Mom, Dad, and Mrs. Smith

Mom, Dad, and Mrs. Smith. These three people are the reason I love to read. This blog probably wouldn’t exist without them (and perhaps a few English teachers who tried to teach me how to put sentences and paragraphs together).

There is Mom. My mom loved to read and even though things were tight in our house, she was a member of two book-of-the-month clubs. I don’t recall her reading to me, but I do recall sitting at lunch and talking about the books each of us was reading, even when I was young. It was one way we bonded, and I think her pleasure in reading rubbed off. Even in her later years, when reading was difficult for her because of macular degeneration, we would still talk books on our weekly phone calls.

Dad was the one who took me to the library when I was young and got me my first library card. Every Saturday, we would visit the main library and go down to the lower level where children’s books were, and he’d just let me roam. It was like being in paradise, and I’d bring home books on science, boys’ adventures, and baseball.

teachersMrs. Smith was my teacher for both first and second grade When I first learned that I was going to have Mrs. Smith again, I thought I had flunked. Instead, we were both promoted a grade! It was in Mrs. Smith’s classes that I learned to read. We learned reading through a version of phonics where we learned the sounds letters represented individually and in combination as they made up words, the written expression of our language. We had the classic “Dick and Jane” readers and could trace our progress as we graduated to readers with more and more words on a page, and longer, and more complicated words and stories. I remember workbooks where we had to show that we comprehended what we read. We’d read aloud and Mrs. Smith would listen to how we pronounced words and how smoothly we read and help us where we had trouble.

In later life, I’ve discovered that I was blessed with the two things critical to a lifelong love and enjoyment of reading. The first is a home experience where books are valued and closeness with parents is associated with reading. In later years, the “bedtime stories” we shared as a family became a cherished memory and turned our son into an early and lifelong reader. The delight in good stories and the physical and emotional closeness were part of what made this so special.

It was on a recent two hour bus ride that I was reminded of the other blessing, a teacher skilled in helping young children put all the elements of reading together. I was sitting across from a friend who is a retired teacher, who had worked for many years as a reading specialist and continues to stay up on the field. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned a number of the different things children need to do in order to read well. There’s the ability to decode words, to read with fluency, to learn vocabulary and to comprehend what one is reading. I was reminded of all the things so many of us take for granted that good teachers actually work hard on. They help young children acquire reading skills that will last a lifetime. I was reminded how urgent the acquisition of these skills in the early grades is for everything else children do in school.

At other points in the conversation, I heard of the “regime changes” that would lead at times to scrapping approaches that were yielding good results for new approaches that teachers would have to learn while reading scores suffered. I’ve heard similar stories from another friend who also focused on reading instruction. Both have retired from teaching, at least in part, because politicians have moved from simply giving proper oversight to education to turning it into a political football with teachers constantly on the defensive. Neither of these teachers was “dead wood” but rather skilled practitioners who really cared about teaching and about children. I would acknowledge that there is a conversation needed about those who are under-performing and protected by union contracts. But the vast majority of teachers I’ve known past and present are professionals who are good at what they do and love children, who increasingly feel they are not supported either by parents, or school administrations, or the state.

It seems to me that one of the most basic interests of our country is children who know how to read and understand what they are reading. It is telling that 85 percent of juveniles who end up in juvenile courts are functionally illiterate, and that 70 percent of prison inmates can’t read above a fourth grade level. It seems to me that rather than squaring off against each other, it is an urgent need for parents, teachers, and legislators to form new alliances to support each other in this critical task.

Each of us has an important part to play if children are to learn to read well (and acquire the other necessary skills to equip them for life, which includes the arts, as well as math and science). My parents’ generation, my school teachers, and even our government got that when I was young. Will that be said of this generation?

I don’t know. What I can say is, “thank you Mom, Dad, and Mrs. Smith.” You gave me a gift I’ve treasured my whole life.

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