When my oldest child, Lily, was a baby, we would cuddle in the rocker and read Goodnight Moon, Good Night Gorilla, From Head to Toe, and more. When she got older, she would tuck herself into the corner of her bed, in a horde of pillows and stuffed animals, and I’d sit beside her reading stories, playing rhyming games, and tracing letters in alphabet books. This was our daily ritual.
Maybe that was why kindergarten was such a shock. During the first parent-teacher interview her teacher, my colleague, spread Lily’s work in front of me. One sheet stood out. It featured letters of the alphabet, only a few circled. Lily’s teacher seemed uncomfortable. Her eyes flicked from the page to me. “Lily’s behind,” she said. It was a kind phrase for a tough job. “She only knows a few of the sounds that go with the letters.”
“But I’ve done everything you’re supposed to,” I argued. Lily and I had read so much. Alphabet books were among our favorites. As a librarian with a reading specialist degree, I knew that difficulties with the written word would greatly impact Lily’s academic life for years to come. I didn’t hear much during the rest of the interview as my brain tried to process what I’d heard: my daughter had trouble with letters. I desperately hoped my colleague was wrong, but she wasn’t.
How ironic. The teacher-librarian’s daughter doesn’t read.
Every year, at interview time, the same story re-enacted itself, only now I knew it was coming. Strategy sheets were sent home. We tried “Stretchy Snake” and stretched out all the sounds in unknown words. With “Chunky Monkey” we broke words apart and looked inside them for littler, familiar words. We attempted to reread sentences as a “Tryin’ Lion” to see if we could get it; but none of the strategies worked.
In first grade, Lily’s class read a poem together every Monday. That night Lily would bring home a copy to be re-read before completing a response activity. I’d do dishes and Lily would sit at the kitchen table reading, her finger on the page, until she hit a word she couldn’t work through. She’d stop and draw her mouth into a line. Her hands would lower to her sides in small fists. “Try Stretchy Snake,” I’d say, coming over.
“I can’t!” she’d yell, flailing her arms, knocking the folder to the floor. She’d collapse across the chair in tears. It was too much. It was too hard. Some nights, I’d just read the poem to her. Some nights she would stomp to her room and I’d let her go.
Once, a friend of Lily’s stayed with me in the library after school when her mother was running late. She pulled out her Poem-of-the-Week, read it, wrote her response, and had me check it over. Reading and responding to the poem was easy for her. It took less than five minutes. She had no difficulties completing the task. I was in shock.
You’d think, as a teacher, I should have recognized that something was wrong. But I’d taught older students before I moved into the library position. The learning-to-read stage was new to me. Reading, for me, was as natural as breathing. I didn’t get it.
Even when I couldn’t read, I read. I remember being five and sitting right behind the bus driver, a thick book in my hands. The bus stopped, and a tall boy got on. He started walking down the aisle but paused beside me. “You’re reading that?” he asked.
“Yep,” I answered. What I didn’t tell him was I was only reading the words I knew, all those little words like and, it, but, so, the, and a. I was reading a big book. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what mattered.
When she was eight, we discovered why reading was difficult for Lily. She was diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder, which affects the nerves running from her ears, blurring the sounds before they reach her brain. Because she can’t process sounds clearly, it is hard for her to decode them on paper. Now her many mispronunciations made sense, but identifying the problem didn’t change the outcome. Reading was hard, and I knew we were going to have to work to increase Lily’s reading independence and comfort. I just wished I knew exactly what we were supposed to do.
By the end of grade three, Lily comfortably read and re-read Robert Munsch picture books. They were rhythmic and funny. You could count on Robert Munsch to repeat phrases at least five or six times, and I found which books had the lowest vocabulary and greatest interest to her. She loved Up Up Down, We Share Everything, Good Families Don't, Stephanie's Ponytail, and Playhouse. I read them over and over to her. Since she didn’t sound words out, and she couldn’t hear them clearly, she needed constant and repeated exposure to common words to build her individual word bank. Eventually, I was the narrator, and she was the characters. Over time, with lots of exposure and repetition, words made it into her long-term memory and she could recognize them on the page. Now she could read Robert Munsch on her own.
In grade six I introduced her to Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels, which she has devoured countless times. The release of a new Raina book is an event for us. Smile, Drama, Sisters, and Ghosts evoke family life and the drama of being a young teenage girl. The drawings are clear and the situations are relatable. I had tried other graphic novels with her, but she rejected all fantasy aspects. This author worked for her.
Lily occasionally got excited about the idea of books. Sometimes, when we went to a bookstore, she asked me to buy her a novel. Ever optimistic that this might be the book she’d want to read, I always did. I believed she wanted to read. Her friends were huge readers, devouring whole series, but their love of books highlighted how she didn’t fit in. Once Lily started a novel, she’d be done in five pages. This topic wasn’t interesting. She’d didn’t understand what was happening. The length, the number of words, the tiny black print streaming across page after page were too intimidating, and she’d give up. Reading drew her into “I can’t.”
When I read, I don’t always notice when I come across a word I don’t know, but Lily did. Every single time. Every unknown word was a reminder that she couldn’t read like those around her. Even if teachers told her she had an excellent understanding of what she read, she didn’t see it.
When I teach my grade sevens vocabulary, I tell them to find words they don’t know. They write out the sentence containing the unknown word, draw a square around it, then guess the meaning and write it down. Finally, they look it up in the dictionary. At first, they think the dictionary is the important part, holding the authority, but it’s not. It’s the guessing that’s important. That is how we learn. We see words and guess. Repeated exposure to words in different contexts builds our understanding of what words mean. It happens unconsciously. In fact, if my students tell me they can’t find words they don’t know in their book, I tell them to look closer. Unlike Lily, they are unaware of their ignorance.
Seventh grade was a difficult year for Lily. She was on rotation for eight subjects with many teachers who hadn’t worked with her before. I was glad she had the same language teacher she’d had in grade six, and I thought that consistency would help.
Lily’s favorite game that year was Sims, and she often played it on the computer just off the kitchen while I made dinner. One night I asked her what she was reading at school. “I’m just fake reading right now,” she told me without looking up.
I put down the knife I’d been washing and walked over to her. “Fake reading?” I asked. “What does that mean?”
“My teacher told me I can’t read graphic novels anymore, so I’ve got a book and I sit there and turn the page every couple minutes. It looks like I’m reading.”
I was livid. I had moved Lily beyond Raina Telgemeier. I had researched graphic novels, and found great books such as Roller Girl, Sunny Side Up, Awkward, and the full-color re-issues of the Baby-Sitters Club. We even bought El Deafo, a memoir about the author’s challenges in school due to her hearing difficulties.
Among my seventh graders, I had students with learning disabilities and trouble reading. They were also devouring graphic novels. The images support the story and make clear which character is speaking, bridging the gap created by learning challenges. Finishing a book quickly and competently brought a smile to the faces of my students as they identified as readers. Did I want them to move on to chapter books and more challenging material? Of course, but our children and students don’t grow on timelines set by schools, teachers, or parents.
I walk a fine line as a parent, an advocate for my daughter and a teacher in the same school, but my daughter was fake reading in class. I sent her teacher a too terse email, informing her of Lily’s new strategy. I agreed that reading a novel would be beneficial, and if she could put one in Lily’s hands that she could read, understand, and stick with, I’d be grateful. I would love someone else to find her a book, but it’s never happened. It’s always me. I pointed out that graphic novels have plot, character development, story arc, and flashbacks. Why weren’t they appropriate? As a teacher, I knew it wasn’t the greatest email to receive, but she had no argument against it. My daughter continued to read and re-read great graphic novels until it was time for a new classroom assignment, Book Club.
As the librarian, I chose the books to introduce to Lily’s class: thin books, thick books, books with action and plot, and drama-filled books based around character. I introduced the books by reading exciting parts, playing book trailers from YouTube, even showing the size of the print and the amount of white space so students could make choices appropriate to their interests and reading comfort level. Each child ranked their top five books. The ranking sheets were given to Lily’s teacher and she assigned each student a book. Groups were assembled based on book choice.
Lily was truly excited about one book on the list, so I had high hopes, but she came home the next week with a different book. Susan Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It is a great book about a meteor hitting and moving the moon, disrupting its gravitational pull on the earth. The repercussions are endless and the story is told from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl with all the self-centered worries and concerns typical of the age. But it wasn’t going to work for Lily. The book was 300 pages long, and to stay on track she would have to read 70 densely printed pages a week. She threw the book on the floor and the white of a panic attack edged into my peripheral vision as my heart-rate rose. My faking-it novel reader couldn’t read that much. I didn’t have time to read it to her over the next month. We were both entering full fight-or-flight status, not knowing we’d been handed a gift.
My brain morphed into problem-solving mode. We’d loved listening to audiobooks as a family when we traveled to various cottages across Canada and the States. In fact, the stories made the 13-hour trips bearable. I’d asked Lily if she wanted to listen to books on her iPad before, but she’d said no every time.
“Lily,” I asked. “What do you think about downloading the audiobook onto your iPad? You can read along while you listen to it.”
I could see the resignation in her eyes. “I only have four days to read the first seventy pages.”
We set it up that night. When I peeked into her room, she was tucked into the corner of her bed, in a mass of pillows. Her iPad was beside her in my old spot, her binder propped up against her knees, earbuds in and pencil in hand.
The next day at school, I was working at my desk, and I looked up to the second-story window of my library. There she was, sitting on the floor in the hallway, propped up against the side of a locker. Same position, same action. She looked down and gave me a wave and a smile through the glass. Lily was loving her reading and asked every day to leave the class to read in the hallway in peace.
Her teacher was delighted with Lily’s enthusiasm for her book and her participation in the discussions. She even contacted another parent in the class to provide them with the audio option. For the first time, Lily was in on the world of a book with her book-loving friends. She would tell me she was going to read, and off she’d go.
Parents often think that listening to books is not a valid substitute for reading, but audio can be as effective as words on the page to convey meaning. When I teach The Outsiders in my seventh-grade class, I provide links to various online audio versions of the book. The kids are able to explore theme and symbolism by listening to a book that they would have struggled to read. One parent laughed at her son when he said he was going to “read,” but was actually going to listen. She thought it was cheating, but that was the most engaged he was in language all year. Another parent told me the book wasn’t at her child’s reading level. I pointed out that it was at her thinking level, and I was asking her to interact with the ideas, not simply the act of decoding the words.
When Lily finished Life As We Knew It, I considered cancelling the audiobook subscription, but she asked, “Do you remember the book I really wanted for Book Club? The one about the foster kid?”
She was talking about Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s One for the Murphys. Lily had an interest in the topic of foster children. She watched season one of The Fosters on Netflix, gained a new friend who had been in a foster home, and took notice when a group foster home opened up next door. I love One for the Murphys, too. It’s a book that can be counted on to engage the reluctant female readers in my class. “Do you think we could download it?”
She’s been reading every day. I don’t know when or if she’ll be ready to move onto chapter books independently, but I know that everyone loves a good story. Maybe the form of a story isn’t the point. Maybe it’s ensuring that students see the worth of that story, allowing them to access and share in the reading experience, to see themselves reflected back in the text, or to use it as a window to understand the world.
As a teacher and a librarian, Lily has helped me grow. She’s making me less judgmental. She’s forcing me to explore the varying approaches I need to make reading a positive experience for the range of reading abilities in my classes. Because of her, I’ve moved past my black and white view of reading, arriving at the understanding that for many of my students, the activity I love so much can be more of a gray area. She’s exactly the daughter I need.