Saturday 16 January 2016

Learning to Read (The Keys to the Kingdom) by Tess Berry-Hart

Four year old Benjy comes home from school after his first six weeks at Reception and pulls out his reading book from his school book bag. "Look Mummy!" he says excitedly. "I can read!"

I pull him onto my knee and settle the book in front of us as if we're doing our usual bedtime story, but Benjy shakes a warning finger at me. "No Mummy, I'll read it!" he protests. "You listen!"

"OK!" I say, smiling. "Show me!"

"Dad is in bed," he reads, pointing to each of the words with his finger. "Get up, Dad. No, get OUT Dad!"

I can't believe it. We've shared books together every night since he was a baby, but here he is, his little frontal cortex whirring, making the neural connection between letters printed on the page and mental concepts BY HIMSELF. It's not easy - English isn't a phonetically spelled language, and very often he tries to spell it out, only to find that it can't be done that way and he needs a bit of prompting. But the second time he reads the book his little sponge-like mind has remembered the word and factored it in; although now his "memory" brain has taken over and he's no longer checking the visual information of print. But in the third time of reading, it's settled down and he's able to read out the simple story relatively easily using a mix of knowing the story, the structure of the English language, and recognising the letters and their corresponding sounds.

I'm in absolute awe watching him, knowing that he's just started his journey into a strange and wonderful world - not only of books and adventures, but also for streets signs, maps, and TV schedules. No longer will I be able to pretend that chips aren't on the menu or that Paw Patrol isn't on TV yet - he'll know himself! It's a strange, wonderful, rather unsettling realisation that my little son is growing up. He's got his first footholds into the adult world of independence, and it's both amazing and scary.

According to my sister Tiff, a Reading Recovery teacher, successful reading of English requires the reader to use non lexical (sounding out a word) and lexical (recognition of words) routes. Many children rely on either one or the the other, and Tiff's job is to help them extend their repertoire of both of them so they can be successful readers. As English isn't a phonetically-spelled language, there's a lot of words that can't be spelled out, they just have to be recognised. I have flash cards for particular sounds and words, which Benjy loves, and I'm noticing that non-lexical words such as "said" & "the"are easily remembered. It's still a long road - words with multiple syllables are hard for little minds to grasp, and merely reading the word doesn't mean that meaning is being absorbed - but it's a delightful process to observe. 

At school, we had a Parents Reading session where they show us the "phonics" method of teaching to help us support our children's reading. I must confess, it's like gibberish to me. It seems to involve breaking words down into component parts and learning separate parts of the words such as "gh" or "ph" or "ce." When the teacher asks us parents to break down the syllables of a word, I'm terrible at it. But Benjy seems to have absorbed the system like air.

I don't remember how I learned to read. I read pretty early as we didn't have TV in our house - by the time I went to nursery I could already read books - so I can't say how I did it or how it should be done. My sister remembers me learning with my mum who was teaching my brother music theory though flash cards. . So she made me some flashcards with words about the family and gradually built up the number of words. But that doesn't translate into teaching my own son to read. He's been able to recognise words here and there, but since he's started school he can suddenly join up the dots and his reading progress has rocketed.

Benjy's now been put up to read with the Year One pupils and brings home books every night. It's quite a lot of homework to keep up with! But to see him reading a story to himself - it's almost like magic. He's been handed the keys to the kingdom and I'm so excited to see him starting his journey - I'm already lining up my childhood favourites for him to read!

Do you remember your experiences of learning to read or is it all lost in the distant past? Do you have any good books that I could recommend to Benjy?


Joan Lennon said...

Humans, especially small humans, are utterly amazing. Thanks for posting!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I remember very little, though my older sister says I cheated by learning readers off by heart and pretending to read them. I quickly made up for that!

Yes, English is just not a phonetic language. I teach some EAL students and have to explain that there aren't really too many rules that have no exceptions and sometimes you just have to know it and other times you have to read the sentence to work out how to pronounce a word such as, for example, "read". English, let's face it, is a mongrel language based on the languages of all the conquerors of Britain. ;-) Interestingly, my students have less trouble with "you just have to know it" words than ones for which there are rules.

Congratulations on the new joy your little man is having! You'll find, though, that he will let you read to him anyway, just for the pleasure of snuggling up. My nephew was quite happy to have a bed time story long after he could read perfectly well - in fact, ahead of his year level.

Becca McCallum said...

I can't remember a time where I couldn't read. I was always looking at the words when people were reading to me, and at some point I must have made the connection that different sounds related to different words. I could read before I went to school, and my 'reading age' was always far higher than my class. Saying that, I enjoy reading all kinds of things, and will be equally happy reading an adventure story written for 'children' or an academic work on British folklore...

I remember liking 'Hemi's Pet' by Joan de Hamel, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Slinky Malinki!