I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor next to a struggling reader. He has picked out a “Frog and Toad” book and declared that he wants to read it to me. As he opens to the first page, his excitement is replaced by concentration. I watch his lips form the sounds of the first word as his finger scoops under the letters, but he makes no noise. I feel my own face start to flush red and my heartbeat quicken. I’m just about to offer to read the first page to him when he declares “frog!” He looks up at me, proud and undiscouraged.
As a first grade teacher, I spend a lot of time reading with beginners. Beginning reading is always hard work, but there’s a part of me that hates to see the struggle. When a kid fumbles, I’m reminded of my own difficulties with early reading: the embarrassment of reading aloud in front of the class, the exhaustion of trying to sound out word after word. But my students don’t yet know that kind of pain, and, if I can help it, they won’t. Thus, there’s no pain in their momentary trouble with a word, only joy when the word is understood.
Later that day, a more confident first grader picked up the same book and began to read it to me. “Your pants and jacket are…lying on the….floor,” she reads smoothly, pausing only briefly before the words “lying” and “floor.” I interrupt her, astonished. “How did you know those words were ‘lying’ and ‘floor’?” I ask. “Well, with lying I got the ‘l’ and the ‘ing,’ and look and the picture, Miss J, his pants and jacket really are on the floor!” As an adult who once struggled with early reading strategies, I’ve learned a lot about how to make good guesses at words from my students.
Early literacy astonishes me. Even children who struggle with it can find great joy as they begin to read “real” books. Helping a child develop from a non-reader to a proud beginning reader fills me with such delight that a year and a half into my teaching career, I have begun a part-time master’s degree to become a reading specialist. Every now and then, my own memories of struggling to read come back to me, but they only make the success of my students that much sweeter.