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Tag Archives | learning to read

The Human Alphabet

At my local library, a cou­ple of weeks ago, I flipped through the books that were for sale by the Friends of the Library. These are most­ly books that have been removed from the shelves for one rea­son or anoth­er. The kids’ books cost $.50—fifty cents, peo­ple! I’ve found some great ones in these bins.

The find this time: Pilobo­lus Dance Com­pa­ny’s The Human Alpha­bet. I snapped it up. As in I dropped the oth­er books I was hold­ing, I grabbed it so fast. It’s in pret­ty good con­di­tion. You can tell it’s been read hard, but frankly it might be the very copy that was read hard in our house, so I don’t mind the evi­dence of pre­vi­ous reads.

This book reg­u­lar­ly found its way into our library bag when #1 Son was young. He hat­ed alpha­bet books with an almost patho­log­i­cal hatred, being a child who could fer­ret out an adult’s agen­da (learn­ing let­ters, for instance) quick­er than you could open a book. He dis­dained any books that were designed to help a young per­son learn let­ters or num­bers. Except for Pilobolus’s alpha­bet book. For this rea­son, I con­sid­er this book mag­i­cal.

It opens with this sim­ple invi­ta­tion: Here are 26 let­ters of the alpha­bet and 26 pic­tures — all made of peo­ple! Can you guess what each pic­ture shows? And what fol­lows are the most amaz­ing pic­tures. Each let­ter is made of peo­ple, and so is a pic­ture that goes with each let­ter — a line of ants for A, but­ter­fly for B etc. They are astound­ing, each and every one.

Some­thing about these let­ters made of peo­ple spoke to our boy who was “not so very fond of let­ters and num­bers.” (A direct quote, age four — we read a lot of Win­nie-the-Pooh, hence the British syn­tax.) Occa­sion­al­ly he would humor me and we would make let­ters with our bod­ies. But only occa­sion­al­ly. Most­ly he just flipped through the book, study­ing each let­ter, each pic­ture. Some­times I’d posi­tion myself so I could see his eyes as he looked at the book. He’d take in the whole page, lean in a bit…and then the recog­ni­tion! His eyes would widen almost imper­cep­ti­bly, and a lit­tle smile would come — he’d dis­cov­ered some­thing. The let­ter N! Or an ice cream cone! (MADE OF HUMANS!)

I tried so hard not to ruin it by hav­ing him trace the let­ters, or say them out loud, or won­der togeth­er what oth­er words might start with that let­ter. I bit my tongue, and we just enjoyed. Reg­u­lar­ly.

The copy­right on this book says 2005. In my mem­o­ry, he was much younger when we were look­ing at this book. But he was a lat­er read­er (you can read more on that adven­ture here), so per­haps it fell in that time when he already “should’ve” known his let­ters, but gave no indi­ca­tion he did on any of the usu­al tests and per­for­mances.

When I showed him my find, #1 Son, who will be 21 years old in a cou­ple of weeks, smiled with recog­ni­tion. Maybe I’ll send it to him for his birth­day….

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The Reading Summer

A stressed moth­er of a first grad­er sought my coun­sel this week. The issue was read­ing. Her son wasn’t. And at the close of first grade he was expect­ed to. There was talk of test­ing, reme­di­al help over the sum­mer, read­ing logs, etc. She and her spouse were dread­ing it, wor­ried, and a lit­tle irked — not at the not-yet-read­er, but at the expec­ta­tions and the pres­sure. I lis­tened for a long time and when she final­ly took a breath, I asked what she was most wor­ried about — for instance, was she wor­ried there was a learn­ing issue that need­ed to be addressed? “No!” she said. “I’m wor­ried he’s going to hate read­ing if we spend the sum­mer doing these things!”

And that response com­plet­ed the time-warp I was expe­ri­enc­ing while lis­ten­ing to her sto­ry — twelve years I vault­ed back in the space-time con­tin­uüm. Twelve years ago this week we received the phone call that was the cul­mi­na­tion of an entire school year of frus­tra­tion and con­cern. #1 Son was not read­ing — he’d staunch­ly refused to even try to read the test­ing selec­tions his sec­ond-grade teacher asked him to in the last weeks of school. He just sat there — a con­sci­en­tious objec­tor of sorts.

Our kids went to a won­der­ful Span­ish-immer­sion school and there was a lit­tle extra time built in before they start­ed sug­gest­ing inter­ven­tions sim­ply because the stu­dents learn to read first in a lan­guage that is not their first lan­guage. But it was clear that he was “behind” by the time sec­ond grade was draw­ing to a close — The Oth­er Chil­dren were read­ing well in Span­ish, and some of them quite well in Eng­lish, too. The school rec­om­mend­ed sum­mer school, a read­ing pro­gram, and a Span­ish tutor for the sum­mer.

I calm­ly asked if any­one was con­cerned that there was a learn­ing difference/disability that need­ed to be addressed. They didn’t think so. I called a read­ing spe­cial­ist and wise moth­er and told her of the school’s rec­om­men­da­tions. And then I told her that our col­lec­tive par­ent­ing gut was telling us to decline any pro­gram­ming what­so­ev­er in favor of sim­ply read­ing good books togeth­er all sum­mer.

She was silent on the phone for sev­er­al sec­onds. And then she whis­pered (whis­pered!) that she thought this was a won­der­ful idea. I’d been a sto­ry­time read­er in her class­room before and she said she won­dered if #1 Son wasn’t read­ing sim­ply because he couldn’t read like I read quite yet — with all the inflec­tion, voic­es, and fun. She said it was obvi­ous to her that sto­ries were very much alive for him, and when you’re being asked to read those very ear­ly books in which each word is not longer than four let­ters and most of them rhyme [Mat sat on the cat.]…well, it’s hard­er to make them come alive.

Take the sum­mer and read!” she whis­pered, as if she was telling me a secret that read­ing spe­cial­ists don’t impart to the mass­es. “Read the very best books you can find and read your very best. See where he is in the fall.”

And so we did — we read all sum­mer long. We read The Sword in the Stone and The Mouse and The Motor­cy­cle. We read Peter and the Star Catch­ers and Stu­art Lit­tle. We lis­tened to Har­ry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the car on vaca­tion and read Swal­lows and Ama­zons in the tent while camp­ing. We went to the library every Fri­day and then on a pic­nic where we read stacks of pic­ture books (his sis­ter was two!) while we ate our PB&J. We vis­it­ed our local kids’ book­store with reg­u­lar­i­ty and took our new books down to the lake and I read while they fed the ducks. I did not ask him to read “the next para­graph” or to sound out a word here and there. I just read — until I was hoarse, some­times, I read.

At the end of the sum­mer, we went to meet #1 Son’s third grade teacher. She was a no-non­sense grand­moth­er and she got his num­ber imme­di­ate­ly. I loved her just as imme­di­ate­ly. She took away the Clif­ford El Gran Per­ro Col­orado pic­ture books and hand­ed him Har­ry Pot­ter y la piedra filoso­fal. And he opened that thick nov­el and start­ed read­ing — just like that. 

It was a won­der­ful sum­mer. She was a won­der­ful teacher. #1 Son is A Won­der­ful Read­er (in two lan­guages!), and he always was. He just didn’t “per­form” until he was good and ready. (He still resists per­form­ing.)

I told the wor­ried moth­er our sto­ry. She nod­ded smart­ly. “That’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “If there’s actu­al­ly a read­ing prob­lem that needs to be addressed, we’ll address it, but I just don’t think we know that when he’s just six.” I wished them well and shared a book­list. 

I envy the sum­mer ahead of them. The Read­ing Sum­mer was one of the best par­ent­ing deci­sions we ever made, I think. I hope it turns out as well for them.

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Bink and Gollie

Ear­ly this morn­ing I read Bink and Gol­lie books to my nieces. We were killing timeBink&Golliebook-180pix while their par­ents picked up the rental car for their Great Amer­i­can Sum­mer Road­trip. To say that the lev­el of excite­ment was pal­pa­ble is an under­state­ment — it was a wave that near­ly knocked me down when they opened their door. They talked — both of them — non­stop for an hour while we sipped our break­fast smooth­ies.

Mom and Dad were not back when we sucked down the final drops of smooth­ie, which was con­cern­ing, so anx­ious were they to get on the road already. I said, “Well, what can we do…that we can put down if your Mom and Dad come back in two minutes…and pick back up after your trip?”

Books!” said one.

YEAH — WE CAN READ BOOKS!” said the oth­er.

On the deck!”

In the sun­shine!”

Let’s do it!”

And so we took Bink and Gol­lie with us to the sun­ny deck. No mat­ter how excit­ed these sweet girls get — and let me tell you, they were excit­ed this morn­ing! — they calm down instant­ly with a book. Their breath­ing changes by page two. And so we snug­gled up and read, breath­ing deeply in the ear­ly morn­ing sun­shine.

I’d for­got­ten how much of the sto­ry is told in the pic­tures in Bink and Gol­lie books — and how many words are in the pic­tures. Labels and instruc­tions, signs and notes, jokes and fun. Because both girls are learn­ing to read, this works real­ly well. I read the sto­ry itself and they read the pic­tures. The pic­tures are often filled with big words. (So is the sto­ry itself — it’s some­thing I appre­ci­ate about Kate DiCamillo’s and Ali­son McGhee’s writ­ing. They do not sim­pli­fy vocab­u­lary.) Some things we have to sound out togeth­er, but the real fun is get­ting the inflec­tion right. Read­ing it in our Gol­lie voice, or like a 1940’s radio adver­tise­ment, or like a car­ni­val bark­er.

Bink and Gol­lie are oppo­sites in many ways — Gol­lie is tall and skin­ny, prag­mat­icBink&Gollie-180-pix and for­mal in her speech. She says things like I long for speed. And Greet­ings. And I beg you not to do that…. My nieces find this amus­ing. They are also tall and skin­ny, prag­mat­ic (some­times, any­way), and hilar­i­ous­ly for­mal in their speech at times.

Bink is short and has hair stick­ing up all over her head. She loves bright socks and pan­cakes and peanut but­ter. No one would call my nieces short. (“We don’t have that prob­lem,” one of them said this morn­ing as we read about Bink order­ing a Stretch-o-mat­ic to make her­self taller.) But their hair is some­times Bink-like. And they delight in the sim­ple things of life — includ­ing, but not lim­it­ed to, socks, cel­e­bra­to­ry pan­cakes, and peanut but­ter. They also have Bink’s ener­gy — they yam­mer, they jump, they zip, they climb and glide.

In short, they love both Bink and Gol­lie. They are Bink and Gol­lie — they can relate, as it were. Bink and Gol­lie have adven­tures, a sweet friend­ship, and they roller­skate every­where — these details light up my sweet girls. They enjoy decod­ing the words in the pic­tures and get­ting the joke. They are envi­ous of the tree­house in which Bink and Gol­lie live. They’d like to vis­it Eccles’ Empire of Enchant­ment — and maybe hit a Bar­gain Bonan­za. (Maybe the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dako­ta will sat­is­fy them.)

Bink and Gol­lie got us almost to Mom and Dad’s return. We did have to take a lit­tle field trip to my house (just around the cor­ner) because their cousin was bak­ing scones, but then Mom and Dad were home, the rent­ed Jeep was loaded in record time, and off they went!

I won­der if they’re lev­i­tat­ing with excite­ment in their car seats, chat­ter­ing away like Bink or say­ing I long for the moun­tains…. like Gol­lie. They invit­ed me to sneak in their car and go with them. Maybe I should’ve tak­en them up on it.

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The Privilege & Responsibility of Reading in Bed

The indomitable Gertrude Mueller Nel­son gave our fam­i­ly the rit­u­al of Birth­day Priv­i­leges & Respon­si­bil­i­ties. Each birth­day our kids receive a scroll of paper fes­tooned with rib­bons. Inside, in the fan­ci­est (and hard­est to read) script our print­er can man­age, we have cer­e­mo­ni­al lan­guage award­ing the birth­day child his/her next year’s Priv­i­lege & Respon­si­bil­i­ty. We start­ed this on their respec­tive third birth­days, at which time they each received the priv­i­lege of using mark­ers in addi­tion to crayons…and the respon­si­bil­i­ty of wash­ing off any mark­er that acci­dent­ly found itself on the craft-table.… more
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