Friday, August 5, 2016

The Magic of Learning to Read

Learning to Read

When I was in high school, my mom taught at the elementary school just across the street. Along with being a second grade teacher, she was the staff reading specialist at her school in charge of recruiting and training volunteer reading tutors, so often during my lunch breaks I would walk over to her school and tutor the little first graders who were falling behind their class mates in reading.

It was a pretty magical experience for me, watching those struggling kids finally sound out a word, or read a sentence for the first time. It was that look in their face, that "aha!" moment when things clicked together and those mysterious black strokes on the page suddenly turned into sounds with meaning. That tutoring experience was one of the big reasons I wanted to become a teacher myself.

But despite having a reading specialist mother, and despite being an early and avid reader myself, and despite my education and teaching background, (or maybe because of all these things) I was determined not to force reading lessons on my own children before they were ready. I absolutely 100% adhere to the school of thought that the preschool years should be all play and exploration and imagination, not academics. If they don't learn to read until 1st grade (or later), well, so be it. They'll figure it out eventually. My main goal with reading and my children is making sure it's always a pleasure, always something they want to do for fun. The longer I can put off tedious phonetics lessons or assigned reading "homework," the better. Right now I'm content to just read aloud to them as often as they will let me.

Well, enter my oldest child, Josh. The child who knew every letter of the alphabet by sight before his second birthday. The child who played with letter flashcards for fun, meticulously lining them up in alphabetical order over and over and over again. The child who sang the ABCs backwards at 2.5, and sang the song phonetically by age 3 (instead of saying the letter names, he would sing their sounds). By 3.5, he'd taught himself to write every letter so he could make endless nonsense combinations, writing his own "stories" or just spelling out his name over and over again.

I'm convinced that if I'd pushed him, he could've been reading before he was potty trained.*

We kept early readers in the house, and I even bought a reading lesson book just to have on hand, but despite his (strange, obsessive) fascination with letters and the alphabet, he didn't seem inclined to read himself. And I refused to push it. He was only three! In my mind, if he waited until kindergarten or later, that was just fine with me.

But earlier this year, he got tired of writing nonsense gibberish stories, and decided he wanted to write real words. The problem? He didn't know how to spell real words (except his name), so I basically became his own personal auditory dictionary. For hours every day he would sit on the floor with his paper and crayons, telling me the words he wanted and writing them down while I spelled them out loud for him letter by letter. I basically felt like I was in a never-ending spelling bee, and it was driving me a little bit crazy. So one day I finally told him, "You know, if you learned how to read, you could learn how to spell all these words on your own."

And that was it. That was the motivating idea he needed, because after that he begged me to do reading lessons every day. I was still hesitant and tried to hold it off. After all, he's still only 4.5. Also, I was descending into the worst of my pregnancy sickness, and just didn't want to put forth the effort. But then I realized that reading lessons were something we could do together that allowed me to still lie on the couch, so it was actually the perfect activity to do with him while I was feeling sick. So I pulled out the lesson book and we got started.

For a note about the lesson book I'm using, it's the Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons program. We've been going for about a month and a half and worked through about 50 lessons, and so far it's been really good, but I'll do a full review with my thoughts and opinions once we've made it through the whole book (I've heard conflicting things about the later lessons).

Like I said, we're not finished with the lessons yet, and he's far from being a fluent reader, but this past month and a half have been pure magic for me. It's all those old feelings I got from tutoring back in the day: watching him string the sounds together until they make a word, watching the "aha!" moment in his face when he understands what he's read, watching his little finger move along the page and hearing the sounds turn into meaning for him, the look of triumph when he read his first book all by himself (just some of the Bob books, but still)... it's pure magic! It just fills my heart with so much joy.

And while I'm sure he could've been reading a year ago, I'm glad we waited. I love how self-motivated he is, how exciting he finds the lessons, how he begs to do another lesson, and just one more, when he sees what new sound we get to learn next. I love how now that he's figured out this whole sounding out business that he tries to sound out every word he sees: street signs, billboards, the other books we read together. He's so intrigued by the whole process. We've had a few bumps along the way (like the TH blend, he still can't say it properly so sounding out new words with it is a bit frustrating), but for the most part he's picked up reading with such fluid ease it's been a delightful process.

I'm not naive enough to think it will be this easy with all my children. (I know it's not fair to compare, but when Josh was Henry's age, he knew all the letters by sight. Henry, on the other hand, can only say about five words.) And I'm fine with that. I will let my children move at their own pace into the wonderful world of reading. I'm sure even then there might be tears and frustration and difficult moments (learning to read is quite a complex skill).

But for now, I'm enjoying the pure magic of watching my son move into this skill like a fish taking to water. It's a beautiful thing to see (even if it hasn't quite yet solved my problem of being a living spelling bee for the rest of the day...).

*In all honesty, he is going to be reading before he's fully potty trained, because let me tell you what, nighttime potty training has been nothing but a complete disaster. It'll be a miracle if he's out of night pull-ups before kindergarten next year.


  1. This is such a great post and brings back all the feelings of delight I've had with each of my children as they've learned to read (and, unlike you, I pushed it a bit with my oldest because I honestly couldn't help myself). Even more impressive to me than Josh's self-motivation to read is his self-motivation to WRITE. I'm telling you, I've been around enough kindergartners to know this is a difficult and frustrating skill for almost all of them to learn. It's amazing that he's already writing so much.

    1. Well, yes, he's always been a strange little kid when it comes to the alphabet. I've not pushed writing at all, it is his own motivation, but this is potentially going to lead to problems later in school, because he's developed his own style of forming letters/words/punctuation and doesn't respond well when we try to tell him there are rules about these kinds of things. So it will be a struggle once a teacher starts telling him he has to write a certain way.

  2. I completely agree with your philosophy on preschool years.