When my son was 30 months old, I discovered he could read. I even double-checked what seemed to be impossible to a first-time parent by taking a novel book out of the library and asking him to read it. Sure enough, he could do it.
How did this happen in an era without computers, iPads, apps, early literacy classes and reading programs for toddlers? Well, I have a theory. First, I read to him constantly. It is one of my favorite things to do with kids, and he was the type of child who loved to snuggle up with a book.
Second, I (gasp!) watched Sesame Street with him when he was pretty young. The show was not even two years old when he was born, so it was a treat for the two of us to snuggle (remember, we both loved to do this) in front of the TV and watch it together. I am certain he learned a lot of his early literacy skills from that show.
Third, reading at such a young age is really decoding. I didn't quiz him on his comprehension. I knew he wasn't developmentally ready to synthesize what he had read and retell it to me. Ultimately, my son became a mathematician, so the ability to decode was hard wired into his brain. It's just who he is.
Luckily for my son, as a young and newbie mom with only Dr. Spock to guide me, I didn't think his ability to read was a big deal that made him more special than other kids. Neither did his preschool, which focused totally on play. And that was what he really needed. So reading was never something to brag about or show off. It was just one of many things he liked to do.
When he started elementary school, no one seemed to care very much about his early ability to read. Maybe I should have been more upset about the lack of response to his "giftedness," but in every other way he was age appropriate. I wanted his social/emotional side to catch up with his brain. By third grade, many kids could read pretty well, so he had lots of company in the high reading group.
What I learned from my first experience with a child learning to read is that:
- There is a huge difference between parroting sight words and actually reading.
- When the light bulb goes off, whether it's at age 3 or 7, the child can truly read for understanding and pleasure.
- At that point, the best way to become a good reader is to read. Go to the library. Stock your home with lots of books. Encourage your child to read for the sheer joy of it.
- Keep reading to your child, even when she can read for herself. Remember, the snuggle-factor is important.
Many schools try to teach reading to their very young students by drilling them on phonics and sight words. My intuition tells me that this is not the best way to teach young kids to love reading. And if children don't derive any joy from reading, they will see reading as a chore rather than a lifelong pleasure.
Like many aspects of our current educational policy, pushing kids to read on a uniform timetable to meet standards ignores the unfolding of each child's development. There is a wide range of "normal" for learning to read. Forcing a child before she is ready is not the way to create a good reader.
It is a huge mistake to transform learning to read from a magical experience into a rote chore. If kids see books in their homes, observe the adults in their lives reading for pleasure, enjoy being read to, and end every night with a bedtime story, they will be motivated to read for the pleasure it brings to their lives. And, like the title character of one of my children's favorite books, Leo the Late Bloomer, in their own good time they will learn to read.
A version of this post appeared in ChicagoNow, September 9, 2014.