Friday, July 06, 2007

Breathing to Reading

For the past month or so Paddy has been telling me to trace the words with my finger as I read aloud to him. It’s funny because I clearly remember John Holt writing that he once thought to be helpful and educational by doing this while reading to a 3 year old girl, and the little girl moved his hand politely but firmly off the page. To her it was a “teacher moment” not a learning one.

Paddy is still in the picture book stage, though many of the books he listens to have quite a high text to picture ratio. I would have thought, in agreement with John Holt’s 3 year old friend, that my finger moving from line to line would be distracting, but apparently not. It was Paddy’s idea to start with, and almost every time I forget to do this, he reminds me — politely but firmly.

I always think of Scout Finch as Paddy breathes and watches quietly beside me — not that Paddy is reading yet, but that I always wonder whether this finger tracing can possibly be of any actual help to him, and then think of Atticus Finch’s method of getting to read the newspaper as a single father — told in Scout’s words here:

I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church–was it then I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evening in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills To Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow–anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Paddy is obviously separating some of the text into words, too. Since he knows how to spell “NO”, this seems to be a cornerstone of meaning for him. Whenever he hears me read “No” we have to go and find where the “No” is in the text. Once he told me as I was turning a page, “You forgot to say NO on that page.” He went on to show me a “now” on the previous page, and then I had to explain that a “no” with a W on the end was a different word. We have done this with “not” and “know” too. I am sure it’s a bit mysterious to him.

What goes on in the mind of a child who is learning to read is mysterious to me, in turn. I do not remember learning letter sounds or how to decode, though my mom tells me the first grade teacher I learned from used old-fashioned phonics and she attributed to that my almost immediate fluency. My first memory of reading is of sitting down with the Noddy books which my mom had often read to me, and finding that now I could read them myself. Reading the Noddy books to Paddy now brings back some of those delightful, vivid early memories. Though I think it’s painfully odd that all I consciously remember of first grade is not how I learned to read, but how the teacher used to scream at us, and sometimes make us all put our heads down on the desk. I don’t think she ever screamed directly at me, but I was always very afraid she would. That was obviously more significant to my 6 year old self than exploding the code was.

I’m writing this out because I’ve never up till now had a child who was interested in the symbols on the page along with the story. Clare could write stories before she could read. She knew the letter sounds and she must have grasped that combining them made words, so she would bring me stories about the “mnstr” that “jupt” at the “grl” — then she would help me read them. But when she was listening to a story, she was like the 3 year old in John Holt’s anecdote. It was the story and the imagination that she was interested in, not the meanings of the symbols on the page.

She doesn’t remember learning the letter sounds in preschool. But she does remember the librarian who snapped at her because she hadn’t returned her library book within a week.

Aidan loves how the letters look and has been able to name them and tell their sounds since he was five. He loves to spell words on his V Tech Phonics board. He loves to trace letters in his Handwriting without Tears book. But he is not as interested in stories as Paddy is and I think his process will be different yet again.

I love having the chance to revisit reading with my children and see the differences in each of them as they learn. I think it’s a bit sad that my childhood school-based reading instruction was apparently effective, but not memorable compared to the threat of facing a teacher’s temper tantrum. I’m glad my mother’s reading aloud to me provided the bridge to the moment that I really discovered reading — being able to decipher the words in my own book in my own home. I hope that Paddy and Aidan won’t need a bridge — that listening will transition seamlessly into reading, like taking the next breath.