Thursday, 26 January 2012

Discipline and avoiding battles

Well, we figured out what was behind my daughter's crabbiness (and some of mine too!).  A nice, snotty cold.  With the worst of it behind us (we hope), perhaps her sleeping patterns will improve.

Something needs to improve.  I've noticed lately that my son is going back into his same pattern of disobedience from last summer, easily melting down to a state where "No!" is his default response.  Of course, the reason he was misbehaving last summer was because I was suffering from new baby stress and exhaustion and consequently had very little patience.  I'm going through another spell of short patience / temper.  I said last week that I consider myself a laid-back person, but honestly, you'd never know that watching me lately.

Naturally, there are extenuating circumstances... The afore-mentioned cold, the fact that I'm on a course of antibiotics, the way my daughter has refused to take an afternoon nap all week, so that I've not had my mid-afternoon break-point...  But there comes a point where I have to suck up the extenuating circumstances and deal with them.  I worked hard enough to get my children in the first place; I can go on working to maintain the relationship I want with them.

And I don't want that to be negative; I don't want to be shouting all the time--especially since all evidence suggests that it exacerbates my son's bad behaviour!  I certainly don't want him to have that as his defining image of me.  So I need to pull back a bit, give both of us a break and figure out what I'm doing wrong.

Now, I consider myself to be on the stricter side of the parenting spectrum.  I definitely expect a certain standard of behaviour from my son, and it's not my intent to let him get away with (figurative) murder, just because I'm unhappy with how often I'm shouting at him.  One of the most common pieces of advice you find on the internet when it comes to dealing with toddlers is to avoid battles, but it's all very vague as to how.  I'm assuming that doctors and child behaviorists don't actually expect you to cater to their every whim...

I've considered the issue of avoiding battles many times over the past couple of years, but this week I've tried a different angle on it.  What do I consider to be discipline?  My individual answer is: enforcing consequences.  Getting angry does not have to be a part of that.

I've witnessed other parents getting angry without enforcing consequences.  (This isn't to dump on "other parents"... I think one of the best lessons of parenting is observing others and noticing what they do wrong, since it's a lot easier than seeing your own mistakes!  I can guarantee that I am returning the favour in kind.)  And I can sympathise, because you don't realise how hard it is to enforce consequences until you become a parent...  especially if it means denying your child a treat that you've been so eager for them to have.

But what actually happens is that, unwilling to make or carry out threats, the parent makes their disapproval clear by scolding the child, and then carries on that disapproval to the point where they're biting their head off for the most minor infraction.  The child can't get a break, can't fix the situation and ends up angrily defensive. 

I have to be the adult in this relationship

The above is one of my big parenting creeds.  Much as I might want to hold a grudge (and, oh, I'm a champion sulker!), there comes a time when I have to remember that the offending party is three, and I'm the one who needs to be the bigger person and smooth things over.  A huge part of that is to stop being angry.  Decide what the consequence will be, and then be all smiles again.

The flipside of that is that I have to remember my son is too young to be in full control of his emotions.  He might well throw a tantrum when I discipline him, which is bad behaviour in itself, but I've come to the conclusion that at this age there's no point punishing the reaction to the punishment.  That just escalates thing further.  I try to talk him through it or, if that's causing me stress, I ignore it (assuming we're at home so he's not disrupting anybody else--thankfully my son's never been one for tantrums in public).  At some point, that's going to have to change, but that's a whole other issue... and right now, I'm giving myself a break from such complications.

The other thing about enforcing consequences is that it's not necessarily the same thing as punishment.  I.e. the purpose is to make my son take responsibility for his actions, not necessarily to upset him (or even to repent, come to that).  Obviously, the consequence should have some impact on him, otherwise it won't be effective.  But it's not like my target is to make him cry.

All this sounds like I should be suppressing my anger and stamping down on it, which would realistically, make things even worse.  Actually, it's been more about reminding myself that it's OK to let it go.  It all sounds rather new age and hippie, so I should stress that I'm not giving this out as advice, just noting my perspective on it this week.  I don't have to stress over my son's behaviour, so long as I see that there are consequences for it.

Mostly, that's been a huge relief...  I've been tiring myself out with keeping on top of him and just allowing myself to sit down and have a chat with him instead of shouting at him (so he knows he's done wrong) has been restful.  Obviously, there are still days like today when I do get snappy, but most of this week has been much easier for all concerned.

Picking my battles

My own rationale for avoiding battles is that you have to decide what you are ready to deal with now.  One of the problems we had last summer was my son's sudden refusal to stay in bed in the evenings.  We could easily spend two hours putting him back in his bedroom.  We came up with various consequences for his actions, but none of them were a sufficient deterrent.  We were stressed, sleep deprived, and out of emotional resources.  Eventually, we gave up and just locked him in his room.

Clearly, this was effective.  It also taught our son exactly nothing, since every evening he would get up, check the door and then go to sleep.  Honestly, I'm embarrassed that we did it.  But I can't pretend that we didn't, and I don't have particular regrets.  At that point in time, when my daughter hadn't got a settled nap routine and wasn't sleeping through the night, we were struggling to keep up any semblance of parenting equanimity and we needed our downtime.

A few months later, we felt ready to tackle the issue and stopped locking the door.  This time, if he would not stay in his bedroom, he lost his television privileges for the next day.  I admit that I was overly reliant on the television as a toddler-sitter once my daughter was born, so following through was hard, but a perk was that it helped break me of my dependence on the box and start cutting down my son's television viewing in general.

For the issue at hand, no television worked like a charm.  Within a week, my son was staying in his room of his own accord.  I'm not saying he never gets up after light's out, but no longer to the extent that it's a problem.

The moral of the story is that it's OK to have a short-term solution, so long as you go back and instate a long term one later.  For now, I'm going to take things at a slower pace and try not to have too many fixed ideas of what I want to happen.  If I'm going to tackle any problem, it should be my daughter's sleeping not my son's rebelliousness.  Unfortunately, I can't think of a quick-fix for that one....

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Going Crib-free

Last night did not go well.  Something is clearly up with my daughter, poor thing.  I would guess another tooth, although that's always the easy excuse.

Since this blog was not intended to be a whine-fest, I won't relate the events of last night (nor the consequently bleary today).  It did, however, remind me that my daughter sleeps on a standard crib mattress on the floor, which is not what people usually expect.  So I thought I'd talk about how that's worked out for us.

The mattress on the floor is actually a Montessori practice.  The idea is that your child is encouraged to explore their child-safe, floor-accessible nursery at will.  I'd read about this concept before having my son, and thought it sounded nice enough but decided against it.  Firstly because I didn't know anybody else who had done it, and I wanted to stick with practices where I had readily available fonts of advice.  Secondly because it just seemed weird having your child sleep on the floor and having to explain that to people.

I'm not a big fan of nursery furniture to start with: it's expensive, of limited use and I don't appreciate the pictures of perfectly coordinated nurseries that Toys R Us sends us.  The crib (and mattress) was the only item I bought new for my son's nursery, and that was because I was too wary of SIDS to risk a second-hand one. 

Unfortunately, we bought a dropside crib.  By the time I was pregnant again, dropside cribs had been banned as dangerous and were on no account to be used, even with a kit to fix the dropside.  I did not appreciate the irony.

So more or less in a fit of pique, I declared to my husband that we were done with cribs, and the new baby could sleep on the floor.  At least that couldn't be recalled!

To be fair, we didn't do that from the start.  Both my son and my daughter spent their first six months sleeping in an Arm's Reach co-sleeper.  I'm too light a sleeper (my daughter takes after me) to co-sleep fully, but my afore-mentioned SIDS paranoia welcomed the opportunity to co-sleep without bed-sharing.

But at six months old, my daughter was graduated to her mattress.  Because she was six months, I wasn't hugely panicked about safety issues (I'd also become somewhat jaded after letting my son sleep for a year in a deathtrap).  I knew she could raise and turn her own head in her sleep, and I also knew that she was heavy enough that if she slid between her mattress and (e.g.) the wall, her own weight would push the mattress away, so she wouldn't smother.

To be absolutely certain, I kept the mattress towards the middle of the room for the first few months.  Otherwise, I used all the standard precautions... no blankets or pillows, and the room was babyproofed.

She wasn't mobile at this point, but she could roll.  The first few weeks of the experiment had me going in multiple times a night to put her back on her bed.  This was the only time I considered giving up and using the pack and play or something.  But gradually she learned to stay on the bed or at least not to wake up fully when she rolled onto the carpet.

Once she did get mobile, her bed became her focal point whenever we were in her room.  She would crawl onto it, and occasionally lie down and suck her thumb for a few minutes before heading elsewhere.  It took longer for her to crawl off it when I put her down for naps, although these days, even when groggy, she's able to lurch off the mattress and haul herself to the door (sleepsack and all) once she's woken up (whereupon she starts banging on it to be let out).

Somewhat to my surprise, it's very rare for her to crawl off the mattress when I put her down to sleep.  She'll usually give at least a short wail of protest, but she'll almost always roll onto her side and suck her thumb in an attempt to get to sleep.  It's only recently that she's started crawling straight off the mattress to argue the point, and even then, that only happens when she's really opposed to her nap.  Most of the time, she'll still try for sleep first.

I expect that this will become more frequent as she gets older, but it's a case of crossing that bridge when we get to it.

All that is straightforward enough... but what I've really liked about the floor mattress, is how accessible it is for me.  When she has difficulty sleeping, our usual tactic is to lie down on the floor next to her, head on the mattress.  She gets the physical contact she craves, and we are fairly comfortable (compare with dangling your arm over the edge of a crib for twenty minutes).  Extricating myself once she seems deeply asleep enough is a tedious process, but having her hand pat my face as she settles is lovely (although can also get old if she still doesn't go to sleep).

It's also good not having to worry about when to do the transfer from the crib, something that I fretted over with my son (and something that ended up not being a big deal at all).  These days, her mattress rests against the twin bed that we keep in there; there's a stepstool against the foot of the bed for when she's able to climb up.  My guess is that at some point she'll want to sleep in the big bed, just like her brother, at which point, the set-up will remain the same but the mattress will become a crashpad for when she falls out of bed.

But mostly it's been such a simple exercise that I forget that there's a different way of doing things.  Cribs have their uses, but I'm glad I didn't fork out the cash for another one.  Floor-sleeping has worked out just fine for us this time around.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Tendencies towards Violence

Why is it that our children can inspire such murderous feelings in us?  I consider myself a laid-back enough person, certainly a pacifist, who is all about reasoning with a child rather than spanking him (although I cannot claim that our house is a smack-free zone).  Yet after ninety minutes of trying to get my daughter to take the nap that she clearly needed, I was having to remind myself that it would be a very bad idea to throw her across the room.  In fact, at that point, I left her screaming hysterically, went downstairs and turned the baby monitor off in an attempt to get my own stress levels down.

It's pretty depressing re-reading that in cold, hard text.  Of course, there's some context here... my own energy/concentration levels dip significantly around 2pm, but luckily, the children both go down for a nap shortly after 1pm, so I get some unwinding time to brace myself for the crash (and if I'm lucky, both kids will sleep through it).  Unsurprisingly, I've rather come to depend on that, so it was totally demoralising to be wrestling with my daughter, knowing I was losing my 'break,' especially when all my usual tricks failed totally.

Still, there was one part of me that was rational, knowing she couldn't help it, something was clearly up and she was suffering just as much as I was... and there was another part of me that had gone into full-on angry mob mode.

The children at school never got under my skin as much.  I'm not saying I never lost my temper in the classroom, but it was a much rarer occurrence, and I certainly never felt such violent impulses as I have since becoming a parent.  A closer comparison might be how easily my brother can get under my skin.  We would fight like cat and dog as children, physically as well as verbally (he tended to go easy on me, but I gave him no such respect, I am ashamed to say).  We were also very close and were constantly creating games to play together... but we struggled to tolerate the most minor of trespasses.

At least I can comfort myself that this is a perfectly natural feeling... I remember reading an article about it years before I became a parent.  And thankfully, the vast majority of us are capable of resisting the urges, thanks to our equally natural dread of our children sustaining serious injury.

The upshot of today was that I gave up on the nap, brought my daughter downstairs, and cuddled with both children on the sofa in front of Thomas the Tank Engine.  Though they lost interest, and we turned the television off, I refused to budge from the sofa.  Partly (to be strictly honest) because I was sulking, partly because I had a splitting headache at that point, and partly because I knew my patience was not going to be up to doing anything else.  If I played with them, I'd get snappy quickly.  If I tried to do something constructive, I'd have the children tailing after me sooner rather than later and getting in my way... and I'd get snappy. 

So I sulked on the sofa, picked up my daughter for cuddles when she needed it, and otherwise let both children pootle about the room as they liked, making a mess and getting into things they probably shouldn't.  And I very much appreciated the fact that they're old enough that they can play with each other now.

I called my husband, who very sweetly got home early enough to help with the kids while I made dinner.  I made one further attempt at getting my daughter down for a nap, but she went straight back into hysterics.  She ended up going to bed a little early, with absolutely no struggle.  I devoutly hope that she at least sleeps in tomorrow morning.

PS This is the second post in a row where I've described an event that's involved my daughter screaming hysterically.  I would just like to note therefore, that she's a bit of a drama queen, and that I tend to be less driven to post about her giggling hysterically, which she also did a lot of today.

Monday, 16 January 2012


Top of the list of things that shouldn't get to me but do is the children not liking what I cook.

I'm not a great cook anyway (and neither is my husband) so I already feel guilt over the amount of frozen ready-meals we eat.  I've told myself that I'm never going to be that mother who whips fresh ingredients together every day into a nutritious and healthy meal, and that that's not the end of the world.  But accepting it doesn't take the guilt away, so I have stress over mealtimes to start with.

Yesterday, I was a few minutes from dishing up, when my son started asking what was for dinner, which was inevitably followed by: "I don't like it!" and "Want toast!"  Instead of letting my husband deal with it as he was in the middle of doing, I lost my temper and snapped at him.

My son promptly burst into tears, but worse yet, so did my daughter, who is always prone to meltdowns in the evenings, and as a consequence, she refused to sit in her highchair, instead wanting my lap, which more or less ruined my dinner and didn't do much for anybody else's.

It must be noted that my son dutifully ate his whole portion with very little fuss – probably because he didn't have a hope of getting our attention over his sister's racket.

The thing is, my son's three.  He's about as fussy as you expect a three year old to be, and while we need to work on the whining about what he's served, he's not that bad about actually eating.  I should let his complaints about the food roll off me like water off a duck's back, but I can't.

It's just so dispiriting every mealtime to try and figure out what to serve up that everybody can eat, that won't incur too much of a battle with my son but won't be caving in to him either, and I know full well that my efforts will go unappreciated.  We mothers don't get a lot of positive reinforcement on this kind of thing, and it's embarrassing how much I can resent that.

I need to get over it though, since this is one of those things that is going to get worse before it gets better, since my daughter will start having her own dietary preferences soon.  Actually, she's got them now, although it's more about where she eats her dinner (my lap vs her chair) than what she eats for it.  This has become such a recurring theme that we've decided we've got to put our foot down.  She can't sit on my lap for every evening meal.

Well, I suppose she could, on the basis that sooner or later, she'd decide that she wants to sit in her own chair like everybody else...  We just run the risk of me going crazy before then.  I'm not that kind of mother either.

So tonight we did our usual walk on eggshells around her to keep her in a good mood, only for my husband to accidentally knock her head with her plastic tray as he set her up in the chair.  Cue tears and meltdown and wanting to come to me.  But no.  We weren't having it.  She had to learn.  We were going to wait until the storm had passed.  We were resolute.

Except the storm didn't pass.  She got hysterical, and started rolling her head around, completely out of control.  I've known my daughter for almost a year now which is more than long enough for me to know that she can't calm herself down from that.  But I also knew that if we took her out of the chair to soothe her, she'd only start crying when we put her back in it.  So I had to calm her down while she was in the chair....

To cut a long story short, I ended up draped across her tray, arms around her, my face in her face, and thank the lord, she started sucking her thumb.  If you can get her calm enough to suck her thumb, the ordeal is basically over.  She eventually devoured her entire meal... about twenty minutes after we first served it to her.

I can't really cuddle her across her tray every mealtime either, but at least we've found a way of in-chair soothing now.  Hopefully we can cut down the soothing time to something more conducive to family dinners.  Or at least before she learns how to whine: "I don't like it!"

Friday, 13 January 2012

Thoughts on Reading: Concluded

So having mulled it all over for a few days, I've come to the conclusion that there is an insane amount of pressure on parents to get their child reading successfully.  And my previous post didn't help at all with that!  Sorry.  I now feel terribly sympathetic towards parents of children who are behind their peers in reading, because I suspect it's easy to feel guilty or blamed.

Lana's comment about needing her daughter to be at least as good as her rung true with me.  I feel that if I was reading at three, then my son should be as well, and that's a silly way to look at it.  Since my original post, I have dutifully researched late reading.  Here are a couple of interesting pages:

Why the Waldorf Method Waits

The Unschooler's Account of How Children Learn to Read

With regard to the second link, any readers should bear in mind that the writer was relying on people emailing him with their accounts, and people are always happier to contribute their success stories than their failures.  Also, from the little I know of unschooling, it's bucking against the traditional school model and formal education rather than avoiding education altogether.  I suspect many parents of unschooled children are, intentionally or not, employing elements of other self-directed learning methods.

Regardless, late reading isn't for me.  We'll see if either of my children change my mind on that score.

My actual conclusion is that motivation is probably the most important factor.  My son loves books, so I should stop worrying about him and start worrying about my eleven month old daughter...  I kid.  Actually, she's already beginning her pre-reading skills, since every time I pull out a book, she hauls it off me and practises opening and closing it.  I usually have to let her do this for a few minutes before we can get on to the story part....

Because I wanted to be reading independently at the age of three, sight-reading was absolutely the right choice for me.  My son is perfectly happy for me to read books to him; his current fascination is with letters (or 'sounds' as we call them), so I'm trying to come up with various alphabet activities to capitalise on that.  I'm not actively testing him, but he's got most of the lower case alphabet down now and a good portion of the upper case (b, p, d and q are of course all over the place).

We discovered over Christmas that he can sight-read his name, because he loved finding it in every Christmas card we received.  Sitting down with the flashcards isn't really my style, so I'm not going to push that.  If he starts asking me to point out words for him, that might be different, but we'll see what happens.

Mostly, what I'm going to do is keep track of his skills.  It seems that the problem with any method of reading is that literacy is about more than just reading.  You can't just get your child reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar and say: "Job's a good'un!"  Spelling, grammar, comprehension and articulation require a lot more than recognising words on a page.   A sustained effort from both child and educator is required on the various language skills, and that's why you need a lot of enthusiasm to start with.

To that end, even if he teaches himself to sight-read, I'm going to continue doing phonic activities with him, encouraging him to listen to the sounds of words.  I suspect that, like myself, my son is a visual learner, but I'd rather he didn't end up with my dearth of listening skills!

Friday, 6 January 2012

Thoughts on Reading: Unconcluded

My son, who just turned three, is currently very enthusiastic about learning his letters, which has prompted me to review everything I know and think about learning to read, and then do some more research on the internet.  Which led me to looking at several pages on the war between sight-reading and phonics.  (Of course it's a war.  This is the internet!)

If you have never dipped your toes into these controversial waters, these are the two principle methods of teaching people to read – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the two principle methods of reading.  Sight-reading (or whole language) is done by learning to recognise the words themselves – if you learned to read using flashcards, you learned with sight-reading.  The idea is that you don't learn the spoken word by putting sounds together, so why would you learn the written word that way? (Reading being analogous to listening not talking.)  Phonics is about learning the sounds of letters and letter combinations.  When encountering a word, the reader sounds out each letter to figure out what it is.

Put even more simply, sight-reading is visual, and phonics are auditory, just as their names suggest.  Most of us, even if taught via phonics, ultimately read by sight-reading, instantly recognising familiar words.  However, when we come across unfamiliar words, we tend to sound them out either aloud or in our heads, trying to correspond it with our oral vocabulary.

Learning how to process phonics is a skill that develops later, so you're unlikely to have success using the phonics method in a child under four, whereas babies can be taught to sight-read several words before their first birthday (according to the DVD ads).  If you want to teach your child to read very early, sight-reading is the way to go.  But, as the internet will tell you, teaching your child to read via sight-reading is setting him on the track to semi-literacy, giving him irrevocable bad habits.

I tend to be a little dubious of this since I learned to read by sight-reading, have always been far more comfortable with the written than the spoken word, am excellent at spelling and a dab hand at grammar (she says, blithely dooming herself to a post full of errors).  Of course, it's entirely likely that I am the exception rather than the rule, but when it comes to learning to read, my best experience is myself, and so....

The Case Study of Myself

I don't actually remember a time before I could read; I was three when I learned.  According to my parents, they were using flashcards with my older brother when I started calling out the answers.  Shortly after that, I started hauling the books off them when they tried to read to me (I also have no memory of my parents reading to me, thanks to this early independent streak).  I'm not a genius nor particularly intelligent.  I just happened to be precocious in this regard.

I do remember being dumbfounded when I was four or five and saw my classmates stumbling over simple words with the teacher's assistance.  I also remember that I was five or six when I read The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, because it surprised me that the opening chapter described the heroine as 'only seven'. (And that certainly wasn't the first novel I'd read.)  Reading was just never an issue to me.  I usually only had to look at a word once to memorise it, spelling and all, and comprehension was instantaneous.

That's not to say I was never taught the phonics.  I can't recall how my (British) primary school actually taught reading, because obviously they didn't have to teach me, but I do remember many lessons on the different letter combinations and sounds (and variations).  I loved these.  I still have nostalgia for the chain of words containing a different pronunciation of 'ough' (tough, trough, though, through, thorough).

When I was nine, my family moved to the States for the first time (this is a recurring event for us, apparently), and I did fourth and fifth grade there.  It wasn't until this happened that I realised all those 'alternate' spellings I came across in books, such as 'color' for 'colour' were actually American spellings.  This is my own personal proof that spelling can be learned by sight-reading, despite phonics proponents' protests to the contrary.  I made the switch fairly comfortably, winning the school spelling bee in fifth grade before moving back to the UK to start high school, at which point I reverted to British spellings with little difficulty.

These days, though I live in the US again, I mostly write British English, although I don't find it too hard to get into an American spelling mindset.  I have more trouble following American grammar rules by habit.

But why did things work out that way for me, when for some children at least, the sight-reading method is genuinely disastrous?

Well, for starters, I'm a visual learner, and I'm well aware that my auditory processing power is poor.  I excelled in languages at school, but the only ones I could pursue to degree level were Latin and (ancient) Greek, dead languages that you are taught to read, not to speak.  In modern languages, my greatest weakness was the oral and listening aspect.

When I started Italian, the teacher spent the first half of the first lesson teaching us orally.  She wanted us to learn the pronunciation of the words before the spelling, because Italian rules of pronunciation differ so hugely from English.  "Ciao!" is a perfect example.  If she started writing such alien letter combinations on the board, she risked intimidating us hopelessly.

However, I was completely lost with her oral methods.  I couldn't analyse the sounds of the words well enough to commit them to memory.  For me, if for nobody else in the class, it only started coming together when she started writing on the board, and I could match letters to the sounds she was making.  I don't know about anybody else, but whenever I say a word, I 'see' it written down in my mind's eye; when spelling aloud, I visualise the word, and read off the letters.

Obviously, this auditory failing could be a direct result of me being taught to sight-read.  I definitely suspect that my own focus on visual learning methods prevented me from developing my auditory processing power to its full potential.  How important is this?  After all, learning to read prevents us from developing our full powers of memorisation.  But as compensation, we have a far more effective way of recording information.  Had I learned to read by phonics, I might be better at listening comprehension, but there's no guarantee that the written word would mean as much to me.  Personally, I have no regrets, but it's not like there's a control in this particular experiment.

I should note, I'm not entirely brain-deaf.  Just as I 'see' a word when I hear it spoken, I 'hear' it when I see it written down.  I used to work as a secretary, and I was perfectly able to take dictation – but I was much faster at transcribing from written notes (much preferred that method too).  And it's safe to say that I'll always choose a blog over a podcast.

So, that's my experience with learning to read.... what about my experience teaching reading?

The Montessori Approach

Before my son came along, I was working at the Montessori school that he now attends.  I dealt with the two year old class mostly, but I also assisted in the Children's House (three to six year olds), so I know the basics of the Montessori method of reading.

Here's a summary, although please note that I am not a qualified teacher, and as such, I was never directly responsible for taking a child through reading, although I have assisted a child with each of the materials mentioned below.
  • Lots of imprinting of the left to right order wherever it can possibly be applied.
  • Practice breaking words into sounds using the I Spy box.  This is a box containing miniatures of real world objects (for preference use three-letter, phonetically-spelt words: fox, hat, net, cup, pig, etc).  These objects are lined up, and the teacher (or older child) says: "I spy with my little eye, something with a starting sound of [phoneme]."  To start with, the teacher will point to the item meant, and the child will identify it.  Gradually the child will correspond the sound with the initial sound of the word, and be able to identify without the pointing.  From there the clue progresses to the 'end sound' or the 'middle sound', until the child can successfully break down the spoken word into its phonemes.  In my experience, most children work this out by the age of four.
  •  Learning letters / phonemes using 'sandpaper sounds'.  Tablets showing each letter of the alphabet in sandpaper (red tablets for consonants; blue for vowels).  The child learns the phoneme for the sound and practises tracing it with their fore finger.  This isn't done in any kind of order, but rather the sounds most likely to mean something to the child.  For example, the first sound presented to them might be the initial letter of their name, or m for mother, d for daddy...
  • Writing with the moveable alphabet.  Plastic or wooden letters (again red for consonants and blue for vowels) that the child can lay out on a rug (sometimes along guiding lines) to create their own simple words (often prompted with the miniatures).  Spelling is not emphasised or corrected, and the activity is referred to as 'writing'.  As is common with the Montessori method, the child is given as active a role as possible, and therefore they are taught how to write their own words, rather than how to read the words of others.

So Montessori is essentially the phonics method.

Here's the catch: Maria Montessori was Italian.  Italian is a phonemic language.  'Ciao' might look like a bizarre contortion of vowels to the English-speaker, but it's entirely logical to a native.  'Ci' is always going to be  pronounced 'ch';  'ao' will always be 'ow'.  Once you're familiar with the rules of Italian pronunciation, you can pronounce any Italian word you see – and you should be able to spell any word you hear!

English is, of course, not a phonemic language.  Its spelling is more likely to reflect the etymology of the word and thus give a clue to its meaning.  For example, 'philosophy' keeps the Greek 'ph', so if you're familiar with Greek word-roots, you know that it's going to have something to do with loving wisdom.  The Italian word is 'filosofia.' Sounds very similar, but without the 'ph' clue to its origins, it could just as easily come from a Latin root and actually mean something about thread.

While I can see that Maria Montessori's Italian students would soon be able to self-correct their own spelling, this won't be the case for their English-speaking counterparts.  I never dealt with this myself in the classroom, so I've tried looking it up online, and it seems that there's no standard Montessori solution for teaching spelling, although most places default to spelling lists, and of course, they teach the various letter combinations.

Why Teaching Spelling Confuses Me

When I first heard about the phonics approach (in my teens), spelling always struck me as its greatest weakness.  If a child is taught to read by sounding words out, rather than remembering how they look, aren't they going to find it impossible to spell?  However, phonics proponents are always insistent that it's children who aren't taught by phonics who can't spell.  The prevalence of this view leads me to assume that there must be a study somewhere that proved or at least indicated this (but let's just bear in mind that I'm being educated by Professor Google).

I think the logic here is that children who learn via phonics are taught to break down words in the first place, and take note of the individual letters.  Which does make sense.  Also, phonics means extensive memorisation of all the letter combinations for different sounds, which will give you a vast bank of word elements to draw from.

On the flipside, the most common words are the ones most likely to break the rules, and you're going to have to teach children fairly early on that 'their' (for example) is just spelled that way.  Surely memorising such exceptions is ultimately using the visual part of their brain, and thus is sight-reading?  Phonics still requires spelling lists, just as children taught to sight-read still learn their alphabet.

I'm equating spelling lists with flashcards here, which might be inaccurate in the first place.  To me, either one is memorising a word.

One argument that I saw mentioned a few times in favour of phonics in my research is that phonics meant you had to learn every letter combination in the English language, but once you knew them all, you could read anything, whereas sight-reading would require somebody to read aloud to you every word in the English language.

This strikes me as a ludicrous thing to say, because there is no way in hell you can figure out the correct pronunciation of every word in the English language by phonics.  I can make a bloody good stab at saying any obscure word you show me, but I know there are plenty of words in my vocabulary that I've never actually heard spoken aloud and thus I have my own imagined pronunciation.

The second ridiculous thing about this is that even if you are incapable of sounding out a word to match it to your oral vocabulary, you could still learn to recognise that word in that context and thus make it part of your reading vocabulary.  It's clearly a very limited usage, but my point is, you can still read/comprehend a word you've never encountered before.

Back to spelling...  As I said above, English spelling is more indicative of meaning than pronunciation.  So as well as learning all the different sounds 'ough' can make, I remember being taught things like the suffix '-or' indicates a person who does something: doctor, professor, sculptor, actor... etc. etc.  (Obviously, this example doesn't cross over very well for Americans, who confused the issue when they simplified the spelling of 'harbour', 'favour' et al.  Or maybe they do still teach you that rule anyway?)

The point is that we are taught several common word elements by their meaning rather than by their sound, and that's essential to being able to spell English (learning some of the root languages helps too, but that's really not a preschool skill).  Therefore, even though phonics might indeed have a trend of producing better spellers, spelling in and of itself is not an auditory process, and therefore does not depend on auditory skill (luckily for me).

My conclusion is that phonics doesn't have exclusive rights to good spelling, but it does promote the skills required for good spelling (i.e. breaking down a word into its component parts).

In Which We Go Back to the Drawingboard

After all of that analysis, there's another line of research which shows that no matter what the method used, children learn to read better if they come from high literacy households.  In other words, my ability to read might not be due to those early flashcards nor my school's conscientious phoneme teaching, but to the fact that both my parents enjoyed reading and my mother kept my bookcase well-stocked.

This matches a lot of what I've gleaned about early literacy and pre-reading skills.  "Read to your child every day," is one of the most frequent pieces of professional advice I've been given since becoming a mother.  Other things include having books around, having books accessible, discussing the stories with your child (you don't get much literary critique out of a toddler, but he likes finding the details in the pictures).

Also, little things you might not otherwise think about. Like running your finger along the line of text as you read.  This helps them to make the connection between the spoken and written word, and it gets them used to the order in which words are laid out on the page.   Left to right; top to bottom.  One of the tips I've come across recently, which has produced interesting results, is to ask my son to point to where I should start reading.    It's obvious when you think about it that a toddler won't necessarily know....

So What's My Dilemma?

Although I've been challenging the arguments for the phonics method, I do think it's a very good way of teaching children to read, and would definitely encourage every parent to teach their child the phonic alphabet rather than the standard A B C (don't worry, they'll pick the names of the letters up as well).  I've always been impressed by how the Montessori method lays the foundation skills for reading and then pulls them all together.

Clearly, there's going to be a 'but'.  I didn't write all the above just to end with: "Phonics FTW!"  And that 'but' is that I'm a bookworm who learned to read early, that I don't remember a time before reading, so effectively, reading has always been an intrinsic part of who I am.  To me, illiteracy seems like an incredible handicap.  To not be able to read is to be denied access to a vast resource and shrinks your world immeasurably.

Because of this, I place a high priority on learning to read early.  I even considered those 'teach your baby to read' DVDs, although I ultimately decided I didn't want to start the TV watching habit so young no matter what the purported benefits were.  School-wise, it seems to be acceptable to have children reading around age five, but that just feels too late to me.  (I understand the Waldorf teaching method does reading at age eight which practically gives me panic attacks.)

Most of this is my neuroses and the always dangerous desire to treat my children as an extension of myself rather than their own people.  I certainly don't want to put my children under any pressure to read before they're ready for it, nor do I want to set myself up for Failure As A Mother by giving myself arbitrary deadlines that can't be met.

Still, considering how much of our society is dependent on the written word, I can't shake the feeling that the sooner children learn to read the better.  And with that regard, if my son is showing an interest in learning, then I want to capitalise on that, even if he's a year away from getting the phonics down.

Seeing as I've been drafting this post for almost a week now (family distractions not helping!), I'm going to post as is, even if I've not quite figured out my own conclusion.  Considering that I am in no way qualified, perhaps I shouldn't offer a conclusion anyway!

Research-wise, I've only scratched the surface of what's out there, but here are some of the webpages that discussed the topic without negative campaigning (I can't vouch for their accuracy):

And just look up 'spelling' on Wikipedia to kick off hours of info-surfing.

Draw and/or offer your own conclusion.  I'll probably post up mine once I've decided what it is.  And then a year or two from now, I'll post up another conclusion... in retrospect.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Raising my Hopes

I wanted to do a post to welcome 2012 and talk about my plans / expectations for the year, and then I came to title it, and the above seemed the most appropriate.  Only now I'm realising how weird it is that I'm letting my hopes get high (and please, let fate not be tempted!).

The past few years have been wonderful ones, but they've been hard too.  In 2011, my new year's resolution was to have a baby.  I succeeded!  I was, admittedly, fairly confident about that.  But I always knew that the transition to two children would be hard and that I didn't handle sleep deprivation well.  In 2010, I was trying to get and then stay pregnant, all the while keeping up with an increasingly active toddler.

However, my daughter's almost a year old now, and the 'one step at a time' mantra that I developed during the infertility period is on its way out.  Now I'm planning ahead, and I'm planning to enjoy this year.  All the more so because in 2013, I'll likely start working again, and my career will take priority for the first time since my son was born (and, honestly, since quite a bit before that).  This is the last year that I'll be a stay at home mother with all my time at my children's disposal.  Also, if I do go ahead with the Montessori qualification, that's going to mean a lot of work, so, like the past couple of years, 2013 stands to be wonderful but hard.

Therefore, 2012's going to be a sabbatical of sorts for me.  I remember one being a hugely fun age for my son, although hindered somewhat by my IVF and pregnancy, and I'm looking forward to reliving it with my daughter.  As for my son, now that he's turned three, it's very exciting to think that he'll carry memories of this year for the rest of his life.  That's definitely reason to give us all some good memories to share.

Happy new year to everybody else!  May 2012 be rewarding for us all!