The Myth of Prodigy and Why It Matters – Malcolm Gladwell

I was laying in bed last night trying to figure out what my blog is about now that I'm out of library school (which was 90% of my focus for the past year.)

I came up with:
1. library-related stories
2. technology developments
3. baby stuff

…with a side helping of politics, Saskatchewan news bites and miscellanous observations – often in a tasty list format. Sound about right?

Here's an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell that combines two of these major categories – library-related stuff (especially if you're interested in children's librarianship) and baby-related stuff: 

Early acquisition of skills — which is often what we mean by precocity — may thus be a misleading indicator of later success, said Gladwell. “Sometimes we call a child precocious because they acquire a certain skill quickly, but that skill turns out to be something where speed of acquisition is not at all important. … We don’t say that someone who learned to walk at four months is a better walker than the rest of us. It’s not really a meaningful category.”

Reading may be like walking in this respect. Gladwell cited one study comparing French-speaking Swiss children, who are taught to read early, with German-speaking Swiss children, who are taught to read later but show far fewer learning problems than their French-speaking counterparts; he also mentioned other research finding little if any correlation between early reading and ease or love of reading at later ages.

(via DiggieFilter)

That last line surprised me as it goes against everything we, as book-lovers, tend to (and are taught to?) believe.  Anybody else ever heard this?

I bought a copy of Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals About Reading, Libraries and Community but never got to read it cover-to-cover, only excerpts.  Time to go back to it I think…

Comments 6

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Actually, I was surprised a few years ago that early-reading wasn't held as a universal, self-evident goal. German and Norwegian friends all complained that Canadian schools “forced” kids to read too early.
    In those countries (or at least parts of them) reading isn't actively taught in school until the child is 7 or 8 years old. That's 2-3 years after the Canadian system. To put that in perspective, that's half a lifetime for a child.
    The theory is that children and young adults go through various developmental stages and that little if any progress can be made in teaching them *anything* if they haven't hit that particular developmental stage. (And stages are task or skill dependent, not big bundles that are easy to recognize.)
    This is obvious to the point of banality with infants and toddlers. You can't teach 'em to walk or talk until they are good and ready but once they start, you can't get them to stop. My German and Norwegian friends just assumed that reading was the same as walking or talking — why waste time trying to teach it to children who aren't ready? Read to them? Sure, that can't hurt the process of instilling a love of stories (which is different from, but related to, a love of reading) but don't start with the phonics and public sight-reading exercises until they are a bit older.
    I don't have any statistics on hand but neither Norway nor Germany stand out in my mind as particularly illiterate countries.
    Of course there will always be early developers. Some kids read as young as 4 without any particular encouragement. I was one of those kids, but I don't think that it made me a much better reader as an adult. It did likely contribute to my sense of self-identity — the dark side of which is a lingering math-phobia and even as I was flunking out of high school, I didn't have to convince anyone that I was a good reader — even though the rest of the class had long-since caught up.
    The only reason that I would hope a child would learn to read fluently earlier rather than later would be that it would give them more time to devour all of the great children's literature out there. But that's no reason to set up a lot of kids for failure at ages 5 and 6, who will be up to the task given a year or two.

    Posted 14 Feb 2007 at 6:13 pm
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    That line about “nobody talks about being an early walker” really resonated for me. Why is early reading so important in comparison? I think it has a lot to do with the misguided value we put on intelligence as a society – people who read early are “smarter”, people who walk early are, well, that's just normal and nobody cares a couple years later. But like walking, are early readers notably advanced intellectually when they're older? If this article is to be believed, no.
    Another issue is that I think there's a whole culture of competitiveness with kids/parenting that's worse than pretty much anything you'll see in competitive adult activities – sport, business, whatever (and this probably does include early walking, early talking as well as early reading.)
    Shea and I are going to try hard not to fall into the “my kid talked at four months, walked at eight months and wrote their first symphony when they were two” trap. But we probably will…
    In fact, my recurring joke (?) for when Oscar starts playing hockey is that I'll be the parent leaning over the boards yelling “If you don't score, daddy doesn't love you!”
    Thanks for your comments – thoughtful as always!

    Posted 16 Feb 2007 at 4:53 am
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    Have you read Freakonomics? There's a chapter in there about these issues: they say (IIRC) that being read to as a child is no predictor of future academic success, but having lots of books in the house is (because it correlates strongly with income, I think).

    Posted 14 Mar 2007 at 10:11 pm
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    I did read Freakonomics (great book!) and remember that section. My former professor (and your UWO colleague) Dr. Lynne McKechnie wrote a book (with two others) called “Reading Matters” that looks at reading's impact throughout a person's life.
    I haven't read it cover to cover yet but if I remember correctly, I think they're in the “reading to kids *does* affect future success” camp (don't quote me on that!)
    And of course, the whole point of Freakonomics is to try and topple commonly held assumptions – their take on why crime rates fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s is particularly shocking even if it does make sense when you think about it.
    Oh, and I want to thank you for posting – you're my first Harvard-educated PhD to leave a comment! Did you find me via the UWO blog page?

    Posted 15 Mar 2007 at 6:23 am
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    My favorite story in Freakonomics is the one they had to backpedal on in the 2nd edition, about Superman vs the Klan.
    And you're very welcome. I've been reading for a couple of months at least. I can't remember if it was the UWO blog page that brought me here or if one of Bill Turkel's digital history MA students linked here in their blogs.

    Posted 15 Mar 2007 at 9:26 pm
  6. Anonymous wrote:

    It's hard to remember that when you have a blog, it's all available to anyone with an internet connection who might stumble across your site. And even crazier, that some people might keep coming back once they pop by one time if they find your rambling random observations of interest. If I had to guess, I'd think it was the UWO blog page that led you to me since I am getting quite a bit of traffic from it. But I'll take a better look at Bill Turkel's MA students' blogs to see if I can find where the link might've come from – I'm curious now!

    Posted 18 Mar 2007 at 7:47 pm
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