Throwback to language acquisition

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“You can color while I take my quiz,” my third-grade buddy offers as the class prepares to test its reading comprehension on school laptops. As I accept his endearing offer with a smile, he scurries back to his desk to retrieve crayons and a pad of paper for me. I work on my drawing while he diligently answers multiple-choice questions about the book he just read and then asks his teacher what to do with the extra time.

“Why don’t you pick a book to read aloud to Miss Grace?”

He begins to take me through the journey of “Buzz Boy and Fly Guy” one word at a time and unwittingly opens a window into the process of acquiring the English language. When he stumbles over a tricky past participle, I encourage him to sound it out, letter by letter: F-L-E-W. When he isn’t familiar with a particular word, he substitutes another and tries to rush past it until I suggest that we go back and look at the spelling. “Smushy” becomes “smelly” when we slow down to consider what sounds the letters make together.

Mentoring an elementary school student once a week has solidified for me the importance of language exposure starting in early childhood — because, let’s be honest, English is weird. I am so grateful to my parents for reading to me and cultivating my literacy from the time I was a baby, and I’m utterly impressed by the students at the school where I mentor in Oakland, because most of them speak Spanish at home and only learn English once they start going to school. Watching a child sound out words and learn to string them together to form complex ideas seems like nothing short of a miracle when I’m bearing the struggle right there with him. We encounter the word “enough,” and I wonder how anyone decided that spelling it that way was a good idea in the first place. (I’m still haunted by spelling “usually” wrong twice on a first-grade spelling test.)

Even though nitpicking grammar and combing through articles for redundancy and misplaced commas is part of our job description at the copy desk, it can be refreshing to step back and appreciate the phenomenon of reading and writing — because once upon a time, we all struggled to sound out “sometimes,” too.

Contact Grace Newsom at [email protected].

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