I am one of those children who actually learnt to read spontaneously. I was never taught how to read, or even had a childhood surrounded by piles and piles of books. Quite the opposite, I only had less than 10 storybooks having grown up in a working class household with parents whose highest academic qualifications were ‘O’ Levels. We spent much more time in front of the television than we did reading. I never recalled my parents reading ever, unless you count the newspaper.
I recalled however some books I received as gifts from relatives and friends. There was also a point of time where my mother was mired in the Reader’s Digest un-winnable Lottery stakes (except she didn’t know it was a scam) and she acquired a bunch of Reader’s Digests and more storybooks for me. I also joined the Library Club when I was 9 only because my teacher told me that having a CCA was compulsory and I had to sign up for something. So I signed up for the most low-key activity I could find and we spent our time in Library Club listening to audio books and loaning books home to read. Some of the books I remembered vividly were King Kong, the Berenstein Bears, Ladybird series, the Book of Question and Answers, Oliver Twist, Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, Grimm’s Fairytales and Ramona and Beezus.
It was between the ages of 8 and 9 when I started teaching myself to read. It wasn’t like a gradual process. It was like a light just switched on. For a long time, I was only fixated with picture books and their visuals. I never bothered to pay attention to the print. This changed when I brought home Oliver Twist and Sherlock Holmes. I really wanted to know what they were all about and both books were very thick and the vocabulary was really out of my league. There were also very few visuals to accompany the text so it was impossible to follow the story just relying on visuals. Nevertheless I persisted and decided to just read a few pages at a time. On hindsight it might not have been smart to start learning to read with Oliver Twist and Sherlock Holmes because I rememberred struggling to understand the text. I could read the words individually but really found difficulty comprehending the story. I finished both books with little understanding of what I was reading and decided to start re-reading my old picture books but this time, reading the print instead of just flipping through the pictures. This was when I discovered, hey I could read. The stories were so captivating that I used to hide behind my room door just reading and reading for hours on end. Even when it was past my bedtime, I would steal my dad’s torchlight and continue reading under my blanket. Alas, this was also how I became bespectacled.
My parents did not react too well to my sudden appetite to read. My father said the stories were giving me nightmares and reading too much would cause a headache. Back in those days, parents let their kids wander around the neighborhood and I spent way too much time at the Queenstown Library reading and loaning more books. My mother was very suspicious with the books I brought home. Since nobody ever guided me on what books to read or recommended me books suitable for my age, I remember borrowing books that were deemed inappropriate. One of those books was about the birds and the bees and my mum caught me on a page where they were showing intercourse in visuals. That was awkward.
These days children are being coerced to read or undergo intensive reading instruction much too early. I mean I get quite angry when I see parents doing the whole flashcard thing with their infants, expecting them to memorize print that has no correlation to their lives as infants. Some kids do begin to read very early, like at age 3 or 4. But others only start at 9 or 11, and that is actually considered really normal. Reading early or later has no impact on intelligence or long-term reading abilities. Similar to how when we first learn to walk and speak, and if there are no other developmental issues, reading happens spontaneously when we need it and our brains and bodies are developmentally ready.
I am a little worried that my soon to be 4 year old is still illiterate. She does spend a lot of time with books but just like me when I was her age, she is still stuck at the visual stage. She’s only interested in pictures. I am not sure when she will get excited about print and I have decided to do the most uncommon thing for her generation which is to let her figure it out on her own. I am probably going to get a lot of flak about this especially when she goes to Primary 1 and still hasn’t learnt to read. I do leave out her moveable alphabets and sandpaper letters on her toy cabinet as an invitation for her to explore. And I only guide her along phonics instructions when she asks me to. If my own experience serves as a guide for how to raise voracious readers, she should well be on her way eventually.
“Children know quite a lot of a language, much more than you would expect, before they can exhibit that knowledge.” Noam Chomsky
Here’s some further reading on this issue if you are not convinced: