Learning to read, a boring pond and three magical fish

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.

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?

“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.