Our children read and write short messages. They are very good at processing short texts, but uncomfortable with longer texts. My generation used to read books, the next generation read Wikipedia, and this generation reads statuses and WhatsApp. Today you may want to read here, here, here, here, here, and here.
My wife developed speedreading skills because her regular reading did not work. Anna has dyslexia. When she was 7 years old she went on vacation. Her mother requested her to read a book but the book was boring. So she was fooling around and climbing things. Then she fell. Three orthopedic operations later, the trauma and pain got associated with reading, and effectively she could not read.
Anna was trained in speedreading because she needed to develop alternative brain paths for information processing. The learning was slow, and she was stuck in all possible potholes. After 6 months she finally could read, but read differently – faster and accurately, without subvocalization. I love this story! It shows that anyone can speedread if it is sufficiently important for him.
To actually do any reasonable speedreading we need a text that is long. At least for me, it is hard to develop visual flow if I have less than 200 words. Of cause, we can chunk multiple short texts together, like we do when reviewing search results. To chunk effectively, the messages should belong to some common context.
Powerpoint presentations should not have more than 40 words per slide, otherwise, they are not professional. WhatsApp messages are just too short to develop flow. Wikipedia tends to be too dense. There are so many important details per line, that reading is typically slow.
Typically, I practiced speedreading with professional blogs (TechCrunch, SeekingAlpha, PsychologyToday) while Anna speedreads educational books. Which options are relevant for our children?
Do the children need to read?
My own children know some basic elements of speedreading, yet they do not get enough stimulation to learn more. Like my middle child said yesterday: if I want to learn something I find a well-edited video and remember everything without even trying. Most of their instructions are one or two sentences long, and they do not see a reason to read the book when they can watch the movies.
When I was young, my main modality of learning was textbooks. School textbooks, university textbooks, lecture summaries, and so on. Other modalities simply did not exist: there was no youtube, udemy, coursera. When I was in University, I used to read academic publications, typically in printed form. That was some 20 years ago.
My eldest is 13 years old. He can read 400wpm with 75% retention. I asked him if he wants to speed up, but he declined. “Why should I bother? I do not find good textbooks to learn from. For the web courses, my speed is good enough.” So I suggested he learn massive memorization. Currently, he uses the peg method with linking, which is not that good. But then again he was not motivated “I am a strict A student, and I do not even see the memorization challenges you love so much. History does not interest me beyond the school requirements and for music, my methods are good enough.”
When I was a child, a good book was the best entertainment. There were several video games, but these games were not very intellectually challenging. There were several good films and shows, but they did not provide 24/7 coverage. If I wanted to have fun, I took a book.
In fact, I loved books so much that my parents did not allow me to read except for summer vacations. They were afraid I would read instead of sleeping and doing the homework. I do not think that was a smart move, yet it made me enjoy reading even more.
My kids do not read fiction. We asked them to read for a while to develop the reading skills. So they displayed the reading skills and then asked politely to be left alone.
My kids’ life is fully gamified. They define a project, prepare, work hard, finish the project, and move on. Some projects are in computer games, others are in real life. They do not really care. For example, they love their guitars, but would not learn new songs or practice if there was no concert to perform. We constantly define actual or imaginary performances for them, because otherwise there is zero motivation.
Books are not gamified. Good authors add suspense and tension, but they cannot rival games and movies. There may be great metaphors and interesting expositions, but the graphics of today’s ray tracing visualizations is immediate and exceptional. We have the best hardware at home, so there is little motivation to activate the imagination.
So my children are academically successful, overprivileged, and overstimulated. What about other children? They do not have two experts on accelerated learning and computing powerhouse at home. What do they do?
Anna can work with anyone she chooses, yet to feel good she works with children that were expelled from normal educational systems. Some of the children are athletes and have challenging schedules. others are children of criminals and do not have good role models.
Most children are afraid of reading. Some issues were already mentioned.
- Children have a short attention span, and reading books is boring for them.
- It is easy to simply memorize stuff for the grades, and little motivation to develop deep interest.
- Nobody teaches most children how to memorize a lot of stuff, and they simply drown in information. Especially in history.
- The reading is very passive. Children do not even summarize what they read. This is a kind of copy-paste situation.
- Not enough time. There are lots of homework assignments and not enough time to do the assignments properly. Children are forced to “cut corners”.
Anna can take most children from C to A in 5 weeks. The process takes more in math and languages.
Simply more active learning does wonder:
- Summarize texts on a paper in your own words
- Actively generate questions for the text, and find answers within
- Do practice exercises using some other books, not just the books selected at school.
- Make it fun. Any sort of gamification helps.
Most children hate writing. Simply asking them to write a diary as a form to deal with issues only escalates the situation. There are several solutions: post-it note, doodling, writing on the margins. With my kids, this did not work.
Instead, we use a very visual approach. I show on paper a pattern for the solution. The visualization is similar to flowchart but less rigid. The child practices each step of the pattern, and only then starts to understand the entire pattern. This method works very well, especially in math and languages.
This is still journalling, only instead of full text we use markers for the main steps of the solution. Much less writing, faster processing, and easy to learn.
Should the children explore their fears, emotions, and thoughts? Definitely. Usually, they find it easier in Whatapp format than in a full journal.
Children should have multiple ways of expressing their feelings. Some elder children find expressive writing very helpful. They can formulate complex ideas in extended forms. What should we do when the emotion is not well-formulated or hard to face?
I think that drawing and music can help with a wider range of situations than expressive writing. Of cause, this requires the parents to provide the child with the relevant tools for expression. If the child cannot play musical instruments and does not understand the notes, musical expression is limited. When the child does not draw or doodle effortlessly, that particular modality is hard.
For example, my middle child loves to create and edit videos. So why not use this modality for his expression instead? He actually directs and produces short videos where he and his friends are the main actors. His channels are not super popular (around 1000 followers), but at least he expresses himself.
Why is writing so intimidating?
My own children fear writing. I did not find mentions of this issue elsewhere, so I will go with what I know:
- Children do more typing than writing. They simply do not practice writing as much as we used to,
- When the kids get to write, quite often it is in their workbook in a space that is too big or too small.
- Teachers are critical not only toward the content but also organization and esthetics. It is much easier to write nicely is a square notebook than in a workbook.
- Parents and teachers are obsessed with what and how children write. A large part of the participation in the class is simply writing after the teacher. Quite often children do not have the attention span to understand the teacher and write at the same time.
- Fully drafted answers tend to be very boring. There are very strict templates which are almost copied each time, and very little extra text added by the student.
It looks like the problem is the lack of unsupervised practice. Quite possibly expressive writing without parental criticism is able to provide sufficient training and fix the technique. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough stimulation and gamification for this activity,
On a positive side, once the children learn speed-typing they simply type everything they want. My kids have mechanical keyboards and type faster than talk.
Maybe writing on paper is getting outdated? There are conflicting scientific studies. I definitely type a lot more than write, and Anna writes more. Other experts are also divided.
This tends to be the most intimidating part of writing. I hate writing in Hebrew without a speller since I am more likely to make mistakes. My Russian and English are relatively clean. I acquired Hebrew when I was 14 years old and I did not have to write tens of thousands of documents in Hebrew. There are letters that look different but sound alike, and I hate making mistakes.
My boys also fear of mistakes they make writing.
The question here: should we practice spelling using various spelling training exercises, do a lot of expressive writing and learn from the speller our mistakes, or type and trust the speller?
I will let you decide. Possibly if you are multilingual, the answer is more complex…
And while you are contemplating this… How much effort should our children invest in learning proper calligraphy?
Boys read less than girls
In some reading parameters, girls are twice (!) more successful than boys, and the gap does not disappear. Why?
- Boys require higher stimulation and are less likely to sit and read
- Verbal abilities of women are generally higher, while men have better visual skills
- Early on girls are better to develop phonological awareness and letter recognition; the gap stays if no special efforts are applied
- Fathers are less likely to read to their kids, so the activity is perceived as not masculine. (This is also my fault, as I hate reading aloud.)
Once my boys became old enough, I started to tell them stories about the stuff that I read. My father also used to do it when I was a teenager. This discussion of the stuff we read tends to close the linguistic gap.
A dialog about reading is even more important than reading together. Since men are less inclined to read, we should be more inclined to talk about the stuff we read.