My wife and I like to try to teach our children to read as early as possible, as long as that is consistent with the whole thing being fun for them -- that is, any resistance and we stop. A few weeks ago I bought a book for my three-year-old daughter that has about a dozen three-letter words, one per double-page spread, and is meant to be a very first encounter with phonics. With all her older siblings (and countless other children of course) there has been a point where they suddenly get the principle behind assertions like "C-A-T makes cat!" that they have been told over and over again. But how does it happen? Does something "click" in their brains? Or are there intermediate phases between having absolutely no idea what is going on and completely understanding the principle?
It's pretty clear that my daughter is going to be the last person I'll have a chance to closely observe going through this transition. (I like that sentence, because the only satisfactory position for "closely" is bang in the middle of that infinitive.) I also want to try to evaluate a pet theory of mine, that from our earliest childhood, having a store of examples helps one understand an abstract principle. (The theory, for which I claim no originality, is slightly more than that -- I mean that it is part of an essential mechanism for developing the more general understanding.)
The experience so far has gone something like this. When we started, she didn't appear to have any understanding of things like "A for apple", "B for bus", "C for cat", and so on. (The letters, by the way, we pronounce as A, Buh, Cuh, Duh, Eh, Fuh etc. rather than Ay, Bee, See, Dee, Ee, Eff, etc.) A rather sweet indication of this was that when speaking French, my wife's native tongue, she would insist on "A pour pomme".
To my pleasure, and slight surprise, she very much likes the phonics book, and enjoys a guessing game I've played with her several times now, where I ask a question like "What does P-I-G make?" she answers, and we turn the page to see whether her answer is right. In typical childish fashion, she has quickly picked up the answers to all the questions, but appears to have done so from memory. The evidence for that is simple: if you test her on a word not in the book, she gets it wrong.
But it isn't quite as straightforward as that. A couple of days ago I got, for the first time, a correct answer to a new word. (I think it was "mat".) Although that was a one-off, it's also noticeable that her wrong answers are not random wrong answers. Sometimes they seem that way, when her answers bear absolutely no relation to the letters you've just said. But increasingly often she appears to give the nearest approximation from the book to the word spelt by the letters you've just said. So for example, we've asked her what S-U-N makes and she replies "bus".
What I don't know at this stage is whether this means that she is getting close, or whether we've reached a kind of stable point from which it will be hard to dislodge her. I'm also interested in a question that I find hard to make precise. As a rough approximation, it seems to me reasonable to guess that when the phonics principle does click, what happens is not an abstract thought like, "Take the sounds and merge them together, and that will be the right answer," but more something not consciously articulated along the lines of "B-A-T starts like 'bus' and ends like 'cat' so it's 'bat'".
Also on educational matters, her older brother has got to the stage with arithmetic where he can use the knowledge he already has in order to work out other things. Often he does that in sensible ways, but he also has a rather strange strategy of liking to split 7 up into 3+4. So if you ask him something like what 58+7 is, he'll say that you can add 3 and get to 61 and then 4 to get to 65. And yesterday I asked him, not seriously expecting an answer, what 7x7 was, and he said that one could work that out by adding three sevens to four sevens, which he didn't actually go on and do. I reported in a Google Plus post some time ago that he had intuitively grasped the inductive definition of addition. Now he seems to have an intuitive understanding of distributivity. He seems to be on his way to understanding commutativity of multiplication (or at least, to taking it for granted), but I think it's still the case that if I were to ask him what ten sevens are, he would find it hard because he would assume that he had to add up ten sevens.