How I Learned to Read

Photo used with permission

Photo used with permission

I learned to read by being read to. And then I learned to read by reading.

My mom read to my brother, sister and me from our earliest days. I am sure she enjoyed our stillness and attentiveness as much as we enjoyed the stories. The books were our own – received as gifts, or hand-me-downs, or sometimes bought from the grocery store. I remember books about dogs and clowns and school buses. I followed along as my mom read, and eventually I knew the books. I knew the words on the page as my mom read them. I knew how the words looked and what they said.

When I started school, the teacher gave each person in our class the same book to read, and informed us she’d be teaching us how. While she droned on at the front of the room, my friends and I looked through the book and I told them what was going to happen in the story. One of my classmates told the teacher, “She can read!” Mrs. Connor asked me about it and I replied that no, I couldn’t read. But she saw that I had explained the story to the other kids. She asked me questions about the story – it was about animals afloat on a raft – and I answered them. She announced to everyone that I could read.

Wait a minute – looking at words on a page and knowing what they were in your head – that was reading? I thought you had to tell the story aloud, like my mom did at story time. I was very pleased to come home and tell my mom I could read. I am sure she must have said, “I knew that – didn’t you?”

While the rest of my class pointed at words and sounded them out, I read book after book and increased my fluency and speed and vocabulary. I realized that other people learned to read by making letter sounds and predicting what word might come next and being prompted by the teacher. I remember endless moments when other students were made to read aloud and how they stumbled and felt ashamed. Worse yet, this happened all the way to and through high school!

In those “bad old days,” students were streamed into groups. In my first year of school, during reading time, we were divided into the Butterflies and the Swallows. Everyone knew that the Butterflies were good readers and the Swallows were “slow”. It may have helped me advance to great reading heights, but the Swallows, in the same room with us, were constantly nagged and berated by our teacher. It caused me great pain – especially because my brother was a Swallow.

Over the next few years, the school system was even more blatant about streaming students. You were put in the A, B or C class depending on your abilities. There was a token effort to disguise this by naming the classes L, N and W after the teachers’ last names, but no one was fooled. You were smart, average or “slow.” By 4th grade, my brother had been assigned to the lowest tier because of his reading difficulties. He wasn’t the worst reader; it just took him more time to decode words and make sense of the story. Because of being mocked and yelled at, he took no enjoyment in reading and avoided it, which affected all of his school subjects. Because of his early school experiences, he never liked books or learning. I don’t think he had an encouraging teacher until he was 16. My parents bullied and threatened him into finishing high school at 18, and he squeaked through (for which he is now grateful).

You might think that my brother would now be diagnosed with a learning disability, or that he has struggles in day to day life. He doesn’t – he just learned to read phonetically and systematically, as some people need to do. And he is now a fully competent citizen with diverse interests – who likes to read novels!

I learned to read through the Whole Language method, which worked perfectly for me – I just picked it up through osmosis, like learning to speak.

As much as I was privileged to have access to “higher tier” learning, I always felt in my heart that it was at the other students’ expense. I don’t know how I would have fared if I’d been made to learn at my brother’s pace. Probably not well.

When I was 12, I was so far ahead in math that I had nothing to do while the teacher finished the unit with the rest of the class. She sent me to the Special Education class, where I acted as a teacher’s helper, working with other students one-to-one on adding and subtracting. Seeing their break-throughs in math and feeling valued by “my” students was one of the best learning experiences I ever had.

I am a librarian now and I am passionate about reading. Not just the mechanics of reading, but the usefulness of decoding things, and the love of literature. I was one of the lucky ones. Books, reading and learning were always easy for me. But I’ve seen up close, through my family and through my library visitors, what it feels like to be on the other side of that divide. Sometimes my heart aches to see grown adults sounding out words. Other times I am full of joy when I see their eyes light up over “getting” a written word right. It’s an accomplishment whether you are 7 or 70. Maybe 10 times the accomplishment at 70!

I still help people with reading – and often with math! – every single day and I never want to stop. Well, at least until they tell me, “I can do it myself” 🙂

Me and my bro - wishfully thinking! (photo: linda goodman com)

Me and my bro – wishfully thinking! (photo of the lovely Gyllenhals from linda goodman com)

How did you learn to read?


  1. EcoCatLady

    Wow! I don’t actually remember learning to read, though I do remember having a big argument with my kindergarten teacher because she said there was no such letter as “elemeno” and I had been assured by Big Bird that there was! You know, “h” “i” “j” “k” “elemeno” “p”!

    I’ve always been SOOOOO envious of people like you. Reading never came easy to me. I’ve never ever been able to just look at the words and understand them without speaking them out loud to myself in my head, and it’s just impossible to read quickly when you have to use that method. My parents sent me to all sorts of speed reading classes but to no avail – I guess I’m just an aurally centered person.

    I was a very good student (like straight A’s – phi beta kappa, and the whole nine yards), but I always HATED school – I just forced myself to suffer through it because in my family failure was not an option – and anything less than straight A’s was considered failure. In college I can remember locking myself in a closet sized study room for hours on end, walking in small circles (to keep myself awake) reading out loud to myself because that was the only way I could get through it.

    I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so relieved as I was the day I graduated from college and realized that my sentence was finally over. My parents were very disappointed that I didn’t want to go to graduate school, but I decided that I’d been tortured long enough and ran as hard and fast as I could in the opposite direction!

    • I like your story. There is no one way of learning to read that works for all. There’s no way to make everyone love learning. But there are lots of ways to make them dislike it.

  2. I love your ‘sibling’ photo!

    I definitely learnt by ‘sounding out’ but I didn’t struggle as long as other people, like my brother. I was also quite quick to ‘get’ maths. I think it would be wonderful to learn to read like you did – did you use ‘sounding out’ as words got longer and less familiar to you? I certainly found learning a second language (French) taught me so much, despite my whinging through endless dictations in my first few months in France it really cemented what sounds certain letter combinations make and the like. In actual fact, I think I might be ‘better’ at sounding out in French than I would be for a ‘new’ word to me in English. I think English is so all over the place with sounds sometimes, and French is so much more routine!

    • When I came across words I didn’t know, I either figured out what they meant from context, or I looked them up in the dictionary! But I rarely tried to say them aloud unless required to by a teacher. I was lucky that I had a complete education in English grammar, before such things stopped being taught, and I always loved grammar. In high school, we were taught the Latin roots of words and the meanings of prefixes and suffixes, which helped a lot. I also took French throughout school and it was a huge benefit, too.

      The first photo reminded me so much of me and my brother that I paid to use it 🙂

      • EcoCatLady

        Wait… really? You never tried to say them aloud? That’s mind boggling to me. I can’t understand something if I can’t say it aloud. This is why trying to read Russian novels was hopeless… I couldn’t keep any of the characters straight because I couldn’t pronounce any of their names!

      • Nope, I’m definitely not an auditory learner!

  3. As a teacher, I absolutely love reading stories like this! (but I would need an entire blog to respond on this topic…!) I am passionately opposed to streaming but not to acceleration for gifted kids, since the research supports it.

    I’ve seen hundreds of kids learn to read at school but in my experience, it’s the rare ones who teach themselves to read, “whole language” style, as you did as a child. I’ve seen one child teach herself to read by sitting in the corner, reciting “Spot” books from memory, pointing to the words and visually memorising them! Another child I taught really seemed to have a photographic visual memory for words.

    Research now suggests that kids are split between those who respond best to “phonics” and those who learn best via “whole language”. I try to integrate both methods to hopefully cater for all kids.

    It would crush me to see a grown adult sounding out words…that is phonics done *all wrong* and I would immediately want to fix it!

    • The schools here use a combination of phonics and whole language, as you say. The kids memorize lists of sight words like “through” that are impossible to sound out. They still encourage journal writing with invented spelling. In retrospect, I used all the tools that teachers now use, such as prediction, context, letter sounds and word shapes – I just wasn’t aware of them.

      Link’s first school had an interesting “Enrichment Program.” All students had an enrichment session once a week that was theme-based, but gifted students were grouped together so they could pursue their topics at their level.

      • Fiona

        The Canadian education system performs amazingly well in those international assessments like PISA and TiMMS. I know here in Australia many educators look to Canada (and Finland) as the models to follow.

  4. Like you I don’t remember learning to read. I just read.

    Don’t know about politicians and the media in Canada but I hate it here when these two groups harp on about literacy and by that they simplify the whole idea of reading to being able to sound out words and say it must be through phonics. Of course, reading comprehension is so much more. And sounding out the individual sounds is only one way, or part of a way, to learn to read.

    • Yes, Back to Basics folks always say that schools should go back to the phonics approach, and if we had used it all along, we wouldn’t have so many high school and university students who can’t read at-level. I agree with you – “phonics” is one of many techniques that need to be part of the big package of learning to read. My brother is the perfect example of the outcome of an exclusively phonics-based approach. He pointed to and sounded out every word, and never learned to read fluidly, predictively, or with expression.

  5. Ecocatlady, you probably had experience to the whole language method without realising. When you are read to; when you share a book and follow along as someone reads to you, they are both strategies of the whole language method.

    Needing to hear what you read may be just your favoured learning style. I can’t stand listening and can’t take in anything being read to me. I take it in from reading to myself. Others learn by doing, learning through the physicality.

  6. I also learned to read when my parents read to me. And since I was good at it, I enjoyed reading from the beginning (except when teachers forced me to read literature I had no interest in – nothing is worse). Teaching kids how to do anything can take a hundred different routes, so I’m not surprised that reading is the same 🙂 I don’t remember ever being taught letter sounds, although my parents like to tell of when I came home from daycare and announced that I would be teaching them the alphabet (because they couldn’t possibly know their letters). haha 🙂

    • Cute story! I suppose the tricky part is that we now accept there are a hundred different routes to learning a skill, but teachers need to know the techniques and know what each student in their class will respond to. And I am sure a lot of it is trial and error from seeing what doesn’t work with a particular student. Meanwhile, the teacher is probably told “70% of students will have success with x method” and that’s the one the school board funds. Despite knowing how to read, I had to spend endless class time along with the rest of the class sounding out all the words that rhymed with cat and made the “short a” sound, and so on.

  7. Like many of the others I don’t really remember learning to read – I could just do it. I remember being confused when I started school because the teacher wrote the lowercase z in my name like a 3, so I guess I already could read by then.

    My primary school had lots of multi-age level classes, so I was in a grade 1/2 and a grade 4/5/6 class. They did do streaming so that kids were in groups with other kids of the same abilities rather than with kids the same age. Maths and reading came very easily to me, so I was always in the top group, including being with the grade 6s when I was in grade 4.

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