October 17, 2021
My youngest son began first grade this Autumn, ripe and ready for writing and reading. He brings home something new every day that he has hungrily taken in from his main lesson or other classes, excited to share what new skills and knowledge he has. In just this short amount of time, he has gained the confidence to start writing his own sentences. He woke me up yesterday morning to proudly present a brightly colored illustration and his own simple writing: “Hape atum mama and dade”.
After graciously receiving his gift, I began marveling at the process of learning to write and read that he is undergoing. I love the creative spelling and grammar that takes place within these first phases of writing. Much like the darling mispronunciations of toddlers that I partially wish would never be lost, I treasure these first sentences. What I marveled at then was exactly how the mind first starts to put to order all of these sounds, and begins matching them to abstract symbols that are to physically represent our words, thoughts, ideas, feelings. It is an extraordinary and complex process.
At my current school, I am leading a combined 5/6th grade class and teaching Integrated Arts and Movement to first through fourth grades. Much to my advantage, the background of experience and training that I have in early childhood is strengthening and enriching my understanding of these intellectual processes. In observing and studying more of the outcome of the early years work, I am understanding more and more how incredibly important our work is as early childhood educators. Something as simple as putting to order the sounds of a word is already under way in the child below seven years, and not because we are teaching them.
No, I’m not referring to explicit activities- What letter is this? What sound does Mr. D make? Can you trace the word with your finger while you sound it out? I am referring to the development of the foundational senses of life, touch, balance and movement. These are forming the capacities one must have to learn the combination of skills that result in writing and reading. Sequencing, or ordering, is just one of those skills, and yet it takes all of these senses to be fully supported in order to have the capacity for it. This is why working with the foundational senses in early childhood- instead of teaching explicit pre-reading skills- is not just important, but absolutely crucial.
How the four foundation senses prepare the child for reading
Let’s consider this skill of sequencing. The sense of life tells us of our existence. We are generally not aware of it unless we are feeling unwell, but it tells us we exist, that we are alive. Our sense of touch tells us that we are separate from the rest of the world, where we end and the rest of the world begins. It gives us the ability to sense and create boundaries, both literal and figurative. If a child is to learn to sequence a series of objects or letters, they have to know on a subconscious level that they are separate from them. It may sound silly, but even just difficulty with boundaries can hinder this skill because they may have difficulty determining the differences between the objects that distinguish them from each other. Considering an abstract concept such as letters, this becomes even more challenging because of the higher order of things necessary to even understand what a letter or number is.
With the sense of balance, we find our way within our own bodies and develop inner stillness. It allows us to develop self-continuity, the understanding that when we move from “here” to “there” we remain ourselves. When a child puts letters in sequence, they must have self-continuity to recall their own thoughts throughout the process of putting the letters together. With the inner stillness of balance also comes the ability to listen, to openly and accurately receive and replicate what we hear. Of course, if a child is going to sequence letters, they must first be able to identify them through accurate auditory processing. In the instance of my son, when he is imagining how to spell words, he must be familiar with the correct sound for each letter to be able to identify in which order they must come.
With the sense of movement comes the ability to put those sounds together into a word. In learning self-movement, we become conscious of where we are in space, whether we are in stillness or motion, and how to control our motion. We learn to move from “here” to “there” in the first place. In sequencing, the child must be able to formulate an inner picture of the sounds and letters, then literally move from one letter to the next, sensing the difference between each of them to put them in the right order and know with the word’s completion that their inner picture has been manifested. A child who cannot move comfortably with and within their own bodies, has no space to formulate these inner pictures nor to move them into any particular order.
It’s pretty incredible, isn’t it? When we give children ample opportunity and time to develop their foundational senses, we are doing more for their intellectual capacities than any moment of practicing letters can do. It is hard to imagine in modern life that we could do away with preschool standards, tracing sandpaper letters, or reading dumbed-down books together a hundred times and not end up with an illiterate child. However, if we take time to really understand what capacities lie beneath these pre-reading and writing skills, we are given hope. Life spent in free play and movement that imbues our children with joy and imagination really does lead to reading and writing. I have seen it happen over and over and over again.