JusJoJan Day 6: “If You Can Read This…”

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“If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

I’ve seen this phrase, many times – mostly on bumper stickers, but sometimes on pro-public education advertising. On the surface, it’s a pleasant enough sentiment.

On closer examination though, I find the phrase to be presumptive, and sometimes erroneous. It implies that, without teachers, no one would be able to read; that reading has to be taught. There’s certainly a tendency to think so, if the abundance of reading programs and materials that saturate the learning market. Teaching kids to read is big, big business…

But, in my house, there are simply four people who read. Oh, and a few thousand books, and magazines, and four Kindles, and a wireless Internet connection. We breath in words, and breathe out ideas.

Two out of four of us learned to read without being taught. As I wrote yesterday, I was four when I learned. My daughter was eight when she could read independently. If she had attended school, she would very likely have been labeled as a slow reader, and, despite having a spoken vocabulary that rivals many adults’, she would have almost certainly have received the message that there was something wrong with her, that she was behind. She wanted to read, and her confidence might well have been seriously trampled.

At yet, at age ten and a half , she’s an accomplished reader, and often comes to read over my shoulder, or with her brother, on her own, to a friend, and all on a par with her spoken fluency. She didn’t need a reading program, or extra help. What she needed was an environment rich in language, stimulating experiences, many options for learning, people who could read, and were willing to read with her, and answer her questions. She needed to go places and see words written, in many languages, and in many ways. She needed to play with language and images and her own imagination…

But, mostly, she needed time, space, and freedom. Time to explore and to figure out, and for her brain and eyes to be ready for this intricate process. Space to read in, and freedom to make her own choices about how and when and where to read.

My Accomplice doesn’t remember when he learned, so we assume he learned in school.

I myself attempted to teach my son how to read. He was five, and thisclose, and, at the time, I was more tense in our homschooling journey than I am today. I could see that he just needed to gain confidence – but why I thought that I could help him gain it by insisting, and getting frustrated, and not stopping when he was driven to tears, I don’t know, anymore. But it didn’t help our relationship, and it didn’t help him learn to read, either. Eventually, at around six, he went on a reading strike, and he refused to read or try for a few months.

I decided to let it ride, and just waited. We did other things, and read to him when he wanted.


A few months later, he was sitting on the couch, reading a Magic Tree House book as though he’d been doing it his whole life. By the time he was eight, he’d read many Great Illustrated Classics, many science books, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the first five Harry Potter books.

In school, I was not allowed to learn to read until I was in first grade, when I was six. By then, I had been reading independently for two years. I’d read Black Beauty and Heidi, among others. In class, we were ‘learning’ to read Dick and Jane books. I felt trapped during reading class, because I couldn’t read at my own level, but had to remain within the confines set forth – by my teachers. That may not have been the intention, of the teachers or the school board – but it was my reality.

I’m sure that there are teachers who do help children learn to read. I’ve had teachers who inspired me in many ways. Learning to read just doesn’t happen to be one of those things for me.

I think it’s better to deal with fact than rhetoric and assumptions. People learn to read in a variety of ways, at a variety of ages, and for a variety of reasons. I think recognizing and supporting that would be a more realistic way of looking at it. Free the teachers to do what they do in a way that accepts this, and know that there are those who learn in other ways, too.

It doesn’t matter, to the people in this house, how we learned…it just matters that we can, and do.

How did you learn to read? Do you have a favorite memory of those days? Something that made you nervous or afraid? What was your favorite childhood book?


  1. I think I was three and keeping my grandmother company in the kitchen while she was making breakfast. She was reading the Tribune and had it open to an ad for the A&P. I was sitting there looking at it, and the next thing you know, I said, “Walkie, oranges are on sale at the A&P! Three cents each!”

    In other words, I can’t tell you how I deciphered the letters and numbers, but I managed somehow…

    Most of the kids I knew could read by the time they got into kindergarten, so I don’t think it was our teachers who taught us to read. The trick was keeping us reading, and that’s what the teachers can help with. Mom taught in Chicago for years, and when she had a kid who had trouble reading, she’d make the kid read a book every week and turn in a book report. She knew when a kid had a reading problem, but for most of them it was a case of just not reading at home. I met a guy when I was in college who my mother taught. He’s the one that told me this. He was off to med school the following year.

  2. The first thought I had when I read your title was “I’m not sure if that’s necessarily true.” My son had a similar journey to your daughter and parents and teachers only made it worse for him. He’s holding his own now but he still isn’t at the “level” the system says he should be at. Great post!

  3. Great post. I need to keep remembering that not every child is a voracious reader like I was, and that that’s okay. Everyone has their own pace. But what’s this about “not being allowed” to read?? Early readers shouldn’t be stifled either!

  4. You make some interesting points here Shan. My brother is dyslexic and couldn’t read independently till he was 12. But now he reads for pleasure and has read The Lord of the Rings. I don’t think there’s necessarily a right or wrong way of people learning to read. As long as they can read eventually that’s the main thing.

    My favourite book growing up was Anne of Green Gables. 😀

  5. Well. I answered your questions already on a previous post. So I will tell you about my oldest son instead. He was a bit slow to learn to read – for a zillion reasons. By the time he came to us in third grade, he’d been labeled “special ed” in all the base subjects, for three years. He pretty much took from that, that he couldn’t do it; and from that, he took that he couldn’t do anything. Thankfully, with the same environment your kids needed, he quickly thrived and learned how much he actually loved to read. And suddenly – magically – when removed from public education, he from being a year and a half behind in reading comprehension, to being several grade levels ahead in reading comprehension. Oh my gosh how on earth is that even possible??? (Sorry – I was quite peeved with the system that intentionally held him back so they could continue to receive funding for his “disability.”)

    Sorry for the novel 😀

    Love the picture of your son – and I love those Illustrated Classics books – they are so great for kids!

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