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The Alphabet Mysteries
Parenting, October 2002

When, with my five-year-old son, Jesse, I found myself spending weeks tutoring him on the letter "A," and without consistent success, I marveled that never before had I looked upon the art of reading, upon literacy, from such a great distance. It was as if the kindergartner and I stood in a dirt field in a rural county and I tried to steer his attention to a glittering city on the far horizon. "Look! Can you see that?" I was saying in effect. "You'll love it there. 'A.' This is 'A.'"

But he couldn't make it out, not the city, not the letter. I might as well have asked him to interpret a message made by the fallen leaves on the driveway, or to decode the dashes of rain on the windshield. He joined our family a year ago, at the age of four-and-a-half, from an orphanage in Bulgaria. In the last year, he's gotten the hang of balloons, trampolines, terriers, Power Rangers, kites, seat-belts, the ocean, birthday parties, Nerf weaponry, computer games, and family life. Why not reading?

"What's this letter?" I ask, in bed at night with a picture book, knowing it's a letter we've drilled all day.

He so wants to get it right. "Don't tell me! Don't tell me!" he yells. Then he sidles into me and whispers out the side of his mouth, "What is it?"

"D," I whisper back.

"What?" he whispers.

"D."

"Don't tell me, don't tell me!" he yells again. And then, as if he produced the answer all on his own, he shouts, "D!" so I hug him and say, "Great job!"

But he falls farther and farther behind his classmates who, after one semester, are copying sentences off the board and beginning to sound their way through Early Readers.

When did our four older children, ours by birth, learn the alphabet? I can recall, as can most parents, gathering a letter here, a letter there, off stop-signs and billboards, like picking blueberries.

But here's what I don't remember: I do not remember ever having to explain to a child of mine that the spidery black lines and wiry zig-zags scratched upon the white spaces in their picture books were called "words," nor that the story I related was in fact not bursting dramatically from my imagination but was told by these words.

"A line of print looks to Jesse like Arabic looks to the majority of Americans," says Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams, a cognitive and developmental research psychologist at Harvard University, "like elegant curlicues rather than as a string of distinct items. The ABC song sounds to him like it does to a younger child, like a stream of nonsense syllables, not a list of separate names. And the bottom line is: this is actually a common problem. Picture a child who has no magnetic letters on his refrigerator, no home computer with word games, no ready supply of paper and pencils lying around the house, no television tuned in to 'Sesame Street,' and no adult book-readers as role models in his family."

A child does not start from scratch in kindergarten and first grade, is not discovering letters there for the first time and snapping the new things together to make words like a kid unpacking a gift box of train tracks. The research of Dr. Adams and other experts in the field of pre-literacy shows that a "culturally mainstream" American child, even from a poor home, will have experienced thousands of hours' worth of pre-reading activities before entering school. And that a child without such experiences is at a steep disadvantage from the start.

Dr. Adams considers how she reared her own son, John: "Since he was six weeks old, we have spent 30 to 45 minutes reading to him each day," she writes in the scholarly classic, BEGINNING TO READ: THINKING AND LEARNING ABOUT PRINT (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999). "By the time he reaches first grade at age six and a quarter, that will amount to 1,000 to 1,7000 hours of storybook reading -- one on one, with his face in the books. He will also have spent more than 1,000 hours watching 'Sesame Street' And he will have spent at least as many hours fooling around with magnetic letters on the refrigerator, writing, participating in language activities in preschool, playing word games in the car, on the computer, with us, with his sister, with his friends, and by himself...

"Is John unusually gifted in his prereading abilities?" she asks. "Apparently not. He is about average in his middle-class day care center. And he would probably place roughly in the middle of countless other middle-class preschool groups around the country." Families other than hers, she notes, read books to their pre-schoolers before nap-time as well as before bedtime, logging extra thousands of hours. And ethnographic research makes clear that poverty is not the major determinant of whether or not a child has reading preparation.

The remarkable thing is that the playfulness with language we parents indulge in with our children, and the pleasure we take in sharing picture books with them at young ages, adds up to more than warm parent-child bonding and more than cultural literacy: it adds up to a child in possession of the knowledge and skills he or she is going to need to master the art of reading. "The likelihood that a child will succeed in the first grade," Adams's research confirms, "depends most of all on how much she or he has already learned about reading before getting there."

Though Jesse showed up, bravely and hopefully, on his first day of school, wearing a new backpack with a fresh box of crayons and some fat pencils inside, he was, in hidden ways, unlike most of the other kids. He hadn't logged days and weeks and years listening to nursery rhymes, turning the stubby pages of toddler books, watching 'Sesame Street,' and playing with magnetic letters on a refrigerator. While his classmates unwittingly gained the foundation for reading -- being able to hear and differentiate "phonemes" (the sounds making up a word) and being acquainted with letters -- he'd lived in a rural orphanage without books on the shelves or posters on the wall.

When he arrived from Bulgaria, Jesse liked books right off. He quickly learned to settle himself within the circle of my left arm at bedtime and study the shiny pages. In no time, he picked up that frequently there were small animals in distress. He formulated and pronounced his new English sentences as well as he could to try to help out. When the Big Bad Wolf ate the first little pig, Jesse, panic-stricken, jerked the book out of my hands and frantically tore back through the pages. His eyes were wide and filling with tears. He found what he was looking for.

"What this name!?"

"Mama Pig."

"I need talk Mama Pig... Mama Pig!"

"Yes, Jesse?"

"No go! No pigs go! Bad wolf coming!" He wept.

"Oh!" I said, speaking for Mama Pig. "Thank you, Jesse. I'll tell the boys."

When we read through the story again, I altered the plot. Instead of, "And he ate the first little pig up," I said, "And the little pig ran home very fast to his mama," and Jesse went to sleep that night with the satisfied feeling of having averted a tragedy.

"Jack and the Beanstalk" came as a huge revelation to the child. It was like headline news, a big big story. With all Jesse's grabbing of the book and shuffling back through the pages to offset the disaster of Jack's encountering a giant, I thought I'd never get back downstairs to enjoy the rest of my evening.

"I need talk Jack!"

"Yes, Jesse?"

"No go! Bad giant coming!"

"Nah, I'm going."

"No, Jack! No go! Giant coming!"

"I climbed all the way up this darn bean-stalk -- I'm going into that castle!"

"No, Jack, no!"

At this point, Jesse and I are in a desperate tug-of-war over the book. He's fighting to save Jack's life, I'm thinking I'm never going to see my husband and other children again. I'm bigger. I win. I pull the book free, turn the page, and roar, "Fee Fi Fo Fum!"

Jesse is all accusation now. He points his finger at Jack. "I told you, Jack! I told you!"

Night after night, Jesse intervenes on the side of the underdog. He delivers tongue-lashings to the persecutors of the Ugly Duckling, Peter Rabbit, and Pretzel. "Why you put Peter's daddy into a pie?" he demands of Mr. MacGregor. He identifies a hundred percent with Curious George and finally gives up trying to warn him to stay out of mischief. He grasps that George is a hopeless case. He sits shaking his head knowingly.

So, in deep and important ways, the child understands literature. But letters continue to elude him.

"It turns out," Dr. Adams says, "that the letters are the only layer of the alphabetic system that requires rote memorization. In the end, after all the fancy research and brain-scanning, we discovered that dyslexic kids have tried to rote-memorize their way to literacy, they've tried to memorize words rather than grasping the alphabetic principle that sounds correspond to letters. That strategy will fail. Only the letters need be memorized. Once the child masters the ABCs, the next step is 'phonemic awareness,' the insight that every spoken word can be thought of as a sequence of sounds that go with the letters, and you have then the foundation of reading and writing.

"But the letters are nasty!" says Dr. Adams, a sentiment with which Jesse -- pondering for long moments the letter "W" before announcing, "That's Mommy's letter!" (M for Mommy, M for Melissa) -- would agree.

"Letters look more like each other than like anything else the child has had to learn," she says. "It matters which way they are oriented, again unlike anything else the child has learned." (Picture a child identifying the silhouette of a horse, or a trombone -- it doesn't matter whether the image is headed east or west.) "And their names rhyme," she continues. "And the lowercase letters often don't resemble their uppercase counterparts. The alphabet -- thousands of years in the making -- is just not designed for a crash course."

"How do you build the concept of the letter?" asks Dr. Barbara Z. Presseisen, author, educational researcher, and developmental psychologist, retired from the federal educational research laboratory, Research for Better Schools, in Philadelphia. "What are children pre-wired for, and what experiences do they need to build the wiring? Children acquire concepts and thoughts physiologically, tactically, through movement and sensation. Don't rely exclusively on visual teaching, but draw on multiple experiences: use the body, tell the child to lie down in the shape of a C; shape the R in the air with your finger; use clay, paint, sand. Work on sounds, patterns of sound, rhymes. He needs to talk, see, touch, and hear; he needs to build language before he builds reading; and, in building language, refer frequently back to the letters. 'That's red, it starts with "R," it says "rrrrr."'"

"Do you know that you can write better with the lights out than you can write with your left hand?" asks Dr. Adams. "It's because there is a physiological component to memory. Learning letters is motor knowledge. Finally, a child cannot learn the ABCs without writing them.

"Stories are great!" she says. "The child gains vocabulary, cultural literacy, insight. Taking joy in books will give the child the motivation and interest in reading. But it turns out that if the parent fails to direct the child's attention to the print and the letters, it doesn't help her grasp the 'alphabetic principle,' the discovery that words are composed of sounds, and the sounds are written down by letters. A story is going to be so compelling that a child is not going to turn to the letters at the bottom of a page and wonder about them."

So, we're doing these things. We read and shout and cry and laugh and yank the book back and forth at story-time, but every couple of pages I draw Jesse's attention down to the bottom, where the deepest riches lie, embedded in the text. We oversaw his constructing an entire alphabet out of clay the other night. We ask him to make letters out of building blocks. We've surrounded him with alphabet puzzles and alphabet placemats and alphabet pillowcases. And he's made the leap to understanding that letters and words refer outside themselves, have meaning. His older brother, Lee, accompanied us to Bulgaria to pick up Jesse in 1999; Jesse's caregivers at the orphanage instructed him to call Lee "Botco," meaning Honored Older Brother. Jesse now, on behalf of this beloved brother, recognizes the letter "L."

"L!" he shouts. "'L' means 'Botco.'"

Jesse's first written word was, as with so many children, his own name. The first time he inscribed it on his own, without supervision, under his own motivation, seemed to me a break-through moment. He is a huge admirer of the "Toy Story" movies. The toy characters flaunt the fact that their owner, a little boy named Andy, has written his name in black marker on the bottom of their shoes. One day Jesse showed me that he had done this, he had tried to write "Jesse" on the bottom of the shoes of his favorite toys. English letters -- at least "J, E, and S" -- have ceased, for the moment, to be part of an incomprehensible if elegant stream of patterns and flourishes. These three pulled themselves up and out of the whole and placed themselves at Jesse's disposal to begin to make his mark, to write his own name in the world.

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