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Whole Reading

I rode downtown the other day with a friend and her three children, aged 2, 4, and 6. As we passed a gas station, the following exchange took place among the children:

Robert, the youngest, pointing to the lit-up Sunoco sign, yelled, "Gas! Gas!"

Johanna, the middle child, said, questioning, "That says, 'Gulf station,' doesn't it?"

"No, that's not 'Gulf,' " commented 6-year-old Elizabeth. "It's... it's... what's that called, now? It's...'Sun-oco.' That's where Mrs. Berman gets her gas when she takes us to Brownies. See, it's too long to be 'Gulf,' and It starts with S. And it has 'sun' in it."

As a reading consultant, I thrill at this sort of interchange, for here are three more readers taking on literacy - three more young people who have discovered that the rich world of print in which they live makes connections with their daily lives.

"Three readers?" you ask. "What do you mean, 'three'? Only one of those children read that sign!"

To me, all three children read the sign. Robert was reading just as truly as a one-year-old is speaking when she says "Muh! Muh!" as she reaches for her mother. He was associating meaning with print, and the symbolic shape and colors of the sign that surround the print. He was attempting to express that meaning.

Johanna was reading with the same degree of accuracy that she uses in speech when she says, "I goed with Daddy to the store." Her message was clear, but not yet in perfect standard form. She knew that the sign was more specific than just "gas," that it was a particular brand of gas, but she still lacks enough experience with names of stations and with the details of print to be able to precisely identify it.

Elizabeth, the most mature reader, was able to use her memory and background knowledge - her trips with Mrs. Berman - to help her identify the sign. In addition, she has developed an awareness that letter-sound relationships and word length can be used as clues, and she knows enough sight words to recognize "sun." These two pieces of understanding help her to confirm the accuracy of her reading.

Do we, as parents, consider that our children are not talking when their attempts to communicate with us are as imperfect as Robert's and Johanna's readings? No, indeed! We get very excited when they try to imitate us. We give them a great deal of attention for such efforts. We encourage them and model more language for them to try out! We even imitate their amusing "misses." But we certainly do not say, "When will Johnny ever learn to speak?!" It would never occur to us that something so basically human as speech would not be learned by our children, unless they had a severe physiological impairment affecting speech development.

Why, then, do we treat reading as such an all-or-nothing accomplishment? Reading and writing are language processes just as much as listening and speaking are. Why do we feel that children's attempts to use and interpret print must be perfect from the first try? It is simply not correct to have such expectations. Yet, most school reading programs do require mastery of one aspect of reading before children are allowed to move on. The back-to-basics and mastery learning movements are even more rigid in this regard than previous programs have been. Almost none of them are geared to the way children naturally learn language.

Many teachers are now learning that reading can be as natural a process as learning to walk and to speak. They have discovered that if children are placed in an environment as rich with print as a home is rich with speech, as supportive of attempts to read and write as the home is supportive of attempts to walk, explore, and communicate, they will learn to read. They will read with the same joy and confidence that they express when they babble, and run, and laugh, and play. And they do not need sequenced readers with controlled vocabulary and workbooks and hundreds of dittoed worksheets to do it. All they need are the following:

  1. Books, real books, straight out of bookstores and libraries,
  2. Someone to read to them, to read with them, without pressure or intimidation; someone to model reading and writing for them; and someone to answer their questions,
  3. A risk-free environment in which to practice, and
  4. Time.

Like learning to speak, reading is a gradual process of moving from general to more accurate expression of meaning. Natural reading is no more magical than natural speaking. Just as children learn to talk at different rates and times, so are children widely individualistic in learning to read. Remember, as with learning to speak, you cannot force development. Your children learned to speak successfully without formal instruction. All you did was model, encourage, and remain sensitive. Keep it up!

Margaret Phinney is a certified independent reading consultant.

This article was abridged from Mothering, Winter 1987. It is reprinted here with permission from the author and the editors.