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A Truly Nurturing Education: Part 2

(Published as: Seaton, Andrew 2012, 'A truly nurturing education: Part 2', Nurture: Australia's Natural Parenting Magazine, Issue 2, Spring, pp. 66-68.)

here are some valuable sensitivities, qualities and abilities that we can nurture in our children, which schooling is hard-pressed to support. In part one (issue 1) of this four-part article, I described one example of how parents and grandparents can nurture the fuller functioning of children. We can encourage and guide children in acting on the world around them. We can give them lots of rich and authentic experience, engaging in self-selected activities in real-world contexts. When we do, our children are better able to think, learn and do for themselves. Just as importantly, they are also better able to retain into adulthood their intense wakefulness, enthusiasm and creativity. They are much better prepared to live intimately and dynamically connected with the world.

The need for relevance
Many valuable skills can be developed in the context of such real world projects, including literacy and numeracy skills. Young people learn for themselves at an early age the complex structure of spoken language. Have you ever wondered, then, why so many children still struggle with written language after ten or more years of schooling? The answer has to do with the relevance to their own lives that young people see, or don't see, in literacy.

Children become proficient language users through a rich exposure to interesting and purposeful language use. They master it, when they want to. Just as with oral language learning, we do not need to obsess over explicitly teaching children the core structure of written language. Nor do we need to be preoccupied with trying to improve a child's language use. This only tends to produce feelings of inferiority in the child, to create a self-concept of 'incompetent language user', and to inhibit their use of language.

The value of purpose, feeling and fun
Unless there is some specific disability, children will readily internalise language in the context of interesting and purposeful activities, and an emotionally rewarding atmosphere. Other forms of literacy, such as numeracy, visual literacy and computer literacy, are acquired and developed in similar ways. For young children, the purposefulness may simply be the fun they have in the interaction. A child's consciousness is more strongly characterised and influenced by feelings than by rational and analytical processes. The various forms of literacy are, fundamentally, communication. They are developed most effectively, not in formal contexts of mass instruction, but in interactions experienced in authentic contexts and as parent/mentor and child resonate with each other. Such relationship quality is crucial to a truly nurturing education.

When working with print-based texts, children need to know the symbol system of language. They need to become able to 'decode' text, and to use the symbol system to make or 'encode' texts. They must be familiar with the letters of the alphabet, and aware of letter-sound relationships (phonics) and how letters/sounds combine to form words. Such awareness contributes to the ability to recognise words, to build vocabulary and to spell. An awareness of the conventions of sentence and paragraph structure and text layout also strengthens the child's ability to decode and encode written text. However, it is important that parents do not allow analysis of language codes to dominate the child's orientation to language. Don't let it inhibit their spontaneous and intuitive acquisition, understanding and use of language.

As the very young child expresses themselves orally about an observation, need or personal interest or experience, a parent or mentor can occasionally write the spoken words. You can then read them aloud, followed by the child. The child can then be encouraged to write the words as phrases, sentences and paragraphs. In this way, the child begins to see written language as a useful extension of their own power of speech. However, it is important not to make the activity serious, or to over-verbalise or over-analyse language and other symbol systems.

Language learning will be facilitated when a parent reads to a young child most days. Text selection is important. They should be stories and non-fiction texts that the child finds fun or engaging. They should be texts that are related to the child's interests and talents, and ones that are uplifting and inspiring, that stir the young soul.

It is helpful to 'think aloud' occasionally to identify elements of the language code and to model specific strategies for making meaning from the text. For example, you might stop and 'think aloud' about an unusual letter-sound relationship you come across in a text. “Ah, I see! The 'fff” sound that is usually made by the letter 'f', like in the word 'funny', can also be made by the letters 'ph', like in this word 'phone'.” You might occasionally 'sound out', syllable by syllable, a word that is long or unfamiliar (even if only unfamiliar to the child). You might 'think aloud' about the context of an unfamiliar word to clarify its meaning. Or you might occasionally re-read a sentence, to gain further clarity on its meaning.

Children can also be given lots of opportunities to have fun with sounds and words in games, and in hearing and creating rhymes, limericks and riddles. Here's one example of a game that connects decoding with making meaning. Take a sentence spoken by your child, and write it in large letters on some thin cardboard. Say, for example, “The rider fell off when the horse jumped over the log”. Then cut each word out. Arrange the order of the words to show the original sentence. Read it aloud and ask your child, “Does this make sense?” Then re-arrange the words. For example, “the-log-fell-the-off-jumped-the-over-when-rider-horse”. Read it out loud, pointing to the words as you go, then ask your child if it makes sense? Why not? (Don't look for a technical reason!) Make several other re-arrangements, with possibly some others that do make sense. For example, “the-horse-fell-over-when-the-rider-jumped-off-the-log”. “Does this make sense?” “Yes!” Lots of laughter and useful language learning will result from this language game.

Developing skills through use in authentic contexts
Many of these activities with various forms of literacy can be contextualised within a child's real world projects. As the child undertakes their projects, they will find the need to engage with a wide variety of texts or procedures. We can think of these as 'genres'. A genre, as I use the term here, is any purposeful activity, spoken, written or acted out, which is typically done in a particular way, or in a particular sequence. For example, conducting an experiment, sending an email, making a telephone inquiry, buying something in a shop, and even playing a game of tennis, are each distinctive genres. An understanding of genres helps us to recognise and use language and procedures appropriate to particular situations. It helps us to participate effectively in the social and material world.

As your child finds the need to engage with a particular genre, you can model its construction and 'deconstruction', to ensure that the child becomes familiar with ways in which that genre may be used. When appropriate, you might draw comparisons with experiences the child may have had previously with similar genres. It can be very helpful (to both child and parent) to have some genre guides which include a statement of the purpose of the genre, a simple outline of its typical structure, a brief description of its characteristic language features and conventions, and a short example.

Explaining texts and procedures
To illustrate what I mean, let's look at a letter of thanks. The purpose of a letter of thanks could be described as follows. An expression of appreciation may take a spoken form (a 'vote of thanks') or written form (in a letter or email). Its purpose is to express thanks to one or more people, or to an organisation, for some valued contribution, assistance or consideration. The description I will give here is of a written letter of thanks such as might be sent to a person not well known personally, rather than to a familiar friend or relative.

The basic structure of a letter of thanks consists of four parts:

  1. Initial details, including sender's address, date, recipient's name and address, and greeting.
  2. The actual comments of appreciation are expressed, including a statement regarding the nature, time and place of the event or situation which formed the context for the help provided. Some indication might be given of how you or others benefited from the help provided. Also, recognition should be given of the efforts, time, expense or inconvenience experienced by the person, as appropriate.
  3. A brief statement of well-wishing, or possibly of further association or involvement with them in the future, is generally made in conclusion.
  4. Formal sign-off, including identification of the group or organisation you represent, if appropriate.

What particular language features and conventions characterise a letter of thanks? Well, it takes a polite, semi-formal tone. It is written in a mixture of present and past tenses. It makes use of full sentences and paragraphs. Paragraphs in typed letters are typically separated by a blank line. In hand-written letters the start of the first line of each new paragraph is usually indented. Linking words and phrases to do with description, benefits and thanks are used, such as “it was good to”, “we learned a lot”, “we appreciated”, “thanks again”.

No sample letter of thanks is provided here due to limitations of space. (I have provided fifteen genre guides in my book, 'Deep Intelligence: Giving our Young the Education they Really Need'.) According to your child's need and readiness, provide a genre guide and spend some time discussing and modelling the genre and the processes and thinking that go into its construction. On occasion, you might even work with your child to create a genre guide.

The literacies and procedures outlined above really constitute the generic elements of a dynamic life. They have nothing to do with the mastery of abstract bodies of school knowledge. The end and means of such activities is not learning, as such, but the cultivation of purposeful and effective doing and interaction in the social and material world. Such activities enhance children's ability to function intuitively, to think practically and to act creatively in relation to their deeply felt interests and purposes.

I have explained above that mastery of various literacies, skills and procedures requires that a child sees relevance in those things for their own lives. However, what is really needed is much more than the perception of a merely practical relevance. A child must also sense a relevance to something in their inner core, to their deeper wisdom and guidance. This is why self-selection of real world projects is preferable and, in any case, genuine ownership and engagement are essential.

In part three of this article, we will consider some other kinds of activities, experiences and relationships which can help a child to shake off conditioning and learn to experience a deep sense of self-as-connected-with-all-life. We will look at how a truly nurturing education can help a child to feel and trust their intuition, to see things freshly, and to focus their creative energy with intention.

.../Part 3

© Andrew Seaton