Learning How to Read

Next week I will be presenting a workshop on using poetry to teach reading and writing strategies to a group of teachers. During my preparation I have been reading and rereading poetry selections from many sources. I am struck by the volume of good poetry I continue to find in books, magazines, and web sites that I haven't even posted here yet!

Today I want to share one my new favorites I discovered this week. I really like the poetry of Billy Collins and he has worked hard to make poetry much more accessible to our students. This poem is a reminder of simpler days, a long, shiny hallway at Silver King School, and learning how to read.

First Reader

By Billy Collins

I can see them standing politely on the wide pages
that I was still learning to turn,
Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,
playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos
of the backyard, unaware they are the first characters,
the boy and girl who begin fiction.

Beyond the simple illustration of their neighborhood
the other protagonists were waiting in a huddle:
frightening Heathcliff, frightened Pip, Nick Adams
carrying a fishing rod, Emma Bovary riding into Rouen.

But I would read about the perfect boy and his sister
even before I would read about Adam and Eve, garden and gate,
and before I heard the name Gutenberg, the type
of their simple talk was moving into my focusing eyes.

It was always Saturday and he and she
were always pointing at something and shouting "Look!"
pointing at the dog, the bicycle, or at their father
as he pushed a hand mower over the lawn,
waving at aproned mother framed in the kitchen doorway,
pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other.

They wanted us to look but we had looked already
and seen the shaded lawn, the wagon, the postman.
We had seen the dog, walked, watered and fed the animal,
and now it was time to discover the infinite, clicking
permutations of the alphabet's small and capital letters.
Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks,
we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.


  1. delightful poem...brings it all back. though, this weekend, i was reading a dick & jane book to my little nephew. i know this is sacrilege, but i think i prefer the current kiddie lit. it's so much more interesting to read aloud :)

    good luck w/ the workshop

  2. Hi, I came over from that nutty englishwomans blob to greet you.
    I was never very good at poetry when in school and when tasked to create something, the result was pitiful and without imagination.
    But years later, after joining the blogging world and being asked to create some poetry I discovered that I was inspired by graphical presentations; be they photos, art or maybe just a posting graphic by someone else. A picture many times inspired a thought which I could expand upon and center my poetical renderings. I was in muse heaven!

    Just a thought . . . but I would think that this would be a wonderful way to inspire others to poetry who would elsewise not be so taken. But they must choose the graphic which inspires them,in my humble opinion.

  3. I, of course, really really liked this, too. In your travels would you look for a book because I'd like to frame a page and hang it. the botanicals of the new millenium?

    I digress. "...we had looked already and seen..." just sent me into the most wonderful of places. It describes perfectly how I learned to read, something I had not id'd until this moment: I already knew how to read because I had already seen it. It, all that, was just sorted out on the page now and after a few minor tips on how to decode, the words just tumbled out of my head and into my mouth. For me, it was learning how to sort and prioritize the words that were already rolling around in my head, as a result of watching my golden little world go by for six years.

    Sweetly. So sweetly.


  4. i hit ebay. got the beginnings of a new collection. dick/jane books or reading books of the 1960's. we'll see how the collection progresses. i'll let you know when the books come what they look and smell like!

  5. Dick, Jane, and Spot sometimes show up in my poetry. They were such formative characters. Even though they seemed dreamlike, unlike real kids I knew, I loved the word LOOK and can still remember the excitement of actually reading. I thought the combination of sounding out and site memory worked well.

    Thanks for this flashback. I hadn't seen them in a long time.


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