Reading With 7-Year-Olds
When our youngest, Shaggy, was seven I was volunteering in his classroom often. I came in to read with the kids three mornings a week. Once a month I would read a book to the whole class because I was apparently really good at it and I was requested. Don’t all the reading mum’s do the voices and accents?
The teacher, to her credit, noticed that there were three boys who were not at grade level for reading. One could read absolutely any word you gave him even silent p’s but didn’t understand any of it. The other two were still sounding out every letter and struggled with the word ‘the’ even after seeing it countless times.
Two of us volunteered to be taught a programme called Reading Recovery. I’m sure there was more to it than we learned and I frankly, don’t remember the techniques, but it was a full-day crash course on how to teach kids how to read. It required coming in five days a week for the boys, but the other mother and I split it up to 3/2 and covered the whole year.
One boy, in particular, I’ll call him Andy, was adorable. He struggled. Really struggled. But, God bless him, he tried and wanted to learn so badly. The other boys had graduated to working with the teacher and staying in the regular reading rotation as did the other mother. I was left with Andy for 30 minutes a day. He was sounding things out, being patient and trying so hard. I worried he was dyslexic or had some other condition that might prevent his progress. I’d had conversations with the teacher and we were on a monitor closely protocol based on parent feedback.
It was March and I was beginning to lose faith that I was going to make the difference for Andy. I had a grandiose idea that he would thank me when winning the Nobel in literature and the person who gave him the love of reading. That image was fading fast.
The sun was out on this Monday (this is a vivid memory for me) so I moved our comically small table and chairs to the other side of the hall to take advantage of better light. We were sitting under the life-size cutouts of all his classmates with parts of the body labelled on what could have been construed as a crime scene outline of each kid.
Andy and I began with a book he had seen many times and had memorized a few passages. I thought it would be good to gain him the confidence to move to a new book I had selected for him. He went through it with surprising ease and I high fived him and wrote my notes before introducing his new problem.
I asked Andy if he had ever read this one before and he told me he hadn’t. He read the title and opened it to the first page without being prompted. He read each page like it was easy. Every page he read aloud like he had never struggled with words. He didn’t notice the tears streaming down my face as I asked him questions about what he read. Nor did he comment on how I looked at him with more pride than I expected. He read the backup book and, since we had 30 minutes together, several books after that at his request.
I looked at that boy as if I had witnessed a miracle. In the moment, I believe I had. Andy knew how to read. I hugged him so hard I was concerned he would tell the teacher I’d hurt him. I cried. He laughed. We talked about what just happened.
“That was incredible, Andy.”
“You could read all those books and you didn’t stumble once or even make a mistake.”
That is when I realized, with all my gushing, he didn’t understand what had transpired. It really just clicked. He had spent so many hours reading with me that it didn’t occur to him that he wasn’t doing much reading in those minutes. His frustration wasn’t present for him all those days because the determination was there for him. In front of my eyes, Andy was able to see the words clearly and they made sense.
His mother called to thank me. English was not her first language and she had been doing her best to try to help Andy, but it wasn’t coming naturally to her either.
I would see Andy in the regular rotation after that and he was jumping ahead by leaps and bounds each time we met. He was above grade level and reading to his mum every night at bedtime he told me.
Although it was a large time commitment, every minute I spent with Andy was worth it. If my being there and encouraging his natural need to read was my only contribution, I am grateful. What Andy doesn’t know is what he taught me that year. He taught me the value of tenacity. That kid never gave up. He did not get visibly frustrated. He did not tell me he felt stupid or less than any of the other kids. He knew in his heart he would get there when it was his time. I’m so glad I was there when it was.
Thank you, Andy. That was better than any accolades you could have given me. You shared with me the moment you learned to read.