reading is fundamental

September 19th, 2012

geeklings reading on the deck

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.

17 Responses to “reading is fundamental”

  1. Sarah says:

    Good for Annalie! Hmm, I wonder if the late bedtime treat would have worked as an incentive earlier on? ;-)

  2. Jennifer says:

    I started reading when I was three, my husband was four, my oldest…I don’t know exactly just know that when she was four she read an email over my shoulder and asked me about it. My youngest didn’t start reading until she started kindergarten last year, but quickly caught on and is right where she is suppose to be. It was strange that she didn’t pick up reading as easily as her sister or parents. BUT my sister (who was homeschooled, too) resisted reading until she was seven, when I finally (as her big sister) got sick of reading to her and taught her myself. But I really don’t think she was ready before then. One tip that I found really works that my mom did with four of us (all homeschooled)-we put the captions on the television. We still have the sound on, but seeing the words and hearing them at the same time really does help with word recognition. It also means the volume can be turned a little lower, which is great since hubby is slightly hard of hearing but my hearing is super sensitive.

  3. Sam says:

    This is so great. I commend you for not freaking out. This is the beauty of homeschool, that you can take your time and let your little one find their way. I cannot imagine how hard it was for you, because I know you and I feel the same about reading…it’s sacred, it’s something that is so vital to life that you just want your kid to hop on and start experiencing all the good stuff of reading. I swear, I don’t REMEMBER learning to read. I do know that I didn’t do phonics, and my mom says I pretty much just taught myself. I remember being allowed to skip all the phonics stuff in third grade. It frustrated me, because I didn’t have to sound things out to read, and slowing down was frustrating. And I remember, in first grade, being allowed to check out the chapter books in the school library. That gave me SO much pride and that is how I met Ramona Quimby…but I think it’s important to realize that kids will read, absolutely – and how wonderful that Annalie could take her time and find her own way.

  4. Jen says:

    I’m so happy that Annalie has unlocked the key to reading. It is such a great gift. Now that all three of my girls are in in school, I have so much to say on this matter!

  5. Jeannette says:

    My third grader found Archie Comics over the summer. She is so into graphic novels, it’s all I can do to keep my mouth shut about chapter books. Annalie might like Geronimo Stilton. It’s a series about a mouse who goes on adventures, but they use fonts in a fun way. We went to the library the other day and as she walked out she sighed and said that libraries are such a happy place. Whatever she reads, I know she’ll always be a reader! Now to work on the 5 year old boy!

  6. Annika says:

    Yay Annalie!

    Here is my reading anecdata (that should be a word): My husband and I both were “late” readers, both of us close to eight years old when we started reading-reading (I know I recognized a lot of words much earlier than that, but I wasn’t figuring out very many new ones).

    I was an unschooler and never felt any pressure. The following year I was tested at college level! Which is crazy. (Ha ha, I’m pretty sure I read at about ninth grade level now.)

    My husband was in public school and was labeled a slow learner, learning disabled, et cetera, which effected his entire education–he was sent to special schools, and among other things was never forced to learn math (which has nothing to do with reading except that once he started reading he didn’t want to do anything else so they thought he couldn’t learn math). He is the fastest reader with the best comprehension and retention of anyone I have EVER met.

    In conclusion, pressuring readers doesn’t do any good, and everyone figures it out eventually if given the tools.

  7. Sam says:

    Also, totally remember LOVING Archie, but the real draw was Betty and Veronica.

  8. Christine says:

    Thank you, this is so encouraging to read. I know Dash will get there in his own time, and I’m pretty confident that he’s still within the bounds of at-grade-level in his classroom. He’s only starting first grade; there’s plenty of time. But as an early reader myself – I don’t remember learning either, but I think I was 3 or 4 – it’s so hard for me to be patient.

  9. bonnie says:

    Yay, Annalie! (Also my kids might be interested in that book – should they wait until they finish the series to look for it?)

    Elliott knows how to read but is completely uninterested in it. I think it has to do with attention span, but it freaks me out. This week he finished his first Magic Treehouse book and liked it, but I don’t think enough that he will seek out more novels on his own. Yet.

  10. Susan:) says:

    This was good for me to hear! I’m pretty much just like you, Bethany, in the reading department. I read early, my sister taught me when I was 2. I have no memory of not being able to read. I was the only kid in kindergarten who could already read and I was constantly asked to demonstrate! In second grade, I picked Anne of Green Gables to buy from the book fair, and the lady selling the books tried to tell me it would be too hard. But I knew it wasn’t! (I still have that copy!). I read all the time, every book in sight, it’s all I wanted to do. I got into trouble in fifth grade because I read during class when I should have been doing math.

    At any rate, I am homeschooling my four year old niece this year. She is super smart and knows all letters, numbers, etc. She knows all the letter sounds, and can sound out words. She loves books, her favorite thing is to look at them. My sister and I feel like she could read, that she is capable, but she resists. She doesn’t want to try reading the words on her own, doesn’t want to sound them out, even though she knows how. I worry that I won’t be able to really teach her much this year, since I’ve never taught anyone how to read before! But maybe I shouldn’t worry about it. Maybe she’s just not quite ready yet. I know my sister and I want her to read early, because we both love to read so much. But your experiences are good, they tell me that it’s okay to take the pressure off and just let them progress on their own. I still read to her every day, and she pours over books on her own. One of these days, she’ll surprise us, I’m sure!

  11. Mrs. Wilson says:

    This is pretty rad. I’ve seen a lot of homeschoolers mention the age of 7-8 as being really ready to read/add. When everyone is on the same playing field. If we’d pushed Liliana a bit, she’d be reading novels by now. She was sounding out words and spelling on her own when she was 3. Kaylie had to get special one-on-one help in grade one because she couldn’t sound out the simplest words. She can read now just fine, above her grade level, but she’s not really a fan. She likes being read to, but doesn’t much like reading in general. Liliana is the opposite. She loves reading and being read to.

    That is definitely an advantage to homeschooling, and one I’ve considered – kids being able to do things on their own time, whether behind or ahead of their peers.

  12. Bex says:

    Go Annalie! Sometimes, I suppose, all it takes is that one magical reading selection to jump-start a dormant interest. Perhaps as she discovers that reading can be associated learning *or* pleasure, she’ll venture out into the literary world a bit more :)

  13. Jen says:

    Emily’s 3rd grade teacher told me that around 7 or 8 kids go from the mechanics of reading to enjoyment of reading. That it finally becomes a story, instead of just reading. I strongly believe that teacher is the person who really tapped into Emily’s love of reading.

  14. Jenna says:

    I will be interested to see how your younger one picks it up. We, uh, didn’t “work” with our younger son in the same ways we worked with our older son and, well, he basically taught himself to read by being present at his older brother’s lessons. He still has a ways to go (Pre-K right now, so the many nuances are still just above where he is), but man, he blows my mind.

    It’s amazing when that little click happens and they’er all of a sudden reading for real, isn’t it? Congrats — and great post.

  15. Leticia says:

    My daughter has resisted reading since she started school, or so I thought. She kept up with the kids in class but she would never read out load at home so I never really knew how well she could read, until I coaxed her to read one page, and I the other. She just really loves to hear us read to her. At night we catch her reading under her blanket with a flash light. How can i punish her for something I had hoped I could find? :D My goal this year is to get her to read to her little sister:D

  16. Leticia says:

    P.S. We LOVE Avatar:D

  17. WI Gal says:

    This is such a good reminder that though our children are of us, they aren’t us. Like you, I am – and always have been – a voracious reader. And though my eldest (4.5) loves books she seems to have no interest in learning to read them herself. I am hoping that her passion for being read to will, someday, translate into a passion for reading to herself. In the meantime, this blog post helps me have patience. Thank you for sharing!