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Learning to Read
This article, by Christine Lozano, was originally published in the September-October 1997 issue of Home Education Magazine.
Learning to read may be the biggest educational challenge we attempt as human beings. Learning to walk, learning to talk, seem to come effortlessly, as part of our genetic coding. Learning to read, on the other hand, seems calculated, full of effort, labored. And yet, does it have to be?
Like many parents I have agonized over the question, "When will my child learn to read?" I've been intimidated by the school schedule of "Your child should be able to read by second grade." Being a homeschooler I've spouted our question-authority stance on reading, "They'll learn when they are ready," bravely in public, but have secretly lamented, "Am I sure?"
For me reading is a pleasure. A privilege. Sometimes a vice. There are days when I sit for hours reading an interesting book, neglecting the housework, the lunch, the kids. A well-written book is a scrumptious meal, to be savored, lingered over. It's a beacon, shining a light on new horizons. It's a connection between me and the author as we share ideas. And because it is all of these things to me I was hoping that my children would someday share that opinion.
All of the "How to make sure your child will be a reader" guides list first: Be an example, if they see you reading they will want to read. Have books available. Start a family library. Take them to the public libraries. Give them gifts of books for birthdays and holidays. And so from their infancy onward they have been read to daily. We have been regulars at library story times. Night time rituals still include reading aloud. Homeschooling continues to highlight reading. But will they learn on their own or must reading be taught?
As an advocate of child-led learning I have resisted the temptation to "teach" my children. I have modeled, explained, answered questions, posed questions, but find I cannot claim the title "teacher." Parent, friend, co-worker, advisor would all be more accurate, and yet I'll admit, I've watched them closely in all their struggles and triumphs. So it's not as if I wasn't paying attention to their reading progress. Of course, I was watching them like a hawk, but I tried not to let them know it. I just continued to read aloud everyday. We continued our regular trips to the library. Their dad and I were often found with a book, magazine or newspaper in our hand.
I will confess to pushing them along at various points in the journey. When my first child was four months old I read of a family whose entire brood of (adopted) children were all ranked as geniuses and were on their way to prestigious colleges. How? Well, among other things they had all been trained with flash cards as infants. Now, being the impressionable, over-eager, first-time parent that I was, I went to work making a set of alphabet flash cards to show Diana and began making mental plans for which ivy-league school she would attend. I would sit her in her plastic chair, prop her up with a couple of towels rolled either side of her head and flash those cards in front of her big brown eyes and say, "A", "B", "C". She liked it for about thirty seconds, tolerated it for another thirty more and then told me in no uncertain terms that she was done. I probably tried it another couple of times, but as I"ve always been an "unschooler" at heart, I abandoned this attempt at teaching her.
And so years went by and we continued reading aloud and the second baby came and then the third and I was so busy that the only schooling that continually took place was the wonderful time we spent cuddled up together as I read one fabulous book after another. I was always a little sorry to see a book end, thinking I would never find another one as good. And then I would be doubly delighted to discover, "Hooray! There is another great book to read aloud." And we would be off and running to meet new characters, revel in new adventures, cry at new sorrows.
That first child owned books, borrowed books and observed her parents reading books. She asked questions, read signs, decoded the written word that decorated the world around her. She looked at picture books and made up endearing stories of her own. She memorized the stories I read to her over and over and then "read" them to us. She started to read "Stop" and speed limit signs and began to recognize more and more of the printed word. She wanted to write her name and mine and the names of all her kitties. She sensed reading must be something really important and necessary and went at it with the same determined attitude that she had in learning to walk and talk: Everybody does it, so will I someday. And then sometime in her eighth year she was a reader. It seemed to happen overnight. One day she didn't think she could and would ask for help, getting frustrated that it seemed too hard and then the "next day" she could do it! She was a reader.
So now I could relax and say, "Whew, one down, two to go." Marcus, my second child, was three years younger than Diana and uh oh..... a boy. You know what everybody says about boys; "They mature slower, they wet the bed longer, they cling to their mothers harder." Well, as all those things seemed to be right-on, I also remembered hearing "they learn to read later." And so I watched Marcus have very little interest in reading. He loved hearing me read aloud, and to this day continues to beg for "Just one more chapter, Mom." But I began to worry, "When will he learn to read?"
Funny how my fear of his possible failure clouded my memory of Diana's journey into reading. So I got on the waiting list at the library for that successful series of tapes guaranteed to ensure your child will get hooked on books. I had heard an advertisement on the radio and their system sounded so convincing that I gave them a call. But the price tag of around $200 was way over my head so I got the bright idea of borrowing them first.
The waiting list at the library was months long, a very successful program by all outward evidence. Finally it was our turn and I brought the shiny, white plastic case home, filled with tapes and booklets. I sat Marcus down in front of the tape player and put on tape number one. A sing-song poem taught the sounds of the letters: "a, as in apple", "buh, as in ball." Marcus listened dutifully through the entire tape. I said something encouraging when we were done and immediately called Dad at work to tell him of our success.
The next day I call Marcus over to listen again. "I don't want to," he tells me. "But you've just listened to one tape, Marcus, there are many more." "I don't want to listen to anymore, I know all of it," he says in his defiant-little-seven-year-old way. "O.K." I challenge him, "How do you spell hill?"
He stood in the doorway, cocked his head to one side in a thinking posture, thought for a few seconds and said, "H-I-L-L" and turned around and went to his room to play. And that was the end of that!
Then he was seven and a half, then eight and still he wasn't reading. I was pretty sure he could if he wanted to but as yet he didn't want to, not all the way. He would ask me questions, or how to spell words as he gave dialogue to the characters in his drawings but that was about it. And then, again seemingly overnight, right about nine years old, he was reading. And he never started with primary books. I got him a few of those paperback books labeled step 2, grade 2, etc.; he stumbled through them but was never really excited by them. I will admit to being concerned (all right, worried) that he was a late reader. But all that has been erased. He's a reader now and forever.
One of his first novels was a 350 page paperback of some popular action movie he liked. Questionable reading material in my book, but I was so happy he was reading, I kept my opinion to myself (well, mostly.) Then it was Nintendo magazines and skateboard magazines and again I kept my opinions to myself (well, mostly). He was reading and I was happy. And then one night while the rest of us were watching a video I looked over my shoulder and there he was reading an intricate computer manual on flying the F/A-18 Hornet aircraft. He's never looked back. Just the other night he finished The Old Man and the Sea. Star Wars and Dinotopia are on his table now. Reading is just another accomplishment, added to the list of walking and talking.
Now the third child, Lexi, is eight years old. She has had to play catch-up her whole life. Catch up to her older sister and brother. Never big enough, or fast enough or whatever enough. And so she's tough and determined and hard on herself and was very frustrated at seven and a half when she wanted to read books with chapters ("Like Diana's") but was unable to sort out many words in each sentence. And the words she could read were rarely found in a book of any length that would satisfy her need for "a long book with chapters." And so she would whine and lament, "I can't read," as she pushed herself to once again catch up. And here we are at the end of her eighth year and she, too, is a reader. The book I read aloud to her last year (a book with chapters) she is now reading on her own, with just a little help with the difficult words.
The joys of my life are the quiet evenings when I look around and realize every one of us is reading a book. Reading aloud is still a part of our day, the backbone of our homeschooling. But the satisfaction each of us receives from reading alone cannot be replaced or taken away. We are readers. The world is open and accessible to us. We recognize our connection, our capabilities, and realize that nothing can stop us from doing something we deem truly important.
© Christine Lozano
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