the "late" reader

In November my 8-year-old son was just beginning to get interested in learning how to read. He would try to follow me as I read to him, and would ask what sounds certain letters made. Although we hadn't taken a phonics approach, he has gotten the idea from well-meaning family and friends and children's television programs that this is just what you do to learn to read. He quickly became frustrated to find that phonics doesn't always work and that you just simply have to become familiar with the sounds that certain groups of letters make, which often means memorizing whole words.

This frustration -- that learning to read wasn't going to happen as advertised -- slowed him down a bit, I think. But he's taken off again, and I think it's going to happen very quickly from here on out. Recently in a drive-through he read, "Please pull up to next window." The first couple of words he sounded out, but he read the rest quickly. He said he just guessed what the rest was going to say, meaning that he inferred meaning from context, which of course is an important element of fluid and fluent reading. Then he said, annoyed, "why isn't there a "the" before "next"? He was recognizing the individual words as well. The connections seem to be happening now, not just quickly, but lightening fast.

I've long believed that people learn best when they are truly developmentally ready, and that only they can know when that is, and that they will know when that is by virtue of it simply happening naturally, in the absence of coercion or unsolicited teaching. The only really useful thing anyone else can do is to provide opportunity and answer questions. This is not an easy thing to allow in a culture that goes apoplectic over a child who can not read by second grade. It's considered a sign either that the educational system is failing the child, or that there is something wrong with the child. I consider it a sign that the child is not ready, and that the educational system has failed him not in not imbuing him with a skill for which he does not yet have the aptitude, but in leading the child and those around him to believe that he was already or has become disabled. These late readers within the school system often never learn to read well at all; how we perceive ourselves affects who we are able to become. Society in general, however, refuses to recognize that and stridently insists that the reason they are poor readers is that there is one small window of opportunity for learning to read and they missed it.

Who is right? It would be very easy to find out.