Monday, May 4, 2015

Learning to Read

When my second daughter was learning to read, she had trouble. She knew her letters and their sounds and could put them together into words but became discouraged and tearful before she finished a line. Her glasses were fine. She wanted to read. I was puzzled.

I found out by accident, one day, what the difficulty was: she had a big sister who read like a fiend. She couldn't remember that sister learning to read and was under the mistaken notion that other people didn't have to decode, or remember what a word looked like and how to say it. All this time, she was feeling "dumb" because she couldn't pick up a book and just skip right along. When she found out that even her older sister had gotten "stuck" on words and had to learn to sound things out, it made all the difference.

I now talk to moms who have trouble reading. They never acquired the habit and, even though they think it is important to read, still struggle to comprehend. I think their problem is similar to my daughter's. They think that because they know "how to read" they should understand and enjoy it more. Like my daughter, they don't realize that effort in reading is self-rewarding.

Last week I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Marilyn Chandler McIntyre. Her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, was my favorite of dozens of books I read two years ago - so much so
that I reread it this winter. I took notes as I read and it was even better than the first time through. One night at my book club, I wondered aloud if these friends might enjoy reading a chapter of it for each meeting, along with the classic novel we read each time. We met this past week, and they were thrilled with the introduction (titled "Why Worry About Words") and are taking up the challenge to
become stewards of our language by choosing to speak and write more deliberately and carefully, inspired by the author's powerful use of words to convince us of their importance.

In person, her words were just as well chosen. One statement she made seemed simple on the surface, but its profundity captured my imagination: "We are all always learning to read." To me, this idea, as she would put it, bore the "ring of truth."If we are seriously venturing into literature, expanding our repertoire, discovering new authors and genres of books to open, we are learning. This is the reward of the true reader: the never-ending adventure, the ever-extending vistas of wonder and truth opening endlessly before us to explore, like a palace mysteriously disclosing ever further wings and rooms to find. . .

That same week, my 11-year-old son and I were comparing our individual piles of books. He had made the observation that he was reading "so many different books." This was true. He was reading just that morning, his Bible, a book on tornadoes, America Grows Up by Gerald Johnson, The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, and, for fun, The  Cricket in Time Square by George Selden. He is being stretched. Only a year ago, he could barely creep through some very elementary reading and most of
his school books were being read to him. I reminded him of this and could tell he was pleased with his progress.

That progress started not just this past year, but ten years ago when he moved from board books to real picture books, then, in time to his first picture-less books. I vividly recall his distress during the
first chapters of Little House in the Big Woods; he was restless and complaining, telling me he couldn't understand a book with all words and no illustrations. By the time Ma slapped the bear, mistaking him for her wayward cow, he was all attention.

My pile reflects my own current interests and educational opportunities. It currently consists of Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, which I am reading with my book club; Stilwell and the American Experience in China by Barbara Tuchman, inspired by my realization of my ignorance of that nation's history when my daughter's Chinese friend was here this Christmas; Dante's Divine Comedy, which I read in high school, but was so ignorant of history and mythology that I got lost in the inferno and never finished; The Lord's Service by Jeffrey Myers; and a collection of poems by Richard Wilbur, a new poet I'm getting acquainted with. I acquired this habit of reading a variety of books years ago when I saw how my children were thriving on that practice. To me, it is like eating a variety of foods and expanding my literary palate.

I hope these various reading experiences I have shared encourage you, wherever you are on the reading road. It's a very long road, with new possibilities all along the way, as well as many travelers to encounter. We all have books in common, and those who enjoy the journey the most do so because they love to know, and are always learning how to read something new.

For the joy of reading,



  1. This is so encouraging! I never thought about that we are ALWAYS learning to read. So interesting! I have found that over the years of choosing better literature for myself, I'm starting to enjoy and understand harder and harder books. That is so exciting for's like opening up a whole new world! One thing also, I have recently JUST started really enjoying Charlotte Mason's books. I think, part of this is because of the better literature I've been reading!!! :)

    1. It is an exciting discovery. It also gives us some sympathy for our children as sometimes I find myself avoiding the "difficult" book and have to choose to pick it up and work at it - and this is how many of our kids feel all the time. There should always be something fun, and always something that's work, and pretty soon that working book becomes fun and we are digging deeper into something else. I am thankful this encouraged you.