I couldn’t tell you how my first son learned to read. He was sitting on the couch with a pile of picture books. I looked over at him and smiled. The couch was backed up against the big window along the east side of the house, so that the morning light was perfectly angled, casting moving shadows onto the back of his bowed head, as tree leaves danced to the rhythm of soft wind in the background. He had an empty cup on the floor and dry cereal scattered next to him. He must have got-ten himself a drink and a snack before settling at the sea of story into which he was now entrenched.

My son was three years old, and the most intriguing little person to observe. He wanted to learn, and it didn’t take him long before he figured out that the answers to his questions would be found on the black type against white of the writ-ten word. Looking back, I realize that, like many curious scholars, his self-learning started with cereal boxes and milk jugs (I recently met a man whose mother named him after the word most prominently dis-played on their daily milk: Foremost).

Continuing his learning through everyday objects, my son attentively stared out the car window at passing signs on buildings and billboards. He’d analyze words sketched across windows and posts while we were stopped in traffic. The grocery store was his classroom, and everyday objects became a library of information waiting to be deciphered and arranged into his own database for continued exploration and discovery. It would be a few years before I began teaching him from home, and only a few months before I recognized that my son’s thirst for information was vastly larger than my capacity to satiate it. It would take me another full year before I stopped trying to know enough to keep up with him. My job wasn’t to teach him from my limited knowledge base, but rather, to resource him and teach him how to learn. In subsequent years, my son’s learning would come from lots (and lots) of words.

I am more and more convinced that learning to read is the most primary of academic life skills. Admittedly, reading can be excruciatingly hard to learn and even harder to teach. The self-taught method my eldest son naturally developed is an uncommon path toward literacy. During my years of home-educating, I found the relentless repetition of letter sounds and all-to-quickly-forgotten sight words exasperating.

As an ambitious teenager, I was eager to play a musical instrument, but as it turns out, I was never any good. I couldn’t read music well enough or fast enough to keep up with the tempo of the melody or the pace of the class. I also really stink at hearing key changes and simply cannot discern the difference between a flat and a sharp note. I didn’t have the initiative or tenacity to study on my own to make up for my increasingly lagging skills. As a thirty-something home educating mother, laboring over the same sounds and words with my struggling students day after day, I would pull the dusty case of the instrument my parents sacrificed financially to buy (and I suffered through my teenage years trying to play), and I would practice. My struggle to read musical notes mimicked my children’s struggle with the written word. I now had empathy for them. I could imagine their frustration, so I became a kinder and more patient teacher. Eventually, my students figured out that letters make sounds. Sounds make words, and words form sentences that communicate ideas. The thrill they felt making those first words come alive was indescribable.

Reading teaches me to listen. It develops my language skills, sharpens my memory, strengthens my thinking skills, and improves my focus.
I’ve often espoused that if a person can read and use a mouse, they can do just about anything on a computer. Reading teaches me how long to cook the pasta, which exit to take on the highway, and what kind of medicine to buy.
I read to understand the rules at the swimming pool and the instructions for my new board game. Reading keeps me from buying an embarrassing t-shirt at the mall and paying the wrong amount for my cell phone. It warns me never to iron my clothes while wearing them (although I have been known to do it once or twice). Recent studies indicate that people who read fiction are more empathetic. People, of any age, who read even short stories full of imagination and possibility are better able to understand the feelings of others. Researchers agree that successful people habitually read non-fiction. Factual books offering new ideas, self-help, and instruction are consistently a factor in determining how a person becomes financially or professionally successful.

While I admit to having a bit of a flair for the melodramatic, I am convinced that reading is something of a superpower that should be available to every person without discrimination. Unfortunately, tens of millions of people worldwide remain illiterate. The United Nations has been bringing awareness to this global issue through September 8th World Literacy Day celebrations all over the world.

You too can join the fight against illiteracy in your community by reading with a student of any age. Statistically, reading out loud with a student for as little as 15 minutes a day is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading. Readers inspire readers. Be that inspiration in your homes, communities, and the world. It’s exciting to think of all the super-humans that will be walking around with our renewed commitment to literacy!

Contributed by India Star* Main, Volunteer Literacy Coordinator at African Hope Learning Center in Maadi, Egypt. Her current favorite books are “Happiness is a Watermelon on your head” by Stella Dreis and “Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli