Reluctant Reader

My daughter did nothing but lie in bed and read all day yesterday…and I am thrilled! I didn’t think I would ever see the day that she would read a chapter book to herself, let alone finish it in an all day reading marathon. She is a fourth grader and has been a struggling, reluctant reader until just a few months ago. Then, as if someone flipped a magic switch, she became motivated to read to herself. She began with my library of favorite picture books left over from my elementary teaching days. They were familiar old friends that I had read to her many times. Once she exhausted those few shelves, she asked me to take her to the library. She checked out beginning chapter books to read to herself and more advanced books to listen to on CD. In the space of six months she progressed from picture books to chapter books written for fifth or six graders. Hallelujah! When my daughter started kindergarten she was very worried about not being able to read and write. The night before her first day of school we overheard her little voice tremulously reciting how to spell her name. Like many gifted children, she is a perfectionist with high anxiety about failure. I think that is what ruined reading for her at such a young age. Her twin brother taught himself to read at about 18 months of age and by the time they were three he could read Magic School Bus books flawlessly. Since she was just starting to sound out words, she was very frustrated by his seemingly effortless ability to read. Once when she and her Dad were online ordering unusual plastic animals for her collection, her Dad told her he didn’t know how to spell “okapi.” She sarcastically said, “Why don’t you ask Mr. Smarty-pants?” She refused to let her brother help her sound out words and wouldn’t practice reading if he was anywhere around. She didn’t want to hear my little encouraging speeches about how everyone has different abilities and developmental stages. She was just plain mad that he could read better.

Things got worse when they started kindergarten. They were in the same class and everyone commented on her brother’s reading ability. She didn’t compare herself to other children who were at her level of learning (which was completely developmentally normal); she compared herself to those who could read better. As the year progressed her stress level escalated and she began to refuse to do any work in school. Her teacher had her stay in at recess and worked with her one-on-one, but since she is highly socially motivated, this was more like punishment than support. I asked her teacher to gather up her unfinished work and I picked it up and brought it home every day. I struggled to help her get through it each evening, but she was not motivated and it was painful and exhausting for both of us.  

At the end of that first year of school we decided to homeschool our children. Since the typical learn-to-read programs were not working, I decided to chuck them all. Instead, I designed one that I felt would develop her love for a great story without the pressure of reading it herself. I began by reading her picture books that I knew she would love. We snuggled up on the couch with something delicious to eat and a pile of great books. I read as many as she wanted me to read and often times we read so much that my voice would start to crack.

I exposed her to many genres and tried to find ways to make her experiences with literature exciting. We read the junior version “Man of La Mancha” and then watched the "Wishbone" version on TV. “Where the Wild Things Are” was followed up with a visit to the book-themed play area at the Metreon. After “Treasure Island” we made maps and searched for buried treasure. “Brighty of the Grand Canyon” prompted us to include the Grand Canyon on our next vacation. In short, we did everything possible to bring reading to life.

As she grew I began to read books with increasingly sophisticated story lines and made sure that she saw me reading and enjoying books. I started a book group for her and read her book aloud to her each month. I taught my daughter and her friends how to discuss and analyze their selected books. Each meeting’s snacks and games revolved around the story. When we read “King of the Wind,” we ate Arabic food and learned to write our names in flowing Arabic script. “The Dark is Rising” meeting turned into a major metal working session where the kids designed and crafted their own magical medallions. I taught a weekly integrated art and writing class to her homeschool group. We emphasized creative writing and exciting art projects. We did comic books, twisted fairy tales, and alternative endings to classics. We ended each year with an art gallery that included reading from their best work. I tried to make books the center of fun.

I was also very sneaky. I worked phonics into online computer games, board games, and in teachable moments when she wanted to write a note to friends or titles to her pictures. I helped her write her own stories and plays by typing her dictation. She was extremely motivated to read her own stories to others or direct them in acting out her plays. She likes to cook, so I pretended to be the master chef and as my apprentice she had to read and follow the recipes. From first through third grade, this was how she learned to read and write.

I worried constantly that it wouldn’t be enough (my nagging inner teacher said we weren’t covering all the language arts standards and benchmarks.) Every few months I attempted to get her to do a spelling program online or a grammar work book, but every time I did, I could see the spark go out. I knew her vocabulary was amazing, her oral stories creative, and her knowledge of author’s craft advanced. So eventually I just let conventions go and sent my inner teacher packing.

This past fall, my daughter started reading some of the chapters of her book group books to herself. Then she was given the first “39 Clues” book for Christmas and she read it on her own. Her self-directed reading program began to take off. I don’t know if she would have become a good reader anyway, she might have. It is possible that my home reading program might not have worked. I may have had a twelve year old who couldn’t read, but I doubt it. I believe that kids have an innate desire to learn; especially skills that will help them navigate the adult world. Given opportunity and support, kids will learn. The experiment paid off. My daughter’s vocabulary, reading fluency, and comprehension are significantly beyond her grade level. She would pass any fourth grade reading test with flying colors. But most important, my daughter loves to read.