Letter perfect: Recollections of learning to read

Columnist

Read all about it: After my column last week on the precise instant I realized I could read , many readers shared their recollections of that moment. (For them or their children, I mean. I don’t think they remember when I learned to read.)

Ted Watts of Silver Spring said he learned to read in the first or second grade. He used to practice while riding in the car with his mother. “I remember asking her why so many stores were owned by a Mr. Bros,” Ted wrote. “She pointed out that ‘Bros’ stood for ‘Brothers.’ ”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

As a suburban working mom in Howard County, Hollis Raphael Weisman spent a lot of time chauffeuring her son, Andrew, around. “The first word he learned to read was ‘stop,’ the second was ‘exit,’ and the third was ‘yield,’ ” Hollis wrote. “And I knew my now-physicist son had an inquiring mind when one day, as we stopped at the stop sign, he asked me, ‘Mommy, where’s the “go” sign?’ ”

Arlington’s Megan McMorrow said my column reminded her of when her son Brendan was in Kirsten Gutowski’s kindergarten class at Glebe Elementary in 2003. Wrote Megan:

“With ‘Hop on Pop’ solidly mastered, we were driving down Lee Highway in Arlington after school. He started saying — reading — the words on signs: bank, taco, hair, grill, etc. Random word after word. Then, ‘Mom! Mom! Mom! I can’t stop reading!’

“And he has not stopped reading, avidly, since.”

Street signs aren’t the only way kids practice their reading. Bethesda’s Virginia Douglas was 3 or 4 years old when she first learned to read at her father’s knee, a Detroit newspaper spread out before them and opened to the funny pages.

“The comic strip that I remember no longer is published, of course,” Virginia wrote. “It was called ‘Our Boarding House.’ I looked it up recently. The author was Gene Ahern . . . I’m now 83 years old, and I still read the comic strips in The Washington Post — well, some of them!”

Back to the car: When her son John was in first grade, Bebe Rice didn’t approve of the “look-say,” whole-word style of instruction that was being taught in California, where they lived at the time. “Since I’d learned to read using the phonics system, I tried to show him how easy it was to sound out written words,” wrote Bebe, of Potomac Falls, Va.

“Take the word, cat, for example,” she explained to her son, pointing to a page in one of his picture books. “See? You can sound out ‘cat’ by looking at it letter by letter and saying, ‘Cuh-aah-tuh.’”

Bebe told John that whenever they were driving in the car they could make a game out of it.

“The next day, as we were driving through our housing area, I heard Johnny in the back seat, painfully trying to sound out a word that was spray-painted across the side of a large, green Dumpster: ‘Fuh. . .uh. . .’

“ ‘No, John!” I screamed. ‘Not that word!’

“And that was the end of my son’s home-scheduled reading lessons.”

Jim Bradford reminded me that reading doesn’t come easily to everyone. Jim said that today he would be called a special-needs child, but in Oklahoma in 1957, they used harsher words.

When he was in the first grade, Jim’s school called his mother and told her that he couldn’t read. Whenever the class read aloud from “Dick and Jane,” Jim would just make up the next part of the story.

“When my dad got home and mom told him what the school had said, he told me to get my reading book,” Jim wrote. “I had carefully hidden it under the trash can on the school playground — I suppose I had an inkling that something was wrong. So we went and picked up the book and dad sat down with me and asked me what the first word was in an early chapter. The word was probably ‘the’ and I said ‘dog.’

“I hadn’t made the connection between letters and words. Anyway, by very late that night, my dad had taught me to read. I sure liked school better after that, even though some of the kids missed my stories.”

Because of that “one life-changing night,” Jim dedicated his doctoral dissertation to his father, the person who unlocked the magic of words.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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