Anna taught herself to read when she was about three years old. It sounds strange to say it, but I know of no other way to explain her early reading. Yes, we read many, many books together. Yes, we gave her ample opportunity to explore books on her own. Yes, we answered her questions about books and words. But we never set out to teach Samuel and her to read by themselves at such an early age. Yet I can still remember the scene when I was reading a book to the two children. Anna stopped me suddenly and pointing to the right side of the book, where we had not yet read, she read out loud a complete sentence.
I believe Anna possessed some native attributes that helped her to read. She was very bright. She loved to organize things and work puzzles. I believe that when we read to the children, Anna figured out early on that the funny scratching marks on the paper—the letters and words on the page—seemed to have a relationship to the words in the story being read to her. For her it became a code to be cracked.
I didn’t notice at first, or at least I did not think it important, when Anna would stop us in a story and ask, “Daddy, where is that word?”
“Which word?” I asked in return.
“The one you just read. The word ‘God’.”
I would point out to her that word and any others she would ask about. What I didn’t know was that she was remembering each word and the “code”—the spelling—that went with it. When she had learned enough words she was able to read a sentence all by herself.
We tried to create a reading atmosphere in our home. When Timberley and I got married we made the decision not to buy a television. We decided it was more important for us to spend time with one another, to spend time studying, to spend time with friends. We felt that watching television would detract from all these things. Of course, this was one of those decisions, and there were many, that led others to think we had gone off the deep end.
“What do you mean, you don’t have a TV? How in the world do you know what’s going on in the world?” someone might ask.
“I listen to the radio. Sometimes I read a newspaper. If something is really important I hear from other people.”
When we moved to Indonesia I discovered just how unimportant most news is. When I started reading Indonesian newspapers I quickly discovered that most of the stories held little interest to me. At first, I attributed it to there not being much to report on in Indonesia, but later when I read American newspapers again, I realized how uninteresting most news is in our own country.
“But what do you do in the evenings?”
“We talk. We play games together. We read books.”
The idea that one could have social interaction without a television seemed like a foreign concept.
We managed to stay television-free in our home for about four years. The grandparents wanted to give their grandchildren video taped programs, to which we replied, “This is fine, but we don’t have a VCR.”
“We can buy you a VCR so they can watch the shows.”
“Okay, but we don’t have a television for the VCR.”
In the end the grandparental influence won the day and we bought a small portable television with a built-in VCR. To give you an idea of how small the screen was, when we purchased our first laptop computer a few years later with a built-in DVD player, our new computer became the largest television in the house.
But even with the new television, reading was still the main night-time activity. When the children were babies and toddlers we usually read three books before bedtime. These were the ones we called “chunky books” or “board books.” Goodnight Moon was one of our favorites. Later, when the books became longer we would read one or more chapters from a book each night. That was how we tackled Beverly Cleary and the Narnia Chronicles.
Anna was never satisfied with our family reading time and she begged us to let her stay up and read in bed. She never seemed to require the sleep that Samuel did, so when he was ready to knock off for the night, she was still getting warmed up.
We made a five-book rule for her at one point. She could only bring five books with her to bed at night. Later on we developed a plan that carried us all the way through to the end of her life. We created “lights on” time. After family devotion and family reading, after the kids brushed their teeth and got ready for bed, they would go to their rooms for 30 minutes to an hour of “lights on” time. They usually read, but sometimes they might work a puzzle or build something. The time was theirs, however, to do whatever they wanted alone and quietly in their rooms. “Lights on” time became so popular that it became a bargaining chip for us. If they misbehaved during the day we might try various punishments, but woe to them if we took away their lights on time.
Once Anna began reading by herself it was if a flood gate had been opened for her and a whole new world was hers for the taking. She read regular books for children. Her first favorites were the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. She read them and re-read them again and again. She read all of the Boxcar Children series several times over. As she grew older she began reading the Nancy Drew mysteries.
She loved reading about horses and stories about horses. But Anna was also very tender-hearted and some of the wildlife fiction disturbed her if the animals were mistreated.
Two other areas of special interest for Anna were Greek mythology and Shakespeare. Anna was our source of information if Timberley and I got stuck on a crossword puzzle clue about Greek gods and heroes. She loved the story of the fall of Troy.