When I was a kid, we had never heard of executive function. Perhaps it was talked about in the hallways of Universities somewhere, but it certainly wasn't bandied around on the playground during playdates.
However, identifying and pulling executive function as a particular skill -- something that you can teach and work on -- is one of the best things that has ever happened for children who might have just fallen on their faces thirty years ago -- or had to work five times harder than anybody else.
What is it? Executive functions are umbrella skills that work together to allow people to organize their lives, toals, and tasks. Executive functions help people initiate and complete tasks and to keep going if they encounter problems.
Executive function also inhibits inappropriate behaviors, and are an important part of fitting in socially, but usually in education, we're talking about being able to conduct things: a project, and eventually, your life.
Many of the executive function skills are associated with the frontal cortex, which literallly develops more slowly than other parts of the brain. This means that sophisticated executive functions often don't fully develop until adolescence. And finally, in old age, some executive functions appear to decline.
You use your executive function when you do things like
- plan -- whether it's a project, a paper, or a trip
- organize whatever you're planning.
- strategize -- determine what part of your project to work on first, or think about and plan details of your trip.
- actually start working on the projects, and see them through to the end.
Executive function is also associated with paying attention and remembering details.
Here are two articles about what your child needs to have developed before learning to read and write. These were written by Dr. Susan Johnson, who helped us immensely with our child.
I was reading at 4, but my brain is seriously optimized for reading. Some kids don't learn until they are 8 or older and it's OK - it doesn't mean that they have any developmental issues at all! (As a matter of fact, sometimes, in my opinion, the brighter the kid, the quirkier they are about when they speak and read.) So you can try the pre-reading and early-reading activities, but please be very careful about pushing your child too early. Keep it fun.
Pre-reading is learning the alphabet and becoming comfortable with the sounds that letters make. It's also learning to love books and being read to. Pre-reading should be NOTHING but fun.
Fun things to do with pre-readers
There are billions and billions of books to help you "prep" your kid to read, but more than anything else, it's just a mindset. Just make time and space for letters and letter sounds as part of your ordinary day and the home fun that you do. Here are some examples:
- Making pretzels in letter shapes (good snacks... and if you aren't into making bread from scratch, those frozen bread doughs work just fine.)
- Painting letters on the sidewalk & patio with water (bucket of water & assortment of painbrushes of various sizes all the way up to large housepainting brush) when it is hot.
- Finding' everything you can in the house and/or yard that begins or ends with a certain sound.
- Finding all the instances of a particular letter on the page of a book.
But the best thing that you can do with a pre-reader, is to read to them or tell them stories.
Seriously, pre-reading resources are like a giant tub filled with warm water. Just jump in and enjoy yourself!
Learning to Read
This article talks about what to pay attention to.
Before your child can learn to read
In Europe, they give a movement test to children entering school, to determine if they are ready to learn to read. Some American doctors also give this test. Ask your doctor to do so. Your child should be able to stand on one foot for over 10 seconds, tie their shoes (yes, really), skip with the opposite hand coming forward at the same time as their knee, and so forth. At 7, my child couldn't do any of this and I hadn't really noticed!
To Phonics or Not?
My son's first-grade teacher (who had about three years of experience) "didn't believe in phonics." Idiocy is always frustrating.
I ran into a wonderful article by a teacher with 30 years of experience who answered the "phonics or not" question once and for all. She said that when children are very young, their brains cannot handle phonics, but they CAN memorize whole words. So for very young children learning some words, whole words is good. However, she said, as a child gets older, the child should learn phonics. I like this approach.
I am a phonics fan. I have heard terrible things about people who used the "whole word" method in teaching children to read, so it's my opinion that if your child needs teaching (as opposed to just learning to read almost by osmosis), then give them the tools. Teach 'em what sound "em" makes.
We use a warmup series on the wall for my somewhat recalcitrant son. It has the following:
onth orwill ogthem amthere an my iskitty it yucky
I made this list up because my son would pick fights while reading, until I realized that he needed to "warm up" before he started. So now he reads the wall. Once he's read the wall, his brain has started to "shake hands" with his body and we can start (this is how I explained it to him.) Works like a charm.
Another amazing technique
A friend of mine whose child went to Laurel School in Menlo Park described to me how her child learned to read. Apparently the teacher taught the children phonics and attached each phonetic to a body movement. She taught the kids to get up and "dance" the sounds. Finally, after the kids had learned this, she had a box of real books and the kids just started reading.
I'm not too ultra-clear on her technique, but it seemed like a very clear and body-level understanding of sounds and phonics happened before the kids even started to learn to read.
More reading techniques
More interesting techniques for learning to read Check this one out: It's called Ball-Stick-Bird. I think that this would have helped a lot with my child.
A friend of mine sent me this set from Germany, and my son uses it to practice German. It's a set of manipulatives that teaches phonics in English.
The Beginning Reader
My child's wonderful preschool, where they made everything themselves, made a series of books that were used by the beginning readers. They were perfect for young children and I still have them.
They took pieces of paper that were about four inches by one and a half inches, and created a book for each word ending. One book was the EE book. Each page listed a word that ended with EE. SEE, BEE KNEE... and so forth. They found some old wallpaper, and cut out a piece that was eight inches by one and a half inches, wrapped it around to make a cover, and stapled the book. Each child had their own set of books to practice EE, OW, OOD, and so forth. The children loved the books.
This was the Thistlegarten preschool in Redwood City, by the way, which continues to be one of the most creative places that I've found in the Silicon Valley. Oddly enough, achievement seems to be pushed more than creativity for the Silicon Valley's young ones. Too bad for the future of innovation!
Of course my child resisted the books. But a year or so later, I started him on the Bob books, and they worked quite well.
The Bob books come in a little box, as a set. They also come with a status poster and some stars, which I found very helpful. Here are some mommybloggers reviewing the books. Although it worked for me, remember that you don't have to buy these types of books. You can make your own! Get them out of the library to figure out what levels to start with, let your child decorate their own books, and so forth.
My son began reading the Bob books when he was seven. That's because his school didn't teach reading until then. But we are teaching children to read earlier and earlier, so if you want to be normal and let your kid learn to read at 7, sometimes they get frustrated by infantile topics.
Once we finished the Bob readers, we went immediately to the Scooby Doo box,which my son loved.
The value of comics, or graphic novels, for developing readers
After the Scooby Doo box, my son developed a love for comic books. Reading theorists say that the beginning reader isn't very good at creating pictures in their mind about what they are reading, so a comic book helps with this. However, we have been telling stories to my child for years and reading to him as well, and another reading specialist told me that my son actually made pictures in his brain perfectly well. He just, it turned out, had trouble with the letters because of dyslexia.
(Note: this is kind of a big deal. Your child needs to understand the words they read in addition to being able to read them. Make sure that you read lots of books to your kid because you're bolstering their vocabulary. It turns out that my son's comprehension is 98%, his vocabulary is 3 years over grade level, and now we're working on helping his brain translate letters into reading. Apparently some children will sound out the words but have no idea what they are saying. Every brain is different.)
I presume that my child will have a lifelong love of comics. Many people do. Have you checked out the graphic novels lately? Do it. Go into a comic store. It will blow your mind.
graphic novels for ages 7 and up - list from a school of education
Here is a wonderful downloadable book called The Secret Origin of Good Readers
The Beginning/Intermediate Reader
By "beginning/intermediate," I actually mean "pretty good at decoding but before chapter book." If you go to a chain store like Borders, you can buy books in "level 1, level 2, level 3," and so forth. Right now, we're at level 3.
The value of Captain Underpants
My son loves the Captain Underpants and the Robbie the Robot books. These books are good for several things. First off, they are disgusting enough to keep any 7 or 8 year old involved. Secondly, they are in comic book form, interspersed with text. This allows the children who do not yet visualize as they read to grasp what's happening, and lets them also start with immediate success - they can start by reading what is happening in the comics. My son started this way and is moving on to understanding more of the other text as well. Amazing how some things that I once viewed as a clenched-jaw "I will never allow this in my home" things I now see as relatively benificient social bonding tools (e.g. Pokemon cards), and as a valuable "thin edge of the wedge" ways of helping my son into learning.
There is also such a difference between the "little miss good" approach that I had when I was a child, where I would work and work to learn things (and get complimented), versus the "am not wild about school and have more valuable things to do than try to learn" approach. Another lesson for me? Both of these approaches are extremely normal. (I have been hit over the head since birth by the "gender role nazi mommies" saying "boys and girls are EXACTLY THE SAME" (balony!), so I am wincing before writing the following, but here goes:) Besides, it's a relatively normal boy-thing to not love school.
Often, "Intermediate" means "chapter book. In my case, "intermediate" means "can create images of what they are reading in their heads. Or "easy chapter book."
Here's a learning method that you can use with your intermediate reader.
The neurological impress method is when you read with a child, or when you both track what you're reading together (e.g. with your finger under the word.) My mother is a teacher and she told me that moving from decoding to fluency can be hard for some kids. One of the techniques that they used in her school (she taught continuation high school) was to read along with the child, at exactly the same speed. While a beginning reader might read in a halting monotone, however, the more experienced reader reads with expression. Gradually, this method will help halting readers achieve more confidence, expression, and fluidity.
We're not quite at the "senior" reading stage, and I personally don't know what that means. I was an early reader and remember specifically that I read every single Sherlock Holmes story when I was 9. So for me, the "senior reading" went directly to that type of thing.
There are some really fun librarian blogs out there. Tandem Insights, for example, has a "books of the week" feature for each level of reader. It's written by librarians and teachers who really know their stuff.
Literacy is priceless has links to free reading resources.
Merriam Webster has some relatively fun games to help children with synonyms, antonyms, and sentence completion. OK, they're not all that fun. But perhaps your child will like them.
My son's reading tutor tells me that spelling comes AFTER reading. We're still waiting :-). Actually, my son's spelling is gradually getting better and better, but we'll still need to pay attention to it. However, for now, we're not worrying about it. Here is an interesting link talking about all of the things that a young reader needs to know before they can spell successfully.