Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How my children learned to read

I'm not going to spotlight each of my girls individually because as different as the two of them are, their learning to read stories are remarkably similar.

I'm a reader.  Always have been.  I loved books well before I could read them.  One of my favorite series as a toddler was "Bug Ugh!" as I called it.  The rest of the world called them "Blue Bug" by Virginia Poulet (link here to them on Amazon).  I was also quite in love with Professor Wormbog which you probably recognize as "Little Critter but without the critter!"  When I was 3ish, my older sisters took it upon themselves to teach me to read.  Our "curriculum" was a book entitled "Bambi Grows Up" and our edition was a SCRATCH N SNIFF version (aside: to this day artificial pine smells make me shudder due to the extreme amount of time I spent that year with pine scratch and sniff stickers in that stupid book).  It took them some time, due in no small part to my stubbornness but eventually I learned to read.  By kindergarten I was reading so well that during reading class time I got to go, with the other "reader" in our class, to the principal's office and read to her.  This was a great honor, though one I did not share with my parents willingly.  You see, I could read but this was a SECRET from the people who had given birth to me right up until my enthusiastic young teacher spilled the beans during a parent-teacher conference about my standardized test scores.  My mother argued with the poor woman that no, I most certainly did NOT know how to read when I started kindergarten.  That night I got a stern lecture and was asked WHY I hadn't shared the joyous news with the people who gave me life.  My simple answer was, "Because you wouldn't read to me anymore if I could read myself."  For the record, my bedtime stories lasted until *I* asked to give them up in 3rd grade because I had realized that I could read much faster on my own.

I tell you all this to give you some indication of my own attitudes toward reading.  In short, I LOVE reading.  I do it well.  I do it often.  And I do it quickly.

So fast forward with me, if you will, to a 19-year-old mother-to-be (me) confined to bed a large portion of the time.  What might such a young woman do?  What I did was read "The Green Mile" to the sweet pea inside me.  Maybe my choice of reading material left something to be desired but I was reading to a child I firmly believed had little concept of language but was utterly responsive to my speaking to her.  And I wasn't the only book nut in this aspiring little family.  The day I announced my pregnancy, my husband zoomed out to the used book store to pick up for her a copy of "A Wrinkle in Time."  Yep, baby's first gift was a book and it was a book of adventures in quantum physics.  By this time one of my sisters was an elementary school teacher and was the reading program coordinator for her school (a voluntary position that she conducted in her "off-hours").  She lavished her new niece with books.  My in-laws pulled just about every Little Golden Book ever written out of storage for their impending grandchild.

Clearly, this child came into the world with some reading advantages.  On both sides of her family was a culture of reading.  She was surrounded by books and by people who wanted to read those books to her.  When we weren't reading books to her, my father-in-law was regaling her with the newspaper.

Eighteen months later this future-book-lover had a sister who was just as lavished with books and readers.  If the books weren't enough, there were the audio books.  Does anybody else remember those red cassette tapes from Disney that came with books and had a chime when it was time to turn the page?  Yeah, my in-laws had saved all of those.  My parents pulled out their copies of the LP versions of them including the immortal "Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet" accompanied by a book.  The hubs and I were a little more high-tech about things.  We were early adopters of the LeapFrog systems and went through several.

But in spite of all this reading that was going on, there was never any organized or systematic attempt to teach the girls to read.  We never had a "Letter of the Day."  Nobody coached them to "sound it out."  Just people reading books with fingers under words, chimes at the end of pages, and their very own electronic pens to run under the words of the books that LeapFrog read to them.  By age 4 both were reading on their own, long before it occurred to me that maybe I should teach them to recognize letters, much less teach them to READ.  At first I thought they were doing what kids do, reciting words to stories they had memorized.  So I bought new books and darned if they didn't read them to me.  Fingers running under the words, they meticulously pronounced each word, stumbling occasionally at new words.  Their sight reading list was amazing.  In fact, those same words that my girls were recognizing on sight at 3 and 4 kept turning up on homework "sight lists" well into the 3rd grade.

If they could do all that just by sight, I imagined great glory in their future if only they knew phonics to go with it.  I set out to teach them phonics.  I can't say I was terribly good at it.  Yes, I'm the one that once aspired to be a teacher.  In my defense, I intended to teach DRAMA to HIGH SCHOOL students.  Regardless, the girls' reading progress slowed to a crawl.  So I stopped teaching phonics.  I just left it alone and let them go to kindergarten.  Maybe a trained professional could teach them to read "properly."

Early in the year that Mindie started kindy the school performed reading assessments just to get a feel for where each student was at and to facilitate their Accelerated Reader program.  Mindie, it seems, was in fact reading at a low 3rd grade level.  Unfortunately, the school's AR program wasn't designed for that.  Schools are allowed to run AR any way they see fit and the way our school saw fit was in the first few grades to restrict students to only reading "grade appropriate" books.  The kid was reading at a 3rd grade level by the  school's own admission but was only "allowed" to read and test on kindergarten level books for AR points. Mindie was frustrated.  The solution was so simple.  She was required to get a certain number of AR points per six weeks.  It took her about a week to get them.  For the next 5 weeks she gained no more AR points, checked no more books out of the school library.  Instead she read books of her own choosing from the public library or our private library.  Then a new six weeks began and the process repeated.

We did this for both girls for the next five years.  They read what they HAD to read for school and then they read what they wanted to read.  Alas, it wasn't good enough.  I watched as both girls' interest in reading dwindled to nil.  That was probably the third most heart-wrenching experience of my life, watching my children's love of reading die.

The good news is that eventually in 5th grade they got a teacher who recognized what was happening.  She stopped limiting their selection and let them read what they wanted.  By this point both girls were, according to the tests, reading at an 11th or 12th grade level.  Mindie's still not much of a reader though it has rekindled somewhat for her.  Shannen is an avid reader and it's difficult to find her without a book.  Freedom restored, their love grew again.

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