Sunday, August 17, 2014

Teaching My Own: Learning To Read

If you are a parent who worries about teaching your child to read, this story is for you.

* * * * *

Once upon a time there were two little girls.

Correction. Once was fairly good-sized, for a six-year-old, and the other was a teeny tiny baby.

Now, the older girl was a whiz-bang reader. At the tender age of four, without any formal instruction, she simply began to read. Oh sure, her parents had read aloud to her for her whole life, but never did they try to turn this pleasurable pastime into a phonics lesson. They all just enjoyed the stories together, occasionally answering the child's questions about letters and the sounds they make. And suddenly, one day while reading  a chapter book to her, the parents noticed that the older girl was following along - not just memorizing a familiar text, as young children often do, but actually deciphering each word.

That's a fairly unusual accomplishment.

Taking her parents' astonishment in stride, the child quickly became a non-stop reader. She read all day long, devouring picture books, magazines, chapter books, comics, newspapers and every other printed material she could lay her hands on. By age five, our little bookworm was reading at a fourth-grade level, and her kindergarten teacher threw up her hands in despair, unable to adjust the classroom curriculum to accommodate this prodigious skill.

So her parents took her home, declared her a homeschooler, handed her a library card, and set the literary buzz saw free to read to her heart's content.

Along about this time, baby sister showed up. Obviously, she was born without any reading skills, so there was a bit of an ability gap right from the start. But as the years flew by, and this little missy reached the ages of four, five, six and seven, it was clear that she was walking a longer path to literacy than her older sister.

The parents were still committed to read-alouds, and devoted hours each day to saturating baby's eyes and ears with books and spoken text. Now an experienced homeschooling mommy who had helped to make readers out of Daughters Two and Three, the mother gently nurtured the youngest toward mastery.

But Baby was just not having it.

See, she quickly came to understand the mechanics of reading. But when it came time to put together the basic word recognition skills and actually make meaning from a text, our girl just could not do it. Or more accurately, would not do it. She simply did not want to read.

As you might imagine, Mom got a little worried. She tried incentives, threats, straight-up begging and other desperate measures to get this reluctant child on the reading train, but to no avail.

More years passed. Maternal frustrations mounted. Baby grew strong and tall, a capable learner in every other measure but she still refused to read.

And then one day, without warning or explanation, our girl picked up a book and began to read.


In the blink of an eye, she absorbed all manner of advanced fiction and nonfiction, reading smoothly with perfect comprehension and deep passion. Overnight, this "failed" reader became a fearless reader.

She was ten years old.

Fast forward a decade and the two little girls are now very big girls. Adults, in fact.

Both of them love to read.

They both read every day for pleasure.
They both frequent the local library.
They both keep a stack of books near their beds.
They both request - and receive - books for birthday and Christmas gifts.
They both have amassed large collections of favorite books, and consider them to be prize possessions.

But surely, the extreme difference in the ages at which they learned to read must affect them today. Right?


As you must surely know by now, these two girls are my two girls. My first-born and my fourth-born.

Every detail of this story is true. The eldest taught herself to read when she was barely four and has been a book worm her whole life; the youngest held off on reading fluently until she was ten and has been making up for lost time ever since.

I am here to tell you that when it comes to learning to read, age does not matter. As long as a child believes in herself and is adequately nurtured by a caring adult, she will start reading when the time is right.

* * * * *

So, worried parents, listen up:

There is no 'right' time for a child to begin to read.
There is no such thing as 'falling behind.'
There is no one perfect way to teach a child to read.

And there is nothing wrong with letting a child take her time in learning to read.
Or anything else, for that matter.

Instead of worrying about your young reader's emerging literacy, I recommend that you relax and enjoy the story of your child's life as it unfolds before your eyes.

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