Reading happens

2009 December 9
by Evan Lenz

My 6-year-old daughter recently started showing an interest in reading the Storybook Treasury of Dick and Jane and Friends. I had bought it several years ago when looking at various approaches to teaching reading. But long since then, my wife and I had decided to let the kids come to reading on their own, when they’re interested and ready. We’ve avoided any parent-driven techniques and schedules for learning to read.

In fact, I had half a mind to get rid of the Dick and Jane book. It’s so obviously designed for teaching reading, as opposed to having any literary merit of its own. Even so, my daughter is eating it up. She delights in the pictures and uses them to sleuth out the meanings of the words. So I won’t be getting rid of it any time soon.

It’s fascinating to see how different kids learn to read. Some are more apt to “sound words out” based on what they’ve picked up about the different letter sounds. Others begin by learning specific words as a whole and later recognizing them by sight. It’s pretty obvious that my daughter does the latter. She’ll see “funny” and say “silly”, which tells me she’s not sounding things out. She’s going straight from image to meaning, even if she uses the wrong word.

Of course, such categories oversimplify things. In reality, each child uses a variety of ways to learn to read. Not only that, but each word is learned in its own unique way. Each word is first encountered in a particular context and has uniquely personal meanings. How “home” gets wired into the brain is not going to be the same as how “and” gets wired into the brain. “Home” can have all sorts of connotations; perhaps “home” is a lot more meaningful than a utility word like “and”. Then again, my daughter is particularly fond of “and”. She used to point out every instance she could find during bedtime story reading. She associated “and” with the delight of recognition and discovery.

If my observations seem to ignore all the various learning style theories and methodologies for teaching reading, that’s intentional. I’ve done a fair amount of reading about reading. But I’ve never been particularly impressed. My overall response to the massive amount of literature about reading pedagogy is “what a waste”. The underlying assumption of the whole field seems to be this: The better we understand how people learn to read, the better we’ll be able to ensure they do it. Hey, that sounds pretty reasonable at face value. But it assumes two things:

  1. We actually can understand how reading works
  2. People won’t learn to read if we don’t make them

I dispute both of these. The number of books written about the phenomenon of reading is not an effective indicator of how much we actually understand about the miracle of human communication via the written word. Theories and their resulting methodologies, such as phonics and reading by sight, are at best crude attempts to structure how human beings develop their innate capacity for communicating via written symbols. We only have little slivers of understanding about how it all works.

What’s worse is that such methodologies so often ignore what motivates people to read in the first place. And in doing so, they often destroy children’s motivation by turning reading into a required, assigned task. Regardless of how cute or fun they try to make it, reading becomes extrinsically motivated, i.e. something you do because you’re supposed to do it, not because you yourself have discovered it to be valuable.

What motivates kids to read? That’s entirely contextual and has everything to do with what interests them in general. My daughter is motivated to read about Dick and Jane and Baby Sally and Spot and Puff, because she finds all these characters adorable and she loves the pictures. Other kids first learn to read because of video games, or dinosaurs, or magicians, or baseball. It depends on the kid.

Another assumption, probably the worst of them all, is that all children should learn to read at the same age. We all know that babies learn to walk at different ages and talk at different ages. The same thing goes for kids learning to read. At Sudbury schools, where kids aren’t forced to start reading before they’re ready, kids learn to read anywhere between 4 and 11 or even 12 years old. If you’re not naturally predisposed to read before the age of 10 and you are put into a traditional classroom at the age of 6, then you’ve got a long road ahead of you, potentially filled with heartache and demeaning labels. All because of a faulty assumption.

Reading is among the many skills that kids will naturally pick up in a literate society such as ours. But we as a society don’t trust the process. We act on faulty assumptions, apply a cookie cutter approach, make reading something you must learn in school, at the same age as everyone else, and then we wonder why we have an epidemic of “learning disabilities”. Could it be we’re doing more harm than good?

Where was I? Oh yes, my daughter is learning to read. This may be the start of a real growth spurt, or it might just be a passing phase, in which case she’ll pick it up again in some other context later on. Either way, we’re going to trust the process.

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. December 10, 2009

    Totally agree. My brother was forced to learn to read in school at the usual age, far before he was ready. To this day, he hates reading and writing. Had he been in a situation where he could have learned to read at age 10 (for example), I think his current (adult) situation would be much better. He has zero confidence and limited ability now, because he was always made to feel dumb, even though he is actually a VERY intelligent person. Throughout his schooling, everyone was trying to figure out what was ‘wrong’ with him, but there was nothing wrong with him, there was something wrong with the ‘system’ of expecting children to learn to read before they are ready.

  2. Eurika permalink
    December 10, 2009

    My son is an ice hockey nut. He learned to read from memorizing the Team Canada hockey players names for the 2002 Olympics. He was 5. We came across a large glossy folder with pictures, stats, and bios of all the players (a freebie fm some newspaper) and he’d lie on the floor studying it, asking us constantly who this one or that one was. He’d also study the sports section of our daily newspaper. It didn’t take long after that before he was a fluent reader. Thank goodness we were unschooling at the time and the following year a Sudbury school opened in our city. He attended for a year, but then decided to go to public school (gr-r-r-r). We were unhappy about his choice but understood his reasons and felt that forcing him to stay wd not be true to SVS philosophy (and didn’t feel right). He’s still in public school, still enjoys reading (hooray!) but this year (Gr.8) is only attending part-time.

  3. Evan Lenz permalink*
    December 10, 2009

    Bethany and Eurika, thank you both so much for sharing these stories about your family members. What better way to illustrate both the positive and negative aspects of this subject. Keep ’em coming. :-)

  4. Pippa permalink
    March 6, 2010

    Lovely blog!

    I also love the various paths each different child follows in this process. My 3rd child is just picking up steam at the deciphering of text. Only in the last couple of weeks did she successfully break a word into it’s constituent sounds. She mainly looks at the pictures and makes an educated guess. If her guess is different from what the author wrote she often takes issue with the author’s choice of words (important for a budding writer). Then she repeats the same story over and over until she can read it by heart. She will be 11 next month.

    • Evan Lenz permalink*
      March 6, 2010

      “she often takes issue with the author’s choice of words.” I love it! Right now, my youngest son (almost 4) has a favorite book: The Very Bumpy Bus Ride. We play a game with it by garbling the words or mixing up the sounds or doing baby-talk. He’s practically got the whole book memorized. One of his favorite ways of engaging books is to say what he would do if he were so-and-so. There are lots of ways to engage books. Messing with the words is one terribly fun way, and we’re turning it into an art. :-)

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