I don’t really remember the time when letters were cryptic symbols, swimming and dancing in circles before they settled down and turned into words that had meaning. The first memory I have of reading on my own, I am around six or seven, cross-legged on my bedroom floor, holding a tiny yellow book with soft pages. “I know that God loves me because of the flowers and the sun….”
I couldn’t pronounce “know” correctly yet, phonetically sounded out “ca-nooow that God lovehhhhhhs me”. My sister, twelve or thirteen at the time, popped her head in to my room from the hall to correct my blending, “It’s I “NO” like N-O. The “K” is silent.” She’s a foreign language teacher now, getting her masters in ESL. Imagine that.
Reading makes my six year old son nervous. His face scrunches up and then goes blank. He guesses and grows frustrated and apathetic, despite the fact that he can read and sound out loads of common words now. At school he’s more polite, deep in concentration, bent over his reading work. His teacher suggested we enroll him in a summer session to prepare for first grade, to bolster his confidence. “He’s got it down.” She says. “He just doesn’t think he can do it.”
This weekend we’ve been playing a version of bingo that uses words instead of numbers, and he read all but one word incorrectly, pleased with himself for winning so many games (reading all the words I say out loud on his bingo sheet without any help from me). He’s more relaxed at home, he doesn’t have as much to prove. At school he wants to do a good job, to impress his teacher, to be a good student. He’s only in Kindergarten, so the reasonable me knows that he’s right where he needs to be for a six year old boy (just six and four months). But standards are tougher now, though the children are still the same as they’ve always been, really. They still play quite a bit in Kindergarten, the Legos and the Waldorf-y kitchen set and the giant blonde wood blocks are still there. The children run and jump and put on plays. They bang tambourines and triangles and use loads of yummy smelling and thick tempera paint, just like we did. Xander’s school is super high-tech, too. Activboards have replaced chalkboards; they each have a laptop in the library (and of course heaps and bounds and piles of books and puzzles). He uses the computer at home, and I try to balance the just for fun stuff with the fun but skill-reinforcing websites (Starfall is excellent). He seems to love his school, his teachers, his friends. We’re baffled at his low confidence, though. All his short life we’ve tried to lift him up, to sing his praises, to expose him to the arts and nature in all the world’s diverse beauty.
He’s terribly hard on himself. I was the same way, though, really. His father, too. Tiny tortured souls from the get-go. Math seems to be coming more than easy to him, and that was my Achilles heel from the first grade onward. I’ve been reading a lot about the developmental differences in boys and girls, and it seems that Xander is not alone. Boys usually take a little longer to learn to read with confidence, and they seem to be born running up figures and using complex geometry to build Lego villages and universes. Experts of course say: Read to your child every day! Make reading fun! Have lots of books around! Go to the library! Read yourself! Read all the words you see out loud!
Not to sound like a six year old myself, but DUHHHH…I’m a writer. I used to work in a children’s library, I read all day and we read at least three books a night usually. He sees me reading all the time. We make weekly trips to bookstores and libraries and I even read to him just hours after he was born. Goodnight Moon, of course. In a rocking chair, for pity’s sake. We KNOW what to do to encourage reading. We DO all that, instinctively and with passion. It isn’t an instant antidote against struggling to learn to read, we’re finding.
His father had the same struggle, at this age. They had him stay back a year after Kindergarten, and he remembers the struggle, and is now really good at making up fun games for Xander to play (a treasure hunt using sight words, for example). Xander will be attending a Summer Learning Academy for exiting Kindergarteners this summer. Just a couple of hours a day of reinforced Kindergarten, in a more relaxed, smaller setting. It’s free, which is nice. And it’s in the elementary school that I went to as a girl, which is nice. It’s not the whole summer, which is nice.
Last week, we didn’t think he’d be able to do the Academy, I was going to have to work, and the day camp he was enrolled in because of my working full time doesn’t allow late arrivals (because of swimming and field trips and special events). Then, several stars aligned to form their perfect constellation and a decision was made. I will be here. He will go to the Academy for its duration and then the rest of the summer we will play and swim and yes of course read, like we always have and always will. He loves being read to, and has always sat (for the most part) still and quiet, listening and asking questions. It’s my favorite part of the day, and has been for six years.
Just tonight as he was taking his bath I read a couple of chapters of The Silver Chair to him, and I was reminded how important this learning experience is. How important a community is to help a child along their way. His teachers are sweet and encouraging and passionate, I aim to be the same. Xander is the type of kid that if you make a big deal out of something, though, if you drill him and keep bringing up what’s making him nervous, will shut down and shut out. He’ll change the subject completely and turn on his heel and ignore you. I don’t want to be a hover-mother, forever with a flash card in my hand. It was his idea to play Bingo tonight with the sight words, his idea to make pyramids out of the wooden word cubes I purchased. Hopefully the tools are being provided will foster and encourage, instead of discourage him. I’m trying to let him lead the way, as he is so terribly independent. We’re confident that he’ll soon “get it” and the wheels will click and the world of independent reading will open its doors in his busy brain. The busy brain that’s constantly inventing “scenes” and dioramas out of old boxes and new inventions that “spit out money, $1.00, $25.00, $100.00…but only the inventor can spend this money. This fella here can only make money for the inventor!!” (that was his creation/spiel/pitch tonight).
It’s our human instinct to compare, and contrast, and judge other humans. I see some of his friends reading already and I feel sorry for Xander and his struggle, all the while realizing that my inward feelings of pity are totally detrimental to myself and especially to him. This kid has always tuned onto his father’s and my feelings like an intuitive myna bird: when we’re down, he’s down, when we’re up, he’s up. He rides the roller coaster with us, for better or worse. Why must we do this to our children? We already judge ourselves so harshly: our bodies, our lifestyles, our cars, our debt to income ratios, our salaries, our bicycles, our jobs, our clothes…Why must we drag our children into it? I don’t even state my judgments out loud, but these thoughts still harm, festering, becoming a solid entity. Maybe when those judgmental thoughts and feelings arise, those green eyed bits and bobs sneak their way into my head I’ll shove them out with some AM classic songs or something. Tiny Bubbles might work. Or the Red, Red, Robin.
Xander at two, reading his favorite book at the time (Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town). (We sold that fantastic credenza when we moved to Alaska & I am still mourning the loss. Isn’t it beautiful??!?)