You’ve seen the articles on raising readers, which basically boils down to three things: read to them, read to them, and even if you would rather eat the book than recite it one more time, read to them. In most cases, it works. In some cases, it works phenomenally well. By age 3, my son Zach could recognize the scientific names of dinosaurs. By 4, he was reading simple chapter books. By 5, he was reading Harry Potter. His kindergarten teacher assessed him and said he had the reading level of 10 year old. And, in other cases, what works for one child is a massive fail for a second.
Some kids don’t like bedtime stories--yes, it (often) happens. That’s what happened with my daughter, Alex. She’s smart, but stubborn, and initially had no interest in books. No point reciting popular, catchy classics like Gruffalo or Chika Chika Boom Boom--she’d rather flip quickly through the pictures and then move on to more intellectual pursuits, like sticking her finger into my nose. I went through all the usual tips: buying her books on her interests, downloading digital books (some kids respond better to books that play music or have interactive elements), even turning some of our family photos into personalized books. I did everything short of writing Good Night Moon with icing on cupcakes. No deal. Push too much, and kids eventually will stop reading, period. Eventually, Alex picked up that I was emotionally invested in this reading thing, and she completely avoided it altogether. “No, no, no!” she said, to every offer of a book. By that time, she was 3, and said NO to everything anyway. Her play school teacher told me to drop the pressure. “Some kids have a tendency to be self-conscious and any extra attention will make them freeze. Maybe, you care too much. They can sense that.” I was actually relieved to be told to relax. I think Alex was, too. And while we stopped reading books together, she did continue to learn how to read--but in her own way, and with other people. She would look at picture books with her classmates, and play with the letter refrigerator magnets with her yaya. Her books gathered dust on our bedroom shelves, but she became more comfortable with the idea of reading.
There are many roads to reading. Her teacher explained that learning how to read is done in stages: letter recognition, symbol recognition (the way they see a fast food restaurant logo and know that it means cheeseburger and fries). Some educational methods encourage phonetic reading--a letter produces a sound, and combining letters helps create a word--while others push learning “sight words” first. They know MAMA means, well, Mama, but they may not know exactly why. From what she told me, I realized Zach had latched on to the phonetic approach, so he could read words that he didn’t understand, then ask what it meant. Alex saw a bunch of letters (or, in her toddler world, black marks on a white page) that meant nothing to her and was frustrated. I decided to change my approach. Reading may not be fun, but it can be functional In a nutshell, I made it necessary BUT EASY to read, thanks to lots of drawings. I organized her toys in plastic boxes and labeled everything: word plus a picture of what was inside.
Since she loved going with me to the supermarket, I made her a simple market list with a drawing and the word--she could get what she wanted and cross it out. Since she loved to paint, I asked her to label what she made before we taped it on the wall. Cat by Alex. House by Alex. Tree by Alex.
I never showed her a book or said the word “reading.” It was always about doing what she loved more efficiently: “Can you help me buy your baon? Please find the butter so we can bake cookies. Let’s write your name so lolo knows this drawing is from you.” She thought she was “helping” me and was pleasantly surprised to discover it involved words, and she was getting it.
Don’t compare. Everyone gets there. There’s a lot of pressure to raise an early reader, but all research points to the fact that the age where kids learn to read has no direct impact on how much they love to read.
Nor does it have a direct bearing on their overall success. When they look for a job, nobody asks them, “So, how old were you when you learned to write your name?” It’s fun to Facebook brag that your kid’s reading faster than his peers, but let’s remember that developmentally, preschool is really meant for learning social skills, routines, and following directions--and Alex was excelling there, in spades.
That’s why her preschool didn’t even consider checking her for developmental delays. “She is learning, Mommy, she just wants to do it her way,” they told me. “Drawing, talking, games, pretend play. She is a normal child, but she is just a child.” That totally brought it home. Yes, she was 4 years old with about 16 years of formal education ahead of her. Somewhere along the way she would read. Confidence + familiarity + patience. I am lucky that Alex’s preschool teachers constantly reminded me that it was more important to develop her confidence and associate school with positive experiences. I was worried about her, but I chanted this like a mantra: Raise a kid who loves to learn, and reading is just part of it.
So, for Alex’s entire preschool, that’s all I did. I praised her drawing, social skills, and wondrous imagination. I pointed out every single good thing she ever did in school, from being the teacher’s little helper to overcoming her fear of the slide. And somewhere along the way, it clicked for Alex: school is awesome, I am awesome, maybe this reading thing isn’t so scary after all.
She started to reach for the books she had rejected before, and each time she got a word right. I would say, “See? You’re reading!” She would giggle, and try another word. I knew, then, it was finally time for me to apply all the usual tips on raising readers. I thought it didn’t work on her, but they did--when she was finally ready. And she read happily ever after. Alex was 6 when she finally started reading sentences on her own. No, she wasn’t reading Harry Potter, but she was reading. Eventually, it hit critical mass: when the phonetic sounds finally clicked, she zoomed forward. Now she is 7, and reading chapter books, and doing very well in school. Nobody would ever think she was a “slow” reader. A slow starter, but nobody really cares. So I would say those tips on raising readers are true. Read, read, always read books. But more than that, read your child.
Dedet Reyes Panabi was editor-in-chief of a parenting magazine for seven years, then quit to work from home and spend quality time with family and Netflix. She now works from home as a digital communications and social media manager for a multinational. (Or has her son described it on Career Day, “My mom’s on Facebook the whole day.”)