Friday, 12 November 2010


Several afternoons a week, I tutor struggling readers.

I’ve worked with one little boy for three years now – and in a progress that has been halting, and at times excruciatingly frustrating, he has slowly, slowly learned the alphabet and basic phonics and a small memory store of “sight” words. Just in the last month or so, he has come close to being able to string enough words together that it is almost reading. (Lots of qualifiers here, still.) Every week, his painful efforts force me to really notice and think about what a mysterious and huge undertaking it is to learn the English written language.

I can’t really remember that lightbulb moment when letters became sounds and sounds became words . . . because for such a very long time, reading has been as natural as breathing to me. And yet, when I am in the act of explaining reading strategies – and okay, that’s another word which doesn’t follow the rule or the pattern – I have to acknowledge that reading is nothing if not laboured.

For instance:

Ow sounds like mouse, but not like flow – which has the same spelling pattern.
Through sounds the same as threw and thru – but not a word like trough, which has the same spelling pattern, and hardly looks any different . . . especially for a little guy who likes to look at the first letter and then guess all of the rest (because the letters are dancing around).

For goodness sake, even the word READ has two different pronunciations. You’ve got to know the context first, but you can't rely on it entirely. (Isn’t that true of everything?)

Some of us learn to read quite easily, while others – more than you might think – have to overlearn every little thing to reach that magical mastery called automaticity. Automaticity: where there is no gap between the seeing/recognizing/processing/understanding/doing.

I’ve been thinking about overlearning a lot this week.

What have I had to learn, over and over again, and yet I still don’t have that absolute understanding – that mastery?  I keep coming up short, and making the same mistakes, time after time.

Here’s a few life lessons that come to mind:

Impatience never helps the process.

It is pointless to speculate too much about the future.

Procrastination rarely (if ever) makes the task easier.

It is fruitless to force a conversation with someone when you know he (mostly he) is not in the right frame-of-mind for the conversation.

Emails and phone calls that aren’t answered promptly will probably never be answered at all.

If you go to bed late you are going to be tired and grumpy the next day.

Too much sugar, especially in the form of raw cookie dough, is never a good idea.

It is not necessary to voice every thought that comes into your head.


Magpie said...

My favorite example of the complications of English vowel sounds is:

The tough coughs as he ploughs the dough.

Bee said...

I haven't ever heard that! Yes, it's a crazy language. How did we ever learn it?

Sarah Laurence said...

How lucky that child is to have your help!

If it’s of any comfort I was a late reader who went to “Reading” classes through most of elementary school. My children weren’t early readers either but caught up and surpassed their peers.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...


I think what you are doing is great! My husband who is from El Salvador learned English on his own and he told me,"it is a very hard language to learn."

We met while I was living in the Washington DC area and moved to SC when we got married and he still laughts when he hears--Y'all and other Southern words.

Sorry for writing to much!

Tracy :)

linda said...

hi bee, thank you for your comment on my recent post....too much moaning and groaning but still wondering and wandering and laying here in my sick bed...blach.

loved your quotes and they ALL ring true for me xo

linda said...

i also meant to say i know many latinos and always i am amazed they learn to speak english....what an impossible language! it's wonderful you are helping one to read who struggles....

The Bug said...

OK, exactly when did you get inside my head? Those things that you think you overlearn are my very areas of "opportunity" as they would say at work. Sigh. I had raw cookie dough scant days ago and you are SO RIGHT about too much sugar!

CashmereLibrarian said...

I am not sure I agree with you regarding the cookie dough, but...

How lucky I am that reading came so easily for me (I was not an early reader but I latched on pretty fast once in school). However, learning another language is painful. I've been studying French for over 30 years now (inconsistently) and I am still not even close to fluency. Also, I was riding my husband's motorcycle today and that's hard!

Lisa said...

I'm compelled to print off that list and keep it where I can alway see it. Perhaps have it tattooed on my forearm where it's always handy.

English is truly hard to learn and to read. I think it's wonderful that you're tutoring. I can imagine that even the tiniest progress feels huge.

catmint said...

Hi Bee, overlearning is a new concept for me and makes perfect sense. I like your list, Another one is: You can't force memory - it will come into your head if you stop trying so hard. cheers, catmint

Nancy said...

I especially like the last one.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Oh Bee, your students are so fortunate to have you as their tutor.

I bet you have biscuits and tea for them too, don't you?

And I like your collection of words of wisdom. I think I'm going to put this up in my kitchen: "If you go to bed late you are going to be tired and grumpy the next day." LOL!

Janet/Plantaliscious said...

I've been so very lucky, I learnt to read very young and it has opened so many doors for me. I'm in awe of the patience you show in helping those less fortunate, must be wonderful when they finally start to attain automacity. Now if I could just learn that when I am stuck on a problem taking a break is better and more productive than continuing to beat my head against it...

David Cranmer said...

Lots of interesting food for thought here and I second Sarah's comment that the child is fortunate to have such a caring teacher as you.

As I travel around the globe I hear time and again that English is one of the hardest languages.

fairyhedgehog said...

I pretty much share all those overlearning needs! Except for the going to bed one. I feel so wretched if I don't get enough sleep that that one imprinted itself on me.

slommler said...

Yes English is a hard language to learn and I am amazed at those that do. Including myself! It is like you say, breathing for me as well.

dancing doc said...

Bee- just your patience and confidence will invoke his overcoming his hurdles - with the dancing words!

when i force myself to read novels and newspapers in french --it brings me back to my difficult years as a dyslexic-- when reading outloud in class made my heart thump so much i thought I would faint--- yet, persévérance and a fear of being laughed at helped alot-- sometimes in my practice in pediatrics we used colored film for assisting children to read!! have you heard of that?

alas, bravo for all you do! et merci bien for your recnet visit!

Dumdad said...

Automaticity - yes, fascinating how we read wihtout seemingly thinking, so to speak.

English has many quirks but is not an especially difficult language to learn. We are very tolerant with foreigners mangling our language - but the French can be quite the reverse!

Tracy said...

Hello, Bee! Many thanks for your lovely comments at my place. It is great to meet you and find your wonderful place here in blogland rich in variety! As an American living aboard in Norway and having been learning the Norwegian language now for some 10 years--yes, still learning, always will be!--What I've also learn is how much we take our native tongue for granted in many ways. And how much I've come to appreciate how hard it is for others to learn English when it is not their native tongue. I find languages fascinating and keen to learn. I think it lovey you are teaching & coaching children to learn English. We all struggle with something sometimes, for some it is language. We must be compassionate with that, I think. Oh, to respond to what you were asking at my blog--yes, brandy is great for "maturing" a fruit cake. And the felted cupcake kit I feature at my blog would definitely be a great beginner project--it uses ready made felt! Happy Weekend, Bee. I look forward very much to visiting here again. :o9

B said...

Crazy and frustrating language indeed!
Ah, love your life lessons, I need to learn the first three.

Karena said...

The history of the English language it is amazing to try and explain these things!!

Come enter my new giveaway from Empress of the Eye!

Art by Karena

steven said...

hey bee! i work with children like this. twelve year olds still learning phonemes. trying to make it happen while their classmates are forging ahead with much more challenging material. over learning. i really like that as a way of examining what i've had to work on so hard through the fifty three years of my life.
letting go of what can be let go of.
love without condition. again.
bringing goodness to the world without expectation.
being kind to myself.


Loz said...

always do your best but remember some days are better than others.

this too shall pass.

DOn't sweat the small stuff..

You're right we sometimes forget how much we have had to learn and take context for granted.

Belinda said...

Hi, Bee, I have just stumbled on your blog and am open mouthed to have found someone with so many similar characteristics!! - another Bee to start with and your self-description gave me goosebumps so familiar were the aspirations and realities!!

When my eldest boys were tiny I retrained as a tutor for SpLD having done an English Lit and Lang degree originally, so I recognise the frustrations and elations you talk about teaching struggling kids - our language is so hard on them. As for the lifelessons, so many of them strike a chord, especially getting enough sleep,(I love it when my busy household is finally quiet and calm!). Look forward to following your blog.x

Evening Light Writer said...

I'm taking a Spanish class this semester and while I've enjoyed learning a new language it has reminded me of the beauty of my own language. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to teach someone to read but you are helping him unlock a world. I came to school as a child already knowing how to read some and for me, it is the one thing I'd never want to live without. What a beautiful post dear Bee, thank you for sharing.

Bee said...

JaPRA - Yes, I almost always have some homemade cookies (or applesauce muffins) on hand. I do whatever it takes to sweeten the deal and keeping reading FUN. Plus, right after school, kids need FOOD. One of the boys I teach only likes milk (which he calls milllllk) and raisins, though.

Thanks for all of the great comments, everyone.

herhimnbryn said...

Fortunate boy to have you help him.

Good list.

Marcheline said...

I'm another one that can't remember learning to read, as I did it so early. I truly believe that my mom's reading to my sister and I so early on gave me a love of books, and so I absorbed things that made me able to read them on my own. She would stop and explain things to us, when we asked why something was put a certain way, or how to spell something she just read to us. I think developing the love first creates the desire, and then learning is not so much an issue.

homegrown countrygirl said...

Bee, I come to your blog for a bit of insight (and to soak in your marvelous writing) and you never disappoint. Only you could make a list of life lessons that are so simple, yet so real and true... thank you.

julochka said...

i know there's a lot here, but strangely, it all made me think of piano lessons. 9 years of piano lessons. overlearning the piano. and somehow not learning it at all.

Relyn said...

I think it's interesting that you and I have both been pondering wisdom lately.

I do know JUST what you mean about how utterly strange the English language is. Some of my students struggle and struggle and work and work to learn to read. Some learned it as easily and automatically as breathing.

Lucy said...

I've got two sisters of 11 and 14 to teach ESL at the moment. With the elder it's like pulling teeth, painfully explaining over and over and waiting for the penny to drop, using words and grammar in ways that might just make it stick, it seems like it's gone in, then to come back next time, or even a few minutes later and it's all evaporated. It makes me doubt myself, and it's difficult to know where being patient and gentle and positive becomes having low expectations... slowly a few things are beginning to stick, but the pace of the school curriculum is always going to be outstripping her - I'm not too impressed with the way she's taught at school but can't change that. Yet she is a nice girl.

The younger one is a delight; bright and full of initiative, makes connections for herself all the time, comes up with mnemonics and ideas of her own to make learning fun and easier... I struggle not to make it too obvious how much more fun she is to teach!

It amazes me they can be so different, wonder if they've got different biological fathers or something!

A good sensible list, and I love your autumn pictures too.

Christina said...

He is so very lucky, to have you as a tutor. As a child, when words finally came to me, I was over the moon.
And such great advice, you have placed here.

Kristen In London said...

I felt this so strongly when we moved here, the reading bit: Avery was bewildered by "raw," "roar", "pour" and "poor" being said to RHYME. English must be the worst language to learn, as she's finding Russian hard but not THAT hard.

I love the advice not to make someone talk about something when HE isn't in the right frame of mind. So true, and so hard to follow. Just WALK AWAY. Wait.

Barrie said...

That is one lucky boy!

Here's my favorite example of overlearning from your post. It is oh-so-true with teens!
"It is fruitless to force a conversation with someone when you know he (mostly he) is not in the right frame-of-mind for the conversation."

beatrice De said...

Hello from Switzerland.

Relyn said...

Hey, Bee. It's Thanksgiving day and we are all piled up watching the parade. So, I have the perfect time to drop by and visit friends. I wanted to tell you that one the things I am thankful for today is blogging and the way it has made my world so much bigger. Thank you for the friendship, the wisdom, and the inspiration I have found here. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, my friend. Happy Thanksgiving!