How to tell if a child learned how to read correctly

A-ha! This post is probably not going to go where you thought it would by that title. There is learning how to read, and then there is really learning how to read.

Let’s go with the first one since that’s probably what you clicked to read about. I started official reading lessons with my son when he was three. (Not necessary, but it is what I did, and thankfully, I didn’t ruin him.) By the time he was five he was reading at a 2nd grade level — so the book we were using told me. How could I tell he had learned to read? Because he could read to me. Easy-peasy. Lemon squeezy.

Now on to what I really wanted to write about. Our approach to educating our son over his 18 years has to been founded in the philosophy of Charlotte Mason. Through the years, I have added on for myself, through discussions and reading, the educational philosophy of thinkers from the ancient Greeks to the present day, and found so many right in alignment with the ideas of Miss Mason. Charlotte Mason did not invent a philosophy. She says so herself. She was, as others have said, standing on the shoulders of giants. One of the hallmarks of a Charlotte Mason education is the practice of Narration. This practice does not formally begin until the age of six (I say formally because who can keep a 3 year old from telling you all about their day, their play, a story). Narration is the very simple practice of reading, looking (at a picture, at nature), listening (to music), and allowing the child to tell what they saw. Not what you the teacher saw, or what you want or think they ought to see, but rather what did the student see. This oral presentation, which can be done with words or play or drawing, grows into the written presentations of the middle/high-schooler.

So why am I talking about Narration when addressing ‘how to read’? Basically, because that is the extent of literary analysis in a Charlotte Mason education. We do not tear apart a story — especially for the youngest students — but see it as its whole. All the literary devices will come to life as the child compares one story to another, one event to another, one song to another, one painting to another. Well, that list could go on and on because they will be comparing stories to songs and pictures to events, etc. There certainly is a place to later define those literary devices that they are noticing, but not until the later years. And that’s where my next paragraph is going to take us.

One of my recent educational philosophy acquisitions is being under the tutelage of Angelina Stanford, through her podcast, as well as her classes and webinars. Angelina teaches middle-school, high-school, and adult classes. Angelina knows story. She has been studying and teaching story for 30 years. The most excellent thing about her to me is that she is still learning. She knows so much, but shows no hubris about that, and is always open about what she doesn’t know and what she has just learned. The entire academic year of 2020-2021 I took her “How to Read Literature” class, in which we she took us through stories from fairy tales to modern novels, teaching us about the standard motifs, metaphors, and images used in story. This summer I took her 2-week intensive on “How to Read Fairy Tales”. Besides all the things I have learned in her classes, I am particularly fascinated by her stories of her middle-school students and their responses to her teaching them these same ideas through story. Her students are excited. They get it. They love it. They have seen the connections most likely on their own (through narration, for most of them), but Angelina is helping them to see that there is a reason for those connections, those things that they see over and over in stories (both in books and movies), and what those things are called. As is often said, all the st0ries are connected. This kind of ‘analysis’ does not kill a story (as so many school and professional efforts do), but rather brings it even more to life. For anyone interested, here is a video that Angelina did to help others see how her way of teaching story aligns with Charlotte Mason principles.

Now I need to answer that question about how to know if a child, or any person, has learned to read correctly. I am convinced after all these years of living (almost 60!), and all the learning I’ve been doing about learning — from childhood, then graduate school (I have a pedagogy degree), then teaching since graduate school, then raising and teaching my own son, participating in online and in person discussions, and reading, reading, reading books on how we learn, seeing the results over a lifetime of watching the adult results of various educational (and parenting) philosophies — that you can tell by a person’s way of being and acting, their ‘persona’. The kind of analysis that tears apart a story with a lot of psychological mess, and searches for The Theme, etc. places a person above the story and author (like they are better than them). And there are methods of education that claim to teach virtue, where a student does tons of memorizing of things and performing of those things (to my Dad: this is definitely what you called ‘showing out’) and I see the outcome of persons with a ton of hubris — which I hope you know is not a Virtue. I see it with little ones, with teens, with adults. There is a certain ‘aura’, if I may be a little voodoo, that I feel. I have come to firmly believe that the ones who truly understand story grow to be the humblest and kindest (and wittiest) of people. I’ve seen it in the adult children of my friends who taught reading in the truly Charlotte Mason way (not just “CM inspired”. Blah!). I see it in Angelina, and I’ve seen in her adult students, as we’re all recovering from the ashes of our own education and history of bad reading. It is not too late.

I saw a meme some years ago that said something like ‘people who read are the kindest people’, and I thought, ‘well, it depends on what kind of books you read’ because I knew some people with tons of shelves of books in their house and who read all the time who were not kind people. And now I would add that not only does it depend on what kind of books you read, but also on How you read them. Perhaps one day I will tell you about the idea of Mirrors and Windows in stories. Some people use stories as Mirrors, and it shows.

Just so there’s a picture to accompany this post, here’s my beautiful boy with some of his favorite books from his junior year.

Favorites from AmblesideOnline Year 11

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