“So your daughter doesn’t read yet?” It’s the question I dread anytime we go out.
For a long time, people would ask me if I was concerned and I would respond with why? Living abroad has given me some leeway since different countries start reading at different ages. When she was five I pointed out to my expat British friends that kids in the US don’t start learning until they enter Kindergarten which, depending on birthdays, can be a full year after British kids start in reception.
When my daughter turned six, I pointed out that kids in the US used to learn reading in first grade. I followed with how the French system teaches children to read in first grade as well. As we creeped to age seven, I embraced my inner Finn. Everyone knows the Fins start school at seven and lead world education leagues. You can see where this is going.
Now she is nearly eight. I could argue Fins test kids at seven to see if they are ready but even I know my desperation is wafting slowly across England, France and Finland. Her insatiable appetite for knowledge and endless stream of questions clearly pointed to a girl who was ready to learn but not read.
I’ve read countless articles that kids will read when they are ready; that children who are late readers, catch up within a few years and often surpass their classmates in comprehension skills. So why I am struck by a wave of anxiety anytime someone broaches the topic?
Well, I homeschool for starters. I have no doubt that many people blame me for my daughter’s late reading. That many kids struggle with reading, particularly in countries who insist on starting with tiny tots doesn’t seem to matter. If a kid is in school, the child is a late reader. If the kid is homeschooled, it’s the parents who are somehow failing their kids.
I won’t lie. I can’t help but wonder how much was caused by my child’s innate personality and how much by my parenting. and how much is me.
I may not have always been consistent but no one can blame me for not trying! I tried reading in the mornings and then reading at night. I bought everything people recommended for struggling readers. From Reading Eggs to Hooked on Phonics and Bob books to Explode the Code, nothing seemed to work.
At one point she seemed more drawn to the French syllabic-phonetic reading method. Since she is bilingual so I switched to French as I had learned first in French and transitioned easily to English. I tried to make it fun; I tried to push through it. But every time we sat down my poor kid would end up nearly in tears.
She couldn’t grasp what I saw as the simplest things, like P + A = PA. I would get so frustrated, knowing full well that I was making things worse. I knew it wasn’t her fault and yet I couldn’t help it. It was a visceral reaction. I would oscillate between anger and despair. These are things a teacher probably wouldn’t feel, but have been echoed time and time again by friends of mine with late readers in traditional schools.
On one of our numerous reading attempts, my daughter and I were both in tears. Wallowing in self loathing, I apologised to her and said I felt like I wasn’t a very good mother. She hugged me close and said “you are a very good mother…but maybe not such a good teacher.” And she was right.
I decided to stop pushing her to read. Instead I let her play with her younger sister. I reminded myself she had her whole life to read but only a few more years of crossing effortlessly in and out of different imaginary worlds.
Every three months or so I would pick it up, give it a go, and as soon as her lip quivered and my shoulders tensed up, I knew it wasn’t time yet. I remembered to breathe. I reminded myself that she didn’t get her first tooth until she was 13 months old. I recalled that while all my friends’ babies were giggling like crazy, she would sit and observe everyone, refusing to laugh. I remembered she was late to talk but now can talk for hours on end and laughs at everything!
Finally, one day it happened. She looked at two letters and put them together. And then two more. And more. It isn’t easy. She still struggles, but she doesn’t want to give up. And she doesn’t end up in tears. She isn’t reading on her own but she is starting to read, at her own pace.
I’ll never know whether leaving her in a regular school would have resulted in her reading sooner. I suspect she would have but I am certain it would have been harder than it needed to be. And for what? She could spend weeks working on her letters and letting frustration build or used that time to play, run, & discover the world around her.
My kid is a bright star. Her curiosity and love of learning is inspiring. She has a rich vocabulary. She is bilingual English-French and is making big inroads with her Spanish, understanding most conversation and fearlessly expressing herself to strangers all around. But most importantly, she is kind and thoughtful beyond belief.
I am so proud of her. I am also ridiculously grateful that her little sister has started to read early , absolving me of my guilt –well most of it. I hope sharing our experience will help others in similar situations. I also hope time will demonstrate the absurdity of the reading rat race. Our children have their whole lives to acquire these skills. Let them be kids while they can and let us embrace teaching them at their pace; even if it is at snail’s pace.