Home Education Magazine
March-April 1997 - Articles
Reading Lessons - Valerie Bonham Moon
At the time I wasn't thinking about how my children learned to read, I was thinking about sleep; dear quiet, blessed darkness, restful repose. It was late at night, the lights were out, and my book lay on the stack next to my bed where I'd dropped it. I was falling in and out of sleep when the stillness was torn by the crash of...., of falling books? On top of that the kids were shrieking.
"Oh, no," I moaned into my pillow, thinking of our new German neighbor in the other half of the duplex, the neighbor whose bedroom is on the other side of the girls' wall. Can't those kids just go to sleep? Why do we have to go through this every night? The crashes and happy chatter continued while I willed my body to un-become one with the mattress. I quelled the annoyance at having my sleep (but not that of my snoozing husband) rudely interrupted, and I didn't push him out of bed with my still icy feet. I just commiserated with myself about the unfairness of how I was always the one to wake up and suppress the little darlings. Wait a minute - my darlings weren't little anymore; the voices were all wrong!
Disoriented, I jerked awake as the childish voices nattered on. I groped for the light, snapped it on and stared around me. Through the blear of my dazzled eyes I recognized the house we'd recently moved to, and yes, if memory was to be trusted, the twins were now twelve and Rosie was ten. But the voices I was hearing were those of five and three-year-olds; specifically my five and three-year-olds. I'd recognize those squeals anywhere, and apparently anytime. Was I in a sci-fi time warp? Were the kids in a time warp'? Was I dying and my life was flashing before my ears? If that was so, drat it, why wasn't it my wedding night that was flashing? What was going on?
I fell out of bed, just missing the cat I'd disturbed with my thrashings and gropings, and, following the noise, stumbled into Rosie's room, injuring myself on some Legos©. Rosie had fallen asleep with her tape recorder on. She had been listening to an old tape we'd found while unpacking moving boxes. I turned off the rumbustious noises relieved to have the mystery so easily solved, and the night's peace so near and painlessly restored. The rest of the family still snoozed. Ahh, quiet and reality both restored. Whew.
I unplugged the tape recorder and lugged it into my room. Although still groggy I rewound the tape, stopped it and pushed "play," as I'd never heard this recording before and was intensely curious about it. The title on this rediscovered tape was Puss in Boots and Beauty and the Beast read by Dad. Ah, there was my husband reading, calmly and quietly and not testing his lung power. What a nice man. The end of the story cut off and Andy, apparently three inches from the microphone, asked his twin Cindy if she wanted to put stories on the tape. Cindy, at least five inches away, thought this was a great idea and added that they could practice reading. Andy announced he would practice reading the little mouse of Noisy Nora.
Unimpressed, Cindy said, "You already know that."
This was followed by the crash that had awakened me. Or was that the even louder crash a few sentences later?
The rest of the tape is a delicious jumble of three little kids in their bedroom all reading out loud to themselves and usually oblivious to each other. Cindy is reading from Doll Friends and Each, Peach, Pear, Plum while Andy reads a picture book called I Spy. Rosie enthusiastically declaims from her selection, "Mouse Taayyuls!" (Mouse Tales).
Throughout the tape Cindy alternately recites and sounds out words. She recites a passage, decides she's said it wrong then goes back and sounds out the words. Andy, having been stopped by the house rule that you can't read a book you already know is going through I Spy and identifying the pictures and words. Rosie ignores the "rule" and plays to the balcony with the best parts of her favorite stories ("The mouse rolled and rolled and rolled until the wheels fell off.").
And where is mama during all the commotion of three little kids loudly reading, dropping books, knocking over stacks of books (I'm assuming that's what those crashes are) and amiably bickering amongst themselves? Mama is out of sight, but not out of mind, or earshot.
At one point Cindy comes across the word, "park" which baffles her, and baffles me because earlier on the tape she sounds out the word, "astronaut." After three or four tries at "park" she bellows, "Mommmm! What does p - a - awr - k spell?"
Mommmm, from a distance, yells back "Whaat?!"
Cindy repeats herself.
After a pause Mommmm shouts, "Park."
Cindy continues reading, but not for long because "beautiful" stumps her. She repeats the park-process beautifully and gets a quicker response. She continues reading.
To me this tape is fascinating because it's spontaneous. I didn't set up the situation, I didn't monitor it, I didn't stage-manage it in any way because I didn't know about it. At this time I wasn't actively encouraging "learning to read" as I came from a family of book-lovers and figured the kids would pick it up just like they picked up walking and talking. I also hadn't yet heard of homeschooling so there was no internal pressure that it was all up to me to teach. During the tape I think I was very busy cooking supper.
Even though the idea of "teaching" reading never occurred to me that is what I did. I listened to other recordings we'd made, and the teaching is there; taped readings being a family tradition started by my father when I was young. On a diffrent cassette we are reading A Kiss For Little Bear. I read a sentence, The children mimics me. I read another sentence, the child mimics me again. As the child reads less and less, apparently preferring to listen to the story, I read on alone. At the end of the story the child, in this case Cindy, joyfully shouts the last line.
In looking back at their years before what little official schooling the kids have had, what we did was unschooling and this vignette was typical. The episode on the Puss in Boots tape grew out of the children's desire to read, and to record stories, like mom and dad did. They continued their self-appointed job as long as their interest held, which was until Brian, their then fifteen year-old brother and resident idol, came in the house, then they turned off the tape amid shouts and greetings.
In our family, this is how the children learned to read. Someone sat with them and read and read and read. When Someone's voice gave out, a tape recorder was pressed into service. Just as my children learned to walk by imitating the example of those older than they, just as they learned to talk, use silverware, use a toilet, ride bikes, climb trees, wash their hands, faces and hair, brush their teeth and all the many skills they wanted or needed to learn, so they learned to read, and to record tapes. With reading we showed them what print sounds like, and the children, who wanted to do as many adult things as possible, imitated us.
I am leery of the value of programmed reading instruction, although for some unlucky children in school it's either that or illiteracy. I started first grade already reading and found the rules for pronouncing words to be confusing impediments. Perhaps I did learn something from the teaching, but other than "silent e," which I thought was a terribly clever trick, all I remember are baffling rules that made my head hurt. Who cared about "long a" and "short a" - I just wanted to read!
Maybe for a child who hasn't absorbed decoding, phonics could be useful. All I know is I didn't like it, my husband ignored it, Andy blocked the experience, Cindy hated it and, when Rosie had it with the curriculum we used for only one year, she asked if she could please not do it. Brian isn't available for comment as he's on another continent.
Andy and Cindy are now sixteen, Rosie is fourteen and I still feel reading aloud is important. To this day I'll be reading along and The kids will interrupt with, "I thought that word was pronounced . . ." and come up with something close, but not quite right. Even now reading aloud is useful. I ignore the occasional snide comment about "OId Iron Larynx," as when I ask the commentator and his or her appreciative audience if they would care to take turns reading our sole copy of whatever to themselves; they stop snickering and say they understand more when I read to them.
The skill of divining the sense of arbitrary ink marks on paper isn't taught from other arbitrary ink marks in books. As with the spoken word it's passed on, over time, from a more experienced reader to a less experienced reader. It's old fashioned, unglamorous and nobody will make a fortune from it, but for us it has worked. © Valerie Bonham Moon
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