The Evolution of Reading: The family’s authority

Today, I have found myself thinking a lot about the nature of power, choice, and autonomy as it relates to reading. Across a person’s formal educational lifespan, there are a lot power-plays happening in what you read, why you read it, how you talk about what you read, and when you start self-selecting (if ever) your own materials. To make my points a little more concrete, and to have the opportunity to share a few fun little anecdotes, I’m going to focus on my own personal experiences with reading as it relates to power, choice, and autonomy before I even started school.

I don’t remember this, but I’m sure there was a time when I couldn’t read. I had no idea that letters represented something, and I probably didn’t have any interest in them – even when I happened to pick up books, slap the pages, and make baby noises.

At that point, it’s pretty safe to say that I (or any baby for that matter), didn’t have a lot of control over what I read since I couldn’t read, but…

There was my mom and my older cousin who loved to play “school” when I was around. There was a while that I probably didn’t understand either of them emphasizing certain words and pairing them with letters and symbols in books and on the chalk board (yeah, we had a chalkboard in my room – my house was weird).

But eventually, at least it seems this way as I proofread this post, I started to make the connections. I started to understand that ‘cat’ represented the picture of the animal, and later I made the connection between the animal and the letters. And what did I get for that?

Some pretty amazing positive praise.

It’s safe to say that my mother and cousin had caught me in a nice and neat little operant conditioning box. I liked their praise and attention, so I humored them with by taking the first steps towards literacy before ever entering a classroom.

This is what I do remember though: hating reading. There’s something just not fun about having to stop playing with Power Rangers and watching Pokémon to come sit down and read a book of fairy tales to your mom. It was especially bad when it was before bed time. (Just let me sleep or keep playing).

Reading is difficult, and there’s a point that some people reach when there’s not enough of positive praise in the world to make them want to learn. I was at that point. My mom and cousin could’ve given up then, but they chose rank instead. Sometimes a “because I say so” is enough, when all the smiles and cheers aren’t working. I remember reading with my mom – just look up at the last bolded section. And I’ve heard stories about being with my cousin and crying about wanting to stop reading and go eat food from her Easy Bake Oven.

Once again – I didn’t have much power in those situations. I didn’t choose to learn. I didn’t choose what to read. I couldn’t even choose when I wanted to read (unless I wanted to read more – though, why would I ever do that?).

And then one day, my mother bought a Pokémon book for me. And I loved it soooo much!

Despite, what you may be thinking, that’s not the day that everything changed. I didn’t develop into the (poor or avid) reader that I am today because of that one experience. However, something did change. It didn’t happen all at once, there were times I made progress in my independence in reading. Other times, I regressed (just had a high school summer reading flashback: Jane Eyre). But it was one of the moments that I realized, I could read, albeit as well as a kindergartener can read.

In the interest of having posts in my back pocket, I’ll discuss more of the power dynamics of reading and the student’s place in deciding what to read, next week or at a later time.

Thanks for reading out of your own volition!

[Casper Rhay]

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