I read John Holt’s book Learning All the Time last summer on a car trip to Minnesota and loved his account of the ways that children decode and embrace the worlds of print. Observing N.’s long and careful exploration of reading has been fascinating; he doesn’t read fluently yet, though he knows all the letters and their sounds, recognizes some words, and can sound out words along with us, though rarely by himself. Without having formal reading lessons, reading is a central subject of our conversations these days. As we talk about all the things we talk about everyday (and we are all three big talkers), questions about the meanings, pronunciations, origins, and spellings of words are always coming up. Although Tim and I both have Ph.D.s in English and are perhaps a bit more obsessed with words than some other adults, words are a main family topic right now because N. is figuring them out, not because we are pushing it. Reading is both foreground and background; it is everywhere in our conversations, yet often incidental, a side note to the main subject at hand.
So, N. is learning to read by talking to us all the time. How else is he exploring the world of words? Of course he loves being read to. Yet another thing I love about having him at home is that there are no particular behaviors that he is required to adhere to while he is listens to books. He doesn’t have to sit quietly or cross-legged; he can interrupt to ask questions as much as he likes. Often he asks for a story while he is doing something else – drawing, eating, playing with blocks or trucks. He loves to hear long stories in books with few pictures (favorites currently include the Five Little Peppers, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Homer Price, Winnie-the-Pooh, Thomas the Train, Grimm’s fairy tales); I think his long attention span is facilitated by his freedom to move and keep his hands active. Though he might look like he is merely multi-tasking, he doesn’t miss a word and will quickly correct you if you misread something in a favorite tale.
Another way that N. is learning to read is by manipulating letters. Although we had alphabet books, he seemed to learn the alphabet primarily by playing with refrigerator magnet letters. Currently he thinks it is very funny to make up words with the letters on the fridge and laughs uproariously when we try to pronounce his new words. As John Holt writes, it is just as important to experiment with what doesn’t make a recognizable word as to learn what does.
We have a set of rubber alphabet stamps that N. sometimes uses when he wants to write something. He expresses a strong preference for upper-case letters and usually refuses to use the lower-case stamps. I assume this is a way of keeping things simplified while he figures all this reading and writing business out. I am sure he’ll incorporate them into his usage when he’s ready to.
Recently N. seems to be experimenting with writing his own letters as another aspect of the textual universe. We haven’t taught him to write letters but the other day he showed me this paper on which he had written his name.
On another recent occasion, I was in the kitchen cooking and couldn’t help him immediately when he asked me; when I made it into the sunroom where he was working, he had written his version of “Happy Birthday Pooh Bear.” I was pretty surprised! As you can see in the picture, writing, the stories of Pooh, and his beloved trucks converge as N. systematically gathers his knowledge about words.