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The Alphabet Mysteries

When I found myself spending weeks tutoring my 5-year-old son, Jesse, on the letter "A," I marveled that never before had I looked upon the art of reading, upon literacy, from such a great distance. It was as if my kindergartner and I were standing in a dirt field in a rural county and I was trying to steer his attention to a glittering city on the far horizon. "Look! Can you see that?" I was saying in effect. "You'll love it there. 'A.' This is 'A.'"

But he couldn't make it out. I might as well have asked him to interpret a message made by the fallen leaves on the driveway, or to decode the dashes of rain on the windshield.

Jesse joined our family a year ago, at the age of 4-1/2, from an orphanage in Bulgaria. Since he arrived in the U.S., he's gotten the hang of English, balloons, trampolines, terriers, Power Rangers, kites, seat belts, the ocean, birthday parties, Nerf weaponry, computer games, and family life. Why not reading?

It's partly because with Jesse we're trying to compress into a few months what a child should have spent years doing. His struggle to recognize letters at age 5 was similar to the efforts a younger child would make.

"What's this letter?" I ask, in bed at night with a picture book, knowing it's a letter we've drilled all day.

He so wants to get it right. "Don't tell me! Don't tell me!" he yells. Then he sidles up to me and whispers out of the corner of his mouth, "What is it?"

"D," I whisper back.

"What?" he whispers.


"Don't tell me! Don't tell me!" he yells again. And then, as if he'd produced the answer all on his own, he shouts, "D!" so I hug him and say, "Great job!"

But he falls further and further behind his classmates, who, after one semester, are copying sentences off the board and beginning to sound their way through early readers.

When did our four older children, ours by birth, learn the alphabet? I can recall them gathering a letter here, a letter there, off stop signs and billboards, like picking blueberries.

But here's what I don't remember: ever having to explain to a child of mine that the spidery black lines and wiry zigzags scratched upon the white spaces in their picture books are called "words," or that the story I related was in fact not bursting dramatically from my imagination but told by these words.

"A line of print looks to Jesse like Arabic looks to most Americans," says Marilyn Jager Adams, Ph.D., a cognitive and developmental psychologist at Harvard University, "like elegant curlicues rather than a string of distinct items. The ABC song sounds to him like it does to a 3-year-old: a stream of nonsense syllables, not a list of separate names. He's had no magnetic letters on his refrigerator, no ready supply of paper and pencils lying around the house, no television tuned in to Sesame Street, and no adult book readers as role models in his family." Jesse's deprivation, while extreme, is not unknown in America, nor is a lack of preliteracy experiences confined to children living in poverty.

Prereading Starts at Home

A child doesn't start from scratch in kindergarten and first grade; he isn't discovering letters there for the first time and snapping them together to make words. Research by Adams and other experts shows that the average American child will have experienced hundreds or, for some, thousands of hours' worth of prereading activities before entering school. A child without such experiences, or merely with fewer, is at a steep disadvantage.

The remarkable thing is that the playfulness with language that we parents indulge in with our children and the pleasure we take in sharing picture books with them at a young age add up to more than warm bonding and cultural literacy: They add up to a child's possession of the knowledge and skills he's going to need to master the art of reading. "The likelihood that a child will succeed in the first grade," says Adams, "depends to a large extent on how much he's already learned about reading before getting there."

Though Jesse showed up hopefully on his first day of school wearing a new backpack, with a fresh box of crayons and some fat pencils inside, he was, in hidden ways, unlike most of the other kids. He hadn't logged days and weeks and years listening to nursery rhymes or turning the stubby pages of toddler books. During the years his classmates had unwittingly gained the foundation for reading—being able to differentiate phonemes (the various sounds that make up a word) and getting acquainted with the alphabet—he'd lived in a rural orphanage without any books on the shelves or posters on the walls.

When he arrived from Bulgaria, Jesse liked books right away. He quickly learned to settle himself within the circle of my left arm at bedtime and to study the shiny pages. In no time, he picked up that frequently there were small animals in distress, and night after night he intervened on the side of the underdog.

"What this name!?"

"Mama Pig."

"I need talk Mama Pig....Mama Pig?"

"Yes, Jesse?"

"No go! No pigs go! Bad wolf coming!" He wept.

"Oh," I said, speaking for Mama Pig. "Thank you, Jesse. I'll tell the boys."

Other evenings he delivered tongue-lashings to the persecutors of the Ugly Duckling or warned Jack to stay away from the beanstalk. He identified 100 percent with Curious George and finally gave up trying to get him to stay out of mischief. He grasped that George is a hopeless case. He shook his head knowingly as I turned the pages.

So, in deep and important ways, he understood literature. But letters continued to elude him.

Concept of the Letter

It turns out," says Adams, "that the letters are the only layer of the alphabetic system that requires rote memorization. Once a child masters the ABC's, the next step is the more conceptual 'phonemic awareness,' the insight that every spoken word can be thought of as a sequence of sounds that go with the letters, a realization that represents the foundation of reading and writing."

"But the letters are nasty!" she adds. "They look more like one another than anything else the child has had to learn. It matters which way they're oriented, again unlike anything else he has learned." (Picture a child identifying the silhouette of a horse, or a trombone—unlike a "D" or a "B," it doesn't matter whether the image is headed east or west.)

"Lots of the letters rhyme. And the lowercase letters often don't resemble their uppercase counterparts," says Adams. "The alphabet—thousands of years in the making—is just not designed for a crash course."

This is why all parents—not just those of kids who spent their early years sequestered in orphanages—must start to gently familiarize even their toddlers with letters.

"How do you build the concept of the letter for any child?" asks Barbara Presseisen, a developmental psychologist recently retired from Nobel Learning Communities, a nationwide network of private schools in West Chester, PA. "Children acquire concepts and thoughts tactilely, through movement and sensation as well as through visual teaching." She suggests drawing on multiple experiences: Use the body, and have your child lie down in the shape of a "C." Shape an "R" in the air with your finger. Use clay, paint, or sand. Work on sounds, patterns of sounds, and rhymes. "A child needs to build language before he builds reading," Presseisen says, "and in building language, refer frequently back to the letters: 'That's red, it starts with 'R,' it says 'rrrrr.'"

"Then, when you do read, make it interactive. Direct your child's attention to the print and the letters so he can make the discovery that words are composed of sounds and that sounds are written down by letters," says Adams. "Stories are great: Taking joy in books will give your child the motivation and interest in reading."

The Leap to Understanding

So we're following this advice—just a few years late. We read and shout and laugh at storytime, and every couple of pages I draw Jesse's attention down to the bottom, where the deepest riches lie, embedded in the text. We oversaw his construction of an entire alphabet out of clay the other night. We help him make letters out of building blocks, out of bubbles. We find shapes in the house that look like letters. We've surrounded him with alphabet puzzles and place mats and pillowcases. And he's made the leap to understanding that letters and words have meaning.

Our older son, Lee, had accompanied us to Bulgaria to pick up Jesse and bring him home; Jesse's caregivers at the orphanage instructed him to call Lee "Botco," which means "Honored Older Brother." On behalf of this beloved brother, Jesse now recognizes the letter "L."

"L!" he shouts. "'L' means 'Botco.'"

Jesse's first written word was, as with so many children, his own name. The first time he inscribed it on his own, without supervision, under his own motivation, seemed to be a breakthrough moment. He is a huge admirer of the Toy Story movies. The toy characters flaunt the fact that their owner, a little boy named Andy, has written his name in black marker on the bottom of their shoes. One day Jesse showed me that he had done this: He'd tried to write "Jesse" on the bottom of the shoes of his favorite toys. English letters—at least rough versions of "J," "E," and "S"—had ceased, for the moment, to be part of an incomprehensible if elegant stream of patterns and flourishes. These three pulled themselves up and out of the whole and placed themselves at Jesse's disposal to begin to make his mark, to write his own name in the world.

Melissa Fay Greene wrote The Temple Bombing and Praying for Sheetrock, winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.