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Commentary: The Miracle of Reading

By Keith Frome

Buffalo, NY – All teachers and parents celebrate the miracle of reading. This miracle happens every year to each child at some point in his/her education, and though we know that literacy does not just miraculously happen, it does feel that way to parents and to the children themselves. A parent told me the other day that their Prep 2 child was sitting on his bed as his mother read books to his younger brother. The mother got up to get something and the Prep 2 child picked up one of the books and started to effortlessly read a couple of pages out loud. He suddenly stopped and looked with an astonished, almost horrified expression on his face as he realized that he was, all of sudden, reading. He had crossed a bridge; he had made a fateful turn; he was, in some significant but unarticulated way, a new being.

Reading is the core of education. It is, at heart, what good schools are about, for many reasons. Obviously, to master a subject, even math, you must be an effective reader. Indeed, to navigate just the mechanical aspects of school, from taking tests to doing homework to ordering lunch, you must be able to read and read well. Beyond academics, reading liberates our souls, nurtures our imaginations, broadens our circle of friends, and extends our ability to be compassionate. A book is the most portable mode of entertainment and inspiration; look on buses and subways and airplanes and exercise bicycles in gyms and you will see a community of readers absorbed and comforted. To become a reader is, indeed, to discover more deeply who you really are.

One of the most annoying parental habits is the mother or father who brags ( or just happens to casually mention) that his or her is child is reading before they enter school. There, no doubt, are a few bona fide geniuses who through some genetic quirk just pick up books and start to read before the age of two or three. I always ask myself what it means to say my child is reading. There are three aspects to reading: decoding, that is sounding out the letters to say the word; understanding or comprehending, that is knowing that the cat is on the mat means a feline is reclining on a piece of material; and interpreting, that is going on beyond the fact of the reclining feline and beginning to ask questions of it. Why is the cat reclining? Is Tabby waiting to pounce? Is she tired? What has Tabby just done to exhaust herself? Maybe Tabby is depressed. Reading means all three: decoding, understanding and interpreting.

Reading is a mode of thinking. Reading is not a trick nor is it a gimmick; reading is cogitation, which is why good teachers are as interested in the students' intellectual skills and ability to ask questions as they are in their ability to recognize letter sounds.

So the next time you are in your two year old's playgroup and a parent says Tabatha is reading already you might want to ask if Tabatha has combined decoding with comprehension with interpretation. Or you just might want to be quiet and enjoy your toddler and wait for the miracle to unfold.

Listener-Commentator Keith Frome is Headmaster of Elmwood Franklin School in Buffalo.