Saturday, July 21, 2007


I forwent my usual chance to sleep in this morning in order to accomplish an extremely rare bit of handywork. Normally I'll avoid all work around the house, be it repair, yard work, cleaning, or even picking up after myself. But the front bay window installation was finally finished earlier this week, leaving behind some bare trim and a sheet of plywood under the overhang. And that means painting.

I love to paint. When I was pregnant and the kids' rooms needed to be painted and decorated, it just about killed me to be excluded from slapping paint on the walls. Others probably wouldn't be so cautious, but the books said not to spend a lot of time breathing in the fumes, so I fussed over it from afar. Painting is like magic to me -- handling liquid color directly, like a distillation of perception itself.

Whenever I watch a movie about an artist, and they show the tubes of pigment, or the pure primary colors piled on the palette, I wonder why anyone would ever mix them, or try to make a painting look like it wasn't painted. The oils themselves are so sensuous and rich. Maybe that's why I like so much twentieth century art, including abstract art -- the paint forms a thick texture on the canvas, like a relief map, demanding to be recognized as a material that's been applied.

My painting wasn't very exciting today -- white on white. But the kids came outside with me, and I gave them old brushes and a bucket of water, and let them "paint" on the driveway. They liked it so much that both demanded to do it again this afternoon, and Cady Gray astounded me by painting her first name. Sure, she balked after the Y in "CADY" and tried to erase it with her foot, saying "No, it's Cady Gray!" But I didn't know she could spell her name.

A few weeks short of age three, she can form all her letters except K, R, S, and X (for some reason -- I can understand the complexities of the other three). Two days ago when we were coloring together and turned to a new page with a bumblebee drawing, I asked her to read the caption. "The queen rules many bees," she read without hesitation. How do these kids do it? What switch gets thrown in their mind that allows them to translate groups of letters into vocabulary? They know their phonics, but Cady Gray (unlike Archer) rarely sounds words out; she's clearly using the "whole word" system, to the point where if she doesn't know a word, she'll guess by (a) context; (b) first letter; and (c) approximate length.

I suspect I learned the same way -- at any rate, I don't remember a lot of combining letter sounds, but I do remember recognizing words. I have a vivid memory of sitting on my bed sometime between the ages of 3 and 5 with my older brother, reading a "Dick and Jane" style reader he used in first or second grade, and completing the whole thing without errors, much to my parents' pride. I could read well before age 6, I know, because the kindergarten teacher at Bright School kept me and Lynne Pierce in at recess for reading enrichment -- the first time I got that feeling of being singled out for academic achievement, and not the last. In fact, it's probably part cause and part symptom of the academic identity that's been my major personal drive throughout life.

Do you remember learning to read? When did it happen? And how did it happen? Do you have any sense of the process you used, whether Sesame Street phonics or Electric Company word recognition?


Paul C. said...

I don't remember how I learned to read exactly- I'm guessing regular viewing of Sesame Street had something to do with it. My first memory of reading was from when I was three years old. At the time, I was the only kid in my preschool who could read, and one day in my quest to read whatever I could get my hands on I look at the teacher's calendar. I saw that we were going on a field trip, and I told my classmates. I remember that the teacher was happy that I was reading, but a little annoyed at me because the trip was supposed to be a surprise for the class. Shortly after, she moved the calendar somewhere else, away from the students' prying eyes.

Doc Thelma said...

Although my mom says I had learned to read by age 4 to 5, I definately remember a moment in first grade where something clicked. Somewhere, in one of those language arts workbooks, I encountered the word "here" in a sentence and reasoned out what it was based on context and in spite of it not being sound-outable. Shortly thereafter, I picked up the first grade reader and read it straight through. It somehow was now clear to me that I would not have to be taught every word individually. Within a few weeks, the teacher had called my parents asking them to take me to the library to get extra books to read during reading time.

Victor said...

nThis will sound more self-aggrandizing than I intend it to be, but I actually don't remember learning how to read. (I've actually thus made a proper hash of my only attempt at teaching someone else to read -- it makes as much existential sense to me as teaching someone to breathe.)

What I do remember is being able to read on my first day of Primary 1, before having any formal education (no K or pre-K in 1971 Glasgow), and coming home the first day with "Janet and Jon," which was written in ITA. My parents demanded that I be pulled out of the class. Henceforth, for the whole of Primary 1, I went to the headmistress's office for reading, using a different standard-English book. But for all else, I still went to the classroom and had the conventional "1st grade decoration, visual aids, etc.," all written in ITA.

Adam Villani said...

Good heavens, that ITA thing looks horrible.

I honestly don't remember much about learning to read, either. I know I was reading at least some around the age of four.

Those of you looking for TV's bad influence may enjoy hearing of how one day in preschool I told my teacher that I knew how to spell, so I went up to the chalkboard and wrote "frat." "Look, I spelled 'fart!'" What the issue was was that one time on The Electric Company was showing a bunch of rhyming words, and one of them, for unknown reasons, was "frat," short for "fraternity." I had no idea what a frat was, so I think I just merged it with fart in my head.

Nancy said...

I don't remember how I learned to read, but I'm sure it had something to do with Sesame Street, which I watched every day. My mom says I first started reading at age 3. During my first week of kindergarten I was sent to the principal's office to read for him from a Dick and Jane book, and I remember he asked me to read from the word list in the back, probably to make sure I hadn't just memorized the text.