The Greatest Gift

I can’t remember the exact moment when I knew how to read fluently. I am unable to point to some magical methodology that provided me with the fluency I needed to translate the letters strung together in a kind of code that would allow me to discover great thoughts. I only know for certain that I passionately desired to read because my father made that ability seem so delightful and necessary. I watched him captivated by his books, newspapers and magazines in a daily ritual that made him visibly happy. I accompanied him to libraries and bookstores and listened to him read poetry and fairytales and children’s stories aloud to me. I wanted to find out how to unlock the meaning of the symbols that made him laugh and smile, so I learned to read with joy. It was never a chore to decode the messages imprinted on the pages set before me. 

I recall first learning words that my teacher printed on little blocks of paper. I bound them together with a rubber band and took them home to practice with my mother who faithfully drilled me each evening. At first I only knew what they said in isolation inside those little blocks. Eventually I recognized them in the context of sentences that did not seem as interesting as my father had made me believe that reading would be. Eventually I expanded my trove of words enough to be able to complete a series of reading books featuring characters like David, Ann, and Bow Wow. 

I never connected the phonics that we also learned in the process of reading. In my child’s mind it was just another subject and one that I did not particularly like. I did well with phonics, but never understood its importance or connection to reading. It was an onerous task to complete the phonics lessons that seemed to have no purpose. It would be years before I realized that phonics was supposed to be an important key for decoding even words that I had never before seen. 

If I used my phonics skills it must have been by chance. I do not recall ever actively thinking that what I had learned about all of those long and short vowels and accent marks had anything whatsoever with the reading that I so loved to do. I only felt that those phonics lessons that routinely came around the same time of the school day as reading were the most onerous aspect of school. I cannot explain why I had no idea how I would ever use those lessons that somehow were embedded in my brain. I must have unconsciously made the connections between phonics and reading from a book without ever realizing the importance of both skills. 

Somehow reading came easily to me, but the process of learning the fundamentals of reading threatened to bore me out of my mind. I wanted to take the training wheels off and ride away on an adventure with my books. I hated the times when the teacher gave each student a turn reading aloud. I had to slow down my brain and follow the pace of the words with my finger or run the risk of being far ahead when the teacher called on me. I often felt that sitting around discussing the main idea of a paragraph took the joy out the stories that we read. The questions seemed so silly. Of course I knew what the author was trying to convey. I wondered why I had to prove my comprehension. I just wanted to be left alone. 

There is so much talk about how to teach reading these days. Discussions abound concerning the best way to help young children become literate. There are concerns that far too many students struggle to decode and comprehend the words strung together to create stories and provide information. I suspect that the real answer regarding how to improve the processes of learning to read begins long before students formally attend school. 

I have generally found that children who see their parents reading want to emulate them. Little ones whose parents routinely read to them associate reading with comfort and even love. As humans we want to do things that make us feel good. If reading is associated with closeness and joy from the time we are born, we are more likely to want to learn how to understand books on our own. Sadly far too many little ones do not encounter much reading until they are old enough to attend school. They begin their educational journey at a deficit.

A gifted teacher understands that his/her students come to class with widely varying experiences and even abilities. Attempting to teach reading with one size fits all methodology is unlikely to work to the satisfaction of everyone. Crafting individualized instructional plans for every single student can be daunting. A wise teacher nonetheless is able to create smaller groups of students who are learning at similar levels of understanding. It’s important to target the skill that each child needs, so those groups must be fluid as well. 

It’s also critically important for teachers to help students make connection between the skills that they are learning and their actual usefulness in the act of reading. When that is not clearly conveyed the students may see them as discrete concepts that have no meaningful purpose. That’s when students become bored and tune out. Engaging them in discussions and allowing them to ask questions and voice their frustrations is as important as making them produce one size fits all responses to what they have read. Showing them the power of phonics makes that kind of learning seem important.

I enjoy reading and writing so much that they are integral to my life. I truly believe that my love affair with reading began with my father and continued with my mother who patiently helped me practice my first attempts at deciphering words. I learned whole words and phonics without putting the two together, but I suppose that I unconsciously used both skills. What truly made me a better reader was being exposed to a cornucopia of fiction and nonfiction and being allowed to freely discuss what I had read. 

Teaching reading is a tougher gig than teaching math. I know because I have done both. It requires modeling and practicing and somehow making it all fun. It’s not an easy task, but perhaps one of the most important ones that anyone ever does. Showing someone how to read is like giving them the best gift ever. Those teach reading well are treasures in our midst. Thank a parent or a teacher if you know how to read. It was not that long ago when reading was the purview of only the rich. Now in our country we democratically and rightfully attempt give it to all. Let us hope we are doing it in a way that will create lifelong readers and learners, not frustration and boredom.


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