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” 🙂
How did you learn to read?