Learning by Immersion

By Sue Wight

We all learnt to speak via the immersion method. Babies become aware of vocal patterns and connect them with visual cues from facial expressions and body language and are on their way to cracking the code of their mother tongue. The process is driven by the desire to understand, to communicate, to be part of the group.

Watching babies and toddlers progress in these language-acquisition efforts, we notice their frustrations and mistakes as they struggle to communicate with the limited words at their disposal. However, we know their vocabulary will expand over time as they gain experience and eventually master the syntax of English. It is a mind-bogglingly complex task, and yet small children manage it through the process of immersion.

For second language learners the experience is similar; ideally living in a foreign country, they begin to make sense from the cacophony of native speakers surrounding them.

In each case, it is a very social process. Babies and toddlers don’t make their amazing progress in a vacuum. They don’t land on Earth needing to teach themselves to speak, making up words for each item they encounter. Instead, they are surrounded by proficient speakers making an effort to communicate with them and are inducted into an existing method of communication. The same goes for learning a second language. Both toddlers and budding bi-linguists experience set-backs and periods of frustration and this process of intellectual struggle is completely normal.
This is very much the way I view the natural learning method of education in every domain.

To promote learning, we immerse children in a vibrant atmosphere where everyone is doing interesting things: by enhancing the environment we effectively expand the opportunities for learning.

Even before we begin home education, our homes are already a learning environment. As home educators, we just continue the process we began with our babies and toddlers: making new experiences, knowledge and equipment available in and out of the home, and providing opportunities for experiments, play, artwork, reading, and building projects. Discussions are held about anything and everything all over the house.

At the same time, parents go about their adult tasks of running the household, earning an income, reading, and learning new skills. We talk to our children about these activities as we share our lives with them and, as children have done for thousands of years, they learn many skills alongside us in a kind of apprenticeship.

As with language learning, it is a very social process. John Holt wrote, ‘Birds fly. Fish swim. People learn’. None of them need overt teaching, but all of them benefit from being surrounded by others who are further along in the process than they are. This enables the young bird, fish or child to get on with the process, without having to invent the skill for himself. Where a family is a learning community, a child learns simply by being part of it and sharing in the accumulated knowledge of experience. A cross-age environment allows them to see the progress they have made compared to younger siblings, and observing the abilities of older siblings helps to bridge the gap between their own skill level and that of the adults, making progress more achievable.

When we speak of children reading spontaneously, they have usually learnt via the immersion method. It is difficult to pin down exactly how the process unfolds but the environment is important. Learning to read by immersion means being read to and sharing books, living in a reading-rich environment. In a reading family, much of this just happens perfectly naturally, but there are conscious things parents can do to encourage the child’s progress just as they encouraged the child’s early attempts at speech – not by drills, but through contextual interaction and a helpful attitude.

Firstly, make lots of books available at home and work hard to find books that appeal to your individual child. It doesn’t matter how well-regarded a book is, or how much you love it, if your child has no interest in it, leave it for now – perhaps it will appeal later. Aim for a variety of many different types of books and be prepared to include books that don’t appeal to you. Sometimes children have favourite books that we’d genuinely like to lose down the back of the bookshelf. Respect your child’s choice by being prepared to re-read it often. Even though you hate it, there may be something about it that your child is just on the cusp of mastering. The fascination with this particular book will pass; your child will move onto ‘better’ books in due course but in the meantime they are experiencing the pleasure of reading a beloved book with a caring adult. It is, however, perfectly okay to confess that it is not your favourite and to suggest other books. This could give rise to a conversation about what each of you likes about the books you are suggesting.

Similarly, having various tools of writing on hand is important. But you are better off to have an endless supply of scrap paper than to have beautiful paper if you can’t bring yourself to allow its use for an impromptu shop sign in today’s game. Your children should also see you writing and typing. These days, of course, few of us handwrite as much as we used to, but calendars, shopping lists and ‘to do’ lists should be visible and it is useful to have an area where the family leaves notes for each other, whether that’s a pin board, a white board or whatever. For twenty years or so we’ve had a magnetic weekly planner attached to the fridge listing the current week’s schedule. Kids see adults not only using these things but drawing meaning from them, and they want to be involved. To this end I would suggest not being too precious about appearances. Magnetic letters, alphabet blocks, foam letters for bath play, posters- all these things, together with non-pressured discussions about them, help to surround your child with print and the tools to experiment with putting words together. This naturally evolves into a higher skill level once the basics have been mastered.

The same principle applies to maths also. Have mathematical tools on hand and be seen using them. It doesn’t matter if your child is too young to understand exactly how measuring works, she’ll remember that, to figure out whether the shelves would fit through the door, you used the tape measure. In this way, much as she did with speaking, she’ll absorb mathematical information before she fully understands it and it will begin to come together as she connects one piece of knowledge with another.

There is a huge body of accumulated human knowledge. As natural learning families, we don’t just stand back and wait for our children to discover it all on their own.

We aid and assist them, by introducing them to as much of it as we can in our normal lifestyle. We expand on that by encouraging their own explorations and accompanying them out into the wider world to places as diverse as the butcher shop, the forest and museums in pursuit of specific pieces of knowledge. We use exhibitions, festivals, public talks, and so on, to expose our children to new ideas and possibilities. We pick up on interests and hunt around for ways to access further knowledge in those areas whether by community groups, mentors, tutors – there are hundreds of options. There is something to learn everywhere. Dive in!


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