2013: Right now, at this moment: Cinder’s curled up on the couch reading Bone, and has been there for hours. Flora’s on the floor, drawing. They’re both re-listening to Rick Riodan’s Red Pyramid on their iPad. Ender is with me at the kitchen table, drawing dinosaur eggs and telling me stories… and I continue the April theme of looking at the kids’ unique paths to literacy as Ender begins to chart his.
May 2, 2009. There are two young children, 4.5 and almost 7 yo, discovering literacy in our family right now, each one in a very different way. Neither one of them is reading War and Peace or Harry Potter or even, for that matter, Dr. Seuss yet–they’re both in fairly early stages of “cracking the code.” And they’ve both come at it in such different ways.
We’re a family of readers and writers–there are books and magazines EVERYWHERE (and I mean everywhere… “tiding” up in this house consists of piling books up on shelves, into baskets or into somewhat neater piles than the explosion that occupies a significant portion of floor space in every room). And since my oldest has been a baby, the house has been full of alphabet puzzles, alphabet books, word games and all that sort of stuff. We’ve read “A is for aardvark” books and played rhyming games and read books of all sorts for hours and hours and done all that “emergent literacy” stuff since he was probably three days old, not with a view to raising an early reader or a proto-genius, but simply because… I don’t actually know how to finish that sentence. Simply because that’s what we do in our house. We read. We read at the breakfast and dinner table, before bed, in the middle of the day, outside, inside… (not exclusively 🙂 of course, we do do other stuff. But we do read a lot!)
Anyway, raised in this “print-rich” family, Cinder reached the age of 5 without being in any way interested or invested in focusing on the names of letters, the sounds they make, how they form into words, the shapes of words, writing his name–none of that. All his mental and physical energy was directed elsewhere–into biking, swimming, climbing, designing weird experiments, building structures etc.
Sometime that year, he became obsessed with the Titanic and we read books about the Titanic, built models of the Titanic, acted out scenes from her life and death, watched movies… then came the seminal moment for me, of how Cinder was going to learn to read. He came to me with one of the Titanic books. “Mom,” he asked, “does T-I make the TIE sound in Titanic?”
Elated, I ruined it all. “Yes it does!” I exclaimed enthusiastically. “and T-A makes the TA sound…”
“Why did you tell me that?” he yelled. “I wanted to figure it out by myself!”
Lesson learned. But damage done: he did not spend any time decoding NIC, or anything else. Probably months passed before he started paying attention to letters as sounds as words again.
Meanwhile, there was a younger sister, who at 2.5 knew all her letters and their sounds, at 3 was recognizing some words, spent a great deal of time tracing letters, and before four had fairly completely cracked the phonics code–when she wanted to, she could decipher just about any word. Interestingly, throughout this process, she’s relied heavily on her older brother: “Cinder, is this the
baby l or baby i? I can’t remember?” and he’d always help her.
Fast-forward a few months or years, and there they are today, Cinder three weeks short of his 7th birthday and Flora 4.5. Each of them spends a portion of every day quietly contemplating books–all sorts of books–looking at pictures, looking at words, reading the bubbles or captions they remember. I read to them, on average, probably two hours a day (this usually drops when the weather’s great and increases when it sucks 🙂 ), all sorts of stuff, from Sandra Boynton Baby Board Books and the phonics-oriented Bob Books through to Spiderman comic books and Scooby-Doo novelizations to adult-targeted science and history books, and everything in-between. Every once in a while, one or the other of them will read something aloud that surprises me–or say or do something and indicates to me they’ve read a sign or a caption.
I know the anxiety around this extremely well. The hardest thing in all of this is not to push. I still spend more time than I think it’s worth it searching for “the right books.” I still take books out of the library with titles like “The Real Parents’ Guide to Teaching Reading,” “Montessori Read and Write” and “The Between the Lions Guide to Literacy.” Frequently, I’ll be reading one of these books while there’s a child at my feet flipping through Calvin & Hobbes or The Really Short History of Nearly Everything or Horrible Science: Nasty Nature or KNOW! Magazine, and then, as I’m reading about how to present the “ough” sound or how to overcome resistance to learning to read, one or both of them will clamber into my lap, and say “Read this!”
And “The Guide to Teaching Reading” falls to the floor, and reading takes its place.