Friday, March 11, 2011

reading lessons

The following article was first published in the January-February 2011 issue of 

One of the first chapter books I read to Jonathan and Rebecca was The BFG by Roald Dahl. It scared them senseless. Jonathan was age 4, Rebecca 3. It didn’t help matters that I was reading the story at night, right beside a large picture window—even I could sense the child-chomping giants lurking outside, waiting to snatch us from our cozy little loveseat and gobble us up.

Our entire family loves stories, and as a result, bookshelves—both freestanding and built-in—line the walls in the living room, bedrooms, quiet room, even the kitchen, and there’s still an overflow of books. Without my really intending it, our days are arranged in such a way that leaves ample time for reading. I read to the children weekday mornings, a hodgepodge assortment that includes books about historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Helen Keller, as well as straight-up educational books like the atlas and the Bible, and books of poetry; or they’ll plop down on the sofa or the dilapidated swivel chair, all of their own accord, to browse the stacks. For an hour or two after lunch, I banish the kids to their rooms where they may read. Then in the evening I read chapter books to Jonathan and Rebecca while John entertains the younger two children, Nicholas and Caroline, with picture books.

It’s the evening read-aloud that I like best. We’ve delved into classics such as Heidi and The Hobbit—the children also love run-of-the-mill material such as the Treehouse series—and the most exceptional sagas entice us to stay up later than is healthy. Holes, by Louis Sachar, is normally introduced to kids in middle school, but I decided to push the envelope and see if they could handle the tale. Once I started reading it, we couldn’t stop. Or maybe I should say I couldn’t stop. Some nights instead of making the kids beg “Read more, read more!” I simply plowed ahead, ignoring the fact that there existed such a thing as chapters. I found myself gripping the book extra tightly during the scary parts and reading super fast—so fast, in fact, that I sometimes had to put the book down in order to catch my breath. At one point the story got so intense that Rebecca had to get up from the sofa and go stand in the doorway to put some distance between herself and the danger. Despite her terror, she adored Holes, carting it around with her and showing it to anyone who walked into our house.

Jonathan re-reading Holes to Rebecca

The thing is this: despite the profusion of words, words, words, Jonathan and Rebecca have not demonstrated early aptitudes for deciphering for themselves the English language.

I worked with Jonathan occasionally, maybe starting when he six. He could figure a few things out here and there, but even at eight he was still addled. Then at nine he discovered Harry Potter and whizzed through the series, probably not even understanding half the words. He read those books over and over. I’m still not quite sure how he figured it all out. He’ll need to mature a bit more before he can find the same satisfaction with less riveting material, but in the meantime he thoroughly enjoys hanging out with his literary heroes and savoring the rush that comes from the well-crafted plot.

When I thought Rebecca might be ready to learn, we started in on Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. We plodded through at least a third of the book, but nothing clicked. She couldn’t even remember basic words—“and,” “it,” “is”—from one line to the next. I grew frustrated; she grew sullen. 

In a last-ditch effort, I made flash cards to help her memorize the simple articles and pronouns. She immediately threw a fit. Hello, I thought. This is not working. Time to change tactics. 

I paused for a moment, taking in the angry, sobbing child, her strawberry-blonde hair obscuring her face, before I delivered my verdict. “Honey, you are a smart girl. You will learn to read. In fact, I bet you can teach yourself to read. I have some ideas of ways to help you learn when you’re ready, but if you don’t want my help, that’s fine, too. However, if you decide you need my help, you’ll need to listen to me. Got it?” Case closed, and life moved on sans those dreadful reading lessons.

Sometimes I’d feel a little panicky when I heard her peers reading fluently. I’d see Jalyn, two years younger than Rebecca, reading stories to her, and feel sorry for my daughter, The Illiterate One. But, amazingly enough, she didn’t seem to mind. She was always delighted, also, to curl up alongside another friend, Kerinna, and listen quietly as she droned on and on.

Rebecca, Queen of Play

Rebecca, I decided, was having a true-blue childhood, free from the worries and obsessions of the academic world. She was washing dishes, gutting chickens, playing the piano, picking potato bugs, building forts, acting out Shakespeare, dreaming about Narnia, babysitting her baby cousin, and baking. How, exactly, was she “behind”? At her own pace she would learn to read, unimpeded by the judgements of others.

Now, at Rebecca’s behest, we have once again started lessons in grammar and handwriting. She eagerly pores over her workbook pages, her lips pressed together as she concentrates. Sometimes, upon completing the assigned pages, she begs to be allowed to do more. I have secret fantasies of her learning to read in just a couple months’ time, but I know better than to hold my breath—we tend to progress in fits and starts.
Maybe if I’d plopped her in kindergarten at age five, she would now be zipping through books, pleased as punch at her accomplishments. Or maybe she’d be carrying around a learning-disability label, shame and embarrassment clouding her mind and lowering her self esteem. I’ll never know. What I do know is that she’ll put together the puzzle. While we wait for the letters and sounds to click into place in her sharp little mind, I’ll keep reading to her a wide variety of literature: James Herriot, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madeleine L’Engle, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Edgar Allen Poe, Thornton W. Burgess, L.M. Montgomery, E.B. White, Lynne Reid Banks, and Beverly Cleary. We will savor our time spent together, the gentle slish-slish of the pages turning, the words swirling around us as they weave magical stories and teach an oh-so-important lesson: that reading is fun at any stage of the game.