September 19th, 2012
It mystified me when I realized a few years ago that Annalie was actively resisting learning to read.
I was an early reader—very early. I was barely three when I started reading easy-reader books. In kindergarten I was so shy and reserved that my teacher didn’t know I was reading at a third-grade level. The summer after second grade, I borrowed the Beverly Cleary book Fifteen from a teenager traveling on the same Trailways bus as me and my family and finished it before the trip was over.
Reading was my number-one, all-time favorite activity as a kid. I liked to color and draw, and I enjoyed swimming and playing kickball with my brother and our friends in our front yard (we ran the bases backwards—the corner sidewalk square was first base, the cracked sidewalk square was second, and the crab apple tree was third). But reading trumped everything.
I carried a book with me everywhere we went, from Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house to the movie theater when it was my brother’s turn to pick the movie, and read in every spare moment. The only thing I ever got in trouble for at school was being so lost in a story that I failed to hear the teacher asking us to get out our math workbooks. When neighborhood friends knocked on our door and asked if I could come out and play, I often politely told them, “Not right now, thanks. I’m reading.”
It’s not surprising, then, that I wasn’t sure what to do with a kid who didn’t want to read.
As Annalie turned three and four without any signs of wanting to read for herself, I just shrugged. She was clearly a smart kid, and she knew the alphabet and her numbers backwards and forwards. She’d learn when she was ready. I kept reading out loud to her and encouraged her fledgling attempts to sound out words.
As Annalie turned five, and then six, and still was mostly indifferent to reading, I worried a little. I talked to my friends whose kids were a bit older than Annalie, and some other homeschooling moms. My friends reminded me that kids learn at different rates, that in some European countries ANY formal math or reading lessons are verboten until kids are seven or even eight years old, by which time most kids are on an even playing field as far as cognitive reasoning goes.
So I just kept doing what I’d been doing all along—reading to Annalie, praising her efforts to read, and modeling lots of reading for her.
That changed a little when we started doing sit-down lessons with a first-grade curriculum. I thought, Well, someone who knew what they were doing designed this curriculum, and I know Annalie is smart enough to read, even though she doesn’t want to, so…I guess we’ll just follow the curriculum and see what happens.
Mostly what happened was: Annalie started to learn how to read more than the thirty or so words she could already recognize. It was laborious and slow and involved lots of whining, even though I made it as fun and painless as I possibly could. Getting her to sound out a word was like pulling teeth, even though she was always proud of herself when she realized she was improving. Frankly, it was exhausting, and her stubborn resistance to reading made many of our homeschool days more frustrating and challenging than they otherwise would have been. (Of course, it probably didn’t help that I was in my third trimester of pregnancy at the time. Just trying to figure out which mug to drink my coffee from in the morning could leave me in tears.)
Around the time I had Elliora (about halfway through the homeschool year) I sort of threw up my hands and retreated from the reading battlefield. I was taking some time off from formal lessons anyway, since I’d just had a baby. I decided if Annalie just wanted me to read to her, and she didn’t want to take turns reading sentences, that was okay. And anytime she asked me what a word was—even if it was “the” or “and”—I wouldn’t ask her to sound it out, I’d just tell her what the freaking word was. She’d learn words that way too, eventually.
It wasn’t a magical solution that instantly made her want to read more. She still resisted sounding out words on her own. But (here is where homeschooling really shines, in my opinion) because we had the luxury of time, because there was no class of eager readers for her to keep up with, I was able to let Annalie go at her own pace. Slowly, over the next few months as she realized the pressure was off, she started to read more and more on her own. She got a big boost in confidence at the end of the school year when she took the California Acheivement Test and scored well above her grade level in reading.
Then last year, during our very unschooly second-grade year, at some point the switch was flipped. It really did seem that fast, like Annalie went overnight from carefully sounding out things like:
“On…brigg…bright red days, ho…how good it fells…feels…”
to smoothly reading things like:
“Fire Lord Zuko’s off his gourd! You people don’t belong here! This is the kingdom’s—and the earth’s—first school of metalbending!”
As a beginning third-grader, Annalie still doesn’t love to read like I did at her age, but that’s okay. She is confident in her reading skills now, and doesn’t shy away from words or books. On our moving road trip this summer, she discovered Archie Comics Digests at some gas station or another, which is hilarious to me because I loved those at her age. She’s just starting to realize that reading can let her go places and discover wonders all within her own head. She already knows very well that, “Can I please stay up and read just a little longer?” will get her bedtime delayed a quarter-hour or so.
I know there are people who probably think I should have just pushed her a little bit harder a couple of years ago, and she would have learned to read much sooner; that school is challenging sometimes and you just have to learn to deal with it, the sooner the better.
I agree that school—and life!—are challenging, and that anyone who doesn’t teach their kids how to deal with challenges and disappointments is doing them a disservice. If Annalie had been in a regular school, she probably would have learned to read just fine a year or two earlier than she did. Or maybe she would have resisted, and would have been labeled a slow learner. I don’t know. But I do know that six-year-olds are just barely past babyhood, really. If you have a preschooler who loves to read, that’s fantastic! They will probably do great in a traditional classroom. But if you have a perfectly intelligent five- or six-year-old who balks at being asked to interpret the written word, it’s probably not the end of the world. Give her another year or two, and she’ll be older and more mature, and she just might teach herself to read overnight.
I’ve been so thankful over the past couple of years that we are homeschoolers, which enabled Annalie to learn to read at her own pace. I don’t know why she wasn’t ready to read sooner, I don’t know if it was for emotional reasons or what, but I’m thankful that I didn’t have to force her to learn before she was ready.
Most of all, I’m grateful that she’s reading now…that she’s cracked the code and a world of knowledge is out there waiting for her, in libraries and bookstores and magazine stands and on the internet, and I get to help her explore it.