I've been wanting to tell the story of my son's journey to being a reader for a while now. He's reading, you see. Really reading.
He's picking up books and working his way through stories at an increasingly rapid pace. He's writing his own stories, too. He reads the paper now (mostly comics) and we've had to have conversations about leaving the paper in a state where the rest of the family can still enjoy it. He is constantly feeding me trivia from the "useless facts" applet he has loaded on his homepage. He reads articles from Science Illustrated and Archaeology. Yesterday, he sent me an email that said, "I have not sent you an email in a while, I thought I would send you an email." Sometimes we IM each other when we are both up early in the morning, the only two in the house awake. Yesterday, he also began reading the first draft of a story I am writing. I had to send him, with pencil in hand, to the other room as I explained that his edits were a vital and necessary part of the process, but that since I wasn't entirely done with the first draft yet, I needed him to just make notes to bring to my attention later.
None of this sounds atypical, of course, but I also want you to know that a year ago last August, my son was not a reader. As the third child, he was probably the one most aware of the fact that he was not reading. He was nearly nine years old. He would have been in the third grade if he were in school. And not only was he not reading, he would have sincerely and emphatically have told you that he could not read and had no desire to learn to do so. At an appointment to have his eyes checked, I had to explain to the doctor that his hesitation was more about knowing the names of the letters than his actual ability to see them. We switched to the picture charts and all was well.
Many of you who might be reading this already know us as homeschoolers and a few might understand that we are unschoolers. I know that for many of you, the idea of having an 8-year-old boy who does not read sounds a bit shocking. Especially if I were to go on to tell you that I was not engaged with any formal reading lessons with my son. I had no agenda, no timeline, no curriculum guides for teaching him how to read.
But I also imagine that there are many also who have experience with an 8-year-old child who is really not into reading. Maybe they find it difficult, or just bothersome, or they'd rather wiggle and run and build things than to dedicate their time to reading. If your child is in a school setting, this can be problematic. By the third grade, they should be getting the hang of things, right? They should have at least mastered he basic skills, even if they have not become joyful readers.
I don't write this with the intention of bashing schools. I do write, however, with the intention of encouraging parents to question the system. If our children are not reading by the third grade, perhaps the problem is our mindset. Perhaps, for some children, our expectations are unrealistic. And in expecting every child to follow a prescribed curriculum for reading, we are doing more harm than good.
So how did we get here? How did my son become a reader without lessons and skill building blocks and testing to assure that he was putting all these pre-reading pieces together in a manner that would assure he would learn to read? Well, to be honest, we did all those things. We simply didn't do them in the order or method that you would expect.
To begin with, we read. We read great books--books that were great according to my son's standards. We read Magic Treehouse and Star Wars Choose Your Own Adventure books. We read the Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins from cover to cover all because it had a picture of a Neanderthal on it. We read Calvin comics and Yo-Yo Game Maker Tutorials. I transcribed stories that my son told and we read them over and over and over again. We read the stories he selected from Archaeology Magazine and we spent about a year reading anything and everything that had something to do with dinosaurs. Ditto for pirates, war, space, ants, and dodo birds.
Some days it was exhausting. After three kids worth of reading in this manner, I very well may have worn a few years off the life of my voice. (It got easier, the girls often did the reading for my son and I got to be a listener, as well.)
But my point is that my son learned to love books. He learned that some are captivating and spark the imagination, while others are easy to put down and forget. He learned that you can't judge a book by its cover. All the pretty illustrations in the world don't guarantee a good read, though the illustrations can be inspirational for their own purposes.
I really didn't know how my son would finally take to reading, I only knew (in my heart and my soul) that he would eventually get there. For my oldest, it had simply been a progression. One day when she was about five, I realized she was whispering the words along with me as I read. When I asked if she was reading, she said no. A couple of years later she bought the first book in the Unfortunate Series of Events series with her own money and she's never looked back.
Yes, it was truly that easy.
Kiddo number two had never really had the patience to sit on my lap while I read to her. She loved listening to the stories, but she was usually busy with blocks or drawing. She would listen, but didn't spend a lot of time looking at the pages, at least while I was reading them out loud. Her favorites were classic fairy tales and Robert Munsch stories. She refused to listen to any story where an animal died, but she did listen all the way through her Grandfather's favorite book from childhood, the 1893 novel, Beautiful Joe.
Then one day number two picked out an Atomic Betty book at the book store. I assumed it would be our next read together, but she informed me that this one she was going to read all by herself. I bet it took her a month to get through that book, word by word. "I don't know all the words," she told me. "But I like to see how many words in each line I do know." By the end of the book, she knew quite a few more words than when she started. Just prior to the release of the sixth Harry Potter book, she decided she had progressed far enough in her reading to tackle the series. She set a goal of reading the first five books on her own before the sixth was released and she darn near made it. The rest of us had to read the sixth while her ears were hidden away because she wanted, more than anything, to read it entirely on her own.
Meanwhile, I kept myself busy reading for whomever needed it. I answered questions about punctuation, the use of italics, word meanings and origins, and spelling, spelling, spelling. (And often I found myself looking these things up, or walking them through looking these things up, because I didn't always know the answers to the questions.) What I've learned through three kids learning to read (and writing, as well) is that when the answers to the questions are relevant to their experiences and concerns at any given moment, they get it. And you can't begin to guess the order in which they will need this information or what they are going to figure out on their own, in spite of your best efforts.
My son took a different route to reading altogether.
I had dabbled with phonics, especially with my oldest (when I hadn't entirely learned to trust my heart and soul yet) and those dabbles had been utter failures, except in that they gave me a greater understanding of some of my own early confusion in school. I had been an early reader, you see, but when I entered kindergarten, they were learning phonics. I can't begin to describe to you the horror of the scene. My memory is of walking into this room where all the children were in a circle on the floor around the teacher. She had this giant blow up doll -- a hideous creature with very tall teeth. "Ttt... Ttt... Tall Teeth," the children were chanting. Another that gave me nightmares was "Mmmm... Mmmm... Munchy Mouth."
It was years before I understood that they were teaching us to read. In my mind there was something rather cult-like about it, and someone had forgotten to catch me up on the doctrine. It was a ritual I couldn't fully wrap my mind around.
Anyway, my son had started having conversations with me about learning to read. I assured him that he would get there, and we set out to find ways to practice that were both enjoyable to him and effective. We tried the early readers at the library. It wasn't a bad experience, but you have to admit that those stories are usually lacking in substance. We found some sites online, and pulled out some of our games based on gaining reading skills.
None of it was giving him quite the satisfaction he was looking for. Finally, we decided to try out an actual reading program. We asked our library to get Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, thinking it would be a good idea to try the book out before buying it. A bit to my surprise, he loved it. Together, we blew through the first 48 lessons. He completed the rest of the book on his own while we were "on break."
Between the months of August to December (a year ago), he went from being a boy who didn't read to a boy who could sound out (and did) anything that was placed in front of him. Late last year, he and I started reading a book called Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, by Peg Kehret. That read was sparked by a passing fascination with micro-organisms, a microscope, and conversations about people we know who had polio when they were kids. Every day when we would sit down to read, I would find that he had read ahead. He would fill me in on what I had missed and we'd go from there. A few chapters into the book he informed me that he thought he would like to read this one himself. He then went to the library and was delighted to discover that Peg Kehret writes fiction, as well. He's been working his way through her collection of books. Last week, he brought home his first book that is written by another author.
Now there are days when I finish up my work for the day and head out to the living room to find three heads bent over books or one or two kids typing away at a computer, working on a story or maybe an email to a friend. There are moments when the house gets so quiet I wonder where they've all gone.
We still read together, of course. It's a family ritual, at this point, and I'm not looking forward to it ending. It's nice that my voice gets a break, however. I might read one chapter in three, and I imagine one in four is right around the corner.
I guess my point is that there are many paths to reading, and I believe we (as a culture) focus way too much on teaching kids early reading skills and pushing kids to read before they are ready. I think we have a tendency to rip the joy from the world of books. I think there is a good chance we are creating reading "disabilities" where there would be none, or at least fewer, if we gave kids a little more rope and breadth in which to explore the world of words.
I think we place too high a value on books, as well. There is joy to be found in a multitude of activities, and some people are always going to be too busy running or building something to find true happiness in a book.
There's nothing wrong with that. My son's reading hasn't precluded his wiggling, although his moments of stillness surprise me more and more often these days. I hope that he finds a good balance, a way to keep building things and finding (and creating) inspiration, and a way to enjoy books, as well. Maybe he'll end up being one of those who does both well. He'll read books and maybe he'll write them, too. For today, being a writer is on his list of career options. I was kind of rooting for paleontologist, which seems to have dropped from the list, but whatever he ends up doing, I'm sure he'll find joy in it.