The Joy of Text

I wanted to call this article ‘Why Daughter Tall’s English Homework takes 37 seconds, whereas her Chinese homework takes 37 minutes’, but that seemed a bit much.

Never the less, most nights it’s more or less true.

Daughter Tall is deep into her second year of kindergarten. (For those of you outside Hong Kong, this means she’s four, and she’s attending what would be her second year of pre-school in the USA, for example.) This year has seen a sharp shift from last year’s happy-go-lucky three-year-old’s lifestyle, in which she had little or no homework. Now she’s got some pretty much every night – usually a bit of English, e.g. one letter of the alphabet to practice writing; some very simple arithmetic; and of course a new Chinese character to write just about every night.

The Chinese homework was not so terrible until we hit a little milestone at about mid-school-year. Admittedly, Daughter Tall had some initial struggles last autumn holding a pencil in a way conducive to the production of actual marks on paper, but thankfully she overcame them quickly. And the initial characters she learned were simple, usually comprising just a few strokes. Daughter Tall’s roadblock? Learning to write her own name! I don’t think her name is outrageously complicated, it’s just that its characters are all an order of magnitude or two more complex than any of the introductory characters she’d been learning to write.

Her school was not too harsh – she learned to write the characters one at a time, of course, with several days’ practice for each before she had to tackle the next one. But in the first few days in which her name was her homework, Daughter Tall was taking a long, long time to get through the dozen or so repetitions of the character required. I discovered there are just so many ways in which writing a character can go wrong. You can make a stroke incorrectly, e.g. not straight enough, or in the wrong direction. You can make the strokes in the wrong order. You can start writing the character as a whole in the wrong spot within the little box you’re given (this is particularly hard for Daughter Tall; it seems to require a kind of spatial reasoning she’s either not quite ready for, or at which she’s not talented). You can write the whole character more or less correctly, only to discover that one of its parts is out of proportion to the others, or misaligned.

Eventually, Daughter Tall did master (more or less) all three characters in her name. And now there’ve been quite a few days’ homework in which she does nothing but write her complete name over and over. She’s actually pretty quick at it now – last night, under her father’s admittedly less-than-watchful eye, she cranked out eight copies of her name in about 10 or 15 minutes, which didn’t seem bad at all. (Of course she had to re-do about six characters when Mrs Tall arrived home and despaired at her husband’s lexical laxity.)

Watching Daughter Tall begin scaling the mountain of Chinese literacy has certainly been instructive. It has awakened in me an ever-greater appreciation of that Sumerian genius who decided that, what the hey, maybe we could come up with some kind of shorthand for the sounds that make up words – why go to the trouble of drawing all the hieroglyphics those Egyptians insist upon! I was not exaggerating when I implied that most nights it takes Daughter Tall a matter of a minute or two to do her English homework, since it’s just writing alphabetical characters, which are stunningly simple when compared to just an average Chinese character.

Second, it’s made me appreciate even more the phonetic approach to teaching reading. Ironically, in recent years in the USA the ‘whole language’ (aka ‘look-say’) method of teaching reading, in which beginning readers are encourage to identify whole words by repetition and context, has been on the ascendant and now dominates most schools of education and many primary school systems. For me the bottom line is: if you’ve got the advantage of alphabetical letters representing discrete sounds, you are utterly foolish if you don’t teach children to take advantage of this! Why teach alphabetical words as pictograms, which is essentially what the whole language approach advocates? I suspect spending one evening’s homework time with the Tall family might change a lot of minds on this issue!

Daughter Tall’s modest struggles have also made me wonder how long the current craze for teaching Mandarin to schoolchildren in western countries is going to last. When you see the effort it takes to learn to read and write Chinese, even for an eager young child who’s still in the prime age range for language acquisition, you wonder how many kids in Brooklyn and Birmingham are going to be willing to devote themselves in the same way. Good luck to their happy parents!


phonics cont.

Sorry, that was rather an obscure link! But it is a really good one on the absolute latest research (in the real world) on Phonics.
In the UK, most schools were given 6 months to retrain their kindergarten teachers to switch to a synthetic phonics method of teaching reading. Out here it seems only the commercial outfits have cottoned on to the fact that it works, since most (Int'l) schools are still doing a hodge podge of whole word, phonics and a bit of whatever. Phonics does really work. My 5 year old has spontaneously started reading recently, without any assistance from me, except that I always give the letters / letter combinations their phonic sound rather than "name". We've also used a little DVD called "jolly phonics" which is a bit naf, but very effective.

Can't agree more on the texting issue. As an adult I'm struggling with my 2x a week 2 hours mandarin plus about 2 hours a week homework. And we haven't even really started writing!
Funny about children's names. My daughter really cursed me initially since she was the ONLY child in her class with 7 letters in her (English) name. You're right on the kids overseas, without a chinese mama I don't know how they're going to master it all. Esp. with the discipline issues in europe / UK.
My daughter really loves her mandarin classes, she has a nice teacher, and at the moment the pressure is not on yet ... plus both my husband, myself and her brother are also learning.

Self-esteem or hard work?

First off, thanks to Gweipo for the links/comments -- I couldn't agree more. I'm so glad my own childhood teachers were reactionary phonics-lovin' types; this was really not the case for many at the time. I'm also pleased to see it making a solid comeback, hopefully once and for all!

I came across another article today that's fascinating, and perfectly applicable to the debate we've been having on this site between the prevailing western style of education/teaching, which encourages more 'natural' learning with lots of attention paid to children's self-esteem, and the more traditional 'grind it out' approach to learning Chinese characters. Particularly apposite were some comments made by SKMama on another thread about how westerners tend to attribute academic success to innate ability, while Chinese people place a much higher value on sheer effort. This article takes up both of those themes, in ways we westerners might find very surprising indeed.

Reading article

Just to follow up on this teaching-reading theme, here's a link to a fascinating article reprinted from the LA Weekly on the 'reading wars' in California. It is a wake-up call to parents who blindly trust educational 'experts' to know what's best for kids.

Note that the article is in two parts; there's a link to part 2 in the left-hand menu of part 1, or here.

right on for hard work

I'm right behind you on the hard work thing. Wasn't it Einstein who said that Genius was 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration?
What I am a little concerned about though is WHEN the hard work should start. I'm still behind the idea of "the age of reason" which seems throughout the ages to have stood at around 7, for the right time to start the hard work, practise and drilling.
And I'll quote the whole of Brazelton on "pushing" children too early academically. It is important for them to get emotional development, self control and social skills when they are young. Don't forget that HK and Japan and other Asian nations which put pressure on their children still have very high youth suidide rates! : here goes!

Touchpoints (Chapter 13 - 3 years) by T. Berry Brazelton
"Play, not reading, should be focus of early childhood. In the pressured world of families today, many parents of preschool-aged children wonder when to begin teaching them to read and write. My response: Don’t, until they demand it. It’s all too easy to overdo teaching letters and numbers. To me, the timing is not as important as the child’s own desire to learn. It’s so easy to push early learning on a child who is compliant at this age. But it does more harm than good. We’ve known this for some time. In the 1960s there was a movement toward early teaching, led by a professor at Yale, Dr. O.K. Moore. He felt that if children could be taught early to read and write, they’d be more competitive when they entered school. This was true – up to a point. In order to please adults around them, 3-year-olds could learn to read and write successfully. They didn’t seem to know what they were reading, but they could do it. When they reached first grade, they were ahead of other children, and they received the adult approval they needed. But many of these “precocious” children hadn’t learned the skills they needed to get along with peers. They were adult oriented. In the second and third grades, these children began to slip. The rote learning processes they’d used to learn earlier didn’t generalize to the more complex learning they needed in later grades. They seemed stuck with more primitive learning methods. These unfortunate children then hit bottom. They were not the stars any longer, other children had deserted them and adults were disappointed. This left them feeling sad and deserted. Despite this and later evidence that such precocious early training is costly, many parents are still eager to give children a “head start.” Books and programs promising ways to “teach your baby to read” continue to proliferate. I strongly urge parents to stay away from them. A child learns best who learns for herself, not others. Play is her way of learning. When she learns by play, she tries different techniques to find out what works for her. When she can’t achieve something she is interested in doing,she gets frustrated. Frustration drives her to find out how to do it.
When she finally does it, she gets a wonderful feeling: “I did it myself!”, that is the most rewarding fuel for future learning there is. Ambitious parents must learn to watch the child, to stay in the background and let her learn for herself. It’s difficult but necessary. A parent’s job is to admire, approve and even encourage, but not to push. Choosing a preschool can be done with the same philosophy in mind. Play is the powerful way children learn their most important tasks at this age – how to play with other children, how to handle other adults and how to learn about
themselves as social people. The tasks of this age group are enormous: 
* experiencing socialization
* learning about aggression
*learning how to identify with everyone around them

They are emotional tasks, not cognitive ones. I'd choose a preschool for the people who run it and who interact with the children, not for the learning program. If there's pressure to perform and to learn, there may be too little time for children to learn about themselves. Parents should go to school and watch - see firsthand how much time the children have for undirected play and for learning about themselves as people. Learning about oneself and about one’s peers is the best learning that parents can provide in these preschool years. The one thing I’d like for all the children to feel about themselves at this age is, “I’m important! Everyone likes me!”

Mandarin in the USA

I came across this article in the NYT today about the continuing push to integrate Mandarin teaching into some US schools. I love the article's breathless tone as it solemnly notes that a couple of girls who have been studying Chinese for years "bargained over prices of store goods and ordered meals in Chinese" on a trip to NY's Chinatown.

Seriously, I shouldn't be so snide -- although I suspect these two were cherry-picked for the article as the best Mandarin students in their school, their accomplishment shouldn't be slighted; learning even that much Chinese in an environment in which it's impossible to immerse is no small feat. And since both say they plan to study Chinese at university, there's a real chance their school's program has made a significant difference in their lives.

This article was brought to my attention by Joanne Jacobs, one of my favorite edbloggers. I also encourage you to read the comments to the blog post in which she introduced the NYT article; the comment by one Amritas is a virtual primer on language acquisition.