Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Children: Two Roads to Reading

Mike Wolfkiel

My twin children developed very different attitudes and abilities toward reading. It turned out that my son had a fairly severe reading disability—it was the classic inability to associate letters with sounds. He was in Special Ed from kindergarten through twelfth grade. And as one would expect, his difficulties resulted in a lot of frustration with reading and strong blows to his self-esteem. I worried that he would develop very negative attitudes toward school, and had visions of his dropping out. His twin sister, on the other hand, usually scored off the charts, reading above her grade level.

Both are now in college and doing well. But their attitudes toward reading and literature are quite different. My son spends a lot of his spare cash on books and loves reading—right now he enjoys fantasy, but also mysteries and nonfiction. The only books my daughter picks up are the textbooks for her classes. She is very inquisitive and is always poking around websites on topics that have caught her attention, and she loves documentary films. But she simply does not see reading as either an effective way to explore these topics or an interesting way to entertain herself.

Since the decoding process was so torturous for my son, why did he develop the taste for reading?

Of course questions like this cannot be completely answered, but in my son’s case I would like to think that part of the answer had to do with Junior Great Books®. When they were between the ages of four and six, I read most of the Read-Aloud and Series 2 selections to both my children. Discussions were obviously limited because there were only the three of us; but nevertheless they enjoyed “Daddy’s special stories” which they would often act out using Beanie Babies for the characters. Both quickly developed a facility for answering interpretive questions and supporting their ideas with reasoning and evidence. So as my son entered school and ran into the decoding wall, no matter how painful it was, he always understood that behind the decoding were these stories, these ideas that so delighted and intrigued him. Without that understanding, I don’t know if he would have found reading—and perhaps school and learning in general—worth the struggle.

Mike Wolfkiel is a Senior Training Instructor for the Great Books Foundation. He has an MA in philosophy and a BA in philosophy and religious studies from Marquette University. And to the delight of his crabgrass and the dismay of his tennis game, he spends his spare minutes trying to write fiction.

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