by Leslie Fobbs
I wish I knew then what I know now. What am I talking about? I’m talking about the natural way kids learn to read, and enjoy it, versus the way it is forced on them today. I am grateful for where my son is now in his reading ability, but I cringe when I think about how it has been a struggle for him and how I didn’t make it any easier. In this post, I share our reading story.
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When Dee went to Kindergarten, he had a tough, old, veteran of a teacher named Mrs. Harvey. I didn’t like her right away because I felt a lack of warmth when we met at the open house. I sensed she might have had some judgments about me already worked up in her mind because I was a single mother. By the end of the school year, I came to appreciate her though. When I say she was tough, I mean she didn’t let any child off the hook from performing at their highest potential. She promised Dee that by the end of the year she would have him reading, and sure enough, she did. He was reading very well, much to my delight. But at what cost?
I vaguely remember how it happened. I do know the class spent a lot of time in reading groups. There were three of them based on the children's ability. Every week she would send home a sheet of vocabulary words to cut out. I remember being baffled because, with this being my first child, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with them. Embarrassed, I sent a note asking her to explain if I was supposed to read them to him or have him read them to me. Thinking back, I must have been baffled because it didn’t make sense that he would know any of those words at the time. She wrote back that they were sight words. They were learning them in class and he was supposed to memorize them by reciting them like flashcards.
When first grade rolled around, he was already showing signs of reading distress, but I didn’t recognize it at the time. At the open house, Mrs. Costan told me that Dee scored very low on the initial reading assessment, so she put him in the slow readers group. However, as the first few weeks went on, she quickly realized that he was hiding his ability to read because when called upon, he read almost perfectly. Hmm… it could have been that he just doesn’t test well with someone pressuring you to do timed reading. But I digress… another topic for another day. Hearing this news gave me a sigh of relief. It meant that my kid was normal. Advanced even.
However, by second grade he seemed to backslide into hating to read. I couldn’t get him to read for anything. I wonder why. I remember I was writing for another blog back then and I jumped at the chance to meet and interview my favorite author, Omar Tyree, who was stopping through Greensboro, NC on a book tour. He was a popular author from the 90s who wrote several Urban Classic novels (a term he coined to use instead of street literature) when the genre was at its peak.
At the signing, he spoke of how he sold millions of adult novels, but couldn’t sell the 10,000 copies of a book of short stories he wrote for young, African-American boys. The publishers he went to barely wanted to print the book because they knew it wouldn’t sell, and they were right. He told a story about a mother he met at a literary festival who said she would love to buy the book but knew her son wouldn’t read it. He then explained that boys don’t read because we don’t require them to do so. We don’t make them because we buy into the perception that they, especially boys of color, don’t like to read.
Now, I’m thinking boys don't read because by the time they are old enough to enjoy good stories we have driven them to hate reading. Through all the poking, prodding, testing, and remediation, the affinity for reading that began early on, dissolves. Anyhow, Omar's theory made perfect sense to me at the time (and it still holds some truth), so I started taking Dee to the library and requiring him to pick out at least two books to read. He resisted me so badly, to the point where I ended up choosing the books for him and leaving the library in an angry huff of frustration. Of course, that just made it worse because he didn’t like what I chose.
I can take a second now and really appreciate that most of what I’ve learned about parenting has come from my son teaching me. He is the most stubborn child I’ve ever met, and even though it grinds my gears, I am grateful that he stands up for making his own choices about what he’s interested in.
So how did my son end up returning to his love of reading? On his own. I don’t know how it happened, but at school, he came across a series of historical fiction, adventure stories called The Magic Tree House, by Mary Pope Osborne. On one of our library trips where he was required to choose something, he picked up a few of them, and from there he took off!
I could not get him to put them down. He would read through the night sometimes, and I’d wake him up the next morning to find a few books in his bed. Not only that, but he would read the same ones over and over again. (Both reading at night with a flashlight and reading things repeatedly are good signs by the way. Don't discourage it!) I feared what would happen when we finally got through all the copies that the library owned, lol. I really love this series because the adventure side grabs boys' attention (and girls' too, I’m sure), and the historical side introduces them to real-life characters from the past.
Currently, we are back to being in a bit of a slump. Dee did get through all the Magic Tree House books and found a few other series he liked. But now, he doesn’t jump at the chance to read unless I strongly suggest it. Then he'll pick up a book and usually get into the story. I’m learning to push a little, to suggest like I mention in my strewing post, but not too hard. When he says no, I offer to read out loud or I just let him be.
By the way, I did buy the book by Omar Tyree called 12 Brown Boys. He recently read it, and I’m glad we waited a couple of years because the material is a little mature (we read some of it together and discussed afterward). I’m happy that he loved it though.
I wanted to share our story because at least once a day I read a post in my homeschooling support group about a parent agonizing over their children learning to read. I've lived through that pain, but now I think it doesn't have to be that way. My interest in learning everything I can surrounding a more natural approach has really grown because I plan to have more children some day. So, I will be exploring it more, looking back at our story, and sharing what I’ve learned in future posts. Stay tuned.
Have you also had difficulties with your child learning to read or wanting to read? Share your story in the comments.