When my middle daughter Liberty was 7 years old, she wanted to read more than anything. She spent hours looking at books and tried so hard to decode them, but she literally couldn’t see. Born a preemie, her vision was weak and reading real books was HARD, even with very strong glasses. The more time passed, the more she wanted to read real books and the more her frustration with “baby books,” basic decodable readers with bigger font sizes, grew. We were homeschooling at the time and I made the decision to back off a bit. We took a look at the unique way she learned and decided we needed some very active learning. We did sight word hopping, ABC dancing and a lot of word art. As her phonemic foundation solidified, her confidence soared until it came time to read a book. She had the skill, she was ready to read, but seeing it was literally such hard work that she just couldn’t bear it.
In the months that followed, I was determined to help her enjoy reading, even if she couldn’t read the words herself. I let her choose much of what we read and we instituted a system where I would read and she would “help” me. We would look through the book and mark a selected sight word with highlighter tape and then when we came to those words she would read them. Before long, she was choosing a sentence to read on each page. We were making real progress, and she was enjoying great books but she longed to read them on her own.
Then came Elsie’s Bird by Jane Yolen. It was nominated to win our state’s children’s book award so our public library had an awesome display with many copies. The cover is gorgeous, done in watercolor and full of life and it literally drew her in. “Mom,” she said, “I need to read this book.” She checked it out and began to devour the illustrations. On the way home from the library, I could hear her reading, really reading it to her little sister. I had read the book previously and knew that in places the font was small and almost cursive-like. I couldn’t believe she was reading it! My amazement grew as she was willing to lay aside her frustration and work to blend the words she didn’t know. It was in this book that I realized she needed to say the letters out loud in order to blend them, because she needed to hear them since seeing them was very difficult. I cried as I drove and witnessed the breakthrough we had been praying for. When she finished she said, “Hey Mom, this book is awesome.” She read it over and over and renewed it to read over and over again.
Elsie’s Bird was indeed the book that freed Liberty to become a reader. It gave her a reason to read and the courage to try, even when it was hard. She owns her own copy now and still chooses to read it often. It is often the book she recommends to others, and it is always her answer to the question, “What is your favorite book?” When I think of my own struggling reader and her experience with Elsie’s Bird, I am reminded of how powerful choice is to a reader. I am also reminded that especially struggling readers deserve to have the opportunity to read high-quality literature to build their skills, so that when they find their favorite book, they too will be prepared to take flight as a reader.
Jami Spaulding is the elementary librarian at Lincoln Christian School in Lincoln, NE. She loves spending her days connecting great kids with great books and helping them develop the skills to become lifelong learners. Jami and her husband are blessed to be raising their own three readers. You can follow her adventures in the library at http://jamilovesbooks.blogspot.com/ or on twitter @jamibookmom