Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"He" = a man, or gender neutral pronouns make their appearance

I’ve posted before about how my children view gender neutral words such as “firefighter” or “police officer” as the norm. (Actually they don’t say “police officer” they say that someone is a “police,” and so do all their friends. Apparently, we’re in the process of creating a new noun.) Recently, I’ve noticed that my kids’ use of gender neutral language has gone beyond simply accepting gender neutral nouns. They insist on gender neutral pronouns as well.

Sometimes, when we’re driving home, I will complain about the other drivers. Maria will often ask, after she hears me mutter, what I just said. Not wanting to increase her vocabulary of taboo words, my usual response is:

“Oh, that car isn’t being safe.”
“Why?” she responds.
“Oh, maybe he’s just not paying attention,” I’ll say, not wanting her to think the world is full of crazy people.
“How do you know it’s a he?”

She catches me on it every time! I don’t know it’s a “he,” but apparently, I unconsciously use “he” as a generic pronoun. It’s nice to know that my 4 year old doesn’t have that unconscious bias toward male pronouns. For her, “he” is definitely male. And “she” is definitely female. When I respond, “Oh, they’re not paying attention,” she doesn’t bat an eye. Clearly “they” can be either male or female, singular or plural.

Equally heartening was Tommy’s response to the original text of Harry the Dirty Dog. We have an ancient copy of the book, printed in 1956. Last winter, Tommy was reading this book aloud to me as part of his evening reading homework. We got to the page of the book where Harry, having changed from a white dog with black spots to a black dog with white spots, was trying to convince his family that he was really Harry. After Harry had done all of his old tricks, the text reads: “Everyone shook his head and said ‘no, that couldn’t be Harry.’” Tommy stopped at that point and exclaimed

“His head?! It shouldn’t be “his”!”
“What should it be?” I asked.
“Their head,” he promptly replied. And then he thought for a moment, “Or his or her.”

Once again, clear evidence that for my children, “his” is not a generic pronoun, but a specific male one. “They” and “their” are the generic pronouns for my kids. At 7, Tommy recognizes that “his or her” is an option, but it’s definitely a less preferred option. Even so, ‘his or her’ is preferred over ‘his’ alone. Every time we read this book, he stops and complains about that pronoun!

The only reason that we were ‘supposed’ to use ‘his’ as a pronoun was because scholars tried to impose rules of mathematical logic to language. 'Every' is singular, and therefore 'should' have a singular pronoun associated with it. But in English, ‘his’ clearly has a male quality to it, one that my children recognize. ‘They’ on the other hand, because it’s plural, has the quality of ‘unspecified’ gender . If there is more than one, you don’t know if the people are male or female, or a combination of the two. So extending the plural pronoun to refer to a single person when you don't know the gender, is a natural extension. Using it to refer back to 'everyone' when the group is clearly a mixed group of males and females, also makes perfect sense. It’s nice to see the triumph of the function of language over so-called logic.

It was also nice to look up a modern rendition of the story and find that this page, after Harry has failed to convince his family of who he is, now reads “Everyone shook their head...” Sometimes publishers do indeed edit for the better!

Friday, April 3, 2009

C is for Clover: The beginning stages of reading

I was awoken this morning by a 4 year old figure next to my bed, proudly announcing “I know the first letter in Clover, it’s C.” “Yep,” I mumbled, closing my eyes again. Not two minutes later, she was back, “And the second letter sounds like “llllll” so it’s “L”.” “You’re right.” Three minutes later, she was back, proudly holding a page on which she’d written “CLVR.” She’d proudly made a ‘sign-in’ sheet for her bear, Clover, for her newly founded Animal Academy Preschool.

Maria has been working on the steps for reading for quite some time, and now, two months away from her 5th birthday, things are coming together. She got a sticker at dance class last week that said “Great Thinking!” She asked me what it said and I told her. “No,” she said, “that’s not right.” “What?” “That doesn’t have the ‘t’ sound at the beginning.” “Ah, you’re right, it doesn’t. The ‘T’ and the ‘h’ are working together there to make the ‘th’ sound.” The fact that she immediately knew that the letter ‘T’ did not make the ‘th’ sound is one more sign that she’s actively trying to read words, rather than just looking at them as a whole.

The journey to reading has been slow, and it isn’t over yet. Two years ago, when Tommy started first grade, his school asked that he spend 20 minutes a day reading out loud to us. Maria, even though she was only 3, announced that she too would do ‘reading’ too. So, I got out a few early reader books such as the BOB books and some Clifford phonics books. And for a couple of weeks, she would sit next to us on the couch and attempt to sound out the words.

For a 3 year old, she was remarkably good at the first letter/sound. She’d look at the first letter and say “C” ‘kuh’. She had mastered one basic skill for reading - she was able to link a letter with the first sound of the word. Unfortunately, her ability to decode stopped with that first letter. “C” “A” “T” would be “cat” or “can” or “could” or “couch”. Try as she might, she just didn’t have the skills yet to focus on the sounds in other parts of the word. The end of the word and rhyming were all a mystery to her. After a few weeks of struggling to decode the words, she lost interest.

This fall, as Tommy entered 2nd grade, and Maria was 4, she decided again that she would learn to read. In the year between 3 and 4 she’d learned a number of other skills that put her further on the path to reading. She’d learned to rhyme. At first, in order to ‘rhyme’ the words needed to be exactly the same. “Hey mom,” she’d proudly declare, “book and book rhyme!” But slowly, she got the idea that you had to change the initial sound, so she could tell that hook and book rhymed. This is a second crucial skill in terms of reading. By learning to rhyme, she was learning that that words are made up of individual sounds, and that there are patterns to those sounds.

Learning that words can be decomposed into individual sounds is a huge leap in terms of reading. On the surface, the idea of separating a word into more than one sound is a bit absurd, especially if you’re not reading. We don’t speak in individual sounds, we speak in words. On it’s own ‘c’ doesn’t mean anything. It has to be placed with other letters, such as ‘a’ and ‘t’ or ‘a’ and ‘p’. Cat and cap mean something, whereas the individual sounds do not. It’s only when we need to literate in an alphabetic language that we need to see words as made up of individual sounds. By decomposing words into individual sounds, we can easily recognize that the difference between cap and cat is a difference of one symbol, which is in turn, a difference of a single sound.

Despite Maria’s growing skills at decomposing words into sounds, she wanted to take a different tack for learning to read the second time around. She didn’t want to read the BOB books or other easy readers. She wanted to read ‘real’ books. So, we started in on whatever book she was interested in that week. This time, she wanted us to read a sentence, and then she’d repeat. Pretty soon, she had a number of books memorized and could ‘read’ them. I suspect she could still repeat D.W.’s Guide to Preschool by heart.

This process of memorization, though it didn’t put her any closer to actually being able to decode text did help Maria build other skills that are necessary for learning to read. She was learning how words fit into a sentence. She was learning to add intonation and feeling to the written word. She was learning the structure of stories. These skills are as important as the ability to figure out that ‘c’ ‘a’ ‘t’ is ‘cat’. After all, ‘cat’ only makes sense if you know what the cat is doing in the story.

Very recently, something else ‘clicked’ in for Maria, and she has begun to focus on sounding out words again. This time, she is able to pay attention to the sounds at the end of a word, and in the middle of the word. When she sits down to practice ‘reading’, she is actively trying to decode the parts of the word. She still needs a lot of help, and it’s painfully slow to read a single word. First we have to point to each letter and say its sound out loud, then we say the sounds a bit quicker, blending them together and she can get it. Vowels are still a complete mystery, hence the spelling of Clover as CLVR without any vowels. But vowels are the letters that are least amenable to phonic pronunciation, so that’s to be expected.

In one short year, she’s moved from pre-literacy to beginning literacy. She’s beginning to read simple words. She’s got a ways to go before she can pick up a book and read it, but she’s well on her way. Pretty soon a whole new world of written stories will open up to her. I can hardly wait.