Friday, September 4, 2009

"Reading is the basics for all learning."

~ George W. Bush

When you study early childhood education, you learn all about "reading readiness." It sounds almost like a buzz phrase, empty. But research suggests that children who are read to, who come from homes in which books are available, have significant advantages over children who are not read to; who do not have books that are easily accessible. The former children will be ready to read whereas the latter children will not be, without interventions.

You learn that a lot of factors have a role in a child's ability to read, from environment to IQ. But the only causal relationship is that child's phonemic awareness - his or her recognition that words are made up of sounds. The greater a child's phonemic awareness, the more likely he or she is to be a successful reader. So how do parents increase their child's phonemic awareness? Play word games. Sing nursery rhymes. Toss words around, flip them, rhyme them, and toy with them.

I watched an old episode of Fareed Zakaria: GPS a couple weeks ago. Malcolm Gladwell appeared on the show to talk about his book, "Outliers." The part of their conversation that most struck me centered on the effect that small, early advantages had on future success. That is, early encouragement at a young age reaped huge rewards at later ages.

Gladwell used the example of reading. The difference between a six-year old who reads "a lot" and a six-year old who reads "a little" is very small. But the boy who reads a lot will read better; he will appreciate reading more; he will receive positive encouragement and thus rewards. By the time he's in junior high, he is an avid reader who enjoys more challenging works. He will be in accelerated classes and, later, in the advanged placement classes. The boy who reads a little, on the other hand, will not receive the same kind of encouragement. Because he does not read a lot, he will not improve as quickly; he certainly won't excel. When he gets to junior high, he will not join the accelerated classes. Even if the two boys have the same motivation, one has a leg up.

It's a combination of opportunity and personal motivation that predicts success. Think of Tiger Woods. Obviously, he is very talented. But he is also extremely motivated and was encouraged from a very young age.

Laziness pervades our culture. Laziness of thought, laziness of action, laziness of personal responsibility. As I sit and look at the piles of ungraded papers and dirty coffee mugs that surround me, I don't exclude myself. In the movie Idiocracy, an average guy from 2005 is put into hibernation only to wake up, 500 years later, to discover that he's the smartest guy on the planet. Society has devolved to the point where farms are watered with gatorade, the Oscar-winning film that year is called Ass, and patients at hospitals play slot machines in order to win a chance for treatment. The movie is extremely exaggerated. But parts of it still ring true.

Is it hyperbolic to suggest that we seem to reward the loudest only to devalue the most decent and sensical? I feel like we're sliding toward idiocracy. When a majority of people support a public option in spite of the media's misinformation and overrepresentation of insane, noisy protests, why the hell is our government capitulating? I want to believe that Obama's going to draw a line in the sand during his speech next week. That he'll make the case for clear and substantial reform. But all signs lately are suggesting the opposite: giving things up even though republicans won't vote yes, regardless. Rewarding insurance companies when their profits are through the roof, when they are the ones responsible for denying fair, affordable coverage.

We'll see. Anyway, tonight is five after five, followed by an encore viewing of the wonderful Dr. Horrible.

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