tod3I once did a small research study on young children’s attitudes to themselves as readers. The pre-schoolers I interviewed tended to think they were good readers. After all, they could tell the story (the author’s or their own version) by turning the pages of a book. Some could even re-tell the story with their eyes shut. They were confident they knew what a word was although in reality distinguishing between sounds, words and sentences defeats many a much older child.

The point is, they were unaware of what they did not know and were blithely ignorant of the various aspects of the acquisition of literacy.

5 and 6 year olds, by contrast, were woefully unsure of themselves as readers – or even potential readers on the whole. reading difficultiesMany declared they were unable to read and regarded the process of learning as a hard slog unmitigated by any enjoyment or even future reward.

I am not claiming that this was a valid or reliable study – it was too small-scale and qualitative for one thing – but it does demonstrate how some youngsters thought about reading in a particular area about 10 years ago. I’d be curious whether a similar study today would elicit different attitudes.  A greater emphasis on active learning, access to a wider variety of texts and genres and a deeper understanding that children need phonological awareness before they can learn phonics may mean that children are more at ease with the notion that reading is about meaning first and foremost.

The bigger point is that every child is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. The toddler in my extended family constantly fell down the step in my hall. Unperturbed, she picked herself up numerous times and continued to strive to take all the books off even the highest shelves. She never decided it was all too much or not worth the effort. She didn’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating herself. She walked, tumbled, got up. She just carried on learning until she’d cracked it.

By contrast, her older sister’s exuberant approach to life and learning is diminishing. She has started Primary 1. Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem.  That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.  (Thomas Szasz) The 5 year old is beginning to evaluate herself against others, and is finding herself wanting at times. She is beginning to be afraid of not being smart enough.

Hers is not an uncommon experience I think. Through no one’s fault, she is judging herself and her peers with set criteria . She could be in danger of rejecting opportunities to learn. Sometimes messages from parents, teachers and the wider community conspire to give children the impression that kids who are successful don’t make mistakes; they are always clever.

It is important that we encourage her – and her peers too of course – not just to seek challenge but to thrive on it. Just like her little sister, she needs to be given puzzles and tasks that are within the zone of proximal development (i.e. not too hard, not too easy. Just right, like Goldilocks). These will help her stretch herself, her brain, her muscles (intellectual and physical) so that she understands that learning is not about immediate perfection. It’s about working at something over time; confronting a challenge and making progress.

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Carol Dweck’s book, ‘Mindset’, states this very clearly. It’s familiar territory, as I wrote when I summarised my reaction to her keynote presentation at SLF09. However, since listening to Dweck and reading more about Mindsets, I realise that I fall into the trap of rewarding cleverness rather than effort all too often. And if I believe, as I do, that children can change Mindsets from fixed to growth, then I must also believe that I am capable of change too! (It will be easier in the realm of ideas than sport for me I fear!). I’ll keep on working on it.

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