by Steph W.
My four-year-old, Patricia Elizabeth, recently created her first book. Like many young kids, she is surrounded with writing in various forms. Her older sister, 13-year-old Sarah, writes novels. Nine-year-old James creates pictures and comic strips with captions. While Sarah writes novels in spiral notebooks and James lays out his creations in sketchbooks, I tap away at the computer.
In the midst of all this, Patricia Elizabeth decided to make a book. She asked for some paper and tape and set to work. It didn't resemble a book in the conventional sense, but one can see that the separate "pages" contain "words." Later Trishy announced that she wanted me to read her book to her for bedtime story. She was disappointed when I balked. Why couldn't I read it? "But the words are here." She pointed to the letter-like markings on her book.
Trishy has recently become interested in learning to read. When I read to her, she sometimes has me point to each word. Often she'll have me read each word again and again until she thinks she has the hang of it. She hasn't yet grasped the concept of decoding letters and words. For example, she doesn't recognize that "t-h-e" says "the" every time she sees it or that "b" makes a certain sound. But she has fathomed that the answer to the riddle lies in assigning a meaning to each word. Faced with her disappointment at my not being able to read her book for bedtime story, and with her newfound interest in learning to read in mind, I said, "Could you teach me to read this book?"
Delighted, she rose to the task. She pointed to each "word" in the book, "reading" it again and again. In this way, the full story emerged:
"The deer got shot. The cat jumped under the tree stump. The cat ran away."
She pointed to each "word," repeating it again and again. She read me the book several times, then when she figured I had the hang of it, she had me read it back to her.
This is the first time I've had one of my kids teach me to read. But I have always been fascinated with the way young children, if left mostly to their own devices, find their own paths to learning to read and write. Each stage of the journey to learning to literacy emerges in its own time. As Julie Bogart pointed out in The Writer's Jungle, we can't really speed it up or slow it down, but we can nurture and encourage each stage as it happens. If we don't interfere with them too much, children's ways of learning are innovative and laced with the joy of discovery and personal ownership.
When my oldest was four, she was on the verge of learning to read, relying on her rich visual memory, and she was always drawing pictures and telling or dictating stories to go with them. Even then, all her pictures and ideas had to tell a story. Reading the signs that she was ready, I eagerly swooped in -- with Dr. Seuss and Amanda Pig in hand -- to teach her to read. In retrospect, I think I was way off the mark. Instead of encouraging and nurturing her blossoming abilities, I took over. I shoved her out of the driver's seat. Ultimately, my approach probably caused more problems than it solved. On the positive side, now that she's a teenager, we still enjoy reading and writing together. (Fortunately for us amateur parents, there are few irreparable mistakes. :-) Everything we do, good and bad, kind of just gets woven into our lives.)
After surviving my enthusiastically teaching her to read, Sarah turned five and started school. There she encountered more challenges from adults with an agenda. She was reading the "wrong way," sight reading with few phonics skills. She also wasn't attempting to write, at least not in the standard way. Her elaborate and often undecipherable pictures, which told stories, did not exactly fit the requirements of the Standards of Learning. I was told, again and again, that Sarah needed to be writing with "invented spelling."
"Invented spelling" is one of the stages many children naturally go through in their efforts to teach themselves to write. John Holt has written about it, and I'm sure others have too. Applying the phonics rules they have learned so far, with a dash of imagination, they spell words the way they think they sound. (I have a 9-year-old who still writes this way).
School systems have come to understand this, and they have turned it on its head by requiring the kids to write with "invented spelling." As with many things, if it doesn't emerge naturally, it doesn't work. Again, well meaning adults have gone from observing, nurturing, and encouraging each stage of development to trying to control the whole process.
By the time my son was in Kindergarten, we were home schooling. This time, I didn't rush things so much. But I eagerly tried every reading program on the market, including Teach a Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, Teach a Child to Read with Children's Books and Phonics Pathways. None of them was a good fit for James. In the end I taught him some basic phonics skills that I knew would stand him in good stead when he was ready to learn to read, and I left him to his own devices. He taught himself to read, when he was about 8, with Calvin and Hobbes. (He quickly caught up to "grade level.") By then, I had gained enough wisdom to stand back and watch, reveling in the moments when he quickly decoded a long word that would not be found in any leveled reader. I answered questions when asked, but mostly I just stood back, encouraged him a bit, and enjoyed being an observer.
Now that I have learned from all my mistakes with the older kids, Trishy may have an easier path. That remains to be seen. :-) Meanwhile, I am reveling in the ways she creates her own path to learning and enjoying those glorious moments which illuminate the way her mind works. Now that she has "taught me to read" I am sure many more unexpected discoveries are in store.
Stephanie W. lives with her family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has been learning at home full time with her three wonderfully creative, feisty and quirky children -- Sarah (13), James (9) & Patricia Elizabeth (4) since 2003. Her other interests include literature, writing, editing, and the internet.