a boy reading

Now that my 6-year-old is reading, he can’t get enough

Already in 2019, I’ve taught my son to read. I can’t imagine I’ll accomplish anything that tops that this year.

I had help, of course: Nate’s first-grade teachers, who are divine. An elementary school rich in resources. Beginning reader books that I borrowed from the library and bought on Amazon. My husband, who has modeled being an avid reader all of Nate’s life and has read to him tirelessly since he was a baby. And, of course, Nate, who one day just became ready, and sat next to me working through pages and sounding out words for hours. Now he hungrily figures out how to spell new words and reads to himself in bed before he goes to sleep each night.

Nate is 6½, and in today’s educational climate, that makes him a late reader. There’s a wide developmental range of when children are ready to read, and there’s no correlation between early reading and later academic success. I used to consider myself an evangelist for not pushing reading on kids too early. We enrolled Nate in play-based and Montessori preschools where exploration and social development were valued over direct instruction in numbers and letters. Traditional open-ended activities like sand play and building blocks were seen as pathways to literacy — developing hand strength through squeezing Play-Doh and cutting with scissors, for example, would help children pick up a pencil and write later.

It was easy to be relaxed about Nate learning to read when he was in preschool. As he approached kindergarten, I worried that literacy would be pushed too much at the expense of creative play. I didn’t learn to read in kindergarten, but I know that education standards have since changed greatly, and today’s kindergarteners are expected to meet clear academic milestones throughout the year.

I remember clearly my first day of first grade. We sat at our desks with textbooks in front of us — a major change from our kindergarten year when we spent our half-days on our feet, rotating between play centers in our roomy classroom. The teacher went around and asked each student to read a couple of lines from a story on the page. Looking back, I’m sure she was trying to quickly assess the range of reading levels in her classroom. But to me, the stakes felt high. I waited nervously as my turn approached, staring hard at the page and willing myself to somehow decode the words written on it. I couldn’t, yet, but by the end of the year I was gobbling up Judy Blume books.

I’ve repeated this story dozens of times, and dozens of times I’ve said that Nate could wait to read until he was in first grade. But it is one thing to say that and another to sit across the table from your child’s kindergarten teacher when she is telling you he isn’t sounding out letters at the same pace as the other kids. You wonder if you are doing something wrong.

Now that Nate is reading, my satisfaction is all the sweeter because of the year we spent supporting him academically. In some ways, I feel vindicated in my belief that he would read when he was ready. But in other ways we learned a lot from having him read later.

One of the benefits of public schools is that they are legally required to provide extra services to children who qualify. It’s a wonderful part of the social contract. There’s no question that many schools fail at this mandate, but we’re lucky to be in a district that does a decent job. We’ve learned a lot about that system in the past year, and though Nate is now speedily catching up to his grade level, it is reassuring to know that a safety net of services is available to support him and other students.

We’ve also learned that at Nate’s school teachers and staff really care about the kids. One of the upsides to going to extra parent-teacher conferences has been getting to know Nate’s teachers better and feeling their support. They have impressed us with their detailed observations of his learning style, their creative suggestions for ways to practice skills at home, and their generosity in lending us learning tools from the classroom, including ones that I know the teachers purchased themselves.

Nate has a long academic road ahead of him, so in a way it’s nice to get practice helping him with something challenging and understand how to access available resources. And now, after all the hard work, Nate is flying forward as a reader, and I get to enjoy this moment. He curls up with his book, I curl up with mine, and I think: I taught my son to read.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.