Reading Can Happen Naturally
by Susan Viator
During the summer between kindergarten and first grade, our son Matt learned to read. He went from not reading anything to reading everything overnight. He read cereal boxes and billboards and parts of the newspaper. He read his animal books, his stories about the solar system, and the greeting cards in the grocery store. He read the labels in clothing and grocery lists.
“Isn’t this weird, Mom?” He asked me. “When I didn’t know how to read, the letters didn’t make sense. Now when I look at a word, I can’t help reading it!”
While I cared for his new baby sister that summer, he sat beside me and read to us. By the end of August, he was reading from the encyclopedia. Not knowing all the words didn’t slow him down, he spelled them for me, and I told him what they were.
After reading a book from the library about magnets, he had a revelation.
“Mom! he exclaimed.” Now that I can read, I can learn about anything I want!!!”
We were excited right along with him until he went to first grade and started bringing home phonics worksheets to do each night. Phonics? When a child is spending hours at home perusing the encyclopedia and reading words like hydrogen or Coelecanth, going to school and learning about Mr. M who likes Muffins and Milk is well, boring. For some strange reason, he didn’t sit still for reading lessons. He reacted like a typical six year old and became a clown in class. His teacher phrased it differently. “He’s disruptive and is making it difficult for the other children to learn.” First grade was Matt’s last year in school for many reasons.
Our family was having a wonderful time learning together after bringing Matt home, and we knew that Alyssa wouldn’t be going to school at all. I began thinking seriously about the reading process. Why did Matt learn to read all by himself? We hadn’t taught him, had we? It just sort of happened.
After some careful thought, I realized it hadn’t just happened. We didn’t start with the goal of teaching him to read, but the activities we did sent him down that road anyway. We started reading to him when he was about a year old. Sometimes it was only a minute or two before he fidgeted and wandered off to play, sometimes we read so long he fell asleep on my lap. By the time he was two, he brought his favorite book and snuggled up with me every time I sat down.
We sang the alphabet and he learned to spell his name. Word games were fun, too.
“Ball, bear, and barn all begin with ‘B’. Can you think of other words that start with ‘B’?”
“Fat, cat, sat. Can you make a rhyme?” (He could.. and did.)
When we had secrets, we spelled things in front of him. That stopped working when he was about three and we planned a surprise t-r-i-p to the z-o-o. He wasn’t surprised and he told us where we were going as we got into the car.
I decided to do many of the same reading and word activities with my daughter, and see where it took us.
Alyssa loved books. She carried them all over the house, and any time she saw an open lap, she clambered up with a book to read. She slept with us, and so did a few of her favorite volumes. It was fun to wake up in the morning and see her holding them proudly upside down ‘reading’ to us. I enjoyed it more when she did it at ten in the morning instead of waking us up at six, though.
When she was about two and a half, I used index cards and a marker and labeled everything in the house I could think of. Refrigerator, cupboards, television, bookcase, floor, wall. Any surface I could attach a card to had one. She began to understand the concept that those words meantsomething and started asking me to write other words. I wrote any word she asked for and taped it to the front of our kitchen cabinets. It was quite an eclectic collection. Magnificent (one of Matt’s contributions) was taped up next to monster. Lint ended up next to belly button entirely by accident. Chicken, for some reason was posted by toenail.Iread the words with her occasionally, or I pointed them out in books while we were reading.
“That word is banana! That’s one of your words!!” Ownership of the words really pleased her. Whenever we read a book that she knew contained some of her words, she bounced up and down next to me and excitedly pointed to them and shouted them aloud before I could read them. Reading was a joyful experience for her and reading with her was fun every time.
I never did get around to playing the word games with her. She started them with me when she was about four.
“Mommy, my name starts with the letter ‘A’ doesn’t it?
When I answered yes, she said, “Apple and amazing start with ‘A’, too!”
When Alyssa was about five, I took all her cards down and gave them to her. More than two years of words made a hefty stack. She lined them up across the floor like a train and made sentences. She quickly discovered that little words like and and the were missing. She asked for more words and I bought another package of index cards.
She discovered the ability to make humorous sentences using words like stinky, ugly, (and I am only slightly embarrassed to admit this) toe jam. From the sound of her giggles, it was apparently quite amusing to make sentences like Mom has stinky toe jam or My brother smells funny.
One evening few months before she turned six, she was sitting on the couch with her brother while he read to her from Dr. Seuss’ immortal Green Eggs and Ham. She commented that she would like to try reading it herself. My son, bless him, wordlessly handed her the book. She opened it to the first page, began reading it, and read every single word on every single page to the end! Then, she skipped off to her room as we applauded and cheered wildly. About ten minutes later, she re-appeared with one of my grandma’s old scarves tied around her head, an aqua satin pajama shirt tied by the sleeves around her neck for a cape, and her teddy bear under one arm. She JUMPED into the living room, flung out the other arm dramatically and shouted, “I am SUPER reader!!!” I ran for the camera. I took a picture of her in costume, holding the bear in one arm and the book in the other. That picture is still one of my favorites.
Alyssa is nine years old now. Yesterday, she stood next to me in the kitchen, watching me toast a muffin and reading the package.
“Sour dough?” she asked. “That’s a misnomer, isn’t it? It doesn’t really taste sour at all.”
I stood there looking blankly at her. My nine year old just said misnomer to me?
She looked up and asked, sweetly, “Don’t you know what that word means, Mom?”
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“Um.. yes I do, Dear.” I answered her. “I just didn’t realize you knew that one.”
“Of course I do!” she said, ” I READ!”
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