Childhood learning · Education

How I Learned to Read


The other day in one of those internet searches that leads you somewhat astray, I stumbled down a track that dealt with the teaching of reading.

In an article titled “Yes, There is a Right Way to Teach Reading,” the author maintains that some kids are just not sensitive to the sounds of the spoken word. For example, they don’t hear that there are three sounds in the word “bag.”  In teacher-speak they lack “phonemic awareness.” Therefore what is called for is at least 100 hours instruction in phonics early on.  

This triggered a memory of how I learned to read, I was apparently one of the lucky ones to whom phonemic awareness came easily although I certainly did not get off to a good start.

 * * * * * * * * * *

Some drink, Some take drugs. I read. It’s my mother’s fault. Not that she taught me. Oh, no. That was my teacher’s job. She got paid for it. But when Miss Morgan failed to do her job and passed me on to second grade “with reservations,” Mother took charge, and the first glorious day of summer vacation just as I was on my way outside after breakfast to play sword fight with my friends, she grabbed my arm, marched me out to the squeaky glider on our screened-in front porch. plunked a stack of library books down beside me, and said. “Now read! No more monkeyshines!” (So much for Progressive education.)

I learned I was going to sit there until noon every day all summer, except to go to the bathroom. I whined. I pouted. I amused myself by turning a slow backward somersault on the glider. “Is it noon yet?” No answer. Boredom. Boredom. So I began teaching myself to read.

Mother was pleased. She looked forward to the day when “we” would “show” those old teachers of mine. Reservations, indeed!

“We” showed them, all right. But then I went right on reading.

Mother began to worry. “Too much of anything’s not good, son.”

Too late. I was hooked. Before long, when my mother started parking my sister and me at the library while she grocery shopped, I got a library card and eventually began making long walks on my own—14 blocks—to the nearest branch library. In those days—the late 1930s and early 1940s—nobody felt obliged to intervene if they saw a little boy walking alone—unless he was bleeding.

Mother wouldn’t have minded if I’d read how-to books, or inspirational books, or books about science. But all I read were stories. She thought stories were fine for relaxing. But a person couldn’t spend his life relaxing. (I didn’t see why not.)

If my teachers had known I loved to read stories, they, too, would have disapproved. In the 1930s, all the experts agreed that students who loved stories were introverts, loners. They were trapped in “the romantic realm of yesterday.” (The science was settled.) A teacher’s job was to discourage “outmoded individualism” and to focus children’s attention on the present not the past, to teach them to face facts—like dates, names, and statistics. Every “social studies” test I took in elementary school seemed to include the question, “What are the chief exports of . . . ?” The country didn’t matter. The answer was always “copra, bauxite, sisal, flax, and hemp”—whatever they are.

But my teachers could see I wasn’t one of those romantic loners. I didn’t act like a bookworm. I was simply a good reader. They approved of that. Being able to read well helped a person solve problems, and solving problems was what modern life was all about. Besides, my scores on their reading tests reflected well on their “progressive” teaching methods.

Dick and Jane

I don’t remember the names of the books Mother plunked down beside me, Ferdinand the Bull? No, I think that came later. But knowing nothing of theories of reading, she did not bring me any books with scientifically tested “age appropriate” vocabulary about Dick, Jane, and their beloved Spot. (Run, Spot, run. See Spot run.) I’m sure my poor performance in first grade was solely the fault of these boring books. Has anyone ever cared if Spot ran or not?

4 thoughts on “How I Learned to Read

  1. I have no idea how I learned to read. I don’t recall a struggle though. But I do know how my son learned to read. I think. He memorized the books I read to him and followed along as I read the words. He memorized the words. The whole words. He also memorized the alphabet. So at two years old he could “read.” mmmmmm Interesting, isn’t it?


    1. I didn’t read early. I was a December baby and an old first grader. I learned to read with the Dick and Jane series. I memorized the way the word looked. I still have trouble spelling . . . but I was a stellar reader. My teacher took me to the teacher next door’s class and proudly showed off my reading skills. The teacher’s response was to pull the basal reader she used with her class, which was a different series than my teacher used, off the shelf and ask me to read from it. There wasn’t any Dick and Jane. The characters were Jack and Janet. I stumbled immediately over Janet which was soooo close to Jane, but which I could see was not Jane. What was it? I had no clue.

      My teacher and I slunk back to our classroom, surprised by my quick fall from glory. There began some lessons about “letter sounds” which helped me not at all. Jane tuh? Who was named Janetuh? The teacher suggested we break the word apart: Jan et. Juh an n. Jan. I got that part. But et is it, not tuh? Jan it? Did I mention I grew up in Alabama? Short i and e sound the same in our world. She was Janit for many many years until I could say janet. I did learn to say Janet and not Janit about the same time I began to realize that tin and ten are not pronounced the same. And neither are Pin and pen or Gwen and Gwin.

      Never mind letter sounds like the tricksy short i and short e, even breaking words into syllables was problematic. My name is Gwen. GW-EEn. Two syllables, clearly. As is June. Ju-une. Two! In the south, vowels are drawn out, making one syllable words two and, conversely, sometimes vowels are just plainly ignored so that a three syllable word, like Do-ro-thy becomes Dor-thee, and a word like boil-ed becomes bald.
      Syllabication was another mystery in and of itself. Coming from a region where Herbert was pronounced Hubbard, it’s very easy to see why my first grade teacher latched onto the word memorization method of teaching reading. As she back tracked and tried to offer help in the way of phonetics and syllabication, she only deepened the mystery of reading. There was too much difference between the printed word and the way we spoke in Alabama to make much sense of the process.

      For example, My sister wanted to write about the wonderful potatoes in white sauce that our grandmother made. My grandmother called the dish, arsh potatoes. The teacher helped my sister with the spelling, astounding both of us with I-r-i-s-h. My sister replied she didn’t want to write about the Irish’s pototoes. She wanted to write about the lovely arsh potatoes our grandmother made. We puzzled together over why our teacher would not help her with the spelling of arsh potatoes. If I could go back to that day, I’d say to my sister, “let’s sound out the word and see if we can spell it: are-sh. So, Aresh, except that would make the word two syllables and it clearly was not. So, drop the e and we have the word: arsh! I wish you could have tasted the newly dug, tiny red potatoes covered in a velvety smooth and buttery white sauce. They had nothing to do with the country of Ireland and everything to do with Alabama.


      1. Gwen, I loved your stories about learning to read, especially about you and your sister puzzling over Irish potatoes. Teachers get hung up on a system and don’t take individuals or regional differences into account. I doubt if the system, whatever it is, matters as much as the content. I could never get excited about Dick or Jane or Spot. By the way, I read somewhere that when Flannery O’Conner enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she had to write out that she’d come there to enroll because the director couldn’t understand what she was saying.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.