Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lessons in Reading

Three weeks ago in my post about Amy Chua and her Wall Street Journal essay on Tiger mothers, I took her to task for the kind of bullying of children that she labeled “coercion Chinese-style.” While I then suggested that there are alternative approaches to motivation and discipline, I did not get into what such an alternative looks like. So, now I will.

During a severe cold spell before Christmas, I began to get the itch to teach Pip to read. We had spent the fall working through the alphabet, and by then Pip could easily recognize most of letters. As we were both getting bored with the alphabet process, reading seemed like the obvious next challenge. For a trial run one day, I pulled Dr Seuss’s Hop on Pop off of our bookshelf and brought it over to Pip. Each page in Hop on Pop contains two or three rhyming words and then a simple sentence created from those words. It seemed like a promising text in which Pip could try out some reading work. We sat down together on the couch and started to worked our way through the first few pages.

What became immediately apparent was that while reading is something Pip likes, it is not something he is especially interested in learning. This is not to say that Pip does not want to read. He does. But, as with most four-year olds, he is not internally motivated to grind through the steps necessary to become a proficient reader. He is quite happy to memorize the lines of stories as Ava and I read them to him and then parrot those lines back to us the next day.

During that first session with Hop on Pop, he was curious enough to play along as we sounded out a couple of words together, but when I asked him to do something on his own, he balked. He flopped over and laid down on the couch. When I encouraged him to sit up and work through it with me, he moved over to another chair. I followed him, telling him to pick out a toy he could play with after we were done. This fumbling attempt at bribery only made things worse as he became interested in the toy and was even less motivated to cooperate with my instructions. I finally got him to grudgingly work through the first three pages by engaging in a series of circus tricks, chants, and horseplay that left both of us frustrated and exhausted.

The next day we tried again, and the results were about the same. The third day I just about slipped into Tiger parent mode as Pip balked right from the start. I managed to get through one page before our allotted time was up. The fourth day brought more of the same and after about fifteen minutes I asked Pip if he wanted to keep going. Of course, he said no. The begging and pleading wasn’t fun for either of us, and it was time to give up the experiment with reading until I could find a better way to approach it.


Over Christmas one of Ava’s co-workers hosted a party during which his wife showed me the book she was using to teach her daughter to read. It was a rather bland looking book. There were no cartoon characters or silly word games, only a series of regimented exercises in black and red text that gradually introduced the child to different sounds while also inculcating the process needed to sound out words. I found the simplicity and the absence of memorization lists appealing. I was also intrigued by the fact that each exercise was scripted down to the very words the instructor is supposed to say. I came away from the party thinking that this could be the next thing for Pip and I to try.

A month ago I checked out the book from the public library. On a Wednesday morning we sat down on the couch and tried the first lesson. Things went okay until the end when Pip was supposed to write one of the letters he had learned. This was a challenge for him and, as with Hop on Pop, he balked. Seeing that we were headed right back to where we started, I quickly brought the lesson to a close. Just bringing in a new book had not changed the fundamental challenge of motivating Pip to take on something that I wanted him to do. I decided to put the book away for a couple of days and start fresh with a more complete strategy after the weekend.

As I approached the reading lesson on Monday morning I decided to do a couple of things differently. First, I moved the lesson time up from mid-morning to right after brushing our teeth. That way there would be no opportunity for Pip to start playing with something and feel pulled between that something and the reading lesson. Second, I moved our lesson location from the couch to a table in the living room where we each would have our own chairs. Having never used the living room table in this way before, I hoped that the new configuration would both formalize the lesson and establish a different space that Pip would associate only with the lesson. Third, I designated a particular pencil and notebook for Pip to use only for writing exercises.

My goal with each of these steps was to make the time of our reading lesson into a special period for Pip. The arrangement of the chairs was especially for him. He got a notebook and pencil that he did not have to share with Polly (a rare thing in our house). Most importantly, he got some focused attention from me. With these things I hoped to give him some feeling of ownership over the work I am asking of him and, consequently, just enough leverage to keep bringing him back to the work when the going got hard.

That day we went back and did the first lesson again. Having done the tasks before, Pip worked through it with only two stops this time. I even managed to coax him into writing three letters. When it was all done, I gave him a big hug and kiss then told him how proud I was of him. While he was drained from the work (as was I), he had an air of accomplishment about him, a kind of giddy confidence that managed to hang around him through the rest of the day. On Tuesday morning, when I told him it was time for the reading lesson, he went out into the living room and started arranging the table and chairs.


Over the last three weeks I have learned two basic things necessary to keep him invested in each day’s lesson. One is to be honest about what it is we are doing. I can’t pretend that a particular lesson is fun and exciting. There are moments of joy and pride in each day’s work, but if I hype something, Pip gets discouraged when it doesn’t turn out to be that exciting. He feels like he missed something and either I’m disappointed in him or he isn’t understanding what I’m telling him. Either way this frustration makes him less inclined to continue with the lesson.

The other thing I’ve learned is that it takes a balance of pushing and holding back to keep him going through a lesson. The key is to learn the signals and pay attention to them. For Pip, if he asks to go to the bathroom, it means he needs a short break. So I let him go. If he drops to the floor after getting something wrong, then he is stalling, and I need to draw him back to his chair. If he is feeling especially squirrelly some physical contact is in order. I can hold his hand or even have him stand between my knees as we go through the lesson. Sometimes it is up to me to stop and tell him to take a moment in order to pre-empt some of the shenanigans that take place when he begins to tire.

And then there is the imperative to let him have a little fun as we go along. This usually takes the form of rocking back and forth as we are repeating some words or making silly twists with sounds as we hold them out together. One thing he has really enjoyed over the last week or so is reversing our roles. After we have completed an exercise, he will then tell me that he is going to teach me what I just taught him. I love this turn of events both because it provides extra repetition and because I can make mistakes that he has to recognize and correct. In the process he gets to pretend to be me for a little while, something he finds especially amusing.


Over the past few days Pip has had his first reading experience. The seemingly random exercises and sounds that were presented in the first few lessons of the book suddenly came together last Thursday, and Pip sounded out his first words. At first he just thought he had sounded out another combination of letters. When he realized that he had read a word, he literally buried his head in my lap. The idea that he had actually read something made him feel surprised, proud, and a little bit shocked. It was as if he understood that his world would never be the same.

I was thrilled to be able to experience that moment and even more happy that we got there in such a positive way. There were a couple of points over the past few weeks when dipping into some “coercion, Chinese-style” was tempting. This was especially true when I wasn’t sure how to get Pip to do what needed to happen next. But, ultimately, I knew this kind of badgering and intimidation would make both of us miserable. He would hate me for attacking him, and I would hate myself for the same reason. This hate might be short-lived, but it would make the next time I needed to push him that much more difficult. I would have to ratchet up the intimidation a little bit more to get the same effect. Eventually I would be like Amy Chua, screaming insults at my child in order to cower him into compliance. This is not the kind of relationship I want with my children.

Instead, the reading lessons Pip and I are doing together are having the opposite effect. That little bit that we accomplish each morning as we successfully negotiate another lesson colors everything else we do that day. It gives the rest of the morning a positive aura and makes both Pip and I more satisfied and tolerant of each other. Working together on a project of this nature is bolstering our relationship and increasing the love we have for each other. I’m not sure that Amy Chua would even believe that such a thing is even possible.


  1. As a teacher, I really relate to this process. It's so easy to switch into "Tiger" mode but in the end the results are only temporary. I appreciate your patience too. With teenagers you don't have to wear the kid gloves as much but their confidence is still so shaky. They need to feel like you believe in them or they stop trying with the easy excuse, "I'm a bad writer." Everyone can become a good writer, but not everyone is naturally talented at it. Same with reading, playing music, etc. It's all how you handle the process that keeps the kids motivated. I also relate to your frustration in that I have a class I feel like I can't motivate but I keep trying different things. A few of them are coming around; miniature breakthrough today. Congrats to you and "Pip" on your breakthrough!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Kara. Motivation remains a daily challenge for us, but now that we have some momentum the lessons are definitely getting easier and more fun.