Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Learning to Read: An Introduction

How do children best learn to read?

I can't answer that. I'm not a reading expert; I can't even name the many, varied methods with accuracy. What I can tell you about is how my children learned to read.

I always say that God tricked me into homeschooling because my first child learned to read so painlessly. It left me thinking, "I am SuperMom! I will be the Wonder Woman of Homeschooling! I can do anything!" My brilliant children would absorb all necessary knowledge by a sort of academic osmosis, because I'd bathe them in a rich learning environment. Everything would simply happen, as reading had happened for Anne.

It was, it seemed to me, something like this passage from To Kill a Mockingbird:
"Teach me?" I said in surprise. "He hasn't taught me anything, Miss Caroline. Atticus ain't got time to teach me anything," I added, when Miss Caroline smiled and shook her head. "Why, he's so tired at night he just sits in the living room and reads."
Indeed. I wouldn't have to teach anything. Reading to Anne was all I'd done. I read to her, Atticus read to her. When she asked questions about letters, sounds and words, we answered them. When we played with her Sesame Street bathtub sponge letters, we made words, spelled out her name. When she looked at the pages as we read picture books, we pointed out what we were doing, running fingers under the sentences, so she could see what particular words looked like, where sentences began and ended. Not that we talked about any of this. We just did it.

One day, when I went to pick Anne up from preschool, her teacher told me Anne had read a book to the class. "She read it," the teacher said, with an expression I couldn't quite decipher. Perhaps it was a bit of what Scout Finch's teacher showed:

... after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from The Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste.

"Yeah, she's been doing that," I told the teacher, thinking that this was how all children learned to read. (Of course, Anne's somewhat precocious reading didn't stop the teachers from being critical of other things ... I remember the "messy handwriting" comment that prompted me to check out a couple more books from the library on homeschooling, muttering all the while, "Messy? She's four! It's supposed to be messy! I can do this. I can teach. Where's that book by David Guterson?")

So. That's how Anne learned to read. The Scout Finch way. We had simply substituted Clifford and Charlotte's Web for the newspaper:

Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus's moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills To Be Enacted Into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow -- anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night.
Next up:

Guess what? Children Are Different!


KC said...

My middle daughter was like that (3rd kid), my oldest took a long time and still doesn't read very well. My oldest daughter learned to read by herself as well but took longer than my dd2.

sarah p said...

That's how my dd learned to read, thank goodness, because I was absolutely terrified about the process of teaching it. I couldn't see how it could possibly be done, perhaps because I learned to read the same way as my dd too. (And then had to sit through all the learn-to-read and phonics lessons at school, which made no sense to me at all.)

momto5minnies said...

Children sure are different. Just reading a lot to a child really does stir up that love of reading. However, I have had a child who would much prefer to be read to than try to do it on her own. I could do things exactly the same, but there is no exact science in when I child will catch on.