So, we’re teaching Georgia to read. Let me put it this way: We are committed to a long-term project to see just how literate we can make this kid. It’s been an enlightening and emotional process, teaching Georgia to read.
Georgia has always loved books. I made sure that she did. From the moment I could get up and buy things for her, I bought books. Board books, bath books, pop-up books, fairytale books, “first” books, Dr. Seuss books, teething books, novellas, anthologies, series. I bought her the Lord of the Rings trilogy when she was about 2. She looked back at me blankly, giggling, and stuck the corner of one of the novels in her mouth. And then she drooled. This I saw, of course, as pleasurable anticipation.
Books have been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was that kid who found sustenance and a rich imaginative life in the pages of a book. When I remember the thrill of anticipating summertime, it was for the swimming and camping and playing outside. But it was also (admittedly, mostly) for those long summer afternoons up a tree in Muskoka outside my trailer, or inside my tent wearing the flashlight out late at night, reading books.
I was the geeky kid who would take a book into the bath and be still there an hour later, shivering in the cold water with my mom knocking on the door telling me to “get to bed!” I was constantly reading books. In fact, devouring books. I’ve always been able to find companionship in a book. With brothers who were a lot older than me, summertime at our trailer up north meant that often I was on my own. Happily, I took to the well-worn trails around the campground with my badge-covered canvas military bag filled with Tolkien and L.M. Montgomery, rich visions of Frodo and Anne Shirley in my head.
But I don’t remember learning to read. Weird. I don’t remember sounding out letters or reading through first grade readers. I just remember being able to. That’s how natural it felt and still feels, upon reflection. I have memories of sweating over fractions, and loving long division once I figured it out. I even have memories of learning geography and history, but reading? Nope.
Georgia’s journey to reading (or whatever her version of literacy will be) is on the other hand very real, very memorable and very, well, palpable and constant. It’s been an interesting journey. Here’s a quick synopsis.
First, I was told she’d never learn to communicate meaningfully, read or write. Never. Next, I was told that I shouldn’t waste my time trying to teach her to read or write as she could only learn skills of daily living, if those. Then I was told that, yes, she could learn to read and that phonics would hopefully work. She began to identify letters, sounds, small words. Then, no, I was told phonics probably wasn’t going to work with her and we should instead focus on teaching her sight-reading and identification of common words. Or maybe we should just focus on important words for her survival and well-being (like “Women” on a bathroom door or “Stop” on a big red sign). We now have a wonderful tutor now who has worked with Georgia for a few years and who is making tremendous progress, somewhere in between learning sight words and principles of phonics and just, hey, reading for fun.
Through it all, I’ve read to her. I’ve filled her room with books and happily allowed them to be strewn throughout the house or in the car on a road trip. And Georgia loves books. Not in the way most of us experience that love, but rather in her own unique way.
She loves to have her books around her. She multitasks with books, playing the drums wearing a bike helmet (but, of course) while her books are arranged around her, on the couch, some open and some closed. (That part, for Georgia, is an exact science: the same pages are open in the same books, more often than not). She reads books on her iPad while listening to the Beatles or Marley – or a medley, with a bit of Wiggles thrown in there. She carries her favourite books around the house from bedside table to couch to basement to backyard swing and back to bed. I still throw a few Curious George books in my bag when we go out for dinner. I’m likely the only person I know with a 13-year-old who is very likely to reach into her purse and fish out a Scholastic book about Dinosaurs! or Firefighters!
I’m learning two things from this journey with Georgia. The first is that I’ve learned how to learn how to read. I’m learning how difficult it is to sound words out or to recognize the differences between “tan” and “cat” and “car.” I’m struggling along with Georgia, with how to best help her, and setting no expectations – except that she doesn’t lose her love of books through the hard work, which is a risk.
The second thing is that I’m learning more about the complex and diverse value of books, about how the mere physical presence of books surrounding us can provide comfort, stability and consistency. How carrying a book in your purse or around the house can make you feel better. I kind of knew that already – those who know me are familiar with my stacks of books in various corners of the house – but it’s different with Georgia. I’m learning about how a closed book placed beside you on a restaurant table can ground you. All this from someone who doesn’t actually read. Yet.
And then I have this dream. I dream of her reading, of a warm summer day on the beach. We’re sitting together in our little beach tent – and we’re reading. We stop here and there to share a comment or a cheesie. She looks up at me and smiles, putting her bookmark in her book as if it’s the most natural thing in the world and then in true Georgia-style, tosses the book aside casually, gets up and putting her headphones on, gives me two thumbs up, and dances down the beach.