Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Developmental Process Works!! So Exciting!

So for about seven years now, I've been working at becoming a parent who takes a developmental perspective with her children rather than a (cognitive) behavioural approach.  If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know of some of my struggles, about some of our successes, about my passion for the work of developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, about our radical shifting of parenting style over the years.

It's all about the attachment-based developmental process which suggests that, provided the right environment, our children will develop and mature spontaneously when they are neurologically and emotionally ready to do so.

I've believed it in my head for many years already, and have demonstrated what has often felt like blind faith.  But we've seen massive changes in our children as a result, and these changes have kept us going.

But now...these days I believe the process to a much deeper level (in my heart as well as in my brain), because I'm in the midst of witnessing the developmental process at work.

Matthew just turned ten a month ago, and if he were in the public system he'd be in grade 4.  He is a very bright, philosophically-oriented, gentle-natured and highly sensitive child who is very resistant to following structure or curriculum.  Hence one of the bigger reasons we are trying unschooling this year (and, I suspect, for the foreseeable future).

I have been waiting for Matthew to read since he was five years old.  For over five years, I have offered opportunities to read, tried (mostly unsuccessfully, given his high level of resistance) to teach him little bits here and there and, most importantly, tried to provide the right environment by being relaxed about it, by trusting that someday it would happen when he was ready, and by assuring him that some day (when he was ready) he was going to be a brilliant reader.  I have ridden the roller coaster ride with him as his interest in learning how to read has ebbed and flowed (mostly ebbed) for five or six years.  And every time there's been interest, I've had to let it go again as his interest died.  Privately, I've wondered if he'd ever read.

As a believer in the developmental process, I simply kept telling myself that he wasn't ready yet.  He wasn't ready yet.  He wasn't ready yet.  But, as any parent might imagine, it's also a scary thing when your aging child shows no interest in reading and professes (as recently as four or five weeks ago) that he will never want to read and never will read.  Again, I have simply always presented a calm and relaxed and unconcerned face about it, and have assured him that this was ok because he just wasn't ready yet.  About two months ago, when he had a (very brief) moment of expressing an interest in reading, he read something that was somewhere between a grade 1 and grade 2 level, and it was very basic, very stilted/halted reading.

Then, about two weeks ago he suddenly decided that he wanted to set himself a three-week goal for reading.  You may have read that post.  I was fine with that, and quietly went along with it, but inwardly was preparing for another letdown - that it was a whim of his that would die a quiet death within a day...or maybe two.

Well, we took a break from reading for a few days during our mini vacation last week, but as of today Matthew has accomplished eleven days of his twenty-one day goal.  Entirely at his own initiative.  No tears, no trauma.  He has been reading with - wait for it, enthusiasm!

When I last presented reading material to him a couple of months ago, he read at the grade 1-2 level, and in a very stilted manner.  "The. dog. went. for. a. w-w-a-l-k."

We have done no work on reading since then, absolutely nothing, until the beginning of his goal two weeks ago.

So when we started day one of his twenty-one days, I pulled out reading at the grade 2 level, which was about where I thought he'd be at, and maybe a little ahead of where he was at.  To my surprise, he sailed through it.  No stilted reading efforts.  Smooth, easy reading for 15-20 minutes.  I honestly thought it was a fluke on the first day, so I offered him different material at the same level the next day and the day after that.  Huh, I thought, what's up with that?  I was dumbfounded.  For three consecutive days he flew through grade 2 reading material, and correctly answered every comprehension question that was asked of him.

Finally, at the end of our third day's reading session, I asked him if he'd be willing to try reading something a little harder.  The night before I'd identified some grade 3 reading materials and so that's what I offered to him.  Blow me away, the kid just read it.  He read it!!  I had done absolutely nothing different than I'd ever done; in fact, had done nothing at all!  And he was suddenly, overnight, reading at a grade 3 level.

Then he said that he was bored and that he wished he could read stuff that didn't sound babyish.  He wanted to read about animals.  So that night I went onto my ipad and found a reading app about animals in the wild, and the following day presented him with this to read on my ipad.

I was a bit worried because the reading was at a level for a grade 3-4 student.  But to my utter shock, he started reading that, too.  Not quite as quickly, and not without having to sound out some of the harder words, but he was doing it, and doing it remarkably smoothly, and when there was a word that stumped him, he figured it out.  In the following days, I had to help with only two or three words - the rest he figured out by himself (in fact, he asked me not to help him).

I honestly don't know how he reads many of the words he's reading.  It's like magic.  As I follow along with him, I see words coming that I keep thinking oh, he's never going to be able to read that one and I inwardly cringe, waiting for the frustrated meltdown, and lo and behold he then just sails right through it like it's nothing or he stops for a few seconds to figure it out.  Words like appearance, orangutans, estimated, protruding, absence, oxygen, efficient, poisonous, majority, existence, domesticated, chambered, elephant, communication, resemble, variety, intelligence, Asia, copper-coloured, distinguished, leatherback, largest, population, individual, captivity, cartilage, plankton, approximately, vegetation, capacity, conserve, undisturbed, Antarctica, protection, tropical, automatically, propelling, Australia, weigh, and so on.  While these words may not seem so amazing in and of themselves, consider that they were read by a boy who, prior to eleven days ago, had to painstakingly sound out the word walk.

People, this is a miracle!  Really and truly a miracle born out of developmental readiness!  This is not coming from any effort on my part.  He's simply, finally ready...and interested...and motivated...and reading!

As if this weren't enough, there's another thing that has fascinated me these days.  But I'll explain by way of context first.  Three years ago, when Matthew was in grade 1, we (in our pre-unschooling days!) were generally following curriculum for grade 1 students.  I was supposed to teach him the difference between the singular and plural spellings of words that ended in 'y.'  You know the ones:  'city' becomes 'cities.'  There were all sorts of grammar-related things that I was supposed to be teaching him and I tried, really and truly I did, but it was like water off of a duck's back.  Nothing penetrated.  It was just frustrating, ending up with him on the floor crying, and so I'd give up, also frustrated.  The following year, and the year after that, when I was still (more or less) attempting to follow curriculum, I re-taught the exact same things.  Still no penetration.  Nothing.  He got frustrated, and I dropped it...just like I dropped pretty much every strategy having to do with learning how to read.

Then a few days ago, well in towards his 21-day reading goal, Matthew got stuck on the word cities in something that he was reading.  He figured it out, more by context than by any other means, but at the end of his reading time, I drew his attention back to the word and explained how words ending with 'y' might change when pluralized.  One sentence - that's all I said about it.  You know what he said?  "Oh, ok." The next day he sailed through the words 'ponies' and one other word that I can't remember.  I asked him how he had been able to read that, and he reiterated the pluralization suggestion from the day before.  Three years I attempted to teach him that when he wasn't ready and it meant absolutely nothing.  Now, I say it when he's ready and suddenly it takes one sentence from me and he's got it.  The same thing happened yesterday when I showed him how commas and colons are used.  No thousand time repetition.  He just got it.  Immediately.

I cannot tell you how pumped I am.  I've never seen anything like it.  I've heard about stories like this from friends who've also allowed their children to read when ready, but I truly didn't know it would ever happen to one of my kids.

Matthew has no idea how excited I am that a whole new world is waiting for him to discover.  In front of him, I'm the same person I've been for the past five or six years - believing that when he's ready, he'll read, and being totally casual about it all.  I don't praise him for finishing his reading time; and I don't praise him for doing it well.  I am not going to train him do this for my pleasure or because he thinks I'm happy about it.  I want, as I've always wanted, for this to be self motivated and for him to want to learn how to read.  By him, for him.  So I don't praise him.  The best I'll offer when he's finished his reading is to maybe say something like "well, that must have felt seemed to enjoy this morning's topics."

Yesterday morning, I even went a little overboard in my (deliberate) casualness, just to gauge his interest.  He asked if we could go into the library so that he could read to me and I said, "really, right now Matthew??  Could it wait for a half hour?"

His response:  "Mom, seriously, you can't stop me.  I love reading and I need to do it with you now.  Please!"

I sighed audibly (while doing inner cartwheels).  "OK," I said in an even tone.  "But then after that, I get to read out loud to you for a while."

THIS IS DEVELOPMENTAL PROCESS AT WORK.  Living proof.  I'm stunned by what's happening every day.  He's reading, I feel like shouting to the world.  He's reading!!!!  It's really happening, after waiting for almost six years!

His next goal, already planned before he's even finished his 21-day challenge: He wants to read well enough in the next few months so that he can start reading Harry Potter.  I still don't quite believe that it'll happen; in fact, I'm still not quite a believer that we've going to hit the current twenty-one day goal.

But I'm more than willing to continue to believe that when he's ready it's going to happen...and that maybe, just maybe, that time is now.



  1. Love it! It is times like you described which are the basis of why I am a teacher. My all-time favourite teacher moments are when a student who has struggled with or against a skill and then suddenly gets it. That pure joy feeds my drive to help them past the next challenge, be it a mountain or rolling hill.
    I am soooo happy for Matthew. And, as the parent of a child who was labeled by the time he was in Kindergarten as possibly never really being able to learn to read fluently and then within days (yup, DAYS) of joining me was expressing interest and being successful at reading simple words around us, I feel your Mommy joy too. And just for the record, At 3 months older than Matthew, Cody is now described as "an avid reader" by his teacher. It really shows that when kids are given the time, space, and a nurturing environment they will develop skills when they are ready.

    1. It's funny, Ellen. I feel like I'm done schooling Matthew now, I'm so pumped! Obviously not, but it's just so amazing to know what is now a possibility that wasn't just a few weeks ago. And you're right - it's pure joy. This afternoon I actually clapped my hand against my forehead because Matthew wanted to read out loud again...after he'd already done his daily 'quota.' I then proceeded to give him something that I definitely thought was too hard for him to read because it was a pure grade 4 reading level (first time I even attempted that) and he read it through with zero help from me!! It was about police officers (and he could have read neither of those words 2 weeks ago) and he was reading words like constable and court hearings and cruisers, and communities. From barely grade 2 reading to fluent grade 4 reading in days. I'm just shaking my head in wonder. To be honest, I can't yet believe it's happening. Oh, how I hope he's another avid reader. It's just a remarkable thing. I can only imagine what it must be like for you seeing kids 'get' this stuff after not being able to do something!

      I feel like shrieking again: AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!

      Hugs, Ellen.


    2. I find the "art" of learning to read so fascinating. There is such a debate about when kids should learn to read. Why push them? Exposing them to a reading environment is really important along with giving them the space to explore reading on their own terms. I know in my own classroom (that spans 3 grades), there is a mix of kids who come from homes where reading is encouraged and supported, all the way to kids from homes where literacy has been challenging and there is little to read beyond the packaging on food (certainly fascinating to read at times, but not the greatest for emergent readers). How could I, as their teacher, expect all of them as very different individuals from quite varied backgrounds and situations, to fit the same mould when learning to read?
      If you think of Matthew's situation, you have provided a very rich environment for him so that when he was ready he would learn to read. But during the time when many of his peers were beginning to read, his life became a little bit more hectic. He not only had the anticipation of the arrival of his long-awaited siblings and all the kid-thoughts that go with that, but then there was the actual arrival and integration of these 2 strong, amazing, siblings who already had well-developed personalities. And we all know that adding "older" children comes with a unique set of challenges and joys. Reading really was not a survival skill during this period. But as his nurturing Mom, you continued to provide the safe environment where he could develop skills that would eventually help him read. Way to go! Do I make sense?
      Anyway, you got me going again!
      Cool for Matthew!

    3. Huh. I'd not actually thought of that Ellen...brilliant. Reading wasn't necessary for Matthew's survival and so of course it wouldn't be an inner priority for him. Huh. Too true. I should have thought of that because it was so clear in other ways - eg. his loss of mixed feelings for the first two+ years after S&L arrived in our family; those only returned in fall of last year.
      I really and truly cannot understand the urgency towards pushing children to read early, other than when motivated by intrinsic desire. I suppose there's just so much societal momentum that it's hard to see beyond that...and (at least in my case) it can be scary to be different than the norm and still believe that it will happen. I can't imagine how tough your job must be trying to support each individual kid in your classroom, given the incredibly diverse backgrounds they come from.
      The 'art' of learning - it really is that isn't it.
      You can 'get going' any time, my friend!


  2. Hi Ruth,
    Isn't this amazing?! I am so happy for Matthew (and for you too, of course). As a person who also started to read in grade 4, I know from first-hand experience what kind of stress that causes the child to feel 'behind'. The research on how children learn to read fully supports the description you have written here (or vice-versa). It's my life dedication to help new teachers 'unlearn' this industrial step-by-step factory mindset that they've inherited, through no fault of their own. Language (and many other things) are simply not learned this way. Although it's not 'simple' at all! Reading is difficult and complicated, and it requires that the brain be ready to make all those connections. It also requires purposeful effort by the child/learner and like any skill, is more challenging for some than others. I could see this is where Matthew was! He decided to make the effort for himself. That was a big decision for him. He was ready and he knew it, I guess. I'll definitely be sending my students to this blog entry! It's beautiful. What we do know about fluent reading is that it takes practice. He'll be reading Harry Potter before you know it. Do you leave books like that laying around for him? Also, something that children in my classes around his age really liked to do, and which I facilitated for them, was they liked to read along to book CDs. So if they really wanted to read a book that was challenging for them, I'd find them the CD and casually say, "why don't you see what it's like to read along"... or sometimes I'd pair them with a child who was a more fluent reader and they'd read aloud together, or they'd group themselves naturally like this. Whatever they desired to read, no matter what, i tried to facilitate that. I avoided discussions about 'levels' and grades, and even told them that was an arbitrary, factory-like idea, that was kind of weird and had nothing to do with real reading. Just what you're doing is just right... give the skills as they go along... now was the right time for him to notice the plural change in some nouns. Before was not the right time. You might talk with him about being an 'alert' reader. It seems he is ready. Ready to think about what the author is doing, or to not freak out if he encounters a new word but to stop and be interested in it. An interested brain is a learning brain. As teachers, we can really listen for these moments of interest as teachable-moments, but also help children tune into the experience of their brain learning/interest. Anyway, my guess is that he might be pretty much ready for Harry Potter, if he has such desire to read it. He'll probably be an awesome reader by the end. That's what I often observed. Children would choose a extra challenging book and I'd think "huh?!"... I'd see them going back and back to it, and softly struggling but i would just leave them to their own desire and energy and before I knew it, they finished the book and went onto the next and there was no more 'huh'.
    Enjoy this wonderful experience! I DO believe he will make the 21 day goal. Why not? He gets to watch TV for a whole day at the end? I'd read for that! ha ha.

    1. I KNEW you'd be commenting, Jackie...and thank you! I remember you saying that you didn't read until you were in grade 4 - that was actually a big encouragement to me a couple/few months ago. And you're welcome to share this blog post with anyone who might benefit!!
      What's amazing is that it's been about 6 days since Matthew has even mentioned the reward about watching tv for a day. It'll still happen, but he's amazingly motivated just by how much he's improving. Even HE can tell from day to day that his reader is smoother/stronger and even HE doesn't understand it. I just smile and tell him that we always knew that when he was ready, he'd do it (even though I may not always have totally believed it!!).
      I think what I'll do is leave the first Harry Potter in the car, on the seat beside him. That's a time when he is often wishing for something to do. I haven't looked at it recently to see how far off he is from reading it, but I'll do that tonight and then maybe just put it on the car seat for the next time we're out driving. We'll see what happens.
      The other thing that's been happening over the past few days is that he's incorporated some new words into his vocabulary that I think comes from having read the words! He's always had a good vocab, but he said a few hours ago that he needed to go and 'groom' his hair (another miracle, that he wanted to comb his hair). I've never used that word with him and so I asked where he learned it; his response (rather disdainfully) was that he'd read it out loud to me a few days ago and didn't I remember that??!!

      (to be comment is too long)

    2. (continued from above)

      An hour ago, I walked into the library and, even though he'd already done two sessions of (voluntary) reading today, I found Matthew sharing an arm chair with Seth and the ipad. I sat down quietly and just observed. Matthew was letting Seth choose which animal account to read and then Matthew read the page (a paragraph or so long about the animal). Then Matthew read the comprehension questions out loud and told Seth the 4 options he could choose from for answers, and he let Seth push the button where he thought the right answer was, thus letting Seth make the sound for 'correct answer' or 'try again.' So even though Seth can't read a word, Matthew was practising and Seth was having to focus on listening in order to be able to answer the question and be able to push the right button. They were at it for almost a half hour. I noticed something about Seth, too. When Matthew read a paragraph about Panda Bears, one of the facts given was that Pandas eat bamboo. That was one of the comprehension questions at the end of the paragraph. Seth asked Matthew to show him where in the reading paragraph the word bamboo was written; when Matthew showed him, Seth then looked at the four answers to the question and correctly chose the answer that said "Pandas eat mostly bamboo." Matthew was shocked and asked Seth how he knew that was the right answer and Seth said that he noticed it started with 'b' like in the story and so he looked at all of the letters in the word and compared them. How awesome is that!!??! Anyway, it was a beautiful sight to see my boys there. I wish I'd taken a picture...but maybe I'll have more opportunities in the future!

      Hmm...alert reader. I'll have to think about that and how to incorporate that. You've mentioned that once before but I'm forgetting what it means. So it's about asking Matthew what the author might be trying to do? Kinda gets at reasoning or critical thinking, I'm guessing. If you have time, tell me more about it.

      Also, that's an interesting idea about following along to a CD. Any suggestions? I don't find that many audio books on CD any more - mostly digital. He listens to a ton of audio books through his ipod, and we have hundreds of older audio books on CD as well, but not books that go with them.

      OK, I need to stop rambling here. I'm just so excited and, because I'm not letting Matthew see my excitement, I have vent it SOMEWHERE...and you're one of the lucky recipients, Jackie...not!

      Thanks so much and for all of the support you offer me!!!!



    3. "not" meaning that you're not so lucky really to be on the receiving end of all of my rambles!


  3. I guess what I meant by reading with 'alertness' would be better described by saying read with joyful, interested attention. So much of 'schooled' reading has been about comprehension, levels, blah blah blah. We all know how interesting that was. NOT. What I meant was read for joy. Read for interest. To learn to notice things (that Aidan Chambers' book I recommended is a lot about that). Just like you drew Matthew's attention to the noun plurals. There is much to notice that is interesting, not in a torturous way though, so that's a fine balance to achieve. But to enjoy what an author has done, for example, or to puzzle over something, or to notice and learn a new word or a new way of saying something. Reading grows our language capacity and thinking capacity, probably even if we do it mindlessly. But if we do it with joyful attention we notice more things, we enjoy our interchange with the author, without ever going to that nasty schooled place of totally killing a beautiful book and making it dull. There was a wonderful educational philosopher named Louise Rosenblatt. She is kind of kin to Aidan Chambers. Same lineage that came out of european philosophy vs american philosophy. Especially they drew from the interpretive traditions, especially someone named Wolfgang Iser (Chambers talks a bit about him). What Louise Rosenblatt said about reading is that the important space is the 'transaction' between the reader and the book (or in Aidan Chambers' case, the dialogue between multiple readers and a book). Some people call this the aesthetic space. That moment when we look at a piece of art and go "ah!" (or a sunset, etc). We gasp in wonder, or cry in surprise. That reaction is not in the book (or art) or merely in us, but happens in the space between ourselves and the book (or piece of art, etc). Louise Rosenblatt called this aesthetic reading. The kind of reading done mostly in school (i.e., in our time in school that was probably answering comprehension questions, or writing an essay about what the author 'meant' etc) she called "efferent reading". She said we do too much efferent reading in schooling, and not enough aesthetic reading. Which is the real joyful reading experience where the reader makes sense of the text for him or herself (nothing to do with what the author 'meant'). She said what is of utmost interest is the aesthetic 'transaction' between a reader and a book. This is why people love going to book clubs, even if they hated school reading. They love Oprah's reading books. Because people are sharing their transactions and it's really interesting to listen to other people talk about their 'readings' and to share ours with them. We can have private transactions and public transactions. Both are enjoyable. When we talk about a piece of something we read, we are sharing our 'joyful attention' - what we noticed, what we learned, what we wondered about. Louise would say this creates an entirely new 'thing' (ok she didn't say thing...ha ha). Here's a lovely little essay of hers I just found online. I'd never read this one before. I was looking for something else but this one is perfect! It describes in a different way exactly what you describe about Matthew. Check it out! Another kindred spirit. She started writing like this in the 1930s. Why education went one way, and not the direction of these people like her (she did influence Language Arts a lot) or in the direction of Maria Montessori, or Reggio folks, or John Dewey... well, the industrial model won i guess. But not forever. Thank goodness.
    She also has a wonderful piece called "What facts does this poem teach you?" Maybe you can find that somewhere. If not, let me know and I'll try to dig up a copy for you. It's inspiring! Here endeth the sermon of the day.
    Ramble onwards!

    1. Thanks Jackie - that helps...though I think I'll be reading your comment another 6-10 times before everything fully sinks in. :) Joyful reading - what a concept!
      I still have Chambers book on my nightstand - it's top of the pile and I've already begun it - my problem is that I'm so tired at the end of the day that I don't have energy to read much at all! Instead I sleep or watch Neufeld DVDs for the course I'm taking, or watch netflix. I promise I'll read it - not because you expect me to but b/c I really want to and b/c I think it would be a great read.
      Anyway, must run. But I'll check out the essay you directed me to...sounds fascinating. And I'll see if I can find the poem...can always use more inspiration, and the one you gave me a few weeks back is on my fridge!


  4. ps. i always got book CDs from the public library. Does yours have a lot? They sure do here. I could get almost any children's book on CD. I'd really be interested to hear if Matthew would like to follow along. It might still go too fast for him, but it might not. Or if he would want to. Desire is the KEY thing. Go with whatever direction that takes you (and him)! Lovely story about Matthew and Seth. Everything and everyone in the world is a 'teacher', I figure, if we let go enough to listen.

  5. Hi Ruth,
    So happy to hear about Matthew's latest news. I'm excited for you guys and for myself... another parent taking a similar approach and waiting for reading to arrive! You've probably seen some of the same things I have over and over... a "problem" the child has "suddenly" resolving itself when the time is right. (Then the parent reaffirming to themselves that it never was a "problem" with the child at all, except in as much as societal norms created it.) So yay for you (your patience rewarded) and Matthew (his efforts rewarded, too). And guess who went to the pool the very same day she told you about her inability to do the front crawl and effortlessly pulled off two lengths of it on her first try?! Sometimes the development takes 43 years, apparently! Glad you didn't have to wait as long with reading.
    Ha Ha.

    1. Thanks Tammy...and yes, totally agree with your comment about problems resolving and societal norms...

      And congrats are in order, too - way to go on the front, and effortlessly, too!! I guess there's no telling just how long things might take in the world of developmental psychology!



    2. I should have put "effortlessly" in quotes, because, of course, it was 43 years in the making! A new low in "slow learner-dom!" But why should learning and growing have timelines and ever be called to an end? Happy reading!

    3. Better 43 years than 44, I figure. And precisely - why SHOULD learning have timelines?? I hope it never ends...and I've got a few years on you, too.