Schools are opening. Or they are not. In many districts, parents simply don’t know what will happen. Meanwhile, we are being assaulted by articles telling us of the decades-long consequences that will affect different age groups if they do not get back in the classroom. College-aged students will see a lifelong lessening of earning power (Funny, isn’t it, how the soldiers returning from WWII who delayed or missed out on college did rather well economically.) Middle-school students will face unprecedented mental crises (Is it possible that was a path we were already on and, if we act wisely, school closing could lead to a different and better path?). Today my concern is for those parents who cannot imagine how their children will learn to read without an adult who holds multiple educational degrees to guide them.
I do not boast of many letters after my name indicating advanced degrees. My BA heralded the end of my accreditations and it was not in early childhood education. However, most of the children to whom I gave birth learned to read under my roof. I can’t say that I taught all of them to read because some of them taught themselves. All I did was supply an environment that provided the soil for that miracle to take place. I did follow a program with a few of the others that I will describe below and two of my girls learned to read in school, though not without consequences. Let’s discuss each of these in turn.
Our children were born into a home that teemed with books. When we moved from an apartment to a house, we filled out a questionnaire that asked how many TVs we had and whether a piano was involved. We dutifully filled in the numbers of beds and chairs we were transporting. The three strapping young men who came to facilitate the move blanched when they saw the number of boxes awaiting them. No one had asked how many books we owned.
We acquired very few toys that beeped, buzzed and lit up, but we bought lots of books for little hands. We also had adult books on low shelves that weren’t slated for destruction but that we didn’t mind teeny hands using for practice in turning pages. We kept a stream of conversation aimed at our children as we changed their diapers and took them for walks and we sat them on our laps, reading aloud as we showed them pictures that matched the words. When they were very young and still nursing, I sometimes read aloud from whatever my current reading was. I think some of the babies showed a distinct affection for Thomas Sowell. From quite a young age we played variations on games such as, “I’m thinking of a word that rhymes with coat and goat and float and we see it at a dock.” We also laughed rather than became terrified when our delighted three-year-old yelled out “dinghy” as her first guess.
Our children frequently saw us reading. Books were clearly a source of pleasure and just as they wanted to cook along with me or pump gas alongside my husband, they wanted access to the exciting, adult world of reading. For two of our children that was all that was needed. With no directed instruction, they simply began reading at about the age of four.
In our pre-homeschooling years, two more of our daughters learned to read in school. That worked for one of them but caused problems for the other. We accept the fact that children start crawling and walking at different ages, and we don’t rush to enroll our not-yet-erect eleven-month-old in remedial walking classes. We somehow don’t allow the same latitude for reading. Unbeknownst to us, one of our daughter’s eye muscles weren’t ready to read when that was the focus of the classroom. As a bright girl who loved stories she managed, but we didn’t realize until we started homeschooling that she was seeing double of some letters and had developed some other vision problems that needed correcting. It’s easy to be a post-game coach, but I think that we might have avoided those difficulties had she learned to read naturally rather than because the curricula demanded it.
For those of you counting, that leaves three more children who learned to read somewhere between the ages of five and seven. Even in those years before homeschooling exploded, there were quite a few programs on the market, but my choice was a simple paperback book called, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. One child greedily lapped up the lessons at age five so that she was reading fluently in closer to 70 than 100 days, while another child showed no interest at all at that age. The book went back on the shelf with attempts every few months until finally, at close to age seven, she asked to use it and was reading on a second-grade level within a month. Our third child fell somewhere in between those extremes.
You might be surprised to discover that America’s literacy rate did not necessarily improve when compulsory education was instituted. Colonial America was a highly literate society. If you don’t count slaves, who were deliberately kept from reading, early America was a nation where the average person often knew his Bible as well as his Shakespeare. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, was a popular rather than academic best-seller, while books like James Fenimore Cooper’s, The Last of the Mohicans were read for enjoyment in the early 1800s. Try reading either of those with a college student today.
My point is that the educational establishment is entirely unnecessary for most children to learn to read. Even more so, many academicians promote reading programs that inhibit fluency. If you don’t know whether your school district is whole-language or phonics-based, that is really something you need to explore. Do parents need to be aware of potential vision problems or other impediments to reading? Yes, just as they need to be alert to hearing loss or allergies. In the overwhelming majority of cases, parents are entirely competent to introduce their children to one of life’s major pleasures and gateways to accomplishment. Should professional guidance be needed (and it is needed much, much less than thought) it can be sought at the right time.
I believe that reading can be taught with no special material. At the same time, there is an abundance of useful ideas and, yes, stuff you can buy to help accomplish your objective, which in my mind is a child who loves reading and is competent in it. My recommendation is not to spend a lot of money until you have spent a lot of time snuggling and reading together and approaching the subject playfully. Do your research and try different things such as carving letters in sand, baking pretzels in the shape of letters and serving snacks with items that begin with a specific letter. If you absolutely love a program, purchase it. But ignore any sales claims that you “need” this material in order to succeed. You and your relationship with your child is actually the main requirement.
The moment when your child takes his or her first step is incredibly exciting. The moment when your child deciphers lines and swirls on a page into meaningful words is even more so. If your young one will be home this fall—and winter—and spring, consider it a gift.