To Elena, from Aby: Reading

[Originally published in September of 2020]

Dear Elena,
You are reading this little essay. That seems obvious, of course, but have you ever wondered how you learned to read?

It’s an extraordinary story. I say extraordinary because I’ve never seen anything like it. Recall that I wasn’t around when your dad or your Uncle John learned to read. Maybe every child learning to read is an equally compelling story – now I wonder.

But I know your story and it’s worth telling.

You have been around books since birth, a gift which cannot be overstated. My parents, Hunter and Peggy, got to meet you only once. I think you were three or four months old. They had a long weekend with you and that was your one encounter with them for your life. And yet within those short days, here’s what you did:

Peggy holds you, while Hunter reads to you. March 2015

I’ll leave some more images at the end of this piece so you can get a sense of the role books have played in your life. But your parents have been reading to you at bedtime since, well, forever. And every adult in your family has sat and read to you. So early on, you were intrigued with the whole process. How did these scribbles become magical stories? Here’s you, age two and a half, studying a shopping list I had prepared. This was at Glacier National Park in Montana. You wanted to understand how this piece of paper could tell me what we needed at the store – you sat and studied on it for quite a while.

You reading a shopping list at Glacier National Park, July 2017

Or look at the picture at the top of this piece. There’s you and grandmother Lisa, whom you’ve called “Ana” since you understood that people had names. [1] We had borrowed you from your parents for an overnight in Monterey, and stopped at a taqueria in Seaside on the way home. There you sit, focused on the menu as if you were deciding between fish tacos and a quesadilla.

And now fast forward to 2020. During the 2019-2020 school year, you were in an extraordinary preschool in Berkeley, called Via Nova. I don’t know how much you remember of it, or will ever remember, but I can’t imagine a better place for you. The environment there was positive, creative, and the teachers just constantly loved on the kids. Maybe one day I’ll write an essay about Via Nova. But when Covid hit in March of 2020, Via Nova, like all the schools, shut down. All your daily learning and creative opportunities vanished, almost overnight.

As millions of parents the world around scrambled to find ways to occupy and educate their kids, Lisa decided she was going to teach you to read. She researched online and ultimately found a phonics program called Logic of English. And then she dove into it as she does with anything that has her attention, but this time you were on the trip with her. Four or five days a week, she studied the upcoming lesson, created the necessary training materials, and got the workbook ready. And then she and you put your heads down and got to it. Sometimes you were a dog, and she would bark, to which you’d respond in English (you were always a very clever, special dog).

You made a book that you could read on your own.

Suddenly, the alphabet as we knew it vanished. It became “ah-a-ā”, “bә”, “kә-sә”, “dә”, etc. And man, it was slow going. You’d crawl around under the table, but Lisa just wouldn’t give up. Phoneme after phoneme got seared into your brain. Eventually, well, I remember walking past the table and hearing, “pә”. “i”. “gә”. “pә-i-gә.” “Pi…,” “Pig.” “PIG!” And feeling shivers. I was listening to you learn to read your first words.
What I love about phonics is that it is the essence of “Teach somebody to fish…” You can be taught that the symbol “cat” means the four-legged feline critter. But you have no idea what to do with the word “bat.” However, give you the phonemes – the basic building blocks of the language – and you have the tools you need to learn every word.
Once that basic phoneme foundation was created, you became unstoppable. I watched in wonder as you and Lisa had hour-long phonics sessions, you matching words with pictures, scrambling pieces of paper with phonemes on them to form words, and laughing with delight as you worked out another word. Here’s you with a book that you created from the phonics program. You had to identify and sound out each word and then you got to create a book of words you could spell. And thus could read an entire book:

It’s now September of 2020 – six months after you and Ana first sat down at the dinner table at your house with the phonics book. Ana has, indeed, taught you to read. If she stopped teaching you right now, you’d still be well on your way to reading for life. But be very sure that, at this moment, your reading lessons with Ana are far from over. There are another 6-7 lessons in the set that you’re working on now, and then I think you move onto Book 2. I know I’ll be sad when phonics lessons are over – I guess Lisa will be heartbroken.

For now, though, we are experiencing the avalanche of your reading journey. Everywhere you go, everything you look at, becomes an opportunity to sound out a word. Last night was Friday – the regular Sleepover Friday, followed by Pancake Saturday. You looked at my pajama shirt…

Can you read this?

“Lllll.” “iiii” [Me: “it’s the long ‘i’ here – like ‘bike.'”] “Eye…” “Fә”. “Llll-eye-fә.” “Life!”
“i” “sә”. “i-sә”. “Is!”
“Gә” “oooooo” [“‘oo’ like ‘book'”] “oo”. “dә”. “Gә-oo-dә”. “Good.”
“Life Is Good! And a guitar!”

Life is, indeed, good, Elena. I am blessed to have gotten to watch you on your first steps to literacy. I know that Ana will be part of you for the rest of your life, but I doubt she’ll ever give you a gift as great as the one she has been giving you the last six months. I hope you’ll remember that as a dark curtain fell across the entire world and everybody had to stay home, your grandmother Lisa/Ana took you under her wing and all but single-handedly taught you to read.

With abiding love, Aby.

[1] When your parents asked us what “grandparent” names we wanted, Lisa immediately chose “Nana.” I was kind of lost until your Uncle John suggested “Abuelito“. So people referred to us as “Nana” and “Abuelito” around you. Of course, as you began to speak, you couldn’t quite say those names. “Nana” came out “Ana” (the first “A” as in “Father”, likely because of your dad and nanny speaking Spanish to you). And “Abuelito” became “Aby” (my spelling, pronounced “Abby”). Grandparents quickly realize that the child truly picks the name, and we’ve been “Ana” and “Aby” ever since. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

You and John in Baja, Mexico. April 2018. The seashell book went everywhere with you.
You reading on your first birthday. December 2015
Lisa, you, and me reading Little Fox in the Forest (no words!)
You and Ana reading, September 2017