Introduction to
Native Reading
I started reading to my daughter, like many parents do these days, from a very early age. But to be
perfectly honest, Freya showed little interest in books and, in particular, she usually seemed to pay
no attention at all to the text. So reading generally became one of those things I resorted to when I
was tired of playing peek-a-boo or singing songs, or when marching around the house trying to get
her to sleep just wasn’t working. As soon as she got bored with reading, the book would be tossed
aside, and  I’d pick up a stuffed animal, or go back to peek-a-boo, or perhaps hand her off to her
mother for a while.
       My daughter was, without a doubt, more “high-maintenance” than her older brother had been—
which was actually a bit of a shock, her mother and I had figured we would feel like experts the
second time around—but she was still an absolute delight. As she grew into toddlerhood, it
became clear that she was vivacious, funny, coordinated, clever (yes, I am a doting father!), and,
also, more than a little stubborn, or, as I like to think of it, opinionated.
       Freya was definitely a child who could not be pushed into doing something when she wasn’t
in the mood for it. Whether it was a new food we introduced, or a game she didn’t want to play at
the moment, or an unwelcome long car ride, she would often become what we called,
usually with
fondness, “contrary girl”. So, when it came to reading with her, we did relatively little of it most days,
especially when compared with her older brother, Otto, who had loved being read to at length from
an early age. In fact, one of Otto’s first words had been, “Again!” and it was very often said the
moment a favorite book was finished, even after the second time through. With Freya, in contrast,
the books were usually tossed aside, often only halfway finished.
       Still, books were part of our daily routine, and she soon had a few favorites. As I’d done with
her older brother, I nearly always pointed at the text when I read to her. This was a habit I had
developed to an unusual degree. She never seemed to take much notice of my finger dancing over
the text as I read: she was all about the pictures. Then one day, when she was about two-and-a-
half years old, I was being a little lazy. My finger had drifted from the text and my hand was resting
on the arm of our well-worn armchair when the magic word came, the word that I had almost given
up expecting: “Point,” she said, “Papa, point.” Being the assertive little girl that she was, she
grabbed my finger and moved it, not to the picture, but to the text on the facing page. “Read,” she
commanded.
       This simple act, I already had reason to be quite certain, was evidence that a critical threshold
had been reached—a sort of neurodevelopmental tipping point, to use a popular term. Within a few
weeks Freya could recognize many words; within a few months she could read hundreds of words.
Even out of the usual context of a book, she could read with confidence. She delighted in reading
labels at the grocery store. When riding in the car, she began reading words from signs along the
road. She quickly progressed to the point that—still before her third birthday—we could entertain
Freya during road trips by putting a pile of books in her lap when we set out. She would sit in her
car seat and work her way through them one at a time, reading them aloud from cover to cover
before tossing them onto the floor. Many of these books were old favorites, and she was certainly
using memory to help her reading. But from time to time I would also give her a new, previously
unseen, library book. This was primarily just to surprise and delight her, but it was also to satisfy
her skeptical scientist parents that her reading reflected more than a prodigious memory of
previously read books. With only an occasional pause at an unfamiliar word, Freya would read
through these new books nearly as fast as she read through her favorites; and she read through
even these new books fluently, with natural intonation, and with clear comprehension, as evinced
by her occasional comments on the action. Incontrovertibly, although she had not yet reached her
third birthday, she was reading independently. She was reading so well, in fact, that it seemed
practically effortless.
       It so happens that, while we were certainly pleased by this development, we couldn’t say that
we were actually surprised. Her older brother Otto, you see, had started reading simple words
much earlier—beginning at just eighteen months—and by the time he was two-and-a-half, he was
a good enough reader to read aloud the entirety of
Charlotte’s Web to me. He did this over the
course of a summer beach vacation because his mother had read the book to him earlier in the
summer and he had liked it so much he wanted to share it with me. Otto’s reading was so early
and so fluent that he was considered quite a prodigy by many of those who encountered him. Most
people were delighted. Some people were simply shocked.
       There were also a few people—most often competitive parents with older children who were
not yet reading—who were transparently
not pleased when they saw Otto reading so well.
Sometimes such a person would make a veiled, or not so veiled, comment about how they thought
that kids shouldn’t be pushed into reading early. While these negative reactions were definitely a
bit unpleasant, comments like this actually turned out to be quite illuminating. You see, some of
these same parents were people I knew well enough to know that they
drilled their children with
phonics flashcards, reading tutors, and other intensive means, all in the attempt to teach them to
read. Yet their obviously bright five and six-year-olds were sometimes only barely literate, if at all.
These parents were often palpably frustrated at their difficulty in teaching their kids to read, and it
was clearly this frustration that led to their negative comments. For them, seeing a two-year-old
fluently read through a chapter book…well, it kind of just rubbed it in.
       But the source of their frustration, the struggle their children had in learning to read, is why I
ended up finding these comments illuminating: because with both of my children, when they were
each ready, learning to read had been almost
effortless. My children learned to read just as they
had learned to crawl, or learned to walk, or, especially,
just as they learned to talk. They learned
easily and almost miraculously. I can’t really say that I
taught them to read, they essentially learned
it on their own, at the different ages where they were each individually ready. But both Otto and
Freya learned to read at what most people consider an extraordinarily early age. And I don’t think it
is a coincidence that my early readers found reading relatively effortless, while many older children
find it a struggle. Instead, I believe the problem is that most children learn to read too late. In fact, I
believe that:

            The optimal time to learn to read is when a child is one to three years old,
    
        because this is the time when their brains naturally do the most closely-
    
        related task: learning to under-stand speech and to talk themselves.

Nearly all children naturally learn to understand speech, and to speak themselves, between the
ages of one and three years (although the foundations do indeed start from early infancy). This is
an enormously complex task, yet you don’t really
teach a child to talk. Instead, children learn to talk
essentially on their own, so long as they are raised in an environment rich with speech and with
social interaction. And children generally learn to talk with obvious delight, seemingly without effort
and, often, with amazing speed. They don’t learn to talk through regimented lessons, instead they
learn by listening to and interacting with their family and friends, by singing songs, and by playing
games. Nearly every child does this successfully, in every culture around the world, and children
have learned to talk like this throughout recorded history and, surely, before recorded history, too.
       Reading is different. I don’t believe that learning to read usually comes so naturally to a child,
at least not the way reading is typically taught. Some children certainly do pick up reading quite
easily. But many other children find learning to read very difficult, particularly when they only started
reading later in childhood. Some of these children even seem to actively resist the process,
showing an aversion to reading when encouraged to practice. Such children can show a lack of
interest in the subject, they can become easily frustrated by the quirky mechanics of the written
word, some can show signs of dyslexia. The usual way people explain this observation—that
some children learn reading early and easily, while others learn only late and with difficulty—is
often by saying that some children are naturally gifted, or somehow more intelligent, and therefore
they read early. While there may be some truth to this view in certain cases, I believe that, in
general, this notion puts the cart before the horse in a profoundly misleading way. I believe that the
reason some children read easily and early is because
reading early makes learning to read
easier.
       I know this sounds strange at first. Most people consider learning to read a fairly difficult task.
Look at how many six-year-olds struggle with it! And since it is difficult for many six-year-olds, they
assume that learning to read must be much
more difficult, if not downright impossible, for a four-
year-old—to say nothing of a two-year-old! But this superficially compelling logic is
not valid for all
tasks. For example, nearly everyone now knows that learning a foreign language is
much easier
when you learn it at an earlier age. In fact, in general, the earlier the better. It is better to learn a
foreign language early for the simple reason that early childhood is when our brains naturally are
most receptive to language acquisition. It is a window of opportunity that, if missed, makes
learning harder. You can learn a second language later, of course, but it is much more difficult to
attain the fluency and accent that young children pick up with no trouble at all. Because of this,
schools in this country have finally started to move foreign language instruction from the last few
years of high school to much earlier in the curriculum, preferably all the way to kindergarten and
even to preschool. Many people resisted this because, although everyone knows that children
learn their own first language spontaneously and with ease in early childhood, they assumed that
learning a second language would be somehow too confusing. The reality is, while there are
occasional moments of confusion—moments when a child speaks a bit of Franglais or
Spanglish—children generally deal with the additional complexity of a second language
better
when they are
younger. Preschoolers, compared to older children and adults, are truly geniuses at
learning languages.
       Native reading is a new method of teaching children to read that makes appropriate use of
this early aptitude for language. The core insight of native reading is that this natural genius young
children have for learning spoken languages can,
if given the right environment, be easily
extended to written language, too. If children learn in this more natural way, they not only read years
earlier, they also gain an ease and familiarity with the written word that is achieved by older
children, if at all, only after a much greater struggle. Native readers learn to read as a natural,
effortless extension of learning to talk. And the best time to learn to read this way is the best time to
learn to talk: before the age of three. Better yet, when children learn to read in this more natural
way, not only do they learn easily, joyfully, and at an early age, but they then become truly
native
readers.
They become deeply and effortlessly literate in a way that has lifelong benefits, just as
native speakers of a language have an ease and fluency that can generally only be marveled at by
those who learned too late.
       This is a very simple idea; yet it is also, in some ways, a radical idea. Are we really teaching
children to read too late? You should be skeptical of such a claim, but that doesn’t mean you
should summarily dismiss it. If you step back for a moment and look at the big picture, it’s really
not so surprising that our current practices of teaching reading might not be the best. As I’ve just
discussed, until very recently foreign languages were also typically introduced at what is clearly too
late in a child’s development. And remember, it is only in the last century or so that near-universal
literacy was found in
any country.  So one cannot easily dismiss the possibility that we currently
teach reading in a less than optimal way. We’ve only been working at it for a few generations, after
all. Also, there is the additional factor that old habits die hard, including educational habits, and
this is true whether they are good habits or bad ones. Consider, too, that children who have
learned to read very young, while rare, are by no means unheard of. Many people have heard of a
case or two of a child who could fluently read by three. Indeed, throughout history there is ample
evidence that children are certainly
capable of reading that young. For example, by the age of three
the great mathematician Gauss could not only read, he also knew enough mathematics to correct
an error in his father’s payroll accounts! More recently, it has been reported that not only was the
entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey reading by the age of three, but that she was actually so fluent
a reader that she started her career in public speaking at this same age, reading for her church
congregation, to much applause and amazement. So reading this early is clearly possible for
some children. But I believe that,
given the right environment, learning to read this early, and this
effortlessly, is something nearly
all children are capable of, with their natural genius for language
acquisition.
       Remember, fundamentally, speech and writing are just two different forms of the same
language. The critical factor is to create the right environment where the natural miracle of
language acquisition extends to the written word. This book is all about the way to foster the type of
environment that works. It is not a terribly long book, because the methods are generally simple
and intuitive, at least once you fully understand what native reading is all about. Over the years of
raising my children, I have compared the ways we encouraged reading in our home with the ways I
saw other parents and educators try to teach reading. I have realized that while there are certainly
many commonalities, there are also some important differences in method and even in
philosophy. I felt that these ideas were important enough that I should share them with others.
That is why I had to write this book. I have organized these learning techniques into
the correlation
method of native reading.
If you use the correlation method of native reading consistently, and if
you start at an early age, I believe that you can teach nearly every child to read easily and well by the
age of three. I also believe that you and your child will have a lot of fun doing it, too.
       I have written this book in the way, and in the order, that I hope will best communicate the
important points of native reading, and I have worked hard to keep it as concise as possible (if you
have kids, I
know you’re busy!). But for those who, like me, cannot always resist skipping around a
bit, I’ll lay out the plan of the book. The two most important chapters are Chapter 2, “The
Correlation Method of Native Reading”, and Chapter 4, “Creating the Native-reading Environment:
12 Techniques to Promote Native Reading for Your Child”. In Chapter 2 I lay out the general
method of native reading, and the logic that motivates the specific learning techniques that
promote it. These specific techniques are then what Chapter 4 is all about. The reason I describe
the general principles first and the specific techniques later is to emphasize that native reading is
not a collection of particular techniques that just so happen to help your child read at an early age;
rather, all the techniques are motivated by simple, but powerful, principles. If you understand these
principles—if you really grasp the reasoning behind native reading—you can easily develop
“customized” techniques that particularly suit your own unique child.
       That said, many people find teaching by example to be the most congenial. If that is the case
for you, you might even want to skip ahead and first read the specific techniques to promote native
reading that are described in Chapter 4. In this chapter I explain each native-reading technique, I
provide specific examples of using it, and in most cases I also relate my experience using the
technique with my own children. After reading about these specific techniques you could then go
back to Chapter 2 to get the general principles.
       Chapter 3, “Learning to be a Native Reader is Fun!”, is important because, given the struggle
and the effort that learning to read can be for children who read later, many people have the
misconception that learning to read is
necessarily hard and that the process inherently involves
drudgery. Understandably, such people want to spare this drudgery from a young child. Also, many
people find it very hard to resist the faulty logic that since learning to read is often hard for a six-
year-old, it must therefore be even harder for a younger child. Chapter 3 addresses these
misconceptions and emphasizes that learning to read natively is, for your child, largely an
effortless extension of learning to talk. You don’t teach a two-year-old to read the way you might
teach a six-year-old. In fact, the best way to teach native reading is through play, songs and,
sometimes, through sheer silliness, because these are the things that young children respond to
the best.
       Chapter 5, “Early Signs of Success, Seeing Your Child’s Progress”, gives you some specific
behaviors to keep an eye out for when raising your child as a native reader. It describes behaviors
that give clear early evidence that your child is on the path towards native reading, even before your
child is walking or talking. These signs of success are also important in teaching native reading
because they indicate that your child has ac-quired skills that you can then respond to and build
on, speeding and easing progress towards reading. Some of these signs of progress are subtle,
and they also can represent “teach-able moments” that are important not to miss.
       Chapter 6, “Some Common Misconceptions About Native Reading”, will hopefully seem
unnecessary to you by the time you reach that point in the book, by which time I hope the logic of
native reading has come to seem natural, and the benefits obvious. This chapter is included in
part because you may find yourself encountering some of these same misconceptions when your
child starts to read three years earlier than most of his or her peers. (That is, by the way, the only
real downside to native reading that I can think of, the explaining you sometimes need to do.) Also,
if you still find yourself a very determined skeptic after reading this introduction, you might even
want to skip to Chapter 6 first—although I hope you won’t read
only Chapter 6—as it may address
your questions and concerns most directly.
       Chapter 7, “Can Native Reading Prevent Dyslexia?”, presents the possibility that some forms
of dyslexia may be caused by learning to read too late. I emphasize in the chapter, and I want to do
so again here, that this explanation of dyslexia is no more than a hypothesis (that’s why the
chapter title ends in a question mark). However, I feel this hypothesis elegantly explains many of
the specific problems found in common forms of dyslexia and I therefore hope it is given thoughtful
consideration. This idea is potentially of such importance for so many people that I felt I had to
include a chapter on it, speculative though it is. Because this hypothesis turns the logic of many
commonly held beliefs about dyslexia rather on their heads, I expect there will be some who will
find it controversial. This is especially true because perhaps the most troubling implication of this
hypothesis, but also the most potentially important implication, is that many cases of dyslexia
might have been easily prevented. The theory also helps makes sense of the otherwise confusing
fact that dyslexia is, in some fundamental ways, a very
intelligent disorder, and that many dyslexics
are, indeed, extremely intelligent.
       Finally, in Chapter 8, “What Native Reading Will Give to Your Child”, I present what I believe are
the essential, and life-long, benefits that learning to read natively will give to your child. Native
reading is really not about simply reading earlier, it is about reading more easily, more joyfully, and
with a deeper level of literacy. It is about making the otherwise troubling mechanics of reading so
deeply
known to your child that the technical, frustrating aspects of reading become almost
instinctive, and your child is then free to better concentrate on the creative and meaningful purpose
of language.
       There is also a section of notes at the end of the main text. In these notes I have included
more of the scientific details behind my reasoning, I discuss further implications of the theory
behind the native-reading method, and I make some references to specific research and results
that formed the intellectual background for my ideas. For many people these notes may present a
level of detail that they would rather avoid, and if that describes you, you can just ignore the notes. I
certainly don’t feel they are
essential to the text—that is, in fact, why I relegated them to a section of
notes at the end! But if you are especially curious, and perhaps of a scientific bent, by all means do
look them over. If you do, it may be useful to know that the notes don’t need to be followed closely
with the main text; many are structured as fairly independent essays and their purpose is to
expand and explain ideas introduced in the body of the book.
       Part of the reason I start this book on a personal note, with the story of my daughter learning to
read, is to make something perfectly clear: this book comes primarily from my personal experience
helping my own children learn to read easily and joyfully at what most people consider a
remarkably early age. While I have been educated as a scientist, and this background has certainly
inspired and informed my ideas, I am not a professional expert on reading acquisition. In general, I
am a skeptical person, and I expect you to be skeptical, too (but this should also include
skepticism of professionals, no matter how many degrees follow their names). But fair skepticism
does not mean dismissing an idea without giving it thoughtful and fair consideration. My hope is
that as you read this book, you, like me, will find that the ideas behind native reading simply make
so much sense, that the methods become so natural and intuitive as a parent, and that being a
native reader has so many obvious benefits for your child, that native reading will come to seem
almost self-evident...
Copyright © 2008 Timothy D. Kailing. All rights reserved
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