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Sounding Out the Words

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

“The goal of reading is not to sound out words but to unlock meaning.” Jill Frankel Hauser, Wow! I’m Reading! Williamsonbooks/Ideals Publications, © 2000

I don’t really remember the process of learning how to read. I remember not liking to read aloud because, occasionally, the letters would switch places on the page and Malibu would become Mabilu, nova—avon. I’m not dyslexic by any stretch of the imagination—I just think my brain skipped ahead, then fell back to where it was supposed to be, mixing up the letters in the process.

I do remember that I disliked spelling bees in school, but I usually did pretty well on spelling and vocabulary tests (aside from the occasional mixed-up letters). As an adult, I know the reason why I’m a bad oral speller is because I’m visually oriented. If someone asks me to spell a word longer than about five or six letters, I scrounge for a scrap of paper and pen to write it down before trying to spell it out for them.

The quote above is from a book I’m editing at work—a reading how-to for parents of 3-to-7-year-olds. Since I had to retype the entire 160 page tome, I’ve spent over a week thinking about reading and stories and how much of an impact the written word has had on my life, and how thankful I am that I have a decent level of mastery over the English language, both spoken and written.

Because I was exposed to print as something more than just a necessary evil—the “sounding out” of the words—I fell in love with the world of fiction. I could find new worlds, live different lives, meet new and interesting people all by reading (which was great for a socially inept introvert like I was!). I thank God that both of my parents are avid readers and that sitting in the living room quietly on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon reading was a normal occurrence in our home.

As children, we live in a world of make-believe—just observe any child at play. At a certain age, though, most children are taught that make-believe is childish and to grow up, they must stop playing—stop making believe—and live in a world of fact, not fantasy. Once again, I must thank God that my parents never did this to me. At 13 or 14 years old, when I told my mother of stories I wished my favorite series of YA romances (the Sunfire series) would do, she encouraged me not just to write the publisher (Scholastic) but to write the stories myself. Even though I never completed writing one, I did query the publisher (and received my first, very kind, rejection). But those first original ideas committed to paper (before, all of my stories had been acted out with my Barbies) immersed me in a world of “unlocking the meaning” of words and language. I began to see weekly vocabulary lists as more than just something to be memorized—they added meaning, richness, and texture to my world. To this day, my one must-have writing tool is Roget’s Encyclopedic Thesaurus (the one arranged thematically, not dictionary-style) or access to http://www.thesaurus.com.

As expounded upon in yesterday’s post, it took me many years to get a grasp on the technical aspects of writing fiction, and only in the last five years have I written anything I’m willing to let anyone else read. But since as far back as 22 or 23 years ago, writing has added meaning to my life as much or more than reading. Writing for me is sounding-out the literal and figurative words that make up the world around and inside of me so that I can unlock its meaning.

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