My youngest daughter has spent the last several months learning to ride her bike without training wheels. She is also learning to read. Her attention span for reading is typical of a 5-year-old, usually about 5 minutes. I tell her it’s OK to take a break, but to remember that learning to read is just like learning to ride a bicycle, it takes lots of practice. The more I’ve thought about this analogy the more I realize how true it is. We don’t often think about learning to do things like ride a bike in the same manner as learning more academic subjects, but seeing it from that point of view sheds a lot of light on the learning process.
For starters, most kids are eager to take off their training wheels and learn to ride independently, but some are ready sooner than others and some need a little extra incentive to make the transition. I have one son who took his training wheels off by himself when he was 4. Within a couple of weeks he was tearing all over the neighborhood. I have another son who refused to have anything to do with his bike when we took the training wheels off just before his 6th birthday. Eventually we got him back on it, but there was some cookie bribery involved and it was months of practice before he felt comfortable riding on his own. Reading, or any other academic skill for that matter, is the same. Some kids will be ready far sooner than others. Pushing a child to learn something when they aren’t ready, only results in tears and frustration on all sides. Of course, even once a child is capable, they will sometimes balk at learning something new. I find that games, especially those involving prizes, can be a great motivator. My kids’ favorite reading game is scavenger hunts. They have to read all the clues and then there’s a quarter waiting at the end of the hunt. If reading is hard for a child, a 3 or 4 word clue on a slip of paper is a lot less intimidating than a book.
No one would dream of forcing a child to learn to ride a bicycle, and yet the vast majority of people know how to ride. Why? Because riding a bike is fun. The wonderful thing is, reading is fun too, if an adult doesn’t ruin it by forcing it on a child. There are so many ways to share the joy of reading with a child. I make sure my children see me enjoying a good book. I read with them all the time, we find silly books to share together as well as the classics. I let them pick out the books they want to read from the library or from the bookshelf at home. It’s OK if they choose books lower than their current reading level. I don’t always like to read books that challenge me either; sometimes it’s nice to sit down with a fun, easy read. With my more reluctant readers, I’ve worked hard to find books on their favorite subject. Once a child catches the reading bug, their reading repertoire always expands.
When we first took my daughter’s training wheels off, we ran up and down the driveway with her as she wobbled along, but as she gained more confidence on her bike, we slowly started moving away from her. At first we stood on the side of the driveway and then we worked in the garden as she pedaled up and down. Last week I came out of the house to find her riding through a chalk obstacle course her brother had drawn on the driveway for her. She said she wanted to get better at not hitting things that were in her way. The road to independent reading is so similar. At first I sit by my child as they sound out every word, then I listen to them read as I fold laundry or work in the kitchen and then one day I walk into their room and find them enjoying a good book all by themselves. Of course, one of my daughter’s favorite things to do now is go on bike rides with me. She loves to share her new skill. Children are never too old to enjoy listening to us read to them or to share a funny book together.
The saying, “Once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget” couldn’t be any truer for learning to read. Once a child learns to read it is a lifelong skill. It can be a skill used only as needed or one that provides a lifetime of enjoyment. My goal is to make these early years full of wonderful reading opportunities and joy, because reading really is as fun as riding a bike!
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