550. Teaching Reading

When my younger daughter, Lara, was three years old, I saw her looking at a book. That was pretty normal, I thought. But then she spontaneously started reading it out loud. At the time, I was taking courses in the teaching of reading, and nothing I’d learned in these courses had prepared me to hear a three-year-old reading. But she was doing it. I asked her a few questions to make sure she hadn’t just memorized the book, having heard it read to her quite a lot. But she was able to read individual words I pointed to, and I later found
that she could also read other books.
At first, I thought “Sesame Street” had taught her to read. But she hadn’t watched “Sesame Street” enough to read as well as she did. And some of the words she read were not the kind presented on “Sesame Street.” I’m sure that program had helped her, but that was only part of the answer to this wonderful mystery.
Of course, I spent some time considering the explanation parents love to consider – that our child was a genius. Now that she’s grown, I do indeed think she is somewhat of a genius. I think her older sister, Katy, is, too. But lots of people think that about their children. You may think that about your children. And maybe we’re right – all of us. But the more geniuses there are, the less remarkable the label “genius” is.
I asked Lara how she had learned to read, and she answered, “Katy showed me how.” Her tone of voice was fairly matter-of-fact, and I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice. To Lara, learning to read was no big thing, and I wanted to be careful about making it bigger. I did want her to be proud of her new ability, and to realize what wonders it made accessible to her, but I didn’t want her to start thinking that her ability to read set her apart from other children; she didn’t want to be apart from other children.
Over the years, the words “Katy showed me how” have stayed in my mind. I was the one who had taken the courses in teaching children how to read. Not Katy. Recently, a woman told me she wanted to teach elementary school. But though she’d been teaching nursery school for years, she felt unsure of her ability to teach children to read. She asked me how long it had taken me to learn how to teach reading. I told her she probably already knew how, and I told her about Katy, a four-year-old who once did the job quite effectively.
There’s an unnecessary mystique about teaching reading. Some children do have trouble learning to read, and it helps to learn about methods educators have developed over the years. But adults shouldn’t be intimidated by the abundance of programs, materials, and studies surrounding literacy. Teaching reading isn’t that hard. After all, Katy, a bright but still normal four-year-old, showed Lara how to do it.

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