I feel anxious that my elder daughter is about to turn five and cannot read. Before you roll your eyes and write me off as another tiger mother, let me plead my case. My expectations for her reading ability run high because I have been reading aloud to her for almost five years, and I have been advocating reading aloud as the best way to achieve early childhood literacy. Well, she is on the far end of early childhood and she is not literate.
Lately, when reading aloud to my daughter, I sneak glances to see where her eyes rest. And I notice that her gaze never falls on the words, even when I follow them with my finger. Her focus is invariably on all aspects of the illustrations.
But my daughter can read Chinese. In Anthea Simmons' Share!, "baby" is the younger sibling until the very end, when the word "little brother" is mentioned. We have a Chinese translation of this story in our home. The first time I read aloud in Chinese, I substituted "little brother" for "little sister", hoping this would help her better relate to the big sister in the story. She surprised me by correcting me, pointing to the Chinese characters for "little brother".
My daughter also likes to read out Chinese characters that she recognises on buildings and street signs. Yet she doesn't know the English word "the", even though it has been taught to her at school, and I have called attention to the words "the end" hundreds of times at the end of our storybooks.
To literate English speakers, the alphabet seems so much more straightforward than complex Chinese characters. However, to children, Chinese characters are pictures, and pictures are easy to remember. In the same way, children who read English can do so because they have learned to recognise the whole word.
It is unfortunate that when my daughter looks at an English word, she sees a collection of alphabet letters and sounds. She has become so adept at her phonics exercises that she cannot step back and see the whole word.
Rather than blame the premature introduction of phonics into my daughter's education, I also consider that perhaps she's just slower than her peers.
I liken my daughter to the eponymous tiger cub in Robert Kraus' Leo the Late Bloomer. Illustrated in evocative watercolour by Jose Aruego, Leo is surrounded by other cubs who are speaking, drawing and reading, but he can do none of these. I expected my daughter to appreciate the positive reassurance that Leo eventually blooms at the end of the story. We read this together once and she never asked for it again. But all was not lost. Leo the Late Bloomer made me feel better about my daughter's reading situation.
The book that my daughter does ask for again and again, and that I never tire of reading aloud, is How Rocket Learned to Read. An engaging story written and illustrated by Tad Hills, Rocket is a crazily adorable dog that progresses from reluctant student to eager reader with the help of a little yellow bird. This book is gently packed with teaching points beyond simply learning to read: the friendship between dog and bird, the changing seasons illustrated through Rocket's newly acquired reading skills, and the thoughtfully selected descriptive words such as "gorgeous alphabet" and "earthy smells of fall".
I remind myself that my elder daughter is not faster or slower than her peers; rather, she is at the right speed for her. And since I can't help comparing, I take comfort in knowing that her self-esteem is unharmed when it comes to being surpassed by a younger sibling. All will be well as long as my younger daughter continues to misspell her name. When asked how to spell it, she only remembers some of the letters that make up her name, and shouts, "P-I-G!"
Annie Ho is board chairperson of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them. bringmeabook.org.hk