Monday, October 15, 2012

Where There's a Will There's a Way, or, Reasons Kids Don't Read

There are two words I do not allow my children to say--well actually, there are a lot of words I don't allow them to say, but the two words "I can't" are not permitted.

Those two words usually pop out when they are facing a difficult task, or try to tackle something and fail. When they say, "I can't" I always say, "This is not true. The truth is you are saying I won't." I have to encourage them that trying is work, that building handwriting muscles, thinking muscles, arithmetic skills, ease with narration are like building strength in their muscles. My two boys, having spent some time in martial arts training, know what it is to have to build up endurance and strength. I have tried to convey to them that their brain is a muscle that needs exercise, strength, and endurance as well.

Therefore, it is not a lack of ability, oftentimes, but a lack of effort. When children say, "I can't," they are often saying, "I don't want to." We all know that if our children "want to" they can accomplish amazing feats.

So one reason children are slow to read is simply that they are unwilling to apply their will to the hard work of building that skill. Again, I commend the sensible educational method of Charlotte Mason to you. Her insistence on short lessons is critical to the strengthening of will to learn. Will implies choice. Decision making is difficult and we all naturally avoid difficult decisions. She said will needs a rest, a change of pace, and  consequently will returns to a difficult task renewed. This is why short lessons, and varying the type of lessons is key: it strengthens the will to apply itself to the work of its education.

However, as far as reading goes, sometimes it is because their reasoning is leading them to some wrong  conclusions. A couple of years ago my six-year-old confided to his older married sister that he was not going to be able to read.

"Why ever not?" she asked, curious about his thinking.

"Because Mom is blind," his resigned response.

"How do you think I learned to read, and Emily, Jonathan, Isaac, and Grace?" she pursued.

"I don't know."

"Mom taught all of us to read," her truthful argument.

"She did?" a query of disbelief.

He had never considered, and in all fairness, hadn't been old enough to observe those lessons in process. His mind had reasoned out a logical conclusion. Sometimes our kids work wrong ideas out in their heads and truly believe them. Here again, Ms. Mason warns that reason is a useful tool, but not to be entirely trusted. Admittedly, the idea of a person who physically cannot read teaching someone who can does seem preposterous. There was a critical factor my son had left out, however: his mother's will to overcome this slight obstacle.

Learning to read may not be so easy for the child of a blind mother, but I knew the first lesson in learning to read has nothing to do with letters and lines of print. It has everything to do with nourishing a love of story,  and I could read and tell stories. An atmosphere where stories are told, books are read by others as well as to them habitually is the single most important influence in getting a child to read. They are born to love a story, as God's image bearers--God being the supreme storyteller and story-giver, and our providing a rich stream of stories fertilizes the ground of their souls to crave more stories. Just as they learn to talk, walk, and feed themselves, learning to read will be a natural desire. Mastery of independent reading  inevitably follows in due course of time.

When my daughter reported the above conversation to me, I was amused and also thankful that we were in the middle of Heidi. Do you remember that Heidi also thought she "couldn't" read? She was absolutely convinced of it because her goatherd friend, Peter, had trouble reading and told her it couldn't be done. She had a reason for not trying too. Peter's problem, however, was with his very weak will. Yet again, seeds of living ideas planted in the mind of a child came to my rescue.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Henry is so cute below. Is that your mom?You made me want to read Heidi again with my Emma who is 15!

    1. Bonnie,
      Yes, that's my grandson Henry and his great-Grandma, whom he adores and calls "GG."

  2. "Her insistence on short lessons is critical to the strengthening of will to learn."

    We have found this true as well. In all our lessons if they are short but suitable to their ability then each day their muscles are flexed and like regular exercise though not always strenuous makes for a healthy body, regular short lesson adds skills and eventually they see improvement. That is exciting!

    I love that you do not let them say "I can't" I am not blind but I have learned the freedom that comes when you simply set forth and try your best. WHat a great example you are to them in all of life!

    "It has everything to do with nourishing a love of story, and I could read and tell stories. "

    Also very true! It is the story which lures us to do the work to read. It is why I read because I want to hear what story is in the book, I want to travel to other lands or learn something new, meet a new friend. The story is the reward, and once the hard work of reading is learned it is such a pleasure!

    Loved reading your post! I thought about Heidi the whole way through your post, so glad you linked us to it in the end.

  3. Sarah,

    Thank you for your encouraging words. I'm so glad you didn't mind my bringing up Heidi yet again - there are just so many great life
    lessons in that book, one of my childhood favorites, and also of all my children. It was the example in my very first blog of what a living book is and does.