Monday, October 8, 2012

Learning to Read

My grandson and my son are both learning to read. Henry is 19-months-old and loves Angus and the Cat, The Story of Ferdinand, and Katy and the Big Snow best right now. He's a very busy boy, but always ready to discontinue any activity if someone is willing to read to him. When they're not, he will read to himself. He even wants to read Braille like his Grandma. When spending a week at my mother's house recently, he kept dragging a Braille magazine to her and she made stories up while he ran his hands over the dots. She first read to me for hours, then to my children, now to my grandchildren. Henry is building his ability to read by listening, and pretending, and building his relationships with books.

My eight-year-old son Luke is teetering on the edge of complete independent reading. I still read most of his books for school to him. He has loved to read stories since he was Henry's age, and this provides the motivation to bear with the effort of making sense of the words on the page. The mechanics have not come easily to him, but he knows the day is soon coming when he will not have to beg someone to read to him.

I don't think either of them would be impressed with Jane Austen much yet, but she would sympathize with their efforts:
"You may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very worthwhile to be tormented for two or three years of one's life for the sake of being able to read well the rest of it."
Even for the joy set before them, the process of learning, for some, may well feel like torment. It is  worthwhile to keep the supply of delightful stories coming to their ears in those years of transition. As teachers, we can't afford to become so bogged down in the process of teaching reading that we forget the  world of wonder we are initiating them into.

The same goes for the art of narration. Many children begin to "tell" the stories they are taught for formal school lessons, and this skill is the learning for them, not just remembering, not just summarizing information, but is the very act of knowing. They hear the story, they are drawn to ideas in it, but not until they verbalize what they are thinking does the actual act of knowing take place.

A mother in our library recently asked for help with this. Her daughter is an avid story lover and has readily taken to narrating in this first year of "school." Suddenly, however, when they began a new book this month, she is silent when narration time arrives. Knowing that Heidi is one of the most beloved books for children, her mother was perplexed when her daughter would simply respond, "I don't know," or "I can't say."

I assured her that this is probably just a pause in the process. For her beginning narrator, this new book is a whole new world to her. Though it may not seem very different from the last book they read together to the mother, for her daughter it may seem very strange. A child enters into a story in his imagination and is really living there, getting acquainted with the people and the geography of each particular book. Switching from Little House in the Big Woods to a cheesemaker's hut in the Alps of Switzerland is a change of location; the style and voice of the author of the story is also foreign territory. Some children enter new experiences uniquely according to their personality, and even an outgoing child can become awed or bashful in the presence of strangers.

This is the beauty of literature. Each new author introduces a child's mind to entirely new viewpoints on life, bringing his or her background, relationships, and experiences before the reader. It is like traveling to different regions of our vast country, or other countries in the world. There is sometimes a sense of  disorientation as we adjust to unique sights, sounds, smells, and lifestyles. City children are often intimidated by exposure to rural life just as American travelers can be disoriented when arriving in Indonesia.

Many children are fearful of the unfamiliar. It is our privilege to gently lead them to adventure and openness to new experience. Books are a beautiful means to this end. This is precisely why we cannot afford to pigeonhole our children or allow them to read only one type of book. They need introductions to many, many new experiences from the day they enter the world, and literature is no different. There is an endless banquet table before them, and it is our responsibility to give them a taste of as many varied dishes as possible. God gave us a world which is endlessly intriguing and teeming with the abundance of life. It is a gift. The unfamiliar, the challenging, the oddness of new voices and ways of expression can be a wellspring of not only necessary nourishment, but endless future vitality.

It is imperative that we obey our Lord by not hindering the children. The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, and their Heavenly Father who has given it to them invites them to taste and see that it is good. Let them come, let them hear, let them read.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Oh, Liz...that is the most precious picture! What an unshakable foundation he's getting. It's startling at the difference between what Henry will embrace as opposed to the experience I had the other day at the co-op... We've got work to do.

  2. Though it was not the intention of your writing, I greatly appreciated knowing your 8yo son is still learning to read. My 7yo son is, as you say, also struggling with the "mechanics" of reading but making progress. I just like knowing that he's not alone. Blessings...

    1. Kelly,

      I'm glad you were encouraged. It's always nice to know other moms are in the trenches too. Slow and consistent progress and patience, patience. They pick up on our frustration, so cheerful attitude is key. Keep up the good work.