The Art of Learning to Read

When our son was 30 months old, we discovered he could read. We even double-checked what seemed to be impossible to first-time parents by taking a novel book out of the library and asking him to read it. Sure enough, he could do it.

Reading with my son's son

Reading with my son’s son

How did this happen in an era without computers, iPads, apps, early literacy classes, and reading programs for toddlers? Well, I have a theory. First, I read to him constantly. It is one of my favorite things to do with kids and he was the type of child who loved to snuggle up with a book.

Second, I (gasp!) watched Sesame Street with him when he was pretty young. The show was not even two years old when he was born, so it was a treat for the two of us to snuggle (remember, we both loved to do this) in front of the TV & watch it together. I am certain he learned a lot of his early literacy skills from that show.

Third, reading at such a young age is really decoding. I didn’t quiz him on his comprehension. I knew he wasn’t developmentally ready to synthesize what he had read and retell it to me. Ultimately, my son became a mathematician, so the ability to decode was hard wired into his brain. It’s just who he is.

Luckily for my son, as a young and newbie mom with only Dr. Spock to guide me, I didn’t think his ability to read was a big deal that made him more special than other kids. Neither did his preschool, which focused totally on play. And that was what he really needed. So reading was never something to brag about or show off. It was just one of many things he liked to do.

When he started elementary school, no one seemed to care very much about his early ability to read. Maybe I should have been more upset about the lack of response to his “giftedness,” but in every other way he was age appropriate. I wanted his social/emotional side to catch up with his brain. By third grade, many kids could read pretty well, so he had lots of company in the high reading group.

What I learned from my first experience with a child learning to read is that:

  • There is a huge difference between parroting sight words and actually reading.
  • When the light bulb goes off, whether it’s at age 4 or 7, the child can truly read for understanding and pleasure.
  • At that point, the best way to become a good reader is to read. Go to the library. Stock your home with lots of books. Encourage your child to read for the sheer joy of it.
  • Keep reading to your child, even when she can read for herself. Remember, the snuggle-factor is important.

Back in 2001 (yes, 13 years ago), the push for literacy in preschool was already in full bloom. One of the teachers at Cherry Preschool (where I was director), Kristen Loeks Jackson, and my daughter and child psychologist, Alissa Levy Chung, co-authored an article about learning to read that it still relevant. Check it out: PRESCHOOL LITERACY AND ACADEMICS

Dr. Seuss tells kids in I Can Read With My Eyes Shut,

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

If you agree with the dictionary definition of art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination,” then the art of learning to read must go beyond drilling, testing, and memorization. It is a developmental process that opens the door to both knowledge and imagination.

If kids see books in their homes, observe the adults in their lives reading for pleasure, enjoy being read to, and end every night with a bedtime story, they will be motivated to read for the pleasure it brings to their lives.  And, like the title character of one of my children’s favorite books, Leo the Late Bloomer, in their own good time they will learn to read.


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