This is going to be shocking, so please hold on to something steady: kids learn at different paces.
Wait, there’s more…They learn from doing things, rather than just being told how to do things.
And here’s the most terrifying, overwhelming part: they don’t really need to be “taught.”
Lisa Nielsen, the well-known education and technology expert, writes about how problematic standardized reading tests are. They fail to measure how well a student will be able to read (which is usually quite well, given some time and support), and instead place enormous amounts of pressure on students to be at the same level as their peers, even when we have plenty of information about how the factors that influence when students will begin to read fluently have nothing to do with the classroom.
And what about writing? Nielsen worries that too much emphasis is being placed on formalized written communication. She suggests that writing doesn’t feel relevant for students, because their projects stay within the classroom, rather than relating to the world outside it. They could be writing blogs and columns and letters to the editor. But they write essays that begin with a thesis statement, are followed with two points in defense of the thesis, then a counterpoint, a summary, and a neat conclusion.
She asked me how I learned to write. Which is something I remember much better than I remember a lot of things that happened that long ago.
But first, this is how I learned to read: my parents read to me. All the time.
(My dad was a pro at reading this one. source)
Books were exciting and mysterious and magical. I don’t know a single unschooled kid who didn’t learn to love reading. We learned at different ages, of course, but no one had to take a test, and so no one got left behind.
Teachers are sometimes amazed to learn that a kid who started reading at four and a kid who started learning at twelve will read with the same fluency at thirteen.
As the founder and leader of The Manhattan Free School, Pat Werner recently explained to a group of educators, kids never stop learning. They are learning all along. They don’t “learn to read” the moment when they pick up a book and can sound out the words. They’ve been processing relevant information since they were born, and that moment is only the moment when the information begins to fit together in a way others can plainly observe and categorize.
My mother worked with me, showing me how to shape letters with my pen. And then she gave me a journal. Every day, from the time I turned seven or so, I wrote a sentence or two in my journal. I wrote about my life. What toys I wanted for the next big holiday. Why my brother had hurt my feelings. How much it was snowing. How much I enjoyed going to the Sam’s Club because of the free snacks they gave out. Lots of scintillating, forbidden, and provocative pieces about my secret desire for more ice cream. The subject matter wasn’t the point– what was important was my connection to it.
(I always wanted one that looked like this. source)
Later, when I was nine or so, I wrote stories about stories. Stories inspired by the books we were reading together and I was reading on my own. And I illustrated those stories. There aren’t very many stories from that time in my life that aren’t accompanied by marker and colored pencil sketches of princesses in gowns speckled with fat pearls. I don’t know why, but they always had pearls on their dresses. I think that meant they were really rich.
It seems like I shouldn’t have any concept of grammar. Mom used to sit me down with a purple grammar book, and one with a picture of an owl on the cover. I memorized a string of prepositions once. But we weren’t thorough. And we didn’t need to be. I already knew how to write in complete sentences. Grammar was memorization. It was meaningless. Writing was expression. It was natural.
I learned grammar from every book I read, from the way my parents spoke, from Mom reading over what I wrote and saying, “Why does this sound wrong? What would you change to make it sound right?” Grammar is what sounds right. You know how words fit together when you read for hours every day. You also get pretty good at punctuating.
My very smart schooled friends sometimes make grammar jokes that I don’t get. They reference past participles, dangling modifiers, and synecdoches. I put in a polite laugh and nod to show that I’m educated. And then when I write something that doesn’t seem right I read it aloud. How does it sound?
My grammar isn’t perfect. But not a single college professor has ever had a problem with it. Freshman year, one of them even nominated me for a writing fellowship.
It sounds too simple. How can people learn things if they aren’t taught the proper way? If information isn’t broken down for them into bite-sized, manageable little chunks? It’s almost like magic, and no one seems willing to believe in it. No one seems willing to believe in how much children are capable of learning and doing when they’re permitted to exist in a world where everything is interconnected.
As a kid, everything I wrote was related to my life. Everything I wrote was part of something bigger. It was never an isolated essay, it was part of a collection; a journal, an illustrated fairytale about a larger fairytale with much sturdier binding and better cover design.
Writing was connected to drawing which was connected to reading which was connected to experiencing the world which was connected to fairy princesses. The world could not be separated from writing the world. Even now, I want to write about all of the interesting things I read. Luckily, I no longer have the urge to draw princesses in pearled gowns in the margins.
So Lisa, I hope that helps answer your question.