My son can read, really (I hope)

My son can read, really (I hope)

J. On. John. W. On. Te. D. Wanted. A. F. Rog. Frog. As. A. P. Et. Pet. I'm tired. I want to sleep. Can I rest? A. At. Th. The. P. Et. Pet. Sh. Op. Shop. T. Ad. P. Ols. Tadpoles. Sw. Am. Swam. I. In. A. B. Ig. Big. T. Ank. Tank. Yay! Can I have a stamp now? Can it say "Very good"? Wait, can it say "Impressive"? I want two! Can I? I'm tired now.

This is my son, Lucien, learning how to read. Lucien is five. His birthday was less than three months ago. Most days, my husband, my domestic helper and I sit down to read a little with him. We coax him through his special reader, the sentences annotated with little symbols to help him make sense of the phonetic sounds.

Lucien attends a reading programme. I signed him up after he told me he hates reading, that he is dumb because he didn't know the words at school and cannot read. I asked him if anyone said that, and he said no. His kindergarten teachers are lovely. Last year, his

English teacher tactfully told me she was concerned he was falling behind his classmates in literacy.

I think he picks up on the anxiety of adults. Eager to please, he senses disappointment when he fails, yet rarely realises the elation of others when he succeeds. Since he started his programme, he has improved by leaps and bounds. But still, he finds reading a chore.

I feel his pain. What comes easily to me, his father and elder brother - who memorised books we read to him and did a convincing impression of reading on his own by age two - is tough for Lucien. Books grow like stalagmite in our house. He treads through them

like the minotaur in his labyrinth, bull-like in his obstinacy against cracking them open, this son of mine born in the Year of the Ox.

Let's go to the library, I suggest. What a treat. My children should be screaming for joy and knocking me down in their haste to get to the car. Instead, Lucien fixes his gaze on me and says: "I hate the library." My outing, his look tells me, is not worth an "Impressive" stamp.

Early childhood reading, increasingly, is a thing with parents. And, really, you can't blame us. Kids who read more than their peers do better cognitively, is the conventional wisdom. Even in adult life, reading has been associated with lower stress levels, lower risk of Alzheimer's, better chances with hipster members of the opposite sex, yadda yadda…

Research published late last year in the journal, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, suggests that parents should teach their children to not just read, but also write before starting kindergarten - helping kids relate sounds to the words on a page.

On the other hand, a recent survey of more than 2,000 American parents and children, done by publisher Scholastic, found that children reading for fun in the United States has dropped by nearly 10 per cent - 51 per cent, as opposed to 60 per cent in 2010.

All that's secondary. Reading sometimes feels like the only gift of significance I can give my kids. Reading is a way of accessing, and believing in, worlds you cannot see. It is the bridge that spans intellectual and religious epiphany.

Months ago, the boys and I worked our way through Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, the 1959 novel about a mentally slow man, Charlie, who becomes a genius after experimental surgery. My elder son, eight, and I giggled at the narrator's bad spelling and grammar at the start of the book, before his transformation.

The jokes, however, were lost on Lucien. Like Charlie, my five-year-old is feeling his way around the written word, looking for an exit as the tunnel threatens to close in upon him.

As Charlie's ethical and linguistic progress in Keyes' novel shows, the human mind expands to take in new experiences, to think more critically, at the same time it finds the words and complex clauses to express these thoughts and feelings. We, too often, take for granted the way being literate allows us to navigate the world on so many levels.

Watching my son's journey towards reading reminds me of how text has allowed us as a species to think Really Deep Thoughts - thoughts that wind and burrow through blank uncharted territory. The signs we make on paper or in pixels are pebbles glowing in the moonlight to guide us in the thickets of discovery.

So, it sometimes breaks my heart to see my son stumble on his journey. To lose faith and courage. The same way it breaks my heart to see volumes of "model short stories" in local bookstores, aimed at secondary school students who would give up the right to exercise their wonderful, wild imaginations. And for what? Higher scores?

We cannot give up. We are getting there. And in these almost-already-reading days, there is a hesitant rhythm, a sub-text of resistance, a melody of exasperation that is his and his alone, the sounds and letters accreting into the person only he can become. The tadpole is swimming. Soon, he will outgrow his tank.

stlife@sph.com.sg

What was it like teaching your child to read? Write to stlife@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 18, 2015.
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