After two days in labor, I gave birth to a son. Someone told me that we spend nine months worrying about childbirth only to find out it is simply a door that leads us into life as a parent. It is like learning to read. Once you know, you rarely look back and remember a time when you could not read. My experience teaching my own son to read left a life-long impression on me. It was so awesome, I want to share the same joy with every child.
Before my son was born, I read everything I could about child development and painted a beautiful alphabet painting. I painted his nursery Chinese red and proudly hung the alphabet painting on the wall. From the beginning, from the very moment of conception, I sang the alphabet song to my child. I collected alphabet books and began to look at letters as little works of art. I read that children who are allowed to explore their environments while crawling become better readers. I know it sounds funny but I would not allow anyone to encourage Kristian to walk too soon. Well, he never really walked. One night I came home and found him running, with a little plastic hammer in one hand, on his tip-tip-toes, between Tom and Eric. To this day, he loves running.
My next memory is the day Kristian read his first word. I have told this story to countless parents and teachers but there is nothing in the telling that makes it less significant to me. This story illustrates that no matter where you live , what you do for a living, your child is there–arms open–waiting to learn. My advice to every parent is don’t miss a moment and certainly don’t miss an opportunity to learn from and with your child.
On a summer morning, Kristian and I walked three blocks to town. He was two years old and very proud that he could keep up with me. We counted everything on the way. Five trees. Four houses. When he surprised everyone by reciting the entire alphabet without an error, I had offered phonetic sounds for each letter in a little game we played. “What does Mr A say?” We would laugh and giggle and he would say “AAA” . We had begun to phonetically sound out words together but he had never really done one on his own. So, on that morning, as we sat at a counter on red swivel chairs, I saw an opportunity. “What is that word?” I asked pointing to the wall. I heard him begin to read, “dddoooonnnnuuuutttt” . It then got shorter, “doooonnnnuuuttt” and shorter, “donnutt” and finally he spit out “donut”. Right there, with our milk and donuts, my two year old son read his first word. I don’t know if it is important that my son was able to sound out words at such a young age but I do know I learned the importance of context when teaching reading. There is nothing like a fresh-from-the-oven donut to help a child build a mental model of a word.
When my son was four years old, I enrolled him at a progressive preschool in St Louis. I was a graduate student and it was just around the corner from my university. I loved the creative energy of all the children.
Kristian had a friend named John. The two boys were very competitive and well-matched. John had a single mother who was an accountant and a grandmother who was a retired teacher. His grandmother had taught John to sight read words and he had an impressive vocabulary. One day, the teacher held up the word “RED”. By this time, Kristian could sound out just about any word and could read, albeit slowly, sentences. He started by saying, ‘RREEEDDD”. John looked at Kristian and said “Are you nuts? That says red. Why are you making those funny sounds?” Kristian was furious with me. He came home and said he would never read again. After that, he refused to look at a word for two years. Without knowing it, we were living the debate between phonics and whole word instruction and like many parents I felt like a failure.
I won a Fulbright scholarship to study painting in Finland. So, I packed up my six year old son and we made our way to Finland, during one of the coldest years in history. I had to decide what kind of school Kristian should attend. Another Fulbright scholar, with three adopted Asian daughters, immediately enrolled her children in a Finnish school. They were happy children who laughed as they stumbled through two Asian languages, and a little English, and some Finnish. Laughter seemed to be the only common denominator. I suspect they grew up to remember very little Finnish but probably excelled at everything they tried because of their wonderfully enthusiastic personalities.
Kristian was lucky enough to get into a Finnish/English kindergarten. Within a week he came home saying, very clearly, “I lay my spoon and fork on the table”. It appeared that my English speaking son was learning English as a second language. I took the bull by the horns and enrolled him in first grade at the International School in Helsinki. I couldn’t afford it, and we didn’t have money for anything else, but it was one of the best moves of my life. I learned that we can drop our children into difficult situations and hope for the best or we can consciously choose educational experiences that promote the joy of learning.
That year was one of the most fun years we enjoyed together. We both remember the sights and sounds of a winter wonderland. Finland is submerged in darkness from November until March but the Finnish people light their world in wonderful ways. Homes are always warm and, in December, there are candles everywhere you go. The snow is another source of unexpected light.
Kristian informed me we would need to arrive at school on time. I was notoriously late and the best part about preschool was that no one noticed. But I did haul my son and myself out in sub-zero weather every morning and onto a tram for a half hour ride to his school. We laughed and sang songs to the amusement of the frozen-faced Finns. I remember Mark Twain writing about the Finns that there was never a people who spoke so many languages yet remained in silence and it is true. But that winter there was a delight in the eyes of the people who watched a little English-speaking boy jumping up and down signing “little bunny froo froo” with a huge crescendo on “bopping them on the heads”.
Kristian had a fabulous first-grade teacher. She made everything seem like it was an adventure. His best friend that year was Henry. Henry’s dad worked at the Korean embassy. He studied everything in English at the International school, he studied Finnish with all the other children in their first grade class, and his parents taught him to read and write in Korean at home. For Henry, the International school was total emersion but it was clear that he was having a blast. “How could one little child be expected to learn so much? “, I would ask anyone who would listen. My Finnish friends probably thought that I was coddling my son and maybe I was. At that time, I put a big emphasis on developing creativity . Today, I think I was wrong because I have learned children are natural artists; they don’t need to spend hours in the studio to learn to paint or to write. Creativity bubbles up like a well inside every child.
In Finland, children learn two national languages–Finnish and Swedish. It is a lot like Canada where a small percentage of the people speak French, yet, everyone is required to learn English and French in school. Normally, the Finns start first with their mother tongue and then systematically add the second language. They also have very sophisticated total immersion schools like the French school and the English school but these schools still require all children to learn to read and write in Finnish and Swedish. What surprised me most was how much Finnish children seem to love English– they sort of look at that as dessert. For most, it is a third language and they can’t wait to begin to study it.
In terms of reading, what really turned the tide for Kristian was a series of books about witches. To this day, I don’t know the name of that series of books. They were just hard enough to read and just exciting enough that he did not want to put them down. There was a bit of a scary edge to these books. Whatever it was they did the trick. Kristian would burst into my studio holding the book in the air and say, “Do I have to eat dinner first or can we just read when we get home?” This was the ticket he needed to push him into the wonderful world of reading. He discovered he could read and he had wings. In fact, his teacher took me aside and asked me not to push Kristian so much with reading. She took me into the classroom and pointed to the book caterpillars that she had on the wall. Kristian’s circled the room. She told me other children were beginning to feel badly because they couldn’t keep up. I had to laugh because the memory of Kristian saying that he would never read again was still fresh in my mind.
When Kristian was in the third-grade, I moved to England to paint. I also started an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL) and I received a TESOL Certificate. Kristian attended a British “public school” which is actually a private school and I got a job at the University of Surrey. It was a wonderful year. We spent our weekends going to art and science museums and exploring London. With the help of an older boy, Kristian built a life-size car engine that was made from clear plastic. He also started playing the saxophone. He learned to draw on an Apple II c and became quite adept at using a variety of programs. I could clearly see the impact of early language learning. By the end of the year, his teacher took me aside and told me my son had scored in the 99th percentile on a test that was given to all students in the United Kingdom in the third-grade. She reluctantly told me my son was gifted.
Today, I know that Finland not only has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, studies show it has some of the happiest people. I am not certain what impact studying Finnish in the first grade had on Kristian but I believe it was very formative. He went on to study German, French, and Italian. He has a great love for poetry and music. He is a voracious reader who did better at math and science than either of his parents. Mostly, my son is a respectful, sensitive and kind person who loves to travel and experience different cultures. Is any of this the result of reading his first word at age two? I don’t know. I just know that children are capable of so much more than we think.
When given structured learning opportunities, every child can and will learn to speak and read in more than one language. Every child is gifted in one way or another. We just need to unlock the key to their intellectual gifts.