Keeping an eye on the big picture: why I don’t stress about my late reader

“Cookies!” Cinder suddenly says over my shoulder. Points. I follow the finger and sure enough, there’s the word cookies, smack in the middle of a page of Kevin Sylvester’s Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo Murders. “Any other words you recognize?” I ask. He looks. “The.” “The.” “Geez, like 40 the’s on this page.” “He.” “She.” “Also.” “You.” “Am.” “Said.” “Yelled.” “Hell? Is that hell?” “Yeah,” I laugh. “Oh, read, Mom, read, get to ‘hell.’”

I read. And I smile.

Cinder’s 10. A late reader. An “emergent” reader. Use your adjective of choice, even delayed if you like. I don’t care. I’m watching him chart his unique path to literacy with as much joy and confidence as I have watching Flora chart her more orthodox path (while Cinder’s spotting “cookies” on the page, Flora, while listening to me read Neil Flambe, is simultaneously reading Bone to herself … and occasionally flipping through one of the Magic School Bus chapter books. Or Pssst! Secrets Every Girl Should Know. Or… you get the picture.)

I’m not worried because… well, I love reading. Books. Blogs. Journals. Magazines. Random quotes. Cinder’s grown up with that—with burnt French fries for dinner because Mom had to read “one more chapter.” With piles of books in every room, beside every bed and chair. (Ender’s growing up in a slightly more digital world, so part of his reality is this: “Mama, I ready for nap. Where your Kobo?”)

And throughout Cinder’s journey to literacy, I had—have—one priority. It wasn’t “Get him to read by age X.” Or even “Get him to read.” It was to keep reading—and learning—a thing of joy for him.

So. I don’t torment him with phonics or flash cards or remedial reading of beginner readers too boring for a boy of 10. I just… read to him. With him. Beside him. For him. We read Percy Jackson, and Bone, and Horrible Science. Lord of the Rings, and of course, first, The Hobbit. The Harry Potter books. The Terraria Wiki. The dialogue boxes on Minecraft. Youtube video titles that he can’t read for himself. Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord.

The first page of Moby Dick. (It’s an in-joke. You have to read Bone to get it.)

I think when you, as the parent, love reading—well, there’s no fear. You know it’s not that your child is … lazy? Or recalcitrant. Reluctant to read. If they could—if the mechanics were there, if they were developmentally ready for it—they’d read. Cause reading is not just essential, it’s awesome.

For Flora, the building blocks all came together at three. For Cinder, they’re just coming together now: his library of words and reference points big enough for cross-referencing, his body and mind mature enough that he can slow down, sit down, focus on those little squiggle marks on paper long enough for them to coalesce into meaningful words. Sentences.

I explain all this to my friend Terry and she asks me if I can pour some of that confidence into her husband George. Their little girl is Flora’s age. And “behind.” “Not reading,” as George sees it… although from what I’ve seen, while she’s not reading at the Flora level, she’s probably “ahead” of Cinder. (Forgive the quotation marks. “Behind” and “ahead’ in terms of reading ability are terms that irk me. But they are the convention.) Terry’s not really worried… but George is panicked.

“I can’t help him,” I tell Terry. Now, how do I put this semi-diplomatically? “Because George… well, see, George doesn’t like to read. Of course he’s worried.”

George struggled with reading as a child himself—maybe he was like Cinder, a late bloomer. And the process whereby he attained functional literacy killed the joy of reading for him. George reads work memos. And text messages, the shorter the better. Reading for pleasure? He doesn’t know what that is.

So of course he’s worried. Of course he’s afraid she may not learn to read—may not want to learn to read. Terry’s a book lover and indefatigable life learner: it’s easier for her to not worry. She’s lucky.

I’m lucky too. (I guess so is Cinder.) I know no one would choose not to read; no one would choose not to want to learn to read. For people wired like Flora and me, it comes early and it comes easy. For people wired like Cinder—and one aunt on one side and one uncle on the other side—it’s a hard slog, at odds with default learning preferences. It requires more work, a different approach—and then an even different one, and another, and another. Lots of breaks and downtime, and some regressions. A lot of trust and patience.

The important thing? Not to get him to read at grade level; not to get him to read fluently by age X. The important thing is that the experience of discovering what’s in those books, websites, graphic novels, pages of magazines, cards from Auntie Len and e-mails from Grandma remains an experience of joy.
English: Open book icon

For more on Cinder’s path to literacy, you might want to read Spell is a Four-Letter Word and The Great Scrabble Battle. You might also be interested in looking at how we’ve framed the literacy journey for him in our Learning Plans (the plans tend to be long documents, but the literacy/reading portion is always right near the beginning).

I’m  in the wilds of Manitoba, and generally unplugged. I’ve got a couple more posts auto-scheduled for your enjoyment, but I won’t be able to respond to comments until July 15th.

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