What must it be like to be an aspiring reader with Elia in the house? The kids and I are in the midst of reading the Beast Quest series, but Elia has gotten impatient with the pace I’m keeping, and she has read ahead of JJ and me. JJ never says anything about it; he loves the time we spend snuggling and reading together, but I know he’s envious that Elia is now 6 books ahead of us in the series.
So what must it be like for JJ to have a barely-older sister who, at this age, can outpace us by over 700 pages in 5 hours, and consequently gets to know all the secrets of Avantian beasts before we do? It must be frustrating for JJ to enjoy books as much as he does and watch Elia get to devour story after story, while he has to rely on me to read them to him. At my pace. Which is not slow by any means, but it is still not a match for his interest level.
JJ’s love of Beast Quest stories has renewed his interest in learning new words. After asking me to point out recognizable words in the text as I read, he was motivated to take another look at the once-dismissed BOB books (rejected due to the stories being too uninteresting) so that he could, on his own, learn to read and never have to put down a book and “take a break” like I do.
Yesterday when I declared a much-needed break from reading and was met with the usual protests, I left JJ with BOB book #1 in his lap. From the other room I heard pages turning and the sounding out of letters, words, sentences. Mat sat. Sam sat. Mat sat on Sam. JJ made it through the entire book and was on to book #2, where he got stuck on a word, and Elia came over to help.
While Elia is a very patient and understanding teacher, JJ’s frustrations inevitably surfaced. It is surprisingly difficult to sound out words like “the” and “of,” and he was getting an up-close demonstration of how easy words are for Elia. He felt discouraged. He quit. He was quiet for a long time. Upstairs, I sorted and folded laundry and listened. I listened for the sounds of vowels and consonants muttered under his breath as he figured out what Sam and Mat were doing, but none came.
When I checked on him after about 10 minutes, he was alone in the room, still on the couch, with a closed BOB book next to him. I knelt down in front of him and gave him a hug as he cried out, “Mom, I can’t read!” We hugged and talked about how frustrating it is to learn hard things. I offered him some encouragement by focusing on what he’s learned so far on his own (because I certainly don’t sit down and give reading lessons) and his love of being read to; his inherent enjoyment of great stories. He’ll get there when his body is ready.
I trust that this milestone, like most others in child development, is about brain development. And I rely on that trust as I consider what more I can do to help JJ find success in reading. As I tossed the book aside and suggested we change the subject by mixing up a massive batch of playdough to pound, I drew on that reassurance and remembered stories I’ve heard of moms who had “delayed” readers; kids who struggled to pick up reading until they were 8, 9 or 10. It can leave many people aghast to hear of kids not learning to read until such a late age, but these moms have all said that once their kids were interested and physically ready for it, reading just clicked into place without a problem. These once-delayed readers are caught up with their peers, and they now enjoy reading more than kids who were pushed into it and prodded along the way.
It’s the joy of reading that is the key to successful literacy.
I also remembered what educator and author John Holt said about how children learn. “We learn best when we, not others, are deciding what we are going to learn, and when we are choosing the people, materials, and experiences from which we will be learning…Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” In his book, How Children Learn, Holt goes on to discuss the importance of two things: not pushing kids to learn what they’re not ready for, and leaving children alone to work things out on their own. For us, this means it’s important for JJ to want to read books on his own, and it’s important for him to work out the sounds and meaning on his own; the only help from any of us should be to answer his questions as simply as possible.
After a day that had been submersed in reading, we needed to take a step back; to forget about it for a while. So imagine my surprise when, after we abandoned the BOB books for the kitchen, JJ declared he wanted to do, not playdough, but letter cookies instead. He had some words in mind that he wanted to spell in the form of cookies. Despite my initial thought that we needed to take a break from letters and sounds until they became fun again, I was happy to go along with this activity because it was his idea. And I can always count on cookies to make something fun.
I preheated the oven, grabbed some dough from the freezer and the bag of letter-shaped cookie cutters, and the kids worked on cookie creations of the names of their favorite Beast Quest characters. Elia was working on one that started with an M, and we were all trying to figure out who it could be. JJ ran through a list of all the characters he could think of that started with the letter M, but Elia had picked an elusive one. When she was working on the second letter, A, JJ was able to rule out many of the names on his list, but he still couldn’t figure out which beast Elia was cookie-writing. It was time for plan B.
JJ pulled our big Beast Quest manual off the bookshelf and turned to the pages that listed every beast in the series. He was in the midst of scanning the list for M-A- when Elia informed him that her beast was in a new book; it wasn’t included in our manual from last year. Time for plan C….he was going to figure this out yet.
The next stop was the computer, on which JJ opened a browser and performed a google search for “Beast Quest”, using one of our books for spelling reference. He located the Beast Quest website and quickly found the list of newly published books, including Madara the Midnight Warrior. A-ha! Both kids laughed and cheered at JJ’s success! All I could think of was the amount of effort and learning and reading that occurred during that self-inspired research project, and that I hadn’t given one word of assistance.
Needless to say, after our language arts-enriched day, we abandonded our plans to go the library and just stayed home to enjoy our cookies and play some games. I was struck by the realization that learning, indeed, does not occur in the same way for every person. That kids can learn without being taught. That everyone has the motivation to learn what’s necessary at the time that is relevant and meaningful for them. Not only will JJ learn to read in his own time, he will accomplish it himself and in a way that is as unique as he is. His motivation lies in the continued joy of reading.