Learning the Language

Posted: October 23, 2010 in Kids say the darndest things

It’s been another “right place at the right time” week for me.  In this case, the right place was at my kids’ primary school, and the right time has been all year, volunteering in the reading programme as a parent helper across all three grades in which they are enrolled.  It’s resulted in my getting my first paid employment in two years, filling in as a teacher aide for the next three weeks while another aide is on leave.

I undertook some formal study in early childhood education in New Zealand, and have a little working experience in that area, but I must emphasize that I do not have any formal qualifications in primary school teaching.  Currently in Australia, qualifications are not a requirement for teacher aide positions, although I understand plans are afoot to change that.  What I do have is three children who are advanced readers, and a proven facility with and interest in the English language.  The job has me assisting teachers across all the grades from Prep to Grade 6, but the primary focus is assisting with the Language Support Programme.

The role is deceptively simple.  I work with groups of two or three children with language difficulties (not English as a Second Language type difficulties – there’s a specialist for that).  For an hour at a time, I’ll read to them, play games with them, and engage them in conversation.  Their difficulties are not immediately apparent – they’re all bright and chatty,  charming and eager to please – but in my first week with them I’ve picked up on a few things.

For example, a game of I Spy initiated by the kids did not go as I expected.  Their idea of the game was to find a word on the posters on the wall, say, “Farm”, and say, “I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘F’.”  But they could not look at a physical object, think of the word for it, and identify the initial letter, even if they knew the word and how to spell it.  They had yet to make the connection between the word and the thing – in their minds, one does not automatically represent the other.

Another child, when asked to name an object that could be found in a bathroom, proceeded to describe how to use soap.  I’d been told that some of the kids have a poor vocabulary, but I think it’s more subtle than that – he knew the word for ‘soap’,but he lacked the intuitive knowledge most children have of the difference between a verb and a noun.  The same child, when asked “What is happening in this picture?” started his response with “because”.

Flashback to the young man working in a fish and chip shop who observed me reading a book while waiting for my order, and said, “You read a lot of books?  I don’t read books.  I’d rather watch movies.”  Flashback to the mother describing how she had discouraged her daughter from spending her pocket money on books, because she thought it was a waste of money, and because “she already has some.”  I had thought that it was purely a matter of taste that led these people not to value reading, but perhaps their brains are just not wired up for it.

All of this is confronting to me.  I live in a high literacy bubble.  Most of my friends and immediate family are keen and adept readers.  My cyber-life is populated almost exclusively with writers (I even talk to some face to face on occasion).

So what’s the point of this post?  I’m not really sure.  Perhaps the moral of the story is, don’t take your literacy for granted, because not everyone obtains it as their birthright.

  1. Realising that not everyone has the capability to understand and enjoy reading has been an eye-opener for me too. Some very close to me doesn’t get reading and so, despite the fact they’ve been heavily involved, they’ll never read any of my books. I find that very sad, but there’s not point in them doing it if it will just be a chore and they won’t enjoy or understand it.

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