Literacy Lights: Starting with that First Letter

Erika Petrelli
Erika Petrelli

What is the literacy light, and how can we turn it on?

My son, who is four and in Pre-K, has started to figure out how to sound out words and actually read them. He’s starting to figure out how to spell certain words by sounding them out, too. It has been incredible to see that literacy “light” start to glow in him—I feel like I can see the cogs in his brain turning as he tries to work it out. Last night it was the word “and”… He sounded it out:  Ah, nn, duh… ahnnduh…   … and??

He is so proud and excited when he figures a word out, and has become relentless in his pursuit of this knowledge. He’ll ask me about words he sees as we pass them by. “Mom, what does s-t-o-p spell?” He sings his color songs. “R-e-d, red. R-e-d, red. I can spell red! I can spell red!” And then he writes his color words on paper (in the color of the color in question … r-e-d must only be written in red, you know). Of course he still thinks all letter combinations form words, so he’s also likely to be like “Mom, what does r-r-l-l-x-p-y-d-e spell?” Or our conversation will go something like this:

“Mom, how do you spell mom?”

“You know how to spell mom, Dylan.”

“Oh, m-o-m!”

“That’s right!”

“So, what does m-o-m-o-l-o-w spell?”

“Well, that spells momolow, Dylan.”

“Momolow!  Hahahahahahaha.”

He’s having so much fun.

As a person who loves to read, I am thrilled to see him at the cusp of gaining this power. Once that literacy light is fully on, it’s like the entire world appears. My 7-year-old daughter is an avid reader too, and her love of reading stories has also translated into an early skill of writing stories, and dang funny ones, too.  I think her pride in understanding that she is a “good” reader has given her a confidence to think that maybe she just might be good at other things, too. I want that same thing for my son—as he learns how to read and write more and more and more words, I want him to understand that accomplishing this skill means he is capable of accomplishing plenty more. With every feat conquered we grow stronger in our conviction that we can.

When is the last time that happened to you? When is the last time you were “in the dark” about a certain skill or understanding, and then had the light come on? Like learning to read and write, there are so many things that seem completely unachievable before we begin. But slowly, if we keep trying, the light begins to glow. And before we know it, we can’t remember it ever being dark. This is so palpable for me as I watch Dylan experience it, and it makes me wonder what dark rooms I am standing in that I need to tend to. What new skill or knowledge am I avoiding tackling because I am either too scared or too overwhelmed or too busy or too… ? Imagine it from this point of view: if Dylan's teachers handed him the seventh Harry Potter novel and said "Go ahead!  Just sound it all out!", would he be as excited to learn to read as he is when they simply write the word "t-o-p" on the whiteboard and see what the kids can do?

Because the truth is, the path to being able to read anything starts with being able to read one thing. I think too often we stare at the whole thing—whatever the thing is-- and say “whoa, never mind. I’ll just stay here in the dark, thank you very much.” But instead of staring at the whole thing, maybe I just need to start with the first one. And then the next one. And then before I know it, the lights are on.

What “light” can you switch on today?   


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Erika Petrelli

By Erika Petrelli

Erika Petrelli is the Senior Vice President of Leadership Development (and self-declared Minister of Mischief) for The Leadership Program, a New York City-based organization. With a Masters degree in Secondary Education, Erika has been in the field of teaching and training for decades, and has been with The Leadership Program since 1999. There she has the opportunity to nurture the individual leadership spirit in both students and adults across the country, through training, coaching, keynotes, and writing. The legacy Erika strives daily to create is to be the runway upon which others take flight. If you enjoy these blogs, you should check out her interactive journal, On Wings & Whimsy: Finding the Extraordinary Within the Ordinary, now available for sale on Amazon. While her work takes her all around the country, Erika calls Indiana home.