How the Kids are Learning to Read

Mushroom looking through Fly Guy.

One of the good things about having twins (and there are many, which is a relief to discover because most of these good things never showed themselves during the infant and toddler years) is that you can see two kids learn the same things in completely different ways.  Mushroom and BalletBoy often leapfrog each other in skills.  They take a yin yang approach to being “the difficult one.”  Mushroom was usually the first to do everything when they were tiny.  Sitting, crawling, babbling and all that.  Not to be outdone, BalletBoy spent months working on pulling up and cruising.  Then, one day, he took off and walked weeks before Mushroom did.  You can’t imagine what a difficult time we spent with poor Mushroom when he realized his brother had a skill he hadn’t even conceived of yet.

In some ways, this is exactly how BalletBoy learned to read.  He spent a long time working out the sounds and putting them together.  While it didn’t quite happen overnight, one day he was just reading, even if it was just some common words and very simple phonics, he was doing it on his own.  Mushroom, on the other hand, initially had the exact same reaction that he had when he saw BalletBoy walk for the first time.  His frustration level with the world, in particular the world of words, went way up.  When he didn’t catch up to his brother quickly, I began to get worried.  I had no fear that he was behind in any way.  My worry was that his frustration would get the better of him or that he would develop a conception of himself as a non-reader.

Mushroom is still struggling to catch up to his brother in reading.  I hope he won’t develop a conception of himself as “the one who doesn’t read.”  He definitely relies on BalletBoy to read all kinds of things, like TV shows listed on the Tivo, notes I leave them in the morning, or cards sent by grandparents.  However, he got over his frustration about it a long time ago and is making a genuine effort to learn to read when we sit down together or play reading games.  He seems to have accepted that different people learn at different rates and in different ways.  He knows there are things he can do that BalletBoy can’t yet, such as swim across the pool.  If he can carry that lesson with him for the rest of his life, then that’s more important than learning to read Frog and Toad before you’re six.  It may also be another benefit of being a twin, like learning to share before all the other toddlers.  The irony is that I suspect Mushroom may turn out to be a better reader than his brother.  He looks for context and has a much better ear for stories.  He can anticipate what’s coming next in a book, even a complex one.  The other day, while we listened to Half Magic by Edward Eager, he immediately understood that a character the children meet in a bookstore was the same character the children’s mother met on the road and that he would probably marry the mother.  He was so excited by the realization, I had to pause the book so he could explain it.  As an adult reader, it’s all very obvious plot devices, but it was the sort of thing I didn’t expect the kids to pick up on until it had been spelled out more clearly.  I was impressed.  Once you get the decoding part down, being able to understand stories and foreshadowing like that becomes pretty essential.

We haven’t been using a formal program for reading.  Next year, we may do something a little more formal.  I once heard an elementary teacher tell a homeschooler that you can’t teach reading without an expensive program, which I find completely absurd, as if money somehow equals quality.  Pardon my sarcasm, but I wonder if the parents of great eighteenth centuries writers had expensive reading programs.  I also see where homeschoolers are sometimes pretty harsh with each other, condemning any early reading materials that were written after the first World War (apparently our grammar is rather cruddy these days) or suggesting that if you let your kids see the pictures in the early readers, you’ll ruin their ability to learn to read.  When I taught, I often told students that there were some wrong answers, but there wasn’t one right answer.  I feel the same about learning to read.  I find it impossible to believe there’s one right way to learn anything, not even learning to read.  I also think, that while it’s good to have studies about what works and what doesn’t, in the end all learning is personal.

We have been using some of the BOB books with Mushroom.  Both the kids have played on Starfall and a few other early reading sites.  Mostly though, we’ve just been playing homemade games, sounding out words on cards and making words with Banagrams tiles or old fridge letter magnets.  BalletBoy especially likes a game we call “Reading Treasure Hunt” probably because it ends with a few chocolate chips.  I give the kids a series of clues that I hide around the house.  If the first clue reads, “Rug” then they’ll find the next clue under the rug.  This used to be a cooperative game, but their levels are so different I break them up now.  Mushroom gets clues like “Look in the pot.” and “Look in the tub.”  BalletBoy gets clues like “Go to the coldest place in the house.” and “Look inside a book with a red cover on the top shelf.”  After about half an hour of scouring the house, they find the final clue, which leads to the chocolate chips.  Chocolate chips and pride, that is.

2 thoughts on “How the Kids are Learning to Read

  1. In centuries past a lot of people had nannies and nursemaids and stuff to push the early learning. People who didn’t have access to paid labour didn’t learn unless someone took an interest. Now everyone is expected to know how to read, but it hasn’t gotten any easier for those to whom it doesn’t come easy.

    Of my twins, one learned on their own precociously early and the other took rather longer. It was hard for the one not reading NOT to notice it, but as you say, it all evens out. Besides, it’s not SUCH a bad lesson in the We’re Not All The Same game. At least it’s played among friends. Now that I’m on the other side I think I worried too much but who knows, maybe my worry helped the reading along more than it would have otherwise. It’s very easy to theorize after the fact.

  2. I wouldn’t sweat the “learning to read” phase for kids aged 4-7. I was a teacher for years and now I’m a parent considering homeschooling.

    I recently read “Reading Magic” by Mem Fox and it really reaffirmed my experiences and what I could see happening for my kids (and for those 100’s of students through my teaching years).

    I spent years teaching emergent readers (ages 4-10) through all methods possible, and context was always the most effective strategy. After all, the reason for reading is understanding, isn’t it?

    As a parent, I have watched my daughter (now 6 1/2) teach herself to read. She is a sensitive story teller and very effective at noticing patterns of all kinds, not just print. She is inadvertently teaching her little brother all she knows about language. (What does that sign say? What else has “oo” in it–poop! The first and last letter in my friend’s name are _ and _.) I dare not interrupt with any formal learning activities until she asks for more than what she can give herself.

    I believe that no parent (teacher) should expect that a method will advance a very natural process. Remember that some of the “smartest” people in history didn’t learn to read until age 9 or 10. Just like waiting for the baby to walk, sometimes we have to wait while he/she works on other things that may be more “important”.

    Of course, it is always helpful to have past experiences to compare with our current experiences. This is why blogs like this, and other resources, allow us to thoughtfully compare our stories and inform our parenting choices. Thank you for providing a forum.

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