So this very exciting thing happened last week: my three-year-old daughter said, “Mama, will you teach me how to read?” (Side note: it kills me when she calls me Mama. So over-the-top precious.) I’ve worked in education and children’s publishing for a long time, so this was a big moment for me. I’ve said before that when she was a baby, the language milestones were most important to me – more so than physical accomplishments – and moving towards reading is really a biggie.
But let me be clear: she’s only three; I don’t have any designs on her entering pre-K a reader. I believe that ideally, learning to read ought to be as gradual, relaxed and fun as possible, so I am not launching a campaign to have her curling up with Ulysses by 4th grade. If she is anything like her parents, she will always find joy and refuge in reading. So what excites me is that she took the first step toward something I know will change her life.
The funny thing about being a first-time parent is how often I forget the quite obvious fact that my daughter doesn’t know something until she learns about it for the first time. I took for granted that when we read a story she knew I was reading it. In contrast, a couple of months ago I suggested we read a new book and she said, “but do you know the story?” I realized that she thought that through some kind of mom-omniscience I knew the stories in all books. Sometime between then and now she made a breakthrough. Now she knows what reading is.
I report most of my daughter's language developments to my friend, early literacy expert Francie Alexander, who said that now my daughter understands that words have meaning, and that what’s in books is immutable. The best part, we agreed, is that she’s thinking: I can do this.
Now I find that she spells out the words on the page as I read them (which makes story time sloooow). In general, she names the letters and moves on without identifying the word she has spelled. I think she is on the cusp of making that connection, but it hasn’t happened yet, and she's never used the word "spell." In the meantime, I now feel a little zing of possibility during our read aloud time, the excitement of what’s to come.