JOPLIN, Mo. —
In my kindergartner's backpack, there is a stack of books that she made in class. She cuts and colors, then gathers and staples the pages together until they're a complete work. Each page holds a picture matching a three- or four-word sentence -- the culmination of that day's focused lessons.
The first time I saw these books, when her older sister was bringing home the same sort, I thought they were sweet. Little packets of words they've memorized and learned well enough to pretend to read out loud at home. The looks on their faces are those of pride and accomplishment.
I liked hearing them talk about their "books," but inside I wondered when the real reading would begin -- the kind of reading that didn't rely upon studying the pictures for clues or recalling memorized phrases.
Apparently, my older daughter wondered the same thing when she saw her little sister reading one day. She heard her halting pronunciations and whispered to me, "She thinks she's really reading. Isn't that cute?"
While I absolutely agreed with the declaration of cuteness, I reminded my big girl that she had started out reading in exactly the same manner.
"You know, you were very proud of yourself when you started bringing those little booklets home, too," I told her. "You would get so caught up in saying the memorized sentences that your fingers couldn't keep track of which words you were supposed to be reading."
"Yeah," she agreed. "But now I know how to read each word. And there's not always pictures anymore!"
And like a feeble little flame at the tip of a stunted match, I suddenly understood.
Of course, there's memorization in the beginning. Our smallest readers are relying upon what they know the words are supposed to say and matching that information up with what the letters on the page look like.
What had seemed to me like more of an art project -- colored, cut and stapled pages -- now stood tall and proud in the formation of my child's literate future.
Realizing that these little booklets are carefully placed springboards into greater reading fluency, I've begun to take them more seriously. The more she reads them to me, the more confidence she gains. When a truly new word or idea is introduced, her base of knowledge promises that she can learn that new thing, too. Even when that new thing is a 60-page-long, Seussical intimidation.
She brings the book to me and places it carefully on my lap. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish -- all of those fishy eyes stare up at me, adding weight to my 5-year-old's own hopeful blue gaze.
"Mama, can I read this?" she asks.
"You can," I tell her truthfully. And I don't mind one bit that I'll have to help her with the new words; she'll remember them soon enough on her own. For now, we're in the business of building confidence.
Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenly life.blogspot.com.