What do we want children to learn in Nursery? Now, before you say “My kid’s older so I don’t have to read this”, I would encourage you to read further. It may help you to better understand education in general, and OIS in particular.
Let’s first of all talk about proprioception (a very impressive word), and its impact on children learning to read. The proprioceptive system is what enables children to know where their body is in space. You can tell the little kids for whom this system is not yet fully developed – they’re the ones who have to keep their body moving to get a sense of where they are, or sometimes they’re the ones who sit with their ankles wrapped around the chair legs, to remind them where they are in space.
Just as they have difficulty in sensing the position and movement of their body, they also have difficulty sensing the orientation and direction the pencil (or the eye) has to move to form their letters or numbers. They can still learn to recognize letters and words by sight, focusing on the overall size and shape. It’s a right-brain approach, a rote-learning approach.
In countries like Sweden, Germany, Finland, where learning to read does not begin until the age of seven or eight, the left brain (and, more important, the part which connects the hemispheres) comes into play. Children are able to sense the direction and orientation of the letters (because their proprioceptive systems are developed) and associate individual letters with sounds. They are able to learn to read through understanding, rather than by recognition/repetition.
At age four, children in the UK have reading levels far superior to those in Finland, because the kids in Finland don’t start until at least seven. But, because the Finnish kids start when their neurological development is at the right stage, they learn more efficiently and with a deeper understanding. It doesn’t take long before their reading levels are well above their UK counterparts.
It could be said, though, that learning to read is a slightly easier process in Finnish, where pronunciation rules are consistent, unlike English, where
“A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.”
It’s about waiting until those little brains are ready. It’s about developing those necessary precursors, like proprioception. And what activity best develops proprioception? Play! And what do we do a lot of in Nursery? Play!
Neurobiology has a part to play as well. Myelination is a word used to describe the forming of a sheath around the neurone to allow nerve impulses to move more quickly, and is an indicator of development in the child’s brain. Different areas of the brain myelinate at different times. The visual nerves myelinate by about six months old, but the part which supports the association of sounds with letters or groups of letters doesn’t myelinate until at least five years old, and often later in boys. (Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ed Magazine, Winter 2011)
I once came in contact with a little girl (JKG) who was reading at a phenomenal level, because a dedicated grandmother armed with flash cards had made it so. But when she was given a book with no words, with just a series of pictures, she was not able to piece the story together from the pictures alone, the way the kids in Nursery do. She had learned to read by recognition/repetition – imagination was not a part of that process. She could “read” very well, but her ability to see, feel, and imagine the theatre behind the words was (and forever will be) limited.
So if we don’t teach Nursery kids to read, what do we do? What do we teach the three-year-olds?
We teach them to take turns, to be nice to each other, and to communicate clearly and confidently. And we start the development of their ability to empathize – “Why is that little boy crying? Is there anything I can do to help?”
Empathy is something which can and should be developed from an early age. If a child grows without fully developing their ability to empathize, then they will never be able to fully understand a different opinion, which will have an impact on their ability to learn.
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Neil A. McWilliam
Head of School - OGC Campus