Story: Working with emergent readers.

I began my Master’s program in January of this year. As I sat through the orientation I became more and more apprehensive: my desire is to work with adult learners, especially those at community college level, and the emphasis seemed to be on child-learners. One of my other classmates asked “if my goal is to work with adults, is this program really for me?” I’m glad she asked because that is exactly what I was thinking.

One of the instructors explained it this way: we have you start at the earliest readers because if you can work with the most basic, emergent readers then you can take what you know of those readers and understand better what is going on in the minds of your struggling adult learners. It will help you get perspective.”

I was not sure what to think but I have tried to keep an open mind.

One of my projects this semester is that I have to work with an emergent learner (age 4-9) who is “different” from myself, meaning they have a different educational back ground, are growing up in a different area, or are of a different culture. I asked one of my students if I could work with her daughter and she asked if I would work with both of her daughters: I agreed; after all, the more experience I have the better.

This is a good place to note that I have very little experience with children. I did no baby sitting as a teen, not even cousins or neighbor kids. My husband and I do not want children–we are happy with our furbaby

Our furbaby, Hephaestus.
Our furbaby, Hephaestus.

(though we are considering adopting another). My brother has no children, yet, and neither does my best friend. I do not have any close friends with children and I do not have any extended family with small children or, those who do I do not have opportunities to spend time with them outside of holiday functions. I did not realize until I started looking around my life for this project how little experience I have with children.

For this project, I must work with an emergent reader a total of 5 hours minimum. I ended up working with three different children at three very different ages: 4, 9, and 11. These girls are just delightful! The nine year-old loves to read; she brought a book that the wanted to read with me, and has shown an enthusiasm about sharing her reading with me that has completely surprised me. The four year-old has a great deal of manual dexterity; she has the best handwriting I have seen in a child. She is also quite patient for only being four. I worked with both children for almost an hour before the four year-old quietly asked, “¿Podemos hacer algo más ahora?” (Can we do something else now?)

The ten year-old claims she does not like to read. Her mom looked surprised when she admitted it. I asked her why she felt that way and her response was “well, I like to read stuff I like, but I hate the stuff my teacher makes us read. It’s so boring!” When I asked her what her favorite book is, she replied that she loved A Child Called It, a book with many complex ideas. She wants to one day be a veterinarian and her favorite subject in school is math.

The nine year-old says she loves to read. When I asked her what she liked best, she giggled and said “lots of stuff.” I asked if she had a favorite author and it took her a minute but she finally settled on Barbara Park and the series of books Junie B. Jones. Her favorite subject in school is Language Arts, and when I asked her why she replied “because in Language Arts we learn about everything!” In her class currently, she is reading about volcanoes. She says she good at making bracelets to sell and someday wants to be a teacher, maybe.

The four year-old speaks little English and mostly Spanish. She loves to copy her nine year-old cousin, and will whisper questions to her in Spanish as we would talk. She has a surprisingly long attention span and excellent manual dexterity. Though she often did not “know” what she was writing, she could copy clearly what her cousin would write in clear handwriting. The first time I met her she watched me work with her cousin, patiently, for almost an hour, neatly copying what her cousin wrote on her own paper, and asking questions quietly in Spanish (her cousin translating). At one point, when I told them I had a kitty at home and showed them pictures, she exclaimed in Spanish, “¿Podemos ir a tu casa?” as her eyes lit up in excitement.

Basically, I learned so much from these kids.

All the children in this family are bright, articulate, and curious, with a thirst for learning and reading. These children love to read, are excited by the prospect of being good readers, and they understand that reading is important for their goals; the nine-year-old knows that, if she wants to be a teacher, she must read and the ten-year-old, who wants to be a veterinarian, said several times that the only thing she “needs to know how to read” are science materials—again, acknowledgement of the importance of reading to being a professional.

What I learned is that children have a great deal of fearlessness and curiosity that adult learners do not have toward reading. Adult learners who struggle with reading are often victims of the system from which they came and, in slipping through the cracks, have been instilled with a deep phobia of learning to read or, more so, of failing, again, to learn. Children, refreshingly, come with very little, if any, of these bad experiences, hesitations, or phobias and often have an open mind and an eager willingness. It is refreshing to work with students who love learning, who are unafraid to learn, and who are willing and eager to learn and try new things. If anything, this project has refreshed my own reading spirit as I remember all I love about reading, seeing it in the eyes of these young readers.

While I have definitely not changed my mind about working with adults, working with children in this way has taught me something valuable about my adult learners that I have never experienced. Since I have never worked in a child’s classroom, I never realized that much of the fear that my adult learners have is not something inherent in their personality: they were taught to be afraid; they were taught they were not smart enough; they were taught that they were failures. In order to really understand my struggling, fearful, hesitant, seemingly incurious adult learners, I must first know what experiences in education they have had to bring them to their current state. It’s not enough for me to assume that what “worked for everyone else” just “didn’t work for them.” Just like other children, they were once excited, optimistic, curious young learners and, as their teacher, I I hope to help to lead them back to that state.

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