I was a first grade teacher in 1971. Just before Labor Day, I was very surprised to receive a letter from one of my students in that class. I hadn’t heard from her since she moved on to second grade. Her letter began as follows:
“Thank you for teaching me to read. I will always treasure my time as a student in your class. Even at such a young age, you really knew how to help us cultivate a love for reading. You did not give us time to be bored in class. My love for reading led my mother to adopt the habit of taking my brothers and me on weekly trips to the post library, and to enroll me in various book clubs. My love for reading served me well. I really did well in school, and I know it was because I had such a solid foundation in 1st grade.”
I read the Sept. 7 article in the Albuquerque Journal about New Mexico’s interest in revamping the reading program and how teachers teach reading, and it brought back memories of how I taught reading in the ’70s.
I had not taught first grade before. I had no idea how to begin to teach reading. I had a college degree, but it was not in elementary education. But, now I was a first grade teacher and I had to learn in a big hurry how to teach reading. I knew that meant spending a lot of time with the children in reading groups and with phonic activities.
In order to do this, I knew that the children had to be kept busy with interesting activities that focused on reading and writing. It just seemed so simple and uncomplicated to teach reading in the ’70s. Fewer things for teachers to teach in first grade could give teachers more time to spend on the basics of reading and writing.
I bought cardboard boxes and made mailboxes for each child. I set up tables that had cards with such words as cat, hat, car — lots of words for children to print and illustrate. Each day had new cards and words. Lots of books on the tables for them. We talked about books and how to make a book. They made little books that I stapled together for them. By the end of the year, some 100 of these books were made, taken home and treasured.
In order to teach children how to read and to write, they need to have reading and writing experiences — at home, as well as in school. At that time, I was not aware of any fancy reading programs. We teachers just had to have the time to teach reading. I talked to parents about the importance of having books at home and to spend time reading to their children. Admittedly, we did not have to compete with the distractions of internet and cellphones.
In short, there is no substitute for actual reading in learning to read.