As Simone Bibeau points out in the introduction to each book in her Developing the Early Learner series, a lot of parents mistakenly assume that their kids will be fine if they simply master the "three r's": reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nothing could be further from the truth, because while kids certainly need to master these raw skills, they won't get very far if they don't first know how to process the elements of those skills.
This kind of learning can and should predate reading instruction in a child's academic growth. Bibeau, an expert in special education, identifies four basic skills that all children must master—motor skills, visual skills, auditory skills, and comprehension skills—and sets out to teach them in these four workbooks. Workpages begin quite simply and gradually become more difficult and elaborate as preschoolers grow in their ability to perform according to the instructions.
How Do These Work?
There are 245 exercises in all throughout the four workbooks, and each includes one or two lines of instruction for the parent/teacher to read and explain at the top of the page. Each page focuses on one skill with one set of exercises of the same type to avoid confusion. Students can complete as many pages as you assign, but because the object is perceptual growth rather than simply having them do busy work, it's probably best to limit them to 2-3 pages per day.
For Bibeau, perceptual growth means far more than just making sure kids can hear you or see things clearly. Motor skills don't simply relate to how a child uses her hands, but to the establishment of dominance for one side over the other; visual skills aren't limited to the ability to see items on a page, but encompass the ability to interpret and understand visual information; auditory skills relate to a child's ability to form and organize ideas based on what they hear; and so on.
Comprehension skills are built on the foundation of the other three types of skills Bibeau identifies, and comprise the ability "to classify, to categorize, to generalize, and sequentialize." These skills don't just grow out of nowhere, but must be tended and guided as the child grows from a state of unawareness to one of greater realization. Motor skills, for instance, aren't innate but must rather be taught; interpretation of visual data requires instruction, etc.
Students work mostly alone, though all the exercises will need to be explained to non-readers, and some require the instructor to interact with the student throughout the exercise regardless of reading ability. All they'll need are the book they're currently working through, and a pen or marker or crayon (some of the exercises specify use of different colors). Answer keys and record sheets are at the back of each volume.
The first exercise asks kids to draw a line from a rabbit to his carrot without crossing any of the lines jutting from the sides of his path, and without lifting their markers. The next exercise has kids comparing two similar objects and coloring them if they are identical. By the end of the fourth book, kids are drawing lines between two objects that are quite different yet can be used for similar purposes, or drawing lines to complete partially-finished pictures. Many exercises (particularly auditory-focused ones) emphasize memory and recall.
Bibeau emphasizes that mastery of these perceptual skills will result in a higher I.Q. What is more important, however, is that kids will be equipped to learn as they ought. Rather than being thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to swim, they'll be taught how to float, how to dog-paddle, and finally how to move rhythmically through the water so that when depth and waves are encountered they won't panic or simply freeze up. Metaphorically, of course.
Our Honest Opinion
These books are so simple, yet the skills they impart (they don't really teach—kids learn more through osmosis by doing) are invaluable for their success not only in the early stages of reading, but throughout their academic lives. The important thing isn't that kids be stuffed full of facts and techniques, but that they learn to learn, to think clearly and reason from beginning to end without getting hung up on simple mechanics that should help rather than hinder them. Bibeau's workbooks will help them achieve just that.
What's more, Developing the Early Learner works for students in need of remedial training as well as first-time preschoolers. While going back to the beginning may be more difficult for a second grader, if she's struggling with skills never learned or only half-learned, she's not a hopeless case and can still benefit from an organized retread (or brand-new introduction, depending on what's come before). Either way, this little series is an excellent tool for those not yet reading, those just beginning to read, or those who need a refresher. Highly recommended!
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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