Two Brothers Learned Differently
by Patti Schmidt, April 2003
My oldest (10 next month) has learned to read gradually and effortlessly. Since the time he was old enough to pay attention I read to him tons-picture books, nonfiction books, magazines, novels, you name it. I vaguely remember making play-dough words with him (sat, cat, bat, etc) once when he was around 4 or 5, but other than that all I did was read to him (lots) and answer his questions about how to spell certain words when writing. One day, it seemed quite suddenly, he could read fluently. His first "chapter book" he read on his own (meaning divided into chapters with few or no illustrations) was a Rocket Power cartoon spin-off, and occasionally he would approach me, point at a word and ask "What does that say?" I'd tell him, and he'd never ask about that word again. To my knowledge he's never "sounded" anything out. I'd say that right now he reads as well as most adults.
My second son (age 8) cannot read other than phonetically spelled three or four letter words, and even those he struggles with, despite the fact that I've read to him and played the same games with him that I played with his brother. He *wants* to read in a way that my oldest never did... meaning his desire to read surpasses his ability. In my effort to help him I've given him some of what would probably be called "phonics." Nothing formal, but just more word games, this letter sounds this way, etc. As a result, he attempts to sound out words to read and this does *not* seem to help him, it seems to confuse him and frustrate him in a way that my oldest, who never had to resort to "phonics," never had to deal with. (Think "ri-guh-huh-tuh" when he sees the word "right.") .
It seems to me (and I'm admittedly no expert) that "phonics" essentially serves the purpose of "teaching" a child to read before he's ready and fully grasps context and meaning. I know that I can read Spanish, which is a much more consistently phonetic language than English, complete with accent and everything, and literally not understand one bit of what I'm saying.