I came across a statistic recently on why reading by the end of third grade matters. It matters for success in high school and beyond. It matters because it’s the crucial point when children start using reading to learn other subjects. It also matters to mitigate delays in language and social emotional development in early childhood. Bottom line reading, and reading before third grade is fundamental. But what if you master reading in 1st grade, 2nd or 3rd grade, but have no idea what you are reading about, no idea why or no passion to read even for the fun of it all.
Meet my six year old son. As some of you may have guessed by now, he is on the autism spectrum. He was diagnosed at the age of 2 and barely spoke words that made sense by three. So I started to read to him. I read everything I could find. Our favorite book, the first he memorized word for word, was ‘The Watermelon Seed.’ He loved that book, especially the part where the dinosaur swallowed the seed and made the sound ‘gulp.’ He would laugh and laugh when we got to that part. There were other books too like ‘Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus,’ ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear,’ ‘Never too little to love’ and ‘One duck stuck.’ Three things that were common across the books were: sensation-all the books played to his love for sensory things, like the sound of the word gulp, or the sight of a watermelon seed. Sensory books are a necessity for him. Then there was perception, with words strung together, carefully, bit by bit, repetitive, inviting, no, pulling him, until he became alert to their presentation, with focused attention. Perceptive books matter. Finally, with perception came understanding with him forming his own rules, choosing sides in some cases, on how to successfully master not only reading of the words presented, but also learning. Books that foster understanding matter.
Recently and thanks to our co-participatory model of homeschooling, I have noticed a dramatic decline with reading, especially reading that included sensation, perception and understanding or even reading for fun. The other day in Science, we were reading about how plants make food and my son was completely bored with no desire to listen, let alone read. None of the word in his textbook interacted with his senses, attended to his perception or fostered his understanding. When the teacher asked him to read, he actually had no problem reading the chapter. But when she asked questions about what he read, he was stoic. At first I thought he was tired and didn’t want to participate. But the more I observed, the more I remembered how I taught him how to confidently master reading when he started to speak at 3. Watermelon seed came to mind, alongside side the other books. Plants get their food from roots, the book said. But my son had no idea what that really meant. What food? From the soil? I see nothing. The teacher asked him draw a plant. He drew a sunflower. I said, no like in the textbook, draw the plant in the textbook with the leaf, he did and asked if he could go play. I said we have to listen to the teacher. She asked for him to draw little strings at the end of the leaf. Those were the root she said. My son was done and asked this time if he could really leave. I made him stay.
Honestly I was also tried and quite frankly bored as well. So I drew the roots. I also helped with the strings and the soil and the labeling of roots, plus the stem and the leaf. If this is learning, I told myself, then we are doomed. I have already helped him master reading. He is a already a confident reader in 1st grade. But now, building his confidence with learning in ways that interact with his senses, attend to his perception and foster his understanding is our next feat. I am not waiting until 3rd grade to build a confident learner. It matter for us now.