A new reader

An incredible thing happened on Monday. After a couple of years of, admittedly intermittent, attempts to teach Katie to read, she finally got it. I can’t explain what happened except that it seemed like a light bulb went on in her head. Unlike her sister, who took to reading very quickly when she was four years old, Katie has struggled, not recognising simple and repeated words from one line to the next, able to sound out letters but not able to put the sounds together to make words. Every attempt at reading ended in frustration and despair for Katie. No matter how much I tried to convince her I would help with words, our attempts more often than not ended in tears.

Her aversion to reading and the distress reading caused her was the reason why I took up the teaching baton intermittently. I didn’t want to push her if she wasn’t ready and I certainly didn’t want that anxiety and fear to lead to a longer-term aversion to books. I am a firm believer that, given the right conditions, children will learn to read when they are good and ready. They may be ready when they are three years old or when they are twelve years old. There is pedagogic research to suggest that children who learn to read later on quickly catch up with their peers who have been reading from an earlier age.

In the formal education system we are often too quick to label children as having learning disabilities because they haven’t yet learned to read to a certain level by a certain age. Dyslexia and related disabilities are very real and if not diagnosed and supported can disadvantage children, but being a late reader does not mean a child has a disability. The difficulty for education professionals (and, indeed, for parents) is figuring out whether a late reader is simply a late reader or is someone with a learning disability. Not so easy!

Katie found reading distressing, so I didn’t push it too much. But our home and our lives are filled with books. Julian, Lily and I read to Katie, and we read to ourselves and to each other. Katie loves books and loves being read to and can recite the entire text of her favourite Julia Donaldson books. She has recently learned to read Spanish which, with its simple and straightforward pronunciation rules, is a much easier language to read than English. When Lily received Diario de Greg (the Spanish language translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) for Christmas, it was Katie who wanted to read it first, and she’s been slowly making her way through it since Christmas Day.

We hadn’t read together for a few days, when on Monday afternoon I took out a level three phonics book from our Oxford Reading Tree box. She read the story surprisingly quickly (for Katie) and with virtually no help from me. She recognised common but tricky words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’ (these had repeatedly stumped her before), sounded out new words correctly, and worked out other words from their context. She continued to mix up ‘b’ and ‘p’ but, instead of becoming overwrought, worked out which letter made most sense (‘boy’ not ‘poy’ and ‘pick’ not bick’, etc) in each case. She read with such unusual ease that I wondered if she’d already read this book recently with her dad or sister, and was now reading it from memory, but she assured me she had never read this book before.

Instead of the despair and anxiety that has accompanied our reading sessions in the past, she flew through this book and then asked if she could read something else. So we tried a level 3 First Stories book (the First Stories are a little more difficult than the phonics books of the same level). Once again, she sailed through the book with glee. It was time for Lily’s afternoon half hour of maths (I am a cruel and sadistic mother), so Katie took herself off to my cabin with Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man stickman2.jpgand read it by herself (aided by what she knew from memory). Then she asked Lily to help her read, and Lily chose a level 4 phonics book. (Wow! There have been times when I never thought we’d get past level 2, never mind level 4!). She read it for Lily, struggling only over the words ‘odd’ and ‘pongs’!

Since then Katie is beside herself, and is reading with gusto. In the space of only a few short days she has moved on to level 6 – the highest level in our Reading Tree set. She is picking everything up and reading it. Lily is going to have to figure out a way to protect the privacy of her journals and the notes she’s so fond of writing, because all of a sudden her sister can read them! This light bulb moment, this spark of recognition of how to read, is astonishing to me. It is something we have all experienced, when we struggle to master some new skill and suddenly, as if by magic, we get it. Of course it’s not magic. It’s practice, the creation of new neural pathways and connections, the brain and body sparking and sparkling. Katie can’t read perfectly, but she’s worked out how to read – how to put sounds together to form words, how to pick up clues from the context or the neighbouring words, how to learn by heart some common words that don’t sound anything like how they’re written (two, said, the, we). The realisation of how to do those things was her light bulb moment.

A couple of weeks ago she learned to ride a bicycle and that opened up a whole new world of freedom and independence to her. This week, suddenly discovering that she can read has opened up another world of freedom and independence. Her first question these past few mornings has been ‘Can we do more reading today?’ You bet!



12 thoughts on “A new reader

  1. Our lives too are filled with books and our 3 kids love being read to. They recite, almost by heart, entire pages of Julia Donaldson and David Walliams… but our youngest daughter Immy just didn’t get it. It was frustrating and challenging but suddenly, she too has ‘just got it’… she’s nearly 7. I have left her alone and did not pressurise her, wondering what on earth we were going to do. Then about 6 weeks ago, she picked up a chapter book and read the majority of it. In the space of a month she seems to have jumped an entire academic year. I am relieved but happy for her. She now loves reading 🙂 We have been using readingeggs.com.au and edplace.com to boost her reading skills and thankfully it seems to have done the trick. Emma from http://www.journeyofanomadicfamily.com

    • Hi Emma, Thanks for getting in touch. When it finally happens, it happens quickly, eh?! Reading your message I sense a similar feeling of being torn between ‘just let them get on with it in their own good time’ and ‘I need to get this kid reading now’. Despite my commitment to ‘all in your own good time’, at the back of my mind I wondered if I should be doing more. We do beat ourselves up sometimes!!! All the best, and I’m looking forward to checking out your blog. Martina

  2. You go girl ! Delighted Katie had that lightbulb moment & that a world full of magical books awaits her . Happy reading 😍❤️❤️

  3. How exciting!!

    With our daughters in the 80s/90s, we used to get funny looks when visiting Britain because our girls couldn’t read yet – in our school system in Switzerland they don’t start until 6 or 7 and there was no expectation of knowing the alphabet or anything before starting school then. Even though the elder two, in particular, were/are very bright, neither learnt to read until school started, so they were 7 (Jan/March) before they could read, which seemed odd to people in the UK system where babies are drilled with the alphabet and school proper starts at 4… Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that my grandchildren are now expected to know some letters and write/spell/recognise their names, as well as be able to do simple sums, as well as other things like tying shoelaces, in Kindergarten (aged 4-6) which wasn’t the case 20-30 years ago: my youngest could barely count to 10 and got the times of day confused, she just wasn’t interested… she’s a perfectly normal 21 year old now! So it has changed. Mums work outside the home more than they used to in Switzerland, too, now. Not sure if there is a correlation there.

    Incidentally, as far as I am aware, Scandinavian countries also start school later, even 7-8. As PISA results show, they all catch up fine anyway, at the very latest by age 15!

    • Yes, it’s true. Different European countries approach education and reading/writing/arithmatic in such different ways. Back in 2013 the law in the UK was that a child had to be receiving an education (including home education) starting from the January AFTER their fifth birthday (it’s clearly stated on the Dept of Education website). However, primary school teachers we spoke to were completely unaware of this and thought kids had to be in school up to a year earlier.

      • How very interesting – so potentially, a British child with a birthday now could be almost 6, too, before starting in formal education! Of course, pressures in the western world mean it’s becoming more common here (a lot of expats, for instance) to insist on going through the processes to put their children into school a year early – I have witnessed this long-term in the last 20 years and have to say, you don’t do the child a favour at all once it reaches the teen years, when development both mental and physical, as well as social, are not on a par with others. Still, I suppose it takes all sorts!

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