Reading Lessons: The Art of Not Giving Up

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Students in the Mano al Hermano Literacy Program

I am teaching a little boy to read.

That is, I am hoping to teach a little boy to read.

The first sentence expresses what I envisioned when I signed up last spring to work as a volunteer tutor with young Latino students.

The second reflects reality.

These students are part of a literacy program run by the Outer Banks group Mano al Hermano. Translated culturally, the name means "My hand to my brother." Elementary school teachers contact the literacy program staff when they identify students who need some extra help.

I've worked with four students so far, all boys. Three of them are on the ball, buckling down smoothly to their work as soon as I walk into their modest but quite clean homes. Alan is a tougher case. He doesn't seem to be dyslexic or otherwise challenged; in fact, he shows signs of being quite smart. But reading comes hard to Alan. His parents give him encouragement, but since they can't read, they can't help him.

When I began working with Alan in March, I brought an alphabet sheet and a stack of cards with simple words written on them. I had visions of watching his excitement as he mastered the trick of deciphering small black marks on a printed page. I hoped to open an entire world to him.

I was quickly disabused of that notion. Alan spoke only a few words of English then, and our time together was mostly spent plodding through simple letter sounds as he squirmed in his seat.

The books assigned to him by his teacher were babyish. But neither did he seem interested in the dinosaur books I found at the local library, though he liked the pictures.

Should I try teaching him to read in Spanish? Or would that just complicate matters? We suffered through six weekly sessions, until a Tuesday afternoon in May when I arrived to find him speaking English.

He'd made friends with two English-speaking kids in his neighborhood. Between that and the skills he learned in school, something had clicked.

Buoyed by his progress, I doubled down on his work. His English had come with the abruptness of a light turning on. Might the same happen with reading? I visited the library and checked out easy, funny books like P.D. Eastman's Go Dog Go and Are You My Mother? As a child I had loved both of those.

Alan, however, did not. He would read a word or two but couldn't, or wouldn't, concentrate long enough to complete a sentence. He discovered that if he held out long enough, I'd read the words for him.

"Make it fun for him," the director of the literacy program kept urging me. "He may just suddenly start reading. I've seen it happen."

So I tried to lighten up.

The curriculum for this summer features three children's books about marine ecology, a great subject since we live on a string of islands. I've started reading to him from the books and talking with him about the ocean and seashore. One day I brought an ancient oyster shell six inches long. He fingered it and turned it over, examining it like treasure.

Another day, out of the blue, he asked, "What makes waves?"

"The wind blows them," I explained.

He looked puzzled.

I asked Alan's mom for a small dish with a little water in it. I put it on the table and asked him to blow across the water. "See those waves?" I asked. "That's what the wind does."

His face filled with wonder and understanding.

This week I took an alphabet sheet to Alan's house and went through it with him.
We came up with several silly words and pinpointed the letters with which they begin. I watched as he relaxed. And when I pulled out my copy of Are You My Mother? he opened it and read a few words. He didn't manage a complete sentence, but he came close. It was almost as if he had realized what he was doing and remembered he couldn't. My breath caught: Has he been faking this?

I shook off the thought and started reading to him from a book about the salt marsh.

I hope Alan is learning to read, but I can't say for certain. I think my job now is to keep working with him and hope his skills will improve. I do know he will be much better off when school starts than he would have been without my help this summer. And my weekly presence sends a message to him and his family: You are important to this community. We want to help you reach your potential.

What have I learned from all this? I'm not sure I can articulate it all. I've been reminded in spades that this kind of service is painstaking labor and that its rewards can be incremental. I've found that when working with kids, fun often trumps strict discipline.

I've remembered, again, that I don't have all the answers and that I shouldn't give up on the people I try to help. And I've realized anew that while I may not be able to change Alan's--or anyone else's--life, week by week I can give him a nudge in the right direction.