Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Power of Reading

I want my kids to be a lot of things - smart, respective, friendly, inquisitive, creative, curious, happy – and I often look for ways to encourage these qualities in them. I read to them. I encourage them to use their imaginations to build things and to tell elaborate stories. I explain everyday things to them using the language of science and mathematics whenever possible. I strive to be friendly and respectful with them and others at all times. I smile and laugh a lot. I seek to model the kind of people I want them to become.

While this seems like plenty to expect, there is also another set of qualities I would like for them to possess: the ability to persevere in the face of adversity; the ability to accept their own shortcomings and work to improve them; and the ability to take on a challenge, to endure the inevitable failings that come with trying something difficult, and to ultimately do the labor necessary to find success. More than anything else, these are the qualities that will enable them to carve out a place for themselves in the world, to take their dreams and turn them into realities.

The problem I face with instilling this second set of qualities is that the situations necessary for developing them are not situations I want to intentionally create. I like to keep the environment around our house calm and happy. I like to use redirection to solve problems. I prefer to tell the kids what they can do instead of what they are doing wrong. This doesn’t mean that Polly and Pip’s lives are free of adversity. But, the post hoc nature of working through such moments does not lend itself to systematically developing the skills necessary for handling them.

Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother essay made me worry about this even more. If her kids gained nothing else from having her as a parent, they developed strategies to deal with adversity. I began to wonder if I should be doing something more for Pip and Polly in this regard. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the solution to my worries would come from something we were already doing: teaching Pip how to read.


Pip and I have doing reading lessons every weekday for a couple of months now. We are using a book of progressive lessons that asks Pip to do a bit more every day. The pace is fast, and this is forcing Pip to work hard. Within two months he has gone from identifying a couple of sounds to reading full paragraphs. Fortunately, he can feel this progress, and those positive vibes encourage him to keep coming back for more.

The hardest thing with the reading lessons is that there is always something that gets him hung up. This week’s challenge has been getting out the word “tame.” For whatever reason, whenever he sees this word, all he can get out is “tam.” He knows this isn’t right, but he can’t get his mouth to hold the long ‘a’ sound through the transition to the ‘m’ sound. Instead, he starts with a long ‘a’ and then morphs into a short ‘a’ before saying the ‘m’ sound. Then when he says the word quickly the wrong sounds come out.

When the reading lessons first started getting harder about a month ago, neither Pip nor I knew how to handle this kind of challenge. After failing a couple of times to get a word right, Pip would just flop his head down on the table and say “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” A few tears would often follow. This display would frustrate me because I felt the amount of drama was way out of proportion to the actual problem. I would have to get him a handkerchief, give him a couple of moments to compose himself, and then coax him into trying the word again. This would eventually work, but the frequency of these breakdowns meant that each reading lesson took an incredibly long time to complete.

So, we began trying some different strategies. First, we worked on eliminating “I can’t” from Pip’s reactions and replacing it with something more positive. I suggested “I think I can” from the old children’s book ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ Pip rejected this and decided on “I’m trying” instead.

Second, I found that letting him take a break for a moment when we encounter a problem only prolonged the process of working through the problem as he was less inclined to go back into the lesson if he walked away from it feeling unsuccessful. So now, we just take a breath for a moment without leaving our seats, then we dive back in.

Third, I am working to get him to go back to his basic skill set whenever he encounters a problem. One of the great things about this particular reading book is that it focuses on teaching the process of sounding things out as much as the actual sounds and words themselves. From the very start it had us doing exercises in which I said a set of words slowly and Pip then repeated them. Now when Pip encounters a word he can’t read, I take him back to the beginning. We identify each of the sounds in the word. Then we say the sounds slowly together. Then I tell him to say them together quickly. This way I can give him an assist while not actually telling him the word. More importantly, it gives us a strategy to go to when Pip stumbles on a word and falls prey to frustrated guessing.


Friday’s lesson brought together all of this factors. Pip had trouble again, this time with the word “fame.” When he did not get it right initially, he started guessing haphazardly and moving farther and farther away from his target. I stopped him and had him take a breath. Then I told him to go back to our basics. He worked the sounds again and again. He did not ask me to just tell him the word. He went through the full process, repeatedly saying “I’m trying. I’m trying.” Eventually, he got the word out and with it gained a sense of accomplishment that carried him like a wave through the rest of the lesson. I couldn’t have been more proud of him.


The gains from all of this work are twofold: 1) Pip is learning how to manage failure, how to keep himself going, and how to overcome or work through sticking points; and 2) I am learning how to guide him without resorting to meanness or anger; how to keep him focused on the task at hand; and how to walk him back without just telling him the answer. The result – while still a work in progress – will hopefully be both a kid who has gained the confidence and skills to fail at something and eventually work towards a solution and a parent who understands how to push without being demanding and how to guide without disabling.

We began reading lessons because I wanted Pip to learn how to read. It turns out that the side effects of this effort may be just as significant to his long-term success as the main objective. This is a welcome surprise that makes me even more excited to get Polly started when she is ready. I could not have planned any better way to develop their abilities to deal with adversity.

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