Brain, Reading

Taken Literally

Learning can be effortless, continual, permanent – and also pleasant. . .  We can learn without effort if we are interested in what we are doing (or in what someone else is doing), free from confusion, and given assistance when we seek it.

Frank Smith, The Book of Learning and Forgetting

We are halfway through Year Three. Sirius black is on the loose, Dementors are terrorizing the countryside, and Crookshanks has it in for Scabbers. In a parallel universe, Bug’s Halloween costume is already assembled. About once a week, he pulls the cloak from its hanger and tries on his glasses, just to make sure everything still fits.

In the evenings, my mother and I bustle around the kitchen preparing dinner while Bug snaps Legos into intricate models at the table. Chattering about the latest excitement at Hogwarts usually compels my boy to spare some focus for the conversation. In the middle of a recent re-cap of the previous night’s chapter, mother asks, “I just wonder when he is going to start reading.”

“But he is reading,” I say. Isn’t he? In bed every night, Bug sits in rapt silence while the story unfolds via his mommy’s repertoire of butchered British accents.  After songs and a kisses, he stretches out with a heap of picture books by his side and kills the next hour in the company of a few dozen authors.  He may not be sounding out each letter into a word and each word into a sentence, but he is immersed in language and story.

“I just keep thinking that he’s so close,” she says to me, shaking her head. “Why can’t he crack the code?”

Wow. My five-year-old dives daily into books for the sheer pleasure of the swim, and his grandmother is worried that he’s behind? “Wherever we think he should be,” I say, “he is already there.”

The official theory of learning undoubtedly draws a different conclusion. Identify the skill, test it and assign a rating to it. Cross over the line and you’ve got a pass.  Linger on this side? Well, the kid needs remediation.  The scorekeepers may give what he’s doing some sanitized name like “literacy preparedness,” but only when a person makes the grade can he be said to be a reader. By this measure, Bug is not yet reading, because he still needs to be read to.

Once my boy walks into his kindergarten classroom next year, a sheaf of rubrics will appear in his file. Data on his abilities and his pace will be available to the Commonwealth and his grandmother alike. I’m sure I will join the ranks of parents worried (against our own common sense) about our children’s aptitudes as measured against a field of yardsticks. These indicators of learning share the limitation of indices everywhere: they are over-simplified stand-ins for complex phenomena. We use them in the absence of comprehensive explanations in order to make quick sense of things, but it is dangerous to assume they are accurate representations of what is truly going on.

My mother and I may be mistaken in assuming a shared definition of one deceptive little word. What is reading, after all? Is it the ability to comprehend the meaning of every word on the page? If that is true, then I am not reading yet, because I encounter unfamiliar vocabulary daily. Perhaps reading is being able to correlate a string of letters into an accurate representation of what the writer intends. If so, then scholars all over the world are not reading, because each text they face offers up concepts beyond their reach.

My mother and I are not alone in oversimplifying the idea of reading. Letters make up words, certainly. Then what happens? Inside the brain of the reader, a transformation takes place. Words may become pictures to enjoy, or mysteries to be solved, or conversations to engage in. Sometimes readers surrender to a text and sometimes they scrap with it. Reading is woven into the rich fabric of experience, and it cannot be separated from speech, pleasure, challenge, play, and curiosity. As much as it is an activity, reading is a habit of mind.

Bug is not studying in preparation to be literate. He is already a full member of the Literati, just by seeking entertainment and explanations between the covers of books. “We don’t have to be skilled readers to join the literacy club nor need we know very much about writing,” Smith suggests. “Quite the contrary. It is not until we are members of the literacy club that we can learn to read and write. Literacy doesn’t come as the climax of a sustained regime of reading and writing instruction to which we and our teachers have diligently applied ourselves. Reading and writing should come as effortlessly as the understanding and mastery of speech. Everything else – all the more prominent exercises, drills, corrections, and tests – are distractions and sometimes insuperable obstacles on the way to literacy.”

Last night, I had to roll Bug over in order to un-stick his face and belly from the covers of Peter Rabbit and Little Critter. Who but a reader would drag himself across a field of pages night after night to make his way to sleep? Tonight, a new chapter of The Prisoner of Azkaban will invite us in. Bug will lift his wand with Harry, tap it on an unremarkable stone, and watch as a doorway into a secret passage appears. Like that young wizard, my boy has cracked the only code that matters. He knows he possesses the magic. And because he wants to walk through walls, mastery will be a breeze.


Smith, Frank. The Book of Learning and Forgetting. New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.

8 thoughts on “Taken Literally”

  1. Yup. I too have been doing the agonizing.
    He knows the letters, he knows their sounds. But even with gentle pushing of those letters together, the words are a battle. Then one night, A said, “Mommy, when will I be able to read?” I said, “Why are you asking?” “He said, because then I can read all my books to myself!”
    Just exactly what I wanted to hear.
    And as I volunteer in that kindergarten classroom and am gloriously shocked to watch all of the kiddos learn to add and subtract, count in both numbers and hash marks, sound out letters with all of their confusing combinations… in KINDERGARTEN!!!
    Cue sigh of relief and stop the worry.
    He’s there. You are right.

  2. My boy is right where he should be, too. I had the 1st quarter kindergarten parent-teacher conference yesterday, and there were no surprises. I did have some conversations today with some moms-and they conveniently mentioned how advanced their children are (2nd grade level in math and such). My boy is happy, he loves his school, his class, and especially his teacher. He’s right where he needs to be, too. He loves books and for that I am happy, too. I hope it is me who feels the pressure at this point, not him. I can shrug it off and just enjoy that he is growing.

    1. Amy, your boy is a marvel, skilled in ways most adults won’t ever be. You have introduced him to the deepest knowledge a kid could hope for, by way of craft and outdoor exploration and experimentation with every medium you can get his little hands on. Isn’t it funny how the measures of progress can be so narrow?

  3. Difficulty putting words together with sounds may be worth monitoring. My daughter had a learning disability in reading, with those symptoms. Luckily, she got extra attention in school and a speech therapist at home (from Fairfax County). She overcame her disability (which was measured and documented at Lake Braddock High School), and had a 3.5 GPA in HS and has a B.S. degree in forensics with a good job.
    I mention this not to brag, but to say that it is worth paying attention to reading difficulties. My wife has a masters in special ed and noticed the problem much earlier than I would have. We were lucky that she noticed it and Fairfax County schools had the resources to help our daughter.
    Don’t be paranoid, but do pay attention.

    1. Moving back to this area from the mountains was heartbreaking for many reasons. One gift that comes with living here, however, is access to some of the best public schools in the country. I’m glad to hear FCPS came through for your daughter (with insightful, early advocacy by her dedicated parents), and I do not worry about Bug having access to the resources he needs.

      The truth is, he can identify letters and words. The “problem” (if there is one) lies in what you and I were talking about yesterday: Is effortless learning possible? Perhaps the best we can hope for is painless. Bug gets irritated and bored when I try to push letter recognition on him. But when we just play with letters and words — in art projects or even on the pages of books — he identifies them without expending an ounce of effort.

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