How My Children Learned to Read

by Pam Sorooshian

Do you remember how much fun it was when your child was learning to talk? How each word was just adorable? How you'd strain your imagination, at first, to figure out what the sounds he was making might mean? How he slowly became easier and easier to understand? How he surprised you sometimes when he popped out with a word you didn't know he knew? How he just "all on his own" started putting the words together and how they slowly turned into phrases and then sentences? Do you remember how he made mistakes by putting words together in ways that made sense logically, but just weren't the way we speak the language? Did he make up words? Did he mispronounce them? Wasn't it amazingly wonderfully satisfying to watch the slow, but inevitable, progress he made in speaking? Think for a minute about what your role was in that development.

I remember my oldest daughter, hearing a knock on the front door, standing behind it and shouting, "Whobody is there?" I remember the first two words she put together were "Hi there," which she often shouted while waving at people as we cruised the aisles in the grocery store. Everyone around her responded with hugs and smiles and nods of encouragement and, especially, we responded by talking to her a lot and by listening to her very very carefully.

Learning to read can be just as joy-filled as learning to talk was. If you are lucky, your child will do a lot of it in your presence and out loud, so you can respond with encouraging approval, just the way you did when he started putting sounds together to make speech. Some kids, however, do their learning to read in relative silence, mostly working it out within their own head. We parents can respect that by not interfering by demanding regular demonstrations of what the child prefers to keep private. We'll still notice that the child is making more and more sense out of printed language, that he is reading signs, for example. And we can always do our part by reading to him as much as possible and by surrounding him with print materials of all kinds and with a wide variety of opportunities to begin using print himself.

Books are the most obvious of the printed materials. At our house, we look at books as being just about as important as food to eat and air to breathe. We get excited over them, we drag them everywhere, we talk about them, we give them as presents, we ooh and aah over the illustrations, we read bits and pieces out loud to each other, we pretend we are characters from the books, we develop favorite authors and try to read all their books, we read books of funny poems and lovely poems, we read for information, we listen to stories on tape, we go to book signings, we spend hours and hours in the library and in bookstores. We are not, in general, very careful with our books, the house is cluttered with them piled here, there, and everywhere. So is the car. Kids fall asleep with books in their hands nearly every night. Over the years, though, we have collected certain favorites that are treated especially tenderly, read carefully and never in the bathtub. Many of our books have been purchased at garage sales and thrift shops, by the way.

We also subscribe to lots of magazines. Every year the Girl Scouts sell magazines subscriptions as a fund raiser and we spend hours poring over the list and each child chooses a couple of magazines. Some favorites over the years have been Ladybug, Cricket, Highlights, Ranger Rick, and My Big Backyard. As the children have gotten older, they've selected Puzzlemania, Zillions, American Girl, Kids Discover, Muse, National Geographic World, and more.

Children who are learning to read usually want to create the written word, too, right along with learning to read it. So we provide lots and lots of writing materials. We include good quality colored pencils, crayons, markers, stampers, stickers, stencils, paint, and anything else that might be fun to draw or write with. The house is filled with paper of all kinds: from recycled paper with one side already used to various beautiful papers of different types. Kids LOVE to play with business forms such as a receipt book or a restaurant order pad or an unused check register. I know many kids who have had hours and hours of practicing writing and learning to understand how sounds are represented by letters and how letters make up words, by taking pretend food orders from their family members. My kids have often made lovely decorated menus for dinnertime. Post-It Notes, which now come in many sizes and colors, are very attractive to kids, who usually just LOVE to write or draw on them and stick them all over the house. At their grandma's house, my children and their cousins have developed a tradition of writing little funny things on post-it notes and sticking them in unexpected places. Grandma might, for example, reach for the band-aid box and discover a post-it note that says, "Ouch!"

I have never given any of my children a "reading lesson." My oldest two learned to read when they were still four years old. By the time they turned six, they were selecting lengthy books, such as the Little House series. The oldest learned to read in such a way that I could observe the process. She asked questions about letters and words, she followed along in books as I was reading, she started reading signs, we played rhyming games, she started asking me how to spell words, and, pretty soon, she was reading.

I never saw it coming with my second child. I only knew she was actually reading when, one evening, her older sister called me to their room and complained, "Roxana won't stop reading out loud and she's bothering me." I thought she had memorized the book and was pretending to read. But, nope, she was really reading and quite fluently. Big sister said she'd been driving her crazy for a couple of weeks, asking her, "What does this spell? What does that spell?" during the evenings when they were in bed with their books. I had no idea.

My third child is a very different learner than her sisters; she learned to read at about the time she turned eight years old. It took about six weeks for her to go from barely reading at all, struggling to sound out simple words, to reading Shakespeare. I am absolutely serious. She and her sisters were performing as fairies in a production of Midsummer Night's Dream and, one day, I discovered her reading the script, out loud and with lovely inflection. I admit, I had started to get a little anxious over her not reading yet, although I'd been careful not to let on to her that I was having any twinges of nervousness. As she turned six and then seven and then eight years old, I couldn't help thinking about the many, many books her sisters had read on their own by that age. But, she's making up for any "lost" time now. (I don't really think of that time as lost, by any means, she was always busy, always learning.) Yesterday she read Charlotte's Web. The day before that she read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. She is in love with books. I came home with a copy of The Borrowers, the other day, and she squealed with delight just at the prospect of reading it.

Who could ask for more?

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