The Reading Railroad


Kristin Devine

Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

Related Post Roulette

39 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I too find it very interesting that the author’s two children who had greater difficulty learning to read spent very little time as toddlers crawling and instead moved very quickly to walking.

    Having observed my friend’s 15-month-old toddler both crawl and walk about her house recently, I could almost see the wheels turning in his toddler brain as he absorbed information about the world comparing the two different modes of motivation and exercising different parts of his brain. Most pleasantly for mom and child, this little fellow seemed to enjoy what it felt like to gather this new information, portending a future in which he will love learning.

    So that experience coupled with the stories in the OP makes me think about the author’s two little toddler-jocks — they basically skipped over developing the skills that are needed to coordinate crawling because they went (almost) straight to walking; perhaps the brain coordination skills needed for crawling are neurologically associated with the skills that are needed to read?Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      It is a pretty common observation that young kids typically concentrate on either physical or verbal skills. At twelve months a kid typically will either be walking or talking, but probably not both. I take the two future jocks as being kids who strongly emphasized the physical skills. This doesn’t mean they won’t be perfectly fluent with spoken language, but the emphasis of the physical over the verbal might carry over to reading.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        Bug and his best friend are like this. They are 3 months apart in age (Q is older). Bug is much more athletic, Q much more academic (for lack of a better word). Neither is severely deficient (Bug is bright, he can write and is beginning to read, but Q is leaps and bounds ahead). I’m not concerned for either, but it’s interesting to watch the two development tracks running side by side.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

          Apropos of nothing, there was a baseball player in the 1890s known as “Bug Holliday”. His actual given name was “James,” but I have never seen a contemporary account call him anything other than “Bug.”Report

    • Avatar atomickristin says:

      I definitely think there’s something to this.

      The 4th boy, the one who went from barely speaking to reading in a year – also the latest walker. By 3 months. Apparently he was just busy paying a lot of attention to what people were saying during that time because he did the Einstein thing, saying nothing and then suddenly speaking in complete sentences. He’s not clumsy, either. Once he started walking he has never had any trouble doing physical stuff and keeping up with the others.

      There is/was a theory that kids must crawl before they walk or it may cause problems with their development but this seems to be more in kids that are prevented from learning how by overprotective parents – always in a carrier or baby seat. For a while it was trendy to try and encourage people with physical delays to crawl – even teens and adults – but that didn’t pan out in terms of effectiveness.

      • Avatar blake says:

        It’s more than a theory (he said two-and-a-half years later). These guys:

        Help brain-injured kids (those known as “retarded”, “autistic”, “Down’s Syndrome”, etc.) by having them emphasize the stage of physical development that correlates to their brain injury. Doing hands-and-knees crawling, e.g., trains the area of the brain to deal with things at precisely that distance. And the distance between the head to the ground is civilization (reading, writing crafting, etc.).

        They’ve been around for 70 years now. One of their clients was actually Joe Kennedy after his stroke. (They started with stroke patients.)Report

  2. Avatar Kimmi says:

    If each student needs his own path (and, for a lot of them, they do), well, they’re by damn going to have to learn it themselves. You sure as hell aren’t going to teach two’s complement instead of addition, despite the fact that it’s the only way my good friend can do math. (Can you imagine teaching that in 2nd grade? Yeahhuh).

    You missed multiplication, and fell behind. A friend of mine missed algebra (4 times failing), and yet was using trig in physics class (with the most minimal understanding, yes…) — you very much can manage a lot of things without actually getting the theory quite right.

    I think, though, that you’re a little more pessimistic about all of this than needed. 99% literacy rate in America. (much higher than it was in the 70’s). We’re doing better.

    How do you teach someone to read an entire page of text at once, cross-referencing the whole thing to figure out which words are which? This doesn’t sound like phonics or whole language, and it sounds pretty freaking complex…Report

    • Avatar atomickristin says:

      I completely agree with you, and I wish more educators would get on board with it. That’s really what I was going for – over time, a teacher would start to see so many kids come and go they’d really get the knack for spotting commonalities between students and helping to facilitate that self-discovery.

      Over the course of the last few months I’ve read about 2 different “Holy Grail” approaches and I just can’t believe they’re still looking for it.Report

  3. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    I briefly taught in the late 1980s, before discovering that I don’t have the aptitude, and was making both myself and the kids miserable. Your critiques of trendiness were as true then as they are today. “Madeline Hunter” was the name to conjure by back then. It became apparent that dropping her name in a job interview was absolutely necessary, but more to demonstrate that I had stayed awake in teacher school that because anyone at all thoughtful believed that this trend would actually be the One True Way. Rather, it was a matter of checking off that box and moving on to the next one.

    My older kid was reading before kindergarten. We did all the reading to her stuff, but I credit PBS Kids. The programming is excellent. I particularly commend Word World. Reading to her gave the general warm fuzziness response to books and the opportunity to practice, but it was PBS Kids that gave her the specific tool set. My impression when she entered kindergarten is that a class would typically have three or four kids who were already reading fluently. Fortunately, the philosophy was to put these kids together in the same reading group, not to drag them down. As for the actual instruction, it seems to have been a mixture of phonics and whole word. This strikes me as eminently sensible.

    Her younger sister didn’t take to reading as enthusiastically. For the longest time she would deny having the ability, though we would catch her reading signs. She would explain that she knows how to read some words, and the sign happened to have those words, but she didn’t know how to read in any general sense. She is in first grade now. She will still make the claim, but at this point it is more of a running joke. She is in fact above grade level. But she doesn’t read recreationally like her sister does.

    My one overriding principle is that the surest way to make kids hate reading is to insist they read the books you think they should read, rather than the books they want to read. I am often appalled at the drivel the kid wants to read. I make sure she has better books available and encourage her to try them, but I don’t force the issue.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      I think that “good books” should be made available to kids. Many, many good books, and let them choose from those.

      Letting them read drivel without some intervention discourages critical thinking, I think. (Curious as to what you’d call drivel, too).Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

        I intended this to be covered by

        I make sure she has better books available and encourage her to try them

        As for what constitutes drivel, think of assembly-line Scooby Doo books. Thankfully, she seems to have outgrown those.Report

        • Avatar atomickristin says:

          My policy with drivel is that it’s allowed, but I better have been able to find it for 25 cents at a library book sale (Scooby Doo books, I’m looking at you). I figure yeah, it’s drivel, but at least it’s word practice. For now.

          We have reading time for good stuff during school hours, then I read to them out loud when I can, then on their own time, drivel is at their discretion.Report

          • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

            My take is that the goal is for reading to be a skill set mastered such that it isn’t work. This is in the same way that a proficient typer doesn’t have to think about the location of the keys, or a proficient gamer manipulates the controls without conscious thought. Achieving proficiency in any of these requires a lot of practice, and the learner needs incentives to get past that early learning curve. Early on, what is being read is pretty much besides the point so far as learning goes, so let the kid read what counts as fun stuff. The pitfall to be avoided is settling for low-level proficiency. Hence the encouraging/wheedling/propelling the kid to more challenging material as well.Report

            • Avatar Kimmi says:

              ha. Yeah, that’s not going to happen for a significant number of people. Yeah, it’s just not. Being able to read quickly and proficiently is one thing — but without effort? People who are dyslexic aren’t going to be able to do reading without effort. It’s like if we took out all the vowels, and made you read. It’s hard.

              More challenging stuff runs on two axes. One is vocabulary and the other is critical thinking.Report

            • Avatar atomickristin says:

              One of the things my son really likes to read is the Bloom County cartoon books that we had hanging around lo these many decades. The words are too hard, but I found he was way more motivated to sit there trying to figure them out than if they’d been in a reading book. The pictures are entertaining and then all of a sudden he’s reading 4 syllable words.

              Downside – lots of questions about Tammy Faye Bakker.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin says:

      I’ve found kids sometimes define themselves as being the opposite of their sibling. With my two oldest boys in particular, my first son would do the opposite of anything my husband and I really wanted him to do (except with the reading, being a huge bookworm) and then my second would do the opposite of anything his brother did. So while Son #2 did/does mostly the stuff my husband and I wanted him to do, the reading was his brother’s thing. It was kind of a funny dynamic with those two.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    In my life, we had a reluctant reader who was in or around 3rd grade and we introduced him to the Fangbone books and he *DEVOURED* them. He hated, hated, HATED reading… but we brought him Fangbone and he asked us if there was a sequel the next time we visited. WE RAN TO THE BOOKSTORE THAT NIGHT. A few months later, a 3rd book came out and we drove to his house with it as soon as we saw it.

    There isn’t a fourth, sadly… but there is a cartoon…

    But, anyway. That’s a book that came out of nowhere that really worked for us.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin says:

      Thanks! Those look cute.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I know, just because they worked for us doesn’t mean they’ll work for you (indeed, that’s what your whole post is about!)… but we did what we could to find *ANYTHING* that was just fun to read for this guy. Forget the whole “educational and nutritious” crap. We went all over to find stuff. Comic books, Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid… we kinda did okay when we bought a Bizarro collection of Superman comics from the 60’s… (He really enjoyed the Bizarro sentence structures) but with all that said…

        Those worked for us.Report

        • Avatar atomickristin says:

          Yep, I think that is somewhat key when a kid just really HATES it.

          One of our breakthrough moments was in a Spiderman comic book encyclopedia. He had never read on his own at all at that point, and just looked at the pictures when I didn’t have time to read to him. But there was a frame from a comic that said “Aunt May is dead.” I had skipped the death part. He came running to me and asked “Did that really happen?” It was the first time I think it dawned on him that reading could open up things that adults were deliberately keeping from him.Report

        • Avatar dragonfrog says:

          Comic books were definitely the breakthrough for my daughter – she pigeonholed my parents for much of a weekend with some new books we had gotten her (some of the Phoebe and her Unicorn books). They divided up the parts such that she got practice reading on every page, without getting too tired from reading every word, or frustrated that the story is moving along too slowly.

          Now whenever we go to the library, I’ll pick out a graphic novel that I figure I’ll actually enjoy divvying up the reading with her for bedtime stories, and she picks out a comic book or two that’s almost always fluff I’m happy to let her read but I’m not going to spend my time on it.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      I can’t tell from the absurdly inadequate “Look Inside” preview: is this book text or graphic? I’m fine with the kids picking out graphic books for themselves, but I only initiate text.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Graphic novels (comic book style).

        This is one that you probably won’t be initiating.

        (When I read them, I thought they were cute but they weren’t any great shakes. It was the boy who read them who found some sort of spark in them that made us jump and find the sequels. Then again, I’m a grownup. Maybe if I were in 3rd Grade I’d see it. Can’t go back into the Garden of Eden, though.)Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    My wife has your story, reporting that she learned to read at age 3. I have no such story. I recall maybe “reading” a few comic books before first grade, books with Huey, Dewey, and Louie in them (along with Scrooge McDuck). But I also remember sitting in class the first day of First Grade, wondering what that big flip chart with a picture of a boy on it said. It was “Fun With Dick And Jane”. I learned quickly, I don’t remember any transition period, or work to it. I remember learning phonics, and using on some harder words, and I progressed to reading well above level.

    With our kids, I did two things – I read to them every night, from books we let them choose at bookstores. This continued until they were six or seven, then they could read for themselves.

    The other thing was regular trips to bookstores and letting them pick something for themselves. I don’t know if this would work for everyone. The school wanted them to write down reading sessions, which I often ignored or resented. I didn’t want reading to become a job, I wanted it to stay a joy.

    They were successful, but it’s hard to say how much my strategy worked, versus their basic learning equipment, which is very strong. They are smart kids.

    I think it’s good that educators are striving to do better at their job. I remember my kids kindergarten teacher telling me that they worked a lot of skills like a “balance beam” because that improved their handwriting.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin says:

      Yep, that’s what my husband recalls too. Couldn’t read a word when he showed up for 1st grade and was reading well by the end of the year. It was like a game. He didn’t feel any stress over it, it just happened. But of course there was a lot less emphasis on testing back then.

      I hate the constant tracking of reading time – like punching a clock.Report

  6. Avatar Pinky says:

    I’ve found in my professional life that a new management trend will come through every, I don’t know, 5 years or so. Some people will oppose it because they oppose everything; some people will embrace it because they want to be seen embracing the newest thing. A few people will become genuine converts. Most will implement as much of it as they’re required to.

    The good managers will take whatever is of value in the new system and add it to their tool chests.

    It sounds like the “latest thing” in teaching doesn’t allow for that last option because of excess downward pressure and textbook rotation. But churning out new theories is not necessarily a bad thing. The experienced teacher may be able to spot the poor reader and find the best approach quickly.

    I have to wonder if the textbook industry isn’t in its last years. Then again, someone’s going to have to write the software and approve the content for the students’ tablets, and that’ll have to be updated even more frequently than textbooks, I’d bet.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin says:

      Yes, exactly, it’s this weird two pronged approach of micromanaging everything teachers do in the classroom, and then giving them absolutely no freedom to do it. Trends will happen and most of them have good and bad elements. Maybe they’re great. But they’re never the end all, be all, let’s throw everything else out the way that it seems to be approached in education.

      In one of the links in the article it talks about going to iPad texts. Personally I learned a lot just from leafing through my textbooks as a kid, and I find tablets are not as conducive to that, but I do think it’s the wave of the future.Report

  7. Avatar InMD says:

    All of this focus on methodology and testing in education worries me more than a little. I’ve got my first born due in September. The stories some of my relatives and friends who have kids starting school tell me about heavy homework assignments in kindergarten and inscrutable approaches to problem solving make my stomach tie into knots.

    Maybe I’m just being conservative but it all sounds so different than the Catholic school I went to I’m my early years. Discipline was pretty harshly enforced (including occasionally with the rod) but I don’t recall pressure for particular results in tight timelines. I was able to read at the end of 1st grade which seemed in line with most of the other boys (girls on balance seemed to be a bit ahead). Some kids showed up already reading well and some stragglers took until the beginning of second grade but I don’t recall that being cause for alarm.

    My son isn’t even born yet and I already have visions of teachers trying to get blood from a stone in order to meet an arbitrary mandate. I know it’s kind of taboo to say in this country but I suspect that socio-economic factors will determine how most students perform, regardless of what magic wands we require teachers to wave.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Advice is a dangerous thing, but I’d say trust your instincts. We sent our kids (at great financial cost to me and muh wife!!) to a private Waldorf school for exactly those reasons (well and some others, too).Report

      • Avatar notme says:

        How can you privilege your child like that? Don’t you know how important the public schools are and how they and the poor kids will suffer if you don’t send your kids there?Report

      • Avatar InMD says:

        The advice is very much appreciated. My wife and I are tentatively considering that depending on the financial outlook and what our student loan situation is when the time comes. Luckily we’ve still got plenty of time to think.Report

      • Avatar Aaron David says:

        My cousin sends her daughter to Waldorf also. And while she is pretty hippy-dippy she isn’t a big fan of a lot of it, but to her the choice was that or the local religious school (which almost made the cut.) But they are better than the Napa public schools apparently.

        My son did fine in pub schools in Sacramento, but the schools he went to tend to cater to politicians kids and that might make a difference.Report

      • Avatar InMD says:

        The places the author warns about sound a lot like what other parents have described to me. My cousin’s wife told me their son is coming home from 6 hours of kindergarten with several hours of math homework. No idea if this is an exaggeration but I just don’t see that as productive for most 5 year olds.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:


          It’s not.

          This is kind of my bread and butter, as I’m both a parent of young kids (4 and 2) and have spent my career as an early childhood educator and will soon move into early childhood administration (with some side work in teacher training). There are some bad options out there and some good options out there and stuff in between and different things that make the bad places bad and the good places good and the in between places in between. More than anything, figure out what you value about the place your child will be spending his time when he’s not at home and look for places that emphasize that. I don’t know where you reside or what your likely options are, but if you want more specific advice, happy to discuss more detail behind the scenes. Just give me the go ahead to shoot you an email.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin says:

      The nice thing about children is that they’re very forgiving critters.

      We all start off weighing our every choice so heavily but most kids come out just fine.

      Huge congrats on your upcoming new addition!Report