I’m not training for a 5k. But I have done, once, and my husband has trained for more marathons than you can shake a stick at, so I feel confident enough to say this. When you train for a race, you start out small. You run a short distance. The next day, you run a bit further. You build up your stamina, you strengthen your muscles and you enlarge your lung capacity by adding a little more every time until – hey presto! – with determination and persistence and hard work, you can run as far as you want to. Hooray!
Learning to read doesn’t work that way.
My daughter started kindergarten this year knowing the letters and most of the sounds they stood for. She could sound out simple words. But she couldn’t read yet. Somewhere along the way, and with help from a great teacher, things clicked. Now she looks at words on a page and knows what they are, without having to think about letters and sounds and how they all fit together.
There was a point for her when that leap from decoding to knowing just happened. It’s the leap that didn’t happen for her brother, the third-grader, the one with dyslexia. He still has to decode every word. That’s what takes so long.
So my kindergartener is testing above grade level for reading. Like, way above. “But,” her teacher said to me, “I’m worried about her fluency. It’s not there. Is she reading for 20 minutes a night?”
“No,” I said. “I read to her for at least 20 minutes a night.” She reads a few lines, or a few minutes, or whatever she feels like. She’s reading all the time – I see her eyes lighting on words she knows as I read a book that’s way above her own level. I see her reading signs and lists and packages and posters. She’s reading.
“Well,” said her teacher, who is a great teacher, who knows exactly how to get the kids reading, “she needs to start reading by herself for longer. Start her at five minutes and move up to ten and then fifteen. When she’s in third grade she’ll be taking the PARCC tests, you know. They have to read for 90 minutes at a time.”
This is where the running comes in. That’s how you train for a 5K, but it’s not how a child learns to read. That’s like saying that your three year old needs to attend an academic preschool where he sits at a desk and learns his numbers and letters for a good portion of the day, because he’ll need to do that when he’s five. So he’s got to start practicing now.
No, he doesn’t. Your three year old needs to be running and jumping and feeling different textures and finding out what fits together and what goes inside what and looking and listening and smelling and tasting. He does all that to prepare his body and to connect the dots in his brain so that WHEN he’s five – or six or seven – he’ll be able to sit still for a while and learn in a classroom setting, given a sympathetic teacher and material that interests him.
My six and a half year old may be able to read and understand a lot of words, but that doesn’t mean I can hand her my seven volumes of Harry Potter (UK edition) and expect her to immerse herself for the afternoon. She loves Harry Potter, but she’s not ready to read it yet. And I’m unwilling to sit her down with a book and a timer and make her read a little longer every day, because that’s not how it works.
Some day when I’m not watching, she’ll pick up a book and get comfy and find that an hour later she hasn’t moved because she’s been reeled into another world, where James flies a giant peach or Hermione saves a hippogryff or Anne accidentally dyes her hair green. It will happen with a leap, the way your toddler went from having ten words to fifty in a week, or the way one day your preschooler could whistle (and didn’t stop demonstrating for a month). It will happen when you’re not paying attention.
Absent dyslexia, it will happen.