Sunday, January 31, 2010

How I Learned to Read

I am loving Kerry's Family Literacy Week posts so much that I want to play. However, most of my knowledge of kidlit comes from when I *was* one, so I'll be writing about that. My story actually fits in perfectly with the theme, since it's about family and reading (also two of my favourite things).

All authors seem to have some seminal story about the moment they realized the words on the page made a story, and they could have that story, right then and there, by reading. You see such anecdotes in all the big bio interviews with writers, and they're often tales of dweebish precociousness--"Oh, I couldn't speak clearly or run without a helmet, but I was reading novellas by the time I was in kindergarten." Or preschool. Or out of the womb.

My memory of the early years cuts in and out--I don't think I'm missing much except a lot of apple-juice spills, but dates are distinctly sketchy. I know my mom taught me to read, and I can remember bits of the process, but I can't exactly slot it into chronological time. I never asked about this, blithely assuming that I had been an early reader too--I certainly did well enough in the early grades, although some of those good marks may have been for not eating play dough (anyone who doesn't retain a residual longing for play dough obviously somehow got hold of a can when no one was looking and *ate it all*, thus finally slaking that hunger all children experience).

Anyway! One day, and I think this might have actually been in support of an interview I was doing for *Once*, I asked my mom whether I too, had been a magically advanced, obvious-writer-to-be infant.

"Did I learn to read pretty early?"
"Oh, no, not really."
"Like, only average?"
"I guess you were about...eight or so. I really had to push you, you didn't want to learn."

I was a single-digit illiterate! Oh, the shame! I finally managed to extract from my mother that I had in fact been able to read sentences in grade 1. But those were 40-word stories read aloud to the teacher, and my mom equated being "able to read" with being able to sit alone and turn pages, to immerse oneself in the story.

Which I had actually had no interest in doing, so readily available were adults to read to me. Of course I really liked stories, all stories (but especially those about plucky orphans or Laura Ingalls Wilder)--I just didn't associate them with something I could do on my own. It's funny, trying to remember the experience of learning to read now, because the sense I recall most from childhood reading now is physical--the feeling associated with reading is *snuggly*, because when I was read to I was held in someone's lap, and when my mom began teaching me to read that's where I remained.

I certainly watched television, and actually often with my parents, who liked to keep an eye on things. But I sat alone for that, or at least could. And playing outside or games or whatever (yes, I did occasionally go outside)--those could be independent, solo activities. But reading was interactive, intimate.

So when (apparently the summer after grade 2!) my mom said I was old enough to read chapter books, I had to start by reading the first page of each chapter of *Little House at Plum Creek* and *Charlotte's Web* before she would read the rest to me. I do *not* recall a lightning bolt moment when the words became a story for me--I recall it being extremely hard and *dying* for my mom to take over. But it's still a positive memory, and it is weird that I can recall exactly how my head fit under her chin and my legs sprawled on either side of her knees.

I am not at all suggesting that I was a lazy reader because I was read to too much--that might be impossible, I think. Of course, this is biased, but I am of the opinion that the way I learned to read was the best way possible. It was never a school subject for me, or any kind of subject at all. Reading was just a tool I could use to get at the best things in the world, stories--getting meaddicted to those was a far better goad to learning than any phonics book ever could be.

And by the time I started grade 3, I could read myself to sleep, and have been doing so ever since.

I like this topic, and would love to hear other reader-creation stories--how did you learn to read?



amy jones said...

I was also probably about 8 years old when I learned to read (I was, apparently, much more interested in boys and clothes. Sigh.) My mom only remembers sitting me down one day and saying "You know, Amy, there are some kids in your class who can read whole books by now," and competitive little me being so completely floored that someone in my class could do something better than me that I started reading almost immediately. So there, you go - literacy through competition!

PS - I got play doh for Christmas! It's just as amazing (and smells just as good) as you remember!

Andrew S said...

Sorry ... I'm one of those annoyingly precocious people.

I do have memories of struggling with Dick and Jane at age 4; I'm certain of the year because of the house we lived in at the time. I also recall the later discovery that "ough" could have different sounds depending on the whims of the English language. I felt that this was completely unfair, and clearly designed to make things tougher (or tuffer) than they needed to be.

But something clicked there, and I started reading like mad, off on my own, discovering things. Reading has never seemed snuggly to me; it was all about a kind of sudden and exciting independence.

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

Amy, the fact that you have Play doh in your home and have not eaten it signifies boundless maturity. As does the decision to read when you were good and ready.

AJ, I totally agree about "ough"--I used to teach ELL kids and what could I tell them? It was pretty obvious that there was no reason for any of the variations, and their already difficult lives were being made more so for no reason.

August said...

There's really good reasons for the differences, (or rather, at the time English's spelling system was being sort-of-formalized, they were really good reasons, because reading and writing were still pretty elite things), but you have to know a lot about history and language to know why the reasons are good ones (I listened to a 20+ hour history of English audio course from Stanford where the hows and whys of English spelling were explained; before then I was just as confused by it as I was when I was learning to read).

I'm afraid I have to declare myself among the precocious set. I don't remember learning to read, but I do remember that I already could by the time I started kindergarten. I think the book I learned to read on (judging by how much my parents were sick of it) was The Yongy-Bonghy-Bo & The New Vestments, by Edward Lear, now long out of print.

It's really interesting to hear how other people came to reading; it's such a universally important skill, but also a really personal, often private thing.

August said...

I just realized that the way I worded that probably sounds kind of jerky. What I meant was, "hey, check it out, I learned some cool stuff about English", not "I know something you don't know". :p

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

August, I don't think I could ever have learned anything from something called "The Yongy-Bonghy-Bo & The New Vestments"--I don't think I could pronounce "bonghy" at age 31!!

AMT said...

... i have no memory at all of how i learned to read. how odd. will ask my mother.

i remember much better the stories of me learning to speak in full sentences, which my mother claims i did so as to be able to argue compelling for why i should be allowed to retain my bottle-drinking-from privileges. so that part was a little precocious.