Tuesday, February 24, 2015

For the Love of Story: On Teaching a Child to Read

I sat on the floor, roughly five years ago, my oldest daughter sitting across from me.  Why I always chose the floor for phonics lessons is beyond me.  Even now, as I teach my third and last child her phonics lessons, we sit on the floor.

She sat on the carpet that day, neither despondent nor joyful.  It was work.  Hard work.

"I really don't like phonics."

She said it frequently.

"I know...but you love stories."

I also said that frequently.

Most every day we worked slowly.  Some days we got very little done.  When it was time for reading, it was the same, reluctant child, the same rigor for her small brain. "Just read one sentence today and then I'll read you a story."  

It wasn't reading that made her hesitant.  It was the work involved.  

I felt like I was forever trying to walk the very thin line between teaching her to do the thing she ought, even when she'd rather do something different, and avoiding the abhorrence of the written word.  Because I knew deep down that if she always loved stories, she would embrace her books.  If I forced them upon her, made her stories another chore, another stone in the bag of the perfectionist child, all would be lost.  What would it gain me to force her towards knowing the sounds if she would forever avoid them once she knew them?

When she was four, I scoured books and articles looking for the "right thing to do."  I knew this was preschool age and wasn't sure the best route to take.  Should she be learning her numbers?  Her letters?  Latin?  

It turns out the answer is yes, no, maybe, if the stars align, and if your grandmother collected crocodile magnets to all of the above questions.  It all depends on who wrote what you are reading.

There did, however, seem to be one thread that was woven through most of what I found that was gleaming and pregnant with truth.  The admonishment I saw most often, or perhaps just the one that kept jumping out at me, was read to your kids.  Every day.

I did read to them already, but I began to make it very routine.  Every day after breakfast, I told her and her younger sister to go pick books.  Any books they like.  And I read.  For about one hour every morning, I read to them.  

So when we were sitting on the floor, a couple of years later, and she didn't remember what sh said and her fluency was lacking and I wondered what I would do, I grasped tight to the only truth we both knew.  But you love stories.

I continued to read her those stories.  I required only enough reading from her to make sure she practiced a little every day.  Consistency is important, but long, tedious lessons are not.  It is better to read one word every day than labor over two pages and hate the book when you are finished.

One day I looked up and saw her sitting on the couch...with a book.  She read it for five minutes and put it down.

I said nothing and kept reading her stories.  

I saw her with them more and more often.  She never finished anything.  She would pick them up, read a few lines, and pick another one up the next day.

I said nothing and kept reading her stories.  

Those months she spent practicing on her own were invaluable. I never interrupted her reading for any other kind of lesson.  What lesson bears more fruit than same one she used to loathe now self-imposed?

She broke through at some point.  I don't remember when or how, but all at once, she was an insatiable reader.  Not because I was a phenomenol instructor.  But because she loved stories.

I think sometimes it's easy to push through, to force one more lesson, one more sentence upon the reluctant learner.  It is easy for us becuase the sentence looks simple and the letters glaringly familiar. But to them, they are Greek.  

Tell them a story, show them that artists weave those words into great masterpieces of the world and they will eventually choose that for themselves.  

The love of story is within all of us.  Jesus spoke to us in stories.  He communicates through His book. He chose story. He chose words.  He chose it because it beats within His creation.  

Let it reign in our own homes, in the hearts of our children, and in the lives that are becoming their own.


  1. This is just beautiful! I'm looking forward to my son picking up books on his own. He sure loves to hear them!

  2. I love this! Teaching my first daughter to read was a breeze and I thought the second would be no big deal. Boy was I spoiled the first time! But just like you said, patience and small bits every day are paying off.

  3. "The love of story is within all of us. Jesus spoke to us in stories. He communicates through His book. He chose story. He chose words. He chose it because it beats within His creation."

    This is why an education centered in Christ and based on living books and relationships is so nourishing to the heart, mind, and soul.