Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Tiny Monuments: Teaching a Child to Read

Seven months, and it all comes down to one Lego man and one Lego lady.  He's a groovy, flower-holding hippie and she's the fairy Tinker Bell.

I know.  It's rather anticlimactic for the end of an era to be marked not in chiseled stone but in molded plastic.  Still, these figures are tangible reminders of how far we have come.  They're monuments of a sort.  And they are worthy of great celebration (as well as excited phone calls to both Grandmama and daddy at work).

Last October 27 began a journey of working with my twins, Amelia and Emerson, to help them unlock entire worlds as yet undiscovered.  I had promised they could start learning to read after their fourth birthday, but they were ready several months before when older brother Wyatt began bringing home kindergarten tales of excitement and wonder.  He was ever explaining (pronounced gl-oa-t-ing) that the key to such fun was knowing how to read...which they couldn't do, of course.

In his eyes, the twins were babies and he was grown up, all because he had cracked the secret code that transformed random ABCs into words and sentences infused with meaning.

Amelia tolerated Wyatt's condescending pride with a nonchalant attitude.  In other words, she flat out ignored him.  Emerson, on the other hand, was less than accepting of the inferior status imposed upon him.  He was his brother's equal. Period.  And so, each afternoon found Emerson standing by Wyatt's side, watching him play Earobics spelling/reading games on the computer, or paying careful attention when Wyatt tried to teach him how to sound out words in thin air and spell them.

Despite their different responses to Wyatt's taunts over their inability to read, both Amelia and Emerson were on the exact same page when it came to the tangible rewards they could earn from reading.

A small army of seventeen Lego figures stood prominently atop the bookshelf at the end of Wyatt's bed.  The space alien with pink crystal skull, the robber with the red bandanna covering his face, the copper-green colored Statue of Liberty, the King Triton merman, the vampire bat with fangs displayed for a bite.  These were visual reminders of Wyatt's ability to read, monuments of his own journey to become a reader, and promises of what the twins could earn if they practiced, too.

The twins knew each Lego mini figure represented one whole reader Wyatt had demolished.  He would read to me a chapter or two every afternoon in Row,Peterson's Alice and Jerry series or the Ginn series of 1940s readers our parents and grandparents once read.  Although it took him a month or two (or sometimes three) to finish each reader, he would always keep plodding forward to earn his prize, a $2.50 piece of plastic.

The incentive plan worked, so much so that by the time Wyatt started kindergarten last August, he had read through all the primer, first, and second grade readers.  While in kindergarten, he continued to read through all four third-grade readers, which averaged 350 pages each.

With each new Lego man added to Wyatt's collection, Emerson and Amelia grew more interested in their own chance to learn how to read....and to earn their own Lego figures.

It wasn't surprising then, when Emerson approached me at the breakfast table the morning after the candles and cake.  Could they begin the reading lessons today?

My heart sunk that morning.  I remembered the drama associated with Wyatt taking his first steps towards phonetic-reading independence and was less than excited to take even the first tiny step on this journey with not one but two children.  Still, I had no excuses.

After seven months of fear, frustration, trepidation, laughter, prayer (did I mention prayer?), pride, encouragement and crazy joy, today, we ended strong, two lessons in one day because two excited children simply couldn't wait until tomorrow to reach their long-awaited goal. 

When their daddy asked if this meant reading lessons were now over, Emerson's eyes glistened bright as he said, "Nooooo!  Tomorrow, we get to read Alice and Jerry! And get another Lego man!!!"  Amelia even broke out into a silly song I made up a year ago: "Practice makes perfect; soon you'll see it's worth it."  I couldn't help but grin at this happiness now discovered in perseverance--both mine and theirs.

The thick yellow tome of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons has been a fixture in my kitchen for several years, first with Wyatt and then with the twins.  I could pack the book away or gift it to another family.  At $10, it's not really worth much.

Instead, I place the book on my office shelf.

Who knows.

God may yet send me someone else's child to teach this same love of reading.


  1. Hurray!! We are so proud of ALL our readers. And you, Jennifer. That was quite a commitment to daily, sometimes tedious, lessons. But, you are obviously gifted at this one-on-one kind of teaching. Your children have blossomed under your tutelege and I DO hope someone else's child will benefit from it one day. Maybe mine :) Congrats - to you all!

    1. No, not gifted, not at all. I'd DRAG out the book some days and PRAY with Amelia because there really were days I wanted to throw a tantrum and say, "But I don't wanna!!!" when they asked to read with me. Maybe I can help you suffer along with your kiddos, too.