Years ago, whilst living in Tokyo, I used to sit slack-jawed with amazement and watch as the Japanese around me would pick up a pen and, without flinching, produce some of the most complex and beautiful handwriting I had ever seen. There are close to 3,000 different Chinese characters, or “Kanji”, designated for every-day use there, some of them pretty obscure, and many of them very similar to each other, with nothing but a couple of strokes of the pen separating one very different meaning from another. “How on EARTH do they remember how to write each one??!” I used to think to myself.
The answer is in the basics. Every complex kanji, when you break it down, is made up of a combination of building blocks of characters that children begin learning when they start school, slowly building up their knowledge and understanding with lots of practice, so that one or several characters set the base to build another, increasingly complex one.
京 ＋ 犬 ＋ 鳥 ＝ 鷲
City + Dog + Bird = Eagle
This takes me back to being 5 years old and starting school myself. Where (from my perspective) I saw some pretty large and terrifying nuns, my parents saw an institution that focused solely on the “Three R`s” of `Righting, Reading and `Rithmetic. How I wished I could have gone to the local village school like the other kids! Now, 40 years and 5 continents later, I truly appreciate the gift my parents gave me. Not convinced that my own children quite understand it yet as they sit at the dining table reciting “four eights are thirty-two, five eights are forrrrty…” but they`ll thank me one day, I`m sure!
Many education plans and philosophies come, go and / or linger: Start-rite, No Child Left Behind, Standards-Based Education, National School Readiness Initiatives, Common Core, Montessori…the list continues.
But there is one thing all (or rather, to be absolutely correct, most of!) these plans have in common: a solid base from which to grow the educational experience. The Three R`s literally are the building blocks of our language and educational system. Miss out on some of those blocks, and you are starting out on a shaky foundation. Coming from Japan, believe me, shaky foundations are not a good thing!
This is really not a new concept. It can actually be traced back as far as Saint Augustine’s “The Confessions of Saint Augustine” Book I in AD 401, – translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey: “For those first lessons, reading, writing and arithmetic, I thought as great a burden and penalty as any Greek.” (1)
It won`t come as a surprise to many that during the 17th century in the New England colonies the common schools (elementary) curriculum was summed up as the “Four R`s” – Reading, `Riting, `Rithmetic and `Religion. (2)
Since then, the trends have come and gone. California was one of several states who, in the late 90`s, turned away from the standards-based education reform in favor of returning to the basics.
Time and again throughout the ages it has been proven that the basics work.
So, what of the children who struggle with those basics? There are many more of them than people realize. Children who start off their early years in a totally different language, especially one with a pedagogy so different to English, can find themselves lagging behind when they start school. Children transferring in from a different system elsewhere may need extra attention. My own son, due to the month his birthday falls (May), and the timing of the Japanese school year (which finishes at the end of March) found himself skipping all of kindergarten, most of the crucial first grade, and entering second grade practically unable to hold a pencil correctly. Thankfully due to modern research, children with a spectrum of learning disabilities requiring specialist intervention are at least now being identified and, hopefully, an attempt is being made to have their needs met, as best the school district can manage with the limited funding available. Then there are the children who, for whatever reason, simply find picking up the crucial basics more difficult.
Teachers are doing the very best they can, but as has been highlighted in previous articles, in California classes are getting ever larger and more diverse, and teachers stretched ever more thinly, trying to meet the needs of each individual student whilst still keeping the entire group on track.
Fortunately there is a solution. For all the many children who need individual attention when mastering the basics, a skilled and professional tutor can create a plan designed specifically to meet that child`s needs.
In an ideal world at least one parent would have the time and the skills to enable them to sit down every day in a quiet place with their early learner in order to help them with this critical first step on the path to education. I am in awe of anyone who can manage this. I never can, and I AM a teacher! I felt guilty for a long time, thinking it SHOULD be me who sits down with my children to help them. And I do my best, when I can. But the key is consistency, and that is something I simply can`t guarantee. The relief and the pressure that was taken off of me when I finally threw in the towel and called in the professionals cannot be calculated. An unexpected bonus was how well the children actually responded to their tutor, compared to their own mother teaching them! Applying my teaching skills to someone else`s children works well, but my own?! Let`s just say there were some issues!
Those basics imparted by a specialist tutor are so critically important to future success in the classroom. Like many, we can`t afford a private education, and a tutor gave us the best of both worlds. It is much easier, more timely, and cost effective to get it right from the beginning and build consecutively from a solid base, than to have to dismantle the structure at a later date and rebuild. A strong, child-specific foundation gives a beginning student the skills and the confidence to go forwards, and for parents, confidence in knowing that they have given their child the best possible start to their student career. Onwards and upwards!
(2) Slosson, Edwin Emory. “The American Spirit in Education: A Chronicle of Great Teachers, Volume 33”, Google Books. Yale University Press.
Written by Nicola Washida, Teacher and Tutor