.

When Amos Oz was little, he would draw letters and words in his imagination; that is how he learned to read. He refers to it in his book, "A Tale of Love and Darkness."

"For example, I discovered that the word 'horse' (סוס) has two full packs hanging on either side of the saddle," he writes. "A garden (ןג ) is a man going for a walk, but there is a wall blocking his way...." [Translator's note: Oz was conjuring pictogram equivalents to the Hebrew letters that make up these words.]

child - Orit Bergman - November 17 2011
IllustrationOrit Bergman

"Two or three weeks later, I began to befriend the letters themselves," he continues. "Lamed, the last letter in the word degel (flag/לגד) looks like a flag and is waving at the end....Father and Mother (אבא and אמא) are similar in almost every way, except that Father has two hands in the middle that he is extending out so he can hug me, while Mother has a sort of tailless puppy that politely sits and waits."

This heartwarming description makes it seem the author deciphered the secrets of reading on his own, before he began school. But Professor Iris Levin, a literacy skills specialist at Tel Aviv University's School of Education, says that letter recognition is only part of the story. "He relates that his father used to read to him the same book over and over, until he could quote it by heart and tell it to himself, including turning the pages at the right places," she says. "He also asked his father to read him the same book repeatedly, all the while pointing at the words."

His father's pointing at the words is related to the act of deciphering and understanding the meaning of the words. "What comes across from this story," concludes Levin, "is that even if the child is named Amoz Oz and he is blessed with certain talents, when it comes to reading, he needs the grown-up to act as a middleman."

Without paper or pencil

Levin believes that every child needs some kind of "middleman" in the reading process. Interaction with the parent or other adult may include gentle guidance or directing the child's attention, but not necessarily scholarly explanation or formal instruction.

The visitor to a first-grade classroom is likely to notice that while the majority of the children are reading aloud slowly, one syllable at a time, there are always a few children - usually one or two - who read continuously and confidently. This phenomenon of early readers is familiar to kindergarten and first-grade teachers, but is hardly documented in the research literature. British researcher Rhona Stainthorp is one of the few scholars to have conducted long-term follow-up on these children; they constitute 3-5 percent of the children in England and the United States, and 7 percent in Scandinavia and Finland, where pupils typically only learn to read and write at age 7.

Often, when parents of children who began reading early are asked to explain it, they say their children "absorbed reading (or the letters ) out of thin air." Reading experts say this is a myth. "It's impossible to read all by oneself," says Levin, "because in the reading process there is a common code that must be known and with which the child must be familiar." In the same breath, she qualifies that statement, adding, "There truly are children who absorb reading without formal or structured guidance. They take in information and are able to put it in order."

Yossi Semama of Rehovot intentionally exposed his son Goni to the reading process while he was in kindergarten. This year, when Goni began first grade at the Shita open school in Rehovot, he already knew how to read. What's the rush? "I always wanted him to feel at ease in school," says the father. "Its important to me that he realize his potential to the fullest, in a fun way, and that will extend to his self-image. So from the outset I thought of granting him an advantage in his studies, through reading."

It wasn't done through systematic study, says Semama, but more through spontaneous games, without setting any times in advance. At first, in the summer before he began kindergarten, it was a shared game of identifying the letters. Later, it became learning about letter combinations and movements and words, by means of a whiteboard set up in the living room. "The board was always accessible, and it makes everything more fun. Because you don't need pages, and you don't have to sharpen a pencil. Whenever we feel like it, we write on the board. And sometimes I also give marks, or a piece of candy - anything that will encourage him."

Goni's parents also bought computer software to foster reading skills. After Goni had completed all the stages, Semama looked around in stores for first reading booklets. "When I saw that the material was really depressing and dreary - 'Dana stands, Dana sits' - I began to invent stories." The first story was only one line long: "Nadav's father sells vegetables. He sells cucumber, carrot, radish and onion." The second one was already a bit more complex, and the third was a veritable saga: "In Rami's neighborhood there are neighbors from all sorts of lands. One family from Canada and one from Morocco and another family from Italy. All of the children of all of the families play together with Rami in the yard of the neighborhood." In this manner, Goni advanced from one story to the next, and now, with a notebook of stories, he reads them fluently.

Identifying a desire

The connection between the parent and the child is critical for the early acquisition of reading. This was made clear in the Ph.D. dissertation of Shira Besser, published last year, which she wrote under the supervision of Dr. Dorit Aram of the educational counseling and special education departments at Tel Aviv University. For her study, Besser studied 20 early readers, 3-years-old through 6, who read fluently.

"We wanted to learn about the nature of the parents' interaction with their children in real time, so we observed them carrying out with the children writing assignments that we gave them," says Aram. The missions included writing a birthday party invitation, and writing text for the book "Good Night, Gorilla," which in the original has no text.

"The study examined whether parents of early-reading children are doing something else that parents of ordinary children are not doing, and if so, whether it is possible to learn from them," says Aram. A control group was selected from a sampling of children of the same gender and age group and from the same locale, all of whom had similar reading levels, as well as others at the same reading level but who were in first or second grade.

"It turned out that the mothers of the early-reading children were outstanding middlemen," says Aram. "They were sensitive to the level of the children, on the one hand, but on the other hand, they passed on to them the fundamentals of reading at the same level as children in the first and second grades. Furthermore, it became clear this was an encounter between children who expressed interest in a subject and mothers who responded with optimal attentiveness."

In terms of education and socioeconomic level, these mothers were no different from the mothers in the control group. They did excel in that they knew how to exploit everyday home situations to teach their children to decipher letters and words. The mothers even expanded the children's contexts - in other words, they reminded them of things from home that related to what they had read or written, and in this way their children "befriended" the text.

The study also pinpointed exceptional parental behavior on the emotional side, mainly as it pertained to their identifying which children showed a desire to read early on. Mothers who had not bothered to teach their other children to read, apparently for the simple reason that they did not express interest, did reward the early-reading children with positive reinforcement, attentiveness and sensitivity.

The question of whether these children are gifted was not explored here or in other studies. Nevertheless, it turned out that in arithmetic and logical deduction testing, the early readers were even more successful than the first and second graders who were not early readers. They spelled better, read continuously and liked to read. Is this advantage maintained over time? Stainthorp found that these children continue to maintain the advantage throughout elementary school. Later on, additional factors came into the picture (such as personality and emotional state ).

The advantage of reading at a young age was also acknowledged by a committee that examined the state of reading instruction in Israel, which convened in 2006 in the wake of criticism of the reading studies method that the Education Ministry had then promoted. The recommendation of the committee, which was chaired by Levin, was to integrate in kindergartens an infrastructure toward reading and writing. Until then, inclusion of this "infrastructure" in the curriculum was subject to the inclinations of the kindergarten teacher. "The decision was that reading and writing not be really taught in kindergarten, but rather that the fundamental infrastructure be taught: familiarity, exposure to letters and phonological awareness (awareness of the sounds of the language ). The children are exposed to books, their vocabulary is enriched, and they are taught various aspects of language."

The program incensed some at the Education Ministry, as well as kindergarten teachers. "Some people felt it harmed the spirit of kindergarten," says Levin. "Kindergarten is supposed to foster the child emotionally and socially, not burden him or her with studies. But since we live in a society that values achievement and does not shy away from competitiveness, you have to start early."

Aram warmly justifies the infiltration of reading and writing fundamentals into kindergarten. "In my opinion, reading is a delightful activity and is natural in any person's life," she says.

Aram says: "I am trying to show kindergarten teachers and parents that this is not an activity that generates pressure. For example, after the space shuttle with Ilan Ramon aboard crashed, kindergarten teachers all over Israel spent whole weeks talking about space and the universe. Children drew the solar system and the stars and learned a lot of scientific things, and the kindergarten teachers never thought they were overburdening the children. On the other hand, the 22 letters are conceived of as being oppressive. But if the kindergarten teachers thought that it was an enjoyable activity and they passed this feeling on to the children, then it would be fun."