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On Reading and Cemeteries

My favorite thing about moving back to my hometown is getting to walk my kindergartener to school every day.

It’s true that we would walk him and his brother to school when we lived in New York, but there was something about the wind tunnels, M15 bus fumes, and traffic coming off the Williamsburg Bridge that made it less pleasant than our current path, which takes us through the hilliest part of town and past the cemetery where William Faulkner is buried. This cemetery is where I learned to ride a bike when I was around my son’s age, and where I first came to understand the Southern fixation on family and ghosts.

My six-year old has always had a morbid streak. He was born on Halloween and never heard a ghost story that made him hesitate. He loves our town cemetery, and revels in the variety of names and symbols he finds etched into the gravestones. He knows that the tiny American flags often mark the graves of veterans, and he knows how to figure out who believed in what religion. He loves imagining the relationships that must have existed between people with overlapping dates and surnames. It's morbid, yes, but it fascinates him.

This morning, it was particularly cold for these parts--so cold that a neighbor knocked on her kitchen window when we passed, just so she could wag her finger at us for daring to be outside. My son was grumpy, and we walked quickly, with plenty of time left to linger in the cemetery before the school bell would ring. As usual, Julian asked me to read off the names on the gravestone, and I complied at first. But the literacy teacher and the guilty mom living inside of me conspired, and I panicked that we hadn't practiced the list of sight words that his teacher sent home the night before.

I started to coach him to try to figure out the names himself. "What's the SH make?" I prodded as we stood in front of a grave marked Shubert. Julian crumpled. If there was another living soul in the cemetery this morning, they heard my son yelling at me. “Noooooo. I don’t know how to read!” he wailed over and over again before switching over to a bullying tone, “You have to read it to me! YOU READ IT TO ME!!”

There is an unfathomable amount of literacy learning that can happen in a cemetery, but I had botched it by pushing letters.

I talked Julian down by quickly calling out the names on the gravestones he pointed to. I didn’t want him to be upset about decoding, and I never aim to make reading confrontational. But ever since this morning, I have been mentally replaying the incident in my mind. My child, who has been raised by a literacy teacher for a mother and a poet for a father, thinks that he is a bad reader. And he thinks that reading is decoding. In his short career as a student, Julian has somehow internalized the message, which is so pervasive in our society, that to read something is to call out the letter sounds until a word comes together. Making meaning, we imply, is a separate act all together.

Every week, a teacher from somewhere around the country will talk to me about a student in these terms. “This student can read the book,” the teacher will say, “but when I ask her to talk about what happened, she can’t tell me anything.” I respond that what that teacher means is not that the child can read the book, but that the child can decode the book. Reading is not decoding.

Of course we know this, and I don’t say it to be stickler or to annoy anyone. But language matters. If we confuse reading and decoding, then it’s no wonder that although most children will learn to decode by third grade, our reading curriculums around the country are failing to teach children to comprehend.

In I Am Reading, Matt Glover and Kathy Collins talk about the disconnect. “When we adults envision what (emergent) children are doing as real reading, we interact with them differently and see the richness in what they are doing. When children envision what they are doing as real reading, they see themselves differently. This is a win-win.”

I often rely on Glover and Collins’ book in my work with early elementary teachers. I work with teachers to understand how to set up their classrooms so Story and books are at its heart. We work on structuring our read-alouds so that students can practice growing and talking about their ideas for the character, the connections they are making to the content, and what they would add if they were the authors or illustrators. We work on establishing time for kids to read books long before they are decoding them. In this work, we are teaching kids that reading is about language, and making connections with humankind, and thinking critically about the world around us.

Decoding matters only as a means to an end.

To be fair, I haven’t met many early childhood educators in the country who agree with the “phonics creep”. Kindergarten teachers I talk to around the country bemoan how their boxed curriculums promote accuracy over meaning-making. Most of us would rather do read aloud and dramatic play and emergent storybook reading rather than the explicit phonics programs that require us to teach our four- and five- and six-year olds to memorize letters and sounds long before many of their brains are developmentally ready. This is the curriculum that has communicated to my son that he isn’t a reader, that decoding should be his goal, and that he is failing. Part of my work with teachers is to empower them to grow readers, not just decoders, by elevating all of those methods of teaching that were once so ubiquitous in elementary classrooms. This is no small thing.


My child entered kindergarten knowing how to read, although he has yet to figure out the decoding part. He entertains us with tales of monster-ghosts that follow a story arc. He stays awake at night reading comics by the clip-on light on his bunk bed rail. He walks through our town cemetery and inquires about the people behind the names, musing about their families and history. One day very soon, he’ll learn to crack the code to call out the names on the gravestones himself. And until then, when he’s in a good mood, I’ll continue to prompt him to do so. But I will not let him confuse that with reading.

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