Saturday, March 1, 2008

How on earth did I learn to read?

I have newfound respect for new readers. I think because my own experience with reading seemed so natural and fluid from an early age, I have wondered why early elementary school kids sometimes had such difficulty. No more.

Why the change? Well, in my children's literature class, we've been learning about easy readers and transitional books. To remind us adults how difficult decoding scratches on a page can be, my teacher gave the class an activity in which we had to learn a different language. First, she taught us a nursery rhyme in German. She gave us motions so we got the gist of the translation. Then she wrote it on the board, and we had to sound it out based on what we remembered of the rhyme. Next, she wrote something entirely different on the board. We could kind of figure out the sounds because of the first nursery rhyme, but we had no idea what it meant (pure phonics). Using pictures, she had us slowly decode each word and, finally, sentences that made sense.

And, boy, was it HARD! I felt like such a dunce, because other people in the class were figuring out some words based on their similarily to English, and I just couldn't. It wasn't until she held up the pictures that I started putting together the words with their meanings.

The exercise was a fantastic reminder of how complicated reading is. You're simultaneously figuring out the sounds, the words, the meanings of the words, and making a cohesive thought once you put it all together. That's an awful lot of work for an elementary school kid! From now on, I'm ready to cheerlead young readers no matter where they are, from just starting out or way ahead of their grade level.

Furthermore, because I really couldn't decipher some of the words without the pictures she held up, I will never look at an easy reader in the same way again. The exercise emphasized the necessity of having the illustrations closely matching the text so that beginning readers can be helped along in understanding words they've never met before. Remembering this experience will definitely affect the books I recommend to young readers and their parents as well as how I approach collection development in the future.