According to Annie Murphy Paul, the author of The Brilliant Report, a blog about the science of learning, intelligence is a somewhat fluid quality which can be increased. In a recent blog, Eight Ways of Looking at Intelligence, she gives eight insights into how intelligence can change. I have paraphrased her ideas as they might apply to children, and I have added information about how her insights might apply to teaching children how to read.
1. Situations can make children smarter. Children’s intelligence is not a locked-in trait; it is a fluid condition than can improve over time. Genes probably play the biggest role in creating intelligence, but environment has a powerful effect too.
For example, if a child is in an angry mood, or is bothered by itchy clothes, or needs a nap, or is hardly ever read to, or gets little exercise, that child will not be receptive to working on reading skills. But if the child is alert and rested, in comfortable clothes, and gets regular daily exercise, the child is ready for that “teachable moment.”
2. Beliefs can make children smarter. If a child thinks, “I can’t read that. It’s too hard,” this self-imposed limit becomes a fact. On the other hand, if a child thinks, “I can do that,” her openness to success becomes a fact too.
So how can you help a child who puts up barriers to learning? Analyze your child’s reading level and then find books at that level or just below, so that the child encounters success. For example, if your child can read some short vowel words (hat, can, did) but hasn’t yet learned about silent e (cake, kite, bike), find books with mostly short vowel words. As he reads aloud, you jump in and read the difficult words to give him a sense of mastery.
3. Expertise can make children smarter. Experts in any area think differently from nonexperts. Yes, they know more, but they also think deeply, and almost unconsciously, like an athlete who has done a particular dive or dance routine thousands of times. What we would have to focus intently on, they can do almost thoughtlessly because the knowledge has been learned so well.
A kindergartener might already be an expert skier or video game winner. How did he become that expert? Practice, practice and more practice. You can help your child to become an expert reader by encouraging the same degree of practice.
4. Attention can make children smarter. Double-tasking—like watching a parade while eating an ice cream cone—means the child gives less attention to both tasks. Babies are notorious for their short attention spans, but by preschool or kindergarten, those attention spans are much longer.
Can you lengthen a child’s attention span? Sure. Work with a child on her reading for ten minutes every day this week; for twelve minutes next week; for 14 minutes the following week. If necessary, as the lesson lengthens, take a two minute break partway into the lesson, and encourage the child to move her body before resuming study. Let the child know her attention span is lengthening and that you are proud of her.
5. Emotions can make children smarter. If a child is in a positive mood, he is more apt to work at learning to read. If he is anxious, part of his brain won’t be available for learning since it is already busy being scared.
So how can you create a positive mood in your child when it’s time to read? Try turning reading time into a warm, one-on-one, special occasion between your child and you. Make reading a safe experience (no laughing at the child’s ignorance; no chiding him for not remembering how to read a word). This will allow the child to use his whole brain for learning.
6. Technology can make children smarter. Computers, tablets, digital watches, and calculators can extend a child’s mind just like a flash drive can extend your computer’s memory. But they can also make children lazy. (For example, do you memorize phone numbers any more or do you program them into your cell phone and let the phone remember for you? Can your child read an old-fashioned clock or does she need a digital one to tell time?)
A positive way for your child to use technology is to extend knowledge he already has mastered. When he knows how to read enough words to write a short message, help him to send an email to Aunt Carol. Turn off “Spell check” and let him write the words he doesn’t know phonetically. Or let him FaceTime or Skype an out-of-town relative and read a book to show what he has learned.
7. Children’s bodies can make them smarter. Compare the learning abilities of a well-fed child with a malnourished one. Compare the responses of children who get adequate sleep with those who do not.
Requiring the child to eat well-balanced meals and to go to bed at a certain hour can be hard, especially as the child grows older and more independent. Yet, if we want our children to learn optimally, we must enforce rules of behavior which are in their best interests. Call the rules “house rules” to separate them from you. “House rules: Everyone eats at 6. Kids take baths at 7. Kids go to bed at 8. Adults go to bed at 10. House rules.”
8. Relationships make children smarter. Children learn by watching, listening, helping, and asking questions. One sign of a smart kid is that she asks many questions. But to be successful gaining knowledge, the child must have an adult or older sibling who is willing to take her questions, not someone who says “Scram.”
You can encourage your child to ask questions when you are reading to her or when she is reading to you. Make asking questions as natural as turning a page. “Why does the caterpillar make a cocoon?” “Why can’t the king’s soldiers and king’s men put Humpty Dumpty together again?” Some important questions to ask for reading comprehension are “What is happening? What’s it all about? Can you tell me the story in order. What do you think will happen next?” If your child is shy about asking questions, reward her for doing so with a hug or a comment like, “Great question!”