Early readers: The Easy Tip of a Very Complex Iceberg

Recently a mom wrote asking about an issue many parents would love to be facing; namely, what to do for an early reader. Currently, with her two year old who is already reading, she “just leaves books out and waits for him to ask to read me one, He seems happy to read one or two sentences and then loses interest.” She wanted to know if she “should encourage him to go beyond a few pages, or just let him keep going at his own pace.”

The question is an excellent one on its own. However it’s also relevant to a host of issues in learning. While not given much attention, there are two very different pathways to learning. The first is self-directed learning; the second is other-directed learning. Both play major roles in our lives.

For example, children are born with an enormous drive to master the world. This means that babies are primed for endless self-directed learning. Without it, they would never be able to master the skills needed to function effectively. Think for a moment of a baby about one year of age. He may have a few words and understand a few phrases — but overall his language skills are minimal. By five years of age, however, he is a totally different soul — one who has mastered thousands of words, speaks in long, complicated sentences, and understands a vast range of ideas that he hears. In the absence of self-directed learning, this would never be achieved.

Self-directed learning has amazing advantages since it allows the learner tremendous control over what happens and how things progress. It would be great if we could rely solely on self-directed learning, but we can’t. There are many skills that have to be mastered — even when we have no particular interest in doing that. Consider traffic signals as but one simple example. Children may not find them of any interest, but their survival requires them to learn what they are all about

Now how does all this apply to reading? Though it’s not true of the two year old that the mom has inquired about, for most children the attainment of reading relies on other-directed learning. That’s why we have schools. At the same time, that’s why schools face so many of the problems that stymie them. They need to rely on other directed learning—and a host of problematic behaviors accompany this form of learning.

For example, the learners have to be willing and able to sustain attention to another person (i.e., the teacher) and to the content that the other person is aiming to impart—even when the motivation to do so is not very strong. By contrast, when a child elects to focus on reading and chooses this realm as one of his self-directed learning areas, these issues from the world of other-directed learning never arise. The child, as in all self-directed learning, will keep pressing ahead.

So this brings us to the mom’s question. She’s absolutely on target in sitting back and letting the child “go at his own pace.” Progress is going to happen just by the nature of the situation.

But self-directed learning is only one portion of a child’s development. It’s the portion that makes life easy for parents. By contrast, other-directed learning is far more complicated. It concerns many of the less pleasant aspects of parenting where we have to put into place lots of components that hold no particular appeal for children—even though their mastery is essential for their success as human beings. How to make this happen will be the focus of many future blogs.