Reading the World – before Reading the Word


We live in a world where there seems to be a constant rush, a push to take our children out of the physical, experiential world, and into the limiting world of print. Don’t get me wrong – I am a reader, and love words, both spoken and in printed form. I teach young children, and one of my responsibilities, and joys, is to provide the skills needed to become a reader in a written world. But, we have at least five senses, and humans learn everything we need simply by being human up until we are about five years old.


We learn to use to our environment for cues to tell us when food is available – maybe that’s mom we hear in the kitchen, the smell of food, the sound of an adult who provides us with food, the smell of an individual or a food source… we know that what we need can be provided by the environment we are experiencing, and we don’t need to read about it to know and trust that information.


We learn to trust our instincts by testing out a gut feeling, and having it confirmed or denied. We develop our physical bodies by trial and error. We use our vision to learn about colours, textures, how things work, the connection between two or more things. Humans are born knowing how to Read the World, and that is how we learn to survive and thrive in it.


Movement of our bodies in the physical world helps our brains remember and retain important information, and prepares our bodies and muscles to interact with and react to stimulation.


In indigenous cultures, children begin their learning by knowing 1000’s of plants and animals, understanding the connections between those organisms, and how they support human activity. Every sense is used in this exploration of the living and nonliving world. In these settings, knowing and respecting the environment and everything in it, is the most important skill to have. Even when a writing system is used, the images and sounds are a reflection of the natural and social world of the individual or group.

Read the world
Exploring and observing.

In Scandinavian cultures, the practice in the past has been to allow young children to develop basic life skills in a forest setting, by exploring, building, observing, listening, smelling, and negotiating – with nature itself, and with other people in their shared interactions with their setting. There is also a belief in these cultures, supported by concepts such as Brain Gym and Bal-A-Vis-X, that say that experiential learning and big body movements like crawling, climbing, swinging, rolling, jumping and walking are the first vital steps in preparing the brain for later learning. These activities help the brain make connections. They allow us to use both sides of our brain together in stressful or dangerous situations. Our physical activities develop these pathways, and we develop strategies to help us use past information and apply it to new situations.   These skills are important not only for human survival, but for formal learning to occur. Once our bodies and brains learn to work together, we can then be prepared to begin higher level learning, such as learning to read, to retain factual information, to think critically, and to remain creative in problem solving.

However, this has not been the philosophy in our modern-day educational systems. I began my teaching career as a teenager, working with both very young children, and older children with learning or physical challenges. In the last 30 years, I have seen a consistent shift in how we allow children to develop skills. There has been a move to have children reading words before they are five years old. For many, reading and writing is being pushed before they have developed physical skills and coordination. It is being stressed as more important that riding a bike, balancing, swimming, building, imagining, creating. It is seen as more vital than developing relationships and problem solving. It has forced children to stop ‘doing’, and just sit still.   Hence, ADHD/ADD are now commonplace, and are seen as a reflection of a child not being able to manage himself, of being a problem for the system that they should fit into. Perhaps we need to look at the system. We need to recognize that if the body and brain are not fully developed and integrated, then no amount of rote learning will work. If we have a writing system with abstract symbols and sounds, unconnected to our daily life, we are forcing children to not only learn a new language, but to learn it with no connection to our picture of the world as we have learned it early in life.

Creek Exploring
Always exploring.

So, how do we go about developing reading skills in a holistic way? How do we learn to accept when a child is ready, and what do we do when he is not? First, we keep playing. We take kids out of the classroom, and into nature, or the physical world. We build on strengths, and use those as a vehicle to where we hope to get to. I’d like to start by sharing my own personal journey of teaching a resistant reader, both as a homeschool mom, and as a teacher. One of my own children struggled with reading. This was difficult for me, coming from a background where I taught hundreds of children to read.


He was so resistant, and so unhappy when we tried learning in conventional ways. It tested our relationship since I was both his mother, and his teacher. It tested our family dynamics, and most of all, it eroded his own confidence in himself as a learner. So, I had to step back and reevaluate the reasons for reading, and the pacing of that skill. He wasn’t ready, and forcing him was doing more harm than good.


So, we started a new journey. After, taking a Brain Gym workshop, I decided to focus on building real skills – ways of communicating, of getting information, and ways to connect those pathways. And more importantly, ways to take down the walls we had built, and replace those with confidence and problem solving strategies. As a young child, he would watch Mr. Dressup on TV, and then half an hour later, create some form of art related to what he saw. At four years old, he would go into our basement and make stained glass pieces as gifts, build dioramas independently showing aspects of our lives, sew toys or clothes, build things from wood or whatever he could find. He did this with no help from us. He is a self-starter, and knew how to learn, how to create, how to respond to the world. We gave him free access to a basement full of art supplies, building materials, a work shop, a sewing machine and lots of recyclables. He is and was an active, imaginative, and creative child.


He was making progress in gymnastics, and so we began to build on the skills he had. We bought a trampoline and a unicycle. He learned to ride by spending hours outside in our neighbourhood. He took lessons and practiced the trampoline every day. He went to circus school, and learned to juggle. Before we knew it, he was teaching all the kids in the neighbourhood how to safely use the trampoline. He could juggle while riding the unicycle. He soon moved into devil sticks, and later, adding fire – yes a bit scary, but a challenge he met with determination. I highly recommend Arenex Gymnastics programs in New Westminster for all kids, but especially those who show us they are not ready to read.


He was also interested in food of all types. We had a home based business, and he became our greeter, baker and food service provider. This was the beginning of breaking down the walls, building confidence and individuality, and building the brain’s pathways.


Once he was school aged, he developed coping mechanisms. I had a colleague say they had never met a child so able to take in information using all their senses – viewing, listening, questioning, experimenting, speaking…all without the ability to read. I would read for him, scribe for him, and taught him how to use pictures and headings to pull information from text books. We cooked together, and took cooking classes through the Adult Learning programs offered then through the Continuing Education programs at NWSS. He took part in Destination Imagination (DI) activities at New Westminster Homelearners program, eventually becoming a volunteer mentor in teaching classes to younger children. DI focuses on problem solving in groups developing creative and imaginative solutions, and limited recyclables and acting. And, we gave him choice…the right to choose how and when to move into the next phase of literacy. He chose to take a creative writing class, and to work with a younger peer group, because he was ready to build those skills. He recognized he needed to develop those stepping-stones that he had not yet put in place.

Learning to navigate the city.

Later, when beginning high school, he started with the grade 11 Cafeteria Program at NWSS as a grade nine student. He had already gotten himself a job in a restaurant at 13, and had moved up from dishwasher to a line chef position. The year he decided to ‘go to real school’, we spent the summer studying for his Food Safe test, and I invigilated his exam, which he passed with 99%. He read and answered all but one question independently. And now, he determined that he really did need to improve his reading. He was ready to use that skill in order to advance his real passion. In grade 10, he told me that he wanted to take the regular grade 10 English Course, rather than an adapted program. He said, “ Mom, this is my time to get good at this. If I have to do it twice, that’s OK. I chose to wait, but now I am ready.” He did do it twice, with the support of excellent and dedicated teachers, and myself. But mostly, he did it through his own determination. He went on to get himself into the Sigma Program to allow him to work at his own pace, as well as working close to full-time in the restaurant industry. Then he got into the Professional Cook and Apprenticeship program, attending VCC at 17, and returning an extra year to finish his grade 12.

Brothers who learn together, stay together.

It was a long journey, but, had we pushed the reading before all other skills, would he have become the confident, creative, self motivated individual he is today? I don’t believe he would have. It is important to know that we never stopped teaching reading skills. I kept reinforcing patterns and rules, modeling reading, and demonstrating the reasons and ways reading can enrich and inform our lives. It just wasn’t the first or only skill we focused on. In this way, he could fall back on a rule when it was needed or important, when he was ready for it. If we constantly expose kids to ideas or opportunities, then allow for experiencing and exploration it helps them build knowledge, and to make it their own. When humans are engaged in experiential learning, anchored in the physical world, they are able to build on past understanding. In my personal and professional experience, individuals that are fully engaged in learning through all their senses, and that are provided with choice in how and what they learn, often will become self-directed learners, initiating the next step, by seeking out a learning opportunity, by advocating what they need from an educational experience.


Tomorrow, I will talk more about how to work with kids by focussing first on Reading the World as a means to Reading the Word.