LIFE IS A SPECTRUM

I can still remember learning to read. It was a very exciting time. I was in first grade, and we were taught phonics with the Open Court system.

predecodables

If you're around my age, you'll remember the wall cards with the letters and pictures on them, and the chant that we stood and recited every morning: “Block A, Block A ...ay, ay, ay! Beating heart, beating heart ... buh, buh, buh!” And so on.

There was a story behind the pictures associated with each sound. We started with the letter “M,” which we learned made the sound “mmmm...” The picture on the card was a girl enjoying an ice cream cone, and she was the star of the story. I can remember each picture on every card, because it made sense and had relevance to the story.

As we learned another letter, another bit of the girl's story was revealed: At one point she saw a motorboat on the water, which made an “nnnnn....” sound. And at another plot point, she encountered an angry cat, teaching us “fffff...” sound. At various points in the story, she cracked some nuts(C- and K-), knocked on a door (D-), got out of breath (H-), made some coffee (Qu-), and encountered a frog (G-), baby birds (Y-), an angry lion (R-) and apparently, a ghost (Oo-).

I have a couple of points. First of all, the story was exciting. There were ghosts! And lions! And motorboats! And ice cream!

Secondly, I was six years old. My mom had taught me how to read quite a few words before then, but the school didn't actually attempt to teach me to read until I was six.

Billy started pre-K when he had just turned three. Almost immediately, his class began with sight words.

The first word I was taught in school was “ME.” It had obvious significance for me, and I knew how to sound it out because I had been taught the “ice cream sound” (M-) and “Block E” (long E-).

Billy's first word : “the.” How do you teach a 3-year-old the significance of “the.” WHY do you teach a three-year-old the significance of “the?”

In my first grade class, after learning “me,” Mrs. Peel taught us the “knock on door” consonant (D-) and “the angry lion” (R-) and I sounded out the word “deer.” My first book: We Feed A Deer. A little light on plot, sure, but it was followed by Fire! Fire! (long I-) and one about a jewel heist on a boat (long O-) that I remember to this day.

Billy's books are called “pre-decodables” and they are the most boring stories on the planet. In fact, calling them “stories” is a little misleading. They are more like word collections.

Some of the titles are A Table, The Pond and The Cows, and they make We Feed a Deer read like an episode of “CSI: Miami.” I mean, come on, who ever heard of a children's book in which the protagonist was a TABLE?

Here is the actual entire text of The Pond:
"The pond.
He and I are by the pond.
The frog is by the pond.
The pond."

Billy's going to start his second year of pre-K next month, and he will very likely be getting the same material again. The only thing worse than studying The Pond for a week is a re-run of The Pond. I've tried getting these books back out to re-familiarize him with the sight words, but the last time I pulled one out, he just laid his head down on the table and started to weep softly.

His favorite books at the moment are Madeline, which involves crying and emergency surgery and a man with a “hurchy foot” and scars and presents and balloons (these plot twists are listed in the order of their importance to Billy), and Finding Nemo, which has sharks and a blowfish and water and a seahorse and hugs and lots of shouting.

The Pond can't compete. I'm glad he's learning to read at school. I just hope the plotless reading material doesn't cause him to develop an aversion to it.

Books are competing with more stuff than ever for kids' attention. It's never been more important to make their reading material exciting and challenging – even if they are three. Especially if they're three. Have you seen an episode of the "Wonder Pets?" Those animals get around.

For the time being, I'm spicing up The Pond with a few plot twists of my own. I hope it doesn't raise too many eyebrows in the fall if Billy explains how the giant frog at the pond ate the boy who then cried and cried until his friends, the magical fish who were cousins of Nemo, sang the theme to the “Wonder Pets” and saved the day.

Now that's a story about a pond.

Reader Comments

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Teaching Reading

Still laughing here. The truth is always funnier than fiction. You are a great mom and natural teacher. You're also the only person I know with a memory that can even mildly compare to Billy's. Keep up all the good work! I love you. Mom

Feeling jipped!

Wes and I BOTH feel cheated! Never once did that ice cream eating girl every star in a story for us that involved knocking on doors or zooming off in boat full of diamonds. I can vaguely remember a ghost, but I don't remember him ever haunting Madam Gelato. Bummer! :)

Then again I did have Mrs. Miles teaching me in 1st Grade, who secretly, and by secretly, I mean she held her hand in front of her face while she exclaimed to her aide three feet away from me that she couldn't believe I was the sister of that really smart girl who knew lots of big words. Chances are, Mrs. Miles of Meanness cut out all the good stuff!

Most teachers are saints in my opinion because they have a HUGE responsibility on their shoulders to shape the hearts and minds of youth. Self-esteem and confidence can both be directly correlated to those early mentors. If they are good, the affect is good. If they are bad, it is horrid. 1st grade was a tough year! LOL


Oops!

OK, I'm embarrassed...I posted before spell check! For the record, I do know that gypped is not spelled jipped. Ugh...maybe that Miles chick was on to something!

I had the pleasure of teaching the Open Court Reading program to my first graders in 1972. It was an amazing phonics program. I taught both of my children using the same technique and would love to teach my granddaughter as well. I am unable to locate the sound cards, etc. I have looked at the Open Court website, but it appears that their sound cards have changed. In fact, I called them and spoke to a representative, but they were not aware of the sound cards that I was interested in, i.e. M for ice cream, S for flat tire, etc.

I would appreciate hearing from anyone who knows where I can purchase these old sound cards and books.

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When I was Billy's age, apparently I used to demand, at bedtime, "Daddy, read me a story and not God Made the World!" all in one non-stop, breathless sentence. Daddy, apparently, liked the brevity of the 7-page God Made the World: God made the sky, God made the animals, God made the flowers, etc. I, of course, couldn't understand why my father wanted to constantly hear this fairly plotless tale over and over.

As a parent now, I get it. I have to stop myself from shuffling the longer books to the bottom of the pile at bedtime. Waddle takes about 45 seconds to read (a parent favorite for the 'Feet), while Oh, The Places You Will Go is more of a commitment. Sometimes, though, Billy and I will find common ground, and with that in mind, here are a few of our favorites:

Odd Boy Out by Don Brown
Apparently, Albert Einstein was a holy terror to his parents. At least that's Billy's favorite part of Odd Boy Out, a children's tale about the life of the genius scientist. He had a big head, he hit his sister a lot, and eventually, he became a famous scientist. (We have to read the part where he hit his sister a lot of times.) Most of the beautifully illustrated book is over Billy's head, but I think he gets in a general way the message that despite what other people said about Albert, he grew up to become someone very special.

The Big Honey Hunt (and all rhyming Berenstain Bears Books) by Stan and Jan Berenstain

We are on our second copy of this 40-year-old classic, having read one book until the pages literally fell apart. Billy loves the rhymes and how silly old Papa Bear keeps trying to find honey in the forest and landing in all kinds of trouble with bees, skunks, porcupines (one of his first words was "pita-pine!") and owls. I love how, in the end, he follows Mama Bear's advice and just goes to the honey store. "Always listen to Mama Bear is the moral of this story," I tell him solemnly and he finds this hilarious.

The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone, Illustrated by Michael Smollin
This was my favorite book as a child, and I love that Billy loves it too. Essentially, Grover is terrified by the title of the book and doesn't want to get to the end of the book where there is a monster. So he keeps begging the reader not to turn the page and trying to block our progress with a series of crazy ideas. We make a game out of it, as I ask Billy, "Should we turn the page?!" And he demands, "Turn the page! Turn the page!" even though the anticipation nearly kills him. Of course, Grover is the "monster" at the end of the book and that is very funny every single time.

What's Wrong, Little Pookie? (and all Sandra Boyton books) by Sandra Boynton

I just love Sandra Boynton's style. You can tell she has kids, because her books have that unique, oddball creativity that really captures kids' imaginations. In this one, Mama is trying to figure out why Little Pookie, her baby pig, is upset. This one used to be VERY handy when Billy was himself upset, because I would go through Mama Pig's questions: Are you tired? Are you hungry? Did you lose something you love? And by the time we get to the nonsense questions about elephants borrowing his shoes, he's got the giggles. We also have The Belly Button Book and the Going to Bed Book, both of which are excellent. We've adopted "Bee-bo" as our word for "belly button."

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (and all Eric Carle books)
No library is complete without this classic (as well as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?). Billy had Hungry Caterpillar memorized after about two readings, and he loved to inform me, on a regular basis, what the caterpillar ate on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and so on. It's a beautiful illustration of how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, and I tried to use this reasoning to get Billy to eat more things: "Don't you want to get big and strong and become a beautiful butterfly?" No dice. But he still loves the book. The book is so popular among kids that there is now a Memory game, several toys, and a pop-up book associated with it.

Possum Come a Knockin by Nancy Van Lann and George Booth

We borrowed this one from the school library, and it quickly became a favorite. While a wacky family carries on a-knittin', and a-whittlin' and a-fussin' and a number of other poorly enunciated activities, a possum knocks on their door. The rhymes are infectious, and we made a game out of this one too: Billy would give three knocks every time we heard the phrase "Possum come a knockin' at the door, at the door." I had to order our own copy when this one went back to the library.

Oh, the Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss
I read this book to Billy while I was pregnant with him, and it still chokes me up. Of course, then I had no idea that he would be autistic, but Oh the Places You Will Go is particularly lovely for kids facing inherent challenges in life: "I'm sorry to say, but sometimes it's true, that bang-ups and hang-ups can happen to you ..." The book was a gift from a dear friend, and Billy always has me read the inscription to him, "To Billy ... Love, Melissa Witek, Miss Florida USA 2005." How many boys can say they have books in their library from Miss Florida USA?

The Potty Train by David Hochman and Ruth Kennison, Illustrated by Derek Anderson

Chugga-Chugga-Pooooo-Poooo! Need I say more? Brilliantly and hilariously illustrated, this is a great book for keeping them on the potty for a while during training.

The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper

Billy is a big fan of the train in general, and The Little Engine that Could is actually right up there with Thomas in terms of cool engines. After about 80 years, its message of self-help and determination is still a good one, though modern books probably wouldn't include open pocket knives in a cargo of toys for "little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain."

Wonderful World of Knowledge
My mother-in-law has been sending us this series of books for Billy, a few at a time, from the UK. But I remember a version of these from my childhood, so I'm sure they're available over here as well. They're like encyclopedias for children on subjects like "Dinosaurs," "Marvels of the Sea," "Atlas of the World," and so on. Even before he's old enough to get into all the subjects, he's still fascinated by the illustrations, which always include a Disney character in any scene: Mickey traipsing across the desert, Donald snorkeling and looking at fish, Mickey scared by a giant squid, etc.
An unexpected upside is that the science in these books is on about my level of understanding, so I've used them to actually look up scientific facts. Everything I now know about chemical reactions I learned from Donald.

Reader Comments

Our Favorite Books

A few of our favorites:

-Earl the Squirrel written and illustrated by Don Freeman. The author is the creator of the Corduroy books; this book was completed by his son and a dedicated librarian after the author's death. Terrific black and white illustrations with a sweet story of the lengths our children will go to please us moms.

-Any "Little People" flap books. These actually have become a nice stand-in for open/close door behavior

-Any "Little Critter" books by Mercer Mayer, in particular "Just a Mess", "Just Go to Bed" and "Just Going to the Dentist".

-Sleepy Bears by Mem Fox. Mother Bear tries to get her eight baby bears (Octobear!) to sleep. Beautiful illustrations nearly put me to sleep as well.

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