Saturday, July 12, 2008

Move Over, Dick and Jane!

Sorry, Dick and Jane ... you're great little kids, but you don't stand a chance against a talking tiger.

Peter started learning the alphabet in preschool, and it didn't take him too long to attach the sounds to the appropriate letters. However, he stayed at that point in his reading development for many, many months. Since we had plenty of other things to work on with him, it seemed unwise to push the reading and risk having him resist the whole idea of it, so we just reviewed the alphabet and read him lots and lots of stories.

When he started kindergarten, he had more exposure to other children reading, and his interest picked up again. He is in a special-needs class geared for children who have communication or social challenges, but who are cognitively up to speed. Some are in fact quite bright, but are likely to clobber classmates on the head over the ownership of a little green plastic soldier, just to pick a completely random example. His class therefore spends much time working on appropriate peer interaction and social skills, but they also work hard at keeping the children current with the schoolwork being done in the "typical" classroom. Since Peter's class is a combined group of kindergarten, first and second graders, this means he hears children reading aloud daily, and it was not surprising when he suddenly showed a renewed interest in letters and sounds.

I dug out the little reading system I'd used with limited effect with Mary, a set of ten books which move gradually through various vowel and consonant sounds. The pictures are funny, but the words (not surprisingly) are repetitive, and they quickly became tedious. All too often, Peter would make it four pages into a book, and then it would become airborne and he'd be off to play with his trains, which were infinitely more interesting.

We tried having him read his beloved Frog and Toad, but no dice. Slightly more success with the equally cherished Little Bear books, but he lost interest in those as well. I was ready to just hand the whole process over to his teacher, when he happened to run across a stack of Calvin and Hobbes books. Years ago, when my parents were cleaning out some bookshelves, they gave us several comic collections, and we have a large majority of the collected cartoon for the whole ten years it ran in the papers. Peter opened one, and fell in the five-year-old version of true love.

It's not too surprising, when you stop and think about it. Calvin is six. He rides the bus and eats dinner and goes to bed, just like Peter. He has funny hair that stands straight on end and sometimes appears to have a life of its own. He has a stuffed animal who walks, talks, and has his baths in the washing machine. It doesn't take long to figure out that this is way, way cooler than watching Spot run, stop, and run yet again.

Peter started out by just looking at the pictures, but when he realized that all the letters had something to do with the pictures (and were often easy words like "Wow!" and "Bang!" and "Hahahaha!"), he suddenly got very, very motivated to learn how to read. And boy, did he ever. Within about a month's time, he went from carefully sounding out three-letter words to being able to read at least half of the words in the cartoons -- not enough to get all the jokes, but certainly enough to figure out what was going on.

However, there was an unexpected flip side to all of this wonderful progress, as we discovered in a conversation with his teacher, Mrs. Beech. It transpired that Peter had been talking about some very unusual activities during their daily sharing time. Apparently when he was not at school, Peter was flying space ships, turning into a dinosaur, and being attacked by his food. Since they try hard to help these kids separate fact from reality, she requested that we not allow Peter to read Calvin and Hobbes any more at home.

We reluctantly complied, hid the books, and tried to find some alternatives. But really, if you were used to books where the main character could turn into Spaceman Spiff at will, would YOU want to read Goodnight Moon for the fourteenth time? I didn't think so. Neither did Peter. With his usual resourcefulness, he found the stash, and within a day or two he was to be found back on the couch every afternoon, reading and laughing hysterically.

And I do mean reading. The more he read, the more expressive he got, and the better he got at sounding out the words. By the end of kindergarten, he scored so high on the kindergarten reading assessment that I asked to have him tested again with the first-grade assessment. Sure enough, they estimated him at somewhere between a second and third-grade reading level, which isn't too shabby for a kid who just turned six (and has only been using complete sentences for two years).

So, my apologies to Mrs. Beech, but I don't think I'm going to mess with a good thing. I'll do my best to help Peter learn that balloons will not in fact take you to Mars and that mutant killer snowmen aren't going to invade our lawn. I apologize in advance for any incident in which he calls his lunch "green icky guck" or refers to a classmate as a "slimy bucket of boogers." And I'll just tell you right now that if he says he had a bath in the washing machine, you don't need to call Child Protective Services.

I think it's worth a little extra effort, when the trade-off means that he can painstakingly copy the word "transmogrifier" onto the side of a cardboard box, climb in, and emerge into a land of imagination. Books are the best transmogrifier out there, and if a naughty little boy and a smartmouth tiger can reach into Peter's heart and mind and bring him laughing into a new world ...

... then have fun, boys, and be back in time for dinner.


At 7/13/2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


It is so good to see you back at writing!

Who knew that classic comic strip would be "the tool" for Peter?! Hurray!!

Love, Janet

At 8/19/2008, Blogger Queen Sarah said...

I'm so glad you went back to Calvin & Hobbes! It sounds like it was a good move.


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