The Building Blocks of Learning
I spoke about this on my Instagram stories the other day but I thought I should perhaps get it down on the blog as I got quite a strong response to it on messages.
This time last year Ewan was in reception class at school, aged 4 (he’s a June birthday). We had weekly books sent home, starting with those without words where you just talk together about the pictures. After a few months he was given a few with words in. Simple two letter or three letter CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words. We attempted to try and make the reading a regular thing and between my husband and I we heaped on the praise and sat patiently as he sounded out the letters “c-a-t” and said the word “PARK”. FFS.
It’s so hard and frustrating at this point and I don’t just mean for your child. I mean for YOU. The adult! You want to scream “it’s CAT it’s CAT, we read it 30 seconds ago on the previous page and there’s a picture of a FLIPPING CAT!”
Now at times reading was too much for us all. Ewan found it hard. He wasn’t ‘getting it’. He seemed to recognise most of his letters but he couldn’t blend them together. He’d fidget and seem irritated. It hadn’t come naturally to him, and at this point in his learning it seemed to evade him entirely.
So what did we do? We either read his books TO him, or we read alternative pages with him, showing him how we sounded out words and then letting him try to copy. Or I just abandoned the book sometimes and played games. I did letter recognition games with CVC words or we played the blending game Silly Soup.
Now when we played these games, (regularly, for five minutes and whenever he WANTED to, stopping if he got frustrated or bored), it seemed like we were still getting nowhere. But we weren’t and here’s a little analogy I used to explain why.
I like to imagine that how we learn is like stacking building blocks. Say learning to read CVC words confidently is a ‘level’ we are trying to reach. We all start from zero at ground level. In order to reach that level some children will only need a few big chunky blocks of teaching. They can be told or shown how to do it a few times and they will have got it. Perhaps three large blocks is all they need to get to that level. But for other children they instead will use 50 or 100 tiny little blocks to build up to that same level. They need to have it broken down and taught multiple times to get to that point. It doesn’t mean they won’t get there, it might take a bit longer and require more effort but they will still get to that level, slowly building with the little blocks.
For some children, perhaps those with SEN (special educational needs) they might need the ‘blocks’ to be all different colours, some upside down or turned on their side because their brains might work that way, where they need to be shown something multiple ways in order to gather enough blocks to get to a certain level. So we adjust as teachers and find new interesting and different ways to teach them, but the blocks are still stacking up.
Regardless, we all need some blocks, whether its 1 or 5,000. Whether they are plain blocks or multicoloured upside down ones. And for different things we need a different numbers of blocks. For some children being able to draw simply requires showing them how to hold a pencil (one block) but for others they need to be shown how to draw each shape individually with support (lots of blocks).
But here’s the thing. When we are stacking these blocks we can’t see it. It seems like nothing is happening. They aren’t getting it. There’s no immediate response. Nothing changes. Those five minute games we played for 6 months to support Ewan’s reading didn’t seem to make any instant difference. The book band reminded the same, he still often sounded out ‘m-a-n’ and said “biscuit”, we still reached for the bottle of wine after ‘reading’ with him!
But here we are a year on. He now in year one. He’s five. Today he read me a funny story from a Biff, Chip and Kipper book about ‘Gran’s Glasses’ where he confidently sounded out and read words like ‘shelf’ and ‘bringing’ and ‘pizza’. He laughed as he read, he wanted to find out what happened next. I only had to step in once to support him with sounding out a word.
Is this because I’ve done something different recently? No. Is it because his teacher this year is better? No. (His school are wonderful and obviously have played a huge part in his learning!) It’s because last year we spent five minutes building those tiny little blocks. We’ve reached the level. It’s paid off and I can see it now. All the little moments we spent playing five minute games, or reading with him, slowly but surely building the blocks have lead to this. He can now read and it’s glorious to see.
So that’s why it always worth it. Even when you feel like you aren’t winning. If you’re doing a little something here and there to support them then you are building those crucial blocks. It might not pay off today, or tomorrow or even in 8 months time but once you’ve built them you can’t take them away. They stay there, silently, invisibly building that tower, until one day you realise you’ve done it.
So keep going. And if reading from a book isn’t their thing play a five minute game. Here’s are some that we did with Ewan…