In Broca’s Brain Carl Sagan offered the following wisdom, “We are an intelligent species and the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.”
While our brain has served us well in comprehending the world, only recently have we begun to understand the marvelous machinery of the human brain. In the coming decades understanding its workings will prove invaluable in altering the educational process.
Apparently, the brain is hard at work seeking order in the world much earlier than anyone previously believed. It is now known that a mother’s recorded heartbeat will pacify a distraught newborn while a stranger’s recorded heartbeat does not.
Record the babbling of six-month-old infants in their cribs and anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of linguistics can likely determine which language is spoken in the ambient culture. The sound production of babies is clearly not random noise. The phonetic system of the surrounding language is unmistakably present in the utterances of infants.
It is clear that the acquisition of spoken language begins almost immediately after, if not prior to, leaving the birth canal.
One method of teaching music to toddlers, the Suzuki method, involves training toddlers and parents, taking the lessons together, to play a musical instrument by ear. Typically, the children enhance their self-esteem as they quickly outpace their parents in the acquisition of musical skills. Brain researchers have recently established that children who start this method at three years of age exhibit an extra lobe on the brain by adolescence. An intellectual stimulus inspires a physical growth response!
Ninety percent of those possessing this extra lobe “acquire” perfect-pitch, or the otherwise rare ability to name any frequency they hear.
We can only wonder if the extra “fold” in Albert Einstein’s parietal lobe grew as a result of his precocious contemplation on the nature of electro-magnetism and the “invisible” force of gravity…
On the other end of the brain-function spectrum are found so-called “feral” children. Across the centuries several children have by unfortunate happenstance arrived at adolescence completely deprived of familial nurturing and social intercourse. Despite decades of remediation, none have learned to communicate anything meaningful by speech beyond the level of the simple mimicry of sounds.
These anecdotes from disparate sources, and others too numerous to be treated here, suggest that there may be finite windows-of-opportunity for optimizing brain function in certain domains. Many of those windows open and close in the years between birth and the current age for starting school.
Do you want to see improved performance in our public schools? Do you want to make the most important investment that can be made in the lives of children? Do you feel the need to do really good works and serve others?
- Read to children.
- Read to your children.
- Read to your grandchildren.
- Read to your neighbor’s children.
Tell everyone you know to read to every child they know every day for as long as possible. Start conversations with children by asking them what they have read lately.
Start reading to children when they are in the crib. Give infants your “face-time”. Let babies watch you form sounds. Watch them try to mimic the movements of your face. Imitation is the first learning skill. It is how children learn to operate their speech equipment.
Sit beside them and read the newspaper, or even your bills. Play with your voice and make it sound like a story. At that age the meaning is not as important as the stimulation of the sound of your voice.
As they get older start including rhymes…
- Read to children at your school.
- Read to children at your pool.
- Do not let children play the fool!
- Teach your children that reading’s cool!
As soon as children are willing and able, have them read to you. Make it fun and praise them mightily. Make it a priority to spend a lot more time with, and a little less money on, the children in your life. Shoes and toys will be discarded; memories and knowledge will endure.
Children, like everyone else, do best what they do most. Their future success, like it or not, will likely be determined by how well they read. How well children read will be determined in no small part by the importance the adults in their lives attach to the act of reading. Make sure that children see you reading. Lock the television in the closet and bring it out on special occasions; make books a part of daily life.
Or, television could be used for a higher purpose. Perhaps the Prince George’s County Public Schools could produce a show for cable called Bedtime Stories. It could spotlight a different teacher every night reading a story to a small group of children settling in for a nap. The show could be subtitled, or the text could be displayed on split screen. The teacher would model the behaviors of effective readers. Teachers in the schools could assign it as homework, and perhaps little brothers and sisters would be caught up in the fun.
Perhaps this would help reach into households where the marginal literacy of adult caregivers precludes children from achieving their innate potential.
The intellectual stimuli that induce the reading explosion must occur well prior to registration at school. An introduction to the foundational precursors of reading must occur long before the introduction of a kindergarten teacher. Preschoolers who lack reading skills arrive way back in the pack at the starting line, unprepared for the race to come, and condemned to more than a decade of trying to gain ground on the more advantaged.
Some years ago a bumper sticker declared, “If you can read this, thank a teacher!” A new message is needed for a more enlightened age. “Help a teacher, read this to your child.”
[ Originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on 07 November 2001. It has been slightly revised for style and readability.]