Thursday, October 11, 2012


Life has been good to me in many ways and I feel proud of accomplishments along the way--school, sports, work.  My proudest achievement wasn't from any of these fields or learning anything. Teaching provided my greatest satisfaction.

A critical step in my development was my mother reading bedtime stories to me which was just taken for granted.  At about age 8, I was hospitalized for a week and blindfolded after eye surgery.  My mother visited every day and read stories to me.  Thornton W Burgess with his Bedtime stories became an obsession. Reading opened up the world for me.

I wasn't a particularly good father--my impatience and self interest kept getting in the way.    When my first child came I wasn't mentally prepared although my intentions were honorable.  Too often avoided doing my share of what needed to be done.

At the library one day I stumbled on a book (meaning I wasn't looking for it), "Teach your Child to Read in 60 Days" by Sidney Ledson.  It was about how one father had taught his young children to read in 60 days.  Through divorce he had become a single parent and was frustrated trying to do his job and raise two young children.  He thought about the problem a lot and realized that if his children could occupy themselves he would have more time to himself and maybe even relax a little.

He already read to his children and found it demanding although somewhat enjoyable.  He hit upon the idea of teaching his children to read so they would want to read on their own and not require so much of his time and energy.  I could identify with this.  Copying my mother I had already decided that reading to my daughter would be a part of fatherhood I could feel comfortable with.  I also could identify with the craving for more time as I worked long hours and felt deprived of adult conversation, and all the tempting things on tv and bookshelves.

The author realized it had to be fun or the effort would just be a form of torture for all parties. English is a troublesome language to read, but he figured out a lot of common words do have some phonetic consistency.

Heather was either in kindergarten or grade 1 at this time.  At first I followed the book model and cut out letters and got my daughter to make a "C" sound which really was more like Q or K and then moved on to the "A" sounding more like ah and then "T" sounding something like "tuh".  Then slur them together to arrive at "cat".  When she was able to produce that, followed by laughing it actually made me feel I had accomplished something.

Now that it was established as sort of a fun ritual we went through the alphabet learning new sounds and slurring them with already established words.  The next sequence included bat, fat, mat and by this time my daughter Heather was suggesting other rhyming words.

At some stage we diverted from the book and started making up words using strange but common English combinations that don't work so good like "ight" and putting them with already learned sounds and coming up with night, light, right, fright, fight, etc.

All this time I was still reading stories as part of the reward system, but occasionally spotting a word that Heather could sound out.  At first she was annoyed as that slowed down the story telling however she also developed some satisfaction when she could pick out more difficult words.  I looked for very simple books (spending more time in the children's section than the adult) and encouraged her to read to me.  At some point there seemed to be a big breakthrough and I could tell that she was figuring things out on her own and laughing at me for falling behind.  That was the most satisfying of all and before too long she was picking out books and I was reading to her less.

My son Michael was four years behind in years, but I had had more practice.  It was only two or three years before his reading lessons began.  By this time I was aware that some teachers felt phonetic reading was a bad start for kids learning to read English, but I was pretty confident it worked.  Of course there are many words that don't sound out logically, but through life we are always learning rules and exceptions.  The pace was very similar in his progress.

Children's books are often not  "childish." There is adult wisdom and certainly many are entertaining.  One I remember was "The King's Stilts" that hit me hard.  I worked for a newspaper circulation department at the time and all too often I would start early (part of career was with morning newspapers) and often work late to either canvass or to talk with carriers who had been at school most of the day.  It seemed normal to me as my father had been a truck driver who very often worked 14 hour days.  In the Dr Seuss book the king spends the morning doing his kingly duties very conscientiously, but in the afternoon he would get on his stilts and really enjoy himself.  When the stilts were stolen he lost his joy of life and his kingly duties suffered dangerously.  A good lesson for all and in the story his interest and energy were restored when his stilts were recovered.

When I visited Michael while he was at the University of Victoria I walked through an art event and realized I recognized one of the artists participating.  It was Ted Harrison who wrote and illustrated a children's book on the Yukon.

With both Heather and Michael there was a boost of interest in books.  They were always looking for more interesting stuff.  They are both above average in intelligence so maybe all that would have happened anyway.  I like to think I am very intelligent (not everyone notices), but when I think back I am grateful for my mother's efforts in reading to me.

Both my children, now adults  are working with youngsters and opening up minds.  Heather works at a community centre and deals with youngsters outside school hours.  My son Michael not able to get a teaching job in Canada has been in Korea, Tanzania, England and now New Zealand teaching.  I am proud of them both and like to think I helped get them started.

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