Published: February 21, 2023
11
min read
First Grade

How Ello Helped My Son Find His Love of Reading

Marisa Escolar
Guest Contributor

When I was in the early days of motherhood, a second-time parent was the most awesome of creatures. Unlike my equally tentative first-time parent peers, these multitasking magicians were full of emphatic answers, whenever I dared approach them on the playground.

The second time around, the shoe was on the other foot, and I enjoyed wearing it. I wouldn’t say I thought I had mastered the art of parenting, but I had a pretty clear idea of how things would play out. My kids were poor sleepers but great cuddlers. Couldn’t drink from bottles but loved the sippy cup. And, lucky for me, they had no trouble being potty trained…at daycare.

There were lots of differences between Lorenzo and his younger brother: Dylan was more physical and less verbal. He crawled and walked sooner, but whereas his brother would rattle off full discourse in English and Italian with no concern for being understood, Dylan held his cards close to his chest, not trotting out a new word until it was crisp and clear.

I knew I had given birth to two unique individuals. Still, as far as parenting challenges went, reading was firmly filed under “I got this.”

Born into a household of readers, Dylan spent his earliest days being pushed through towering library shelves, the toys in his stroller basket crowded by the volumes I couldn’t resist stashing below his sleeping body. When he wasn’t snoozing, he was never far from a story – and he never wanted to be. 

I knew I had given birth to two unique individuals. Still, as far as parenting challenges went, reading was firmly filed under “I got this.”

It’s hard to tease apart the exact stages of Dylan’s journey into literacy from the unfolding pandemic, which hit during his basic phonics lessons in the final months of pre-k. Attending bilingual kindergarten on Google Meets, my camera-shy boy worked to navigate new norms, new friends, new teachers – in English and in Spanish, all while sitting two feet away from the Lego room, which seemed to call his name relentlessly. If I left him alone, I knew I’d find him building a new vehicle or robot; if I stayed and observed, I could see him wilt under the discomfort of having his mom in kindergarten.

I could barely get him to log on to class, let alone do classwork, let alone…learn something new.

Our struggles went from A to Z, but eventually, reading started to show up as the squeaky wheel. While he enjoyed being read to, he bristled at the slightest suggestion that he decipher a word on the page. (How dare I interrupt the story!) Any effort to drill sight words would degrade after a few minutes (usually after he got one wrong). He even enjoyed writing—long elaborate stories!—but perish the thought of asking him to read them back once he had committed them to paper. 

I took the long pandemic hours to make books just for him, with simple vocabulary and featuring his favorite characters. He saw through me, right through my shakily drawn Fly Guy. I tried creating activities where he needed to use his reading skills to play a game. No dice. 

Was he dyslexic? Was it a maturity issue that would resolve itself? A pandemic issue? Was it the fact that his small-group reading classes were biweekly, 15-minute calls during which he and two classmates limped through easy readers with a kind and patient stranger? Maybe he would do better reading to his Grandma, to his dad, to his brother, to his stuffy…?

By the time we found our way to Ello, it was late into Kindergarten. My expectations were fairly low, but I was buoyed by the prospect of having an animated – non-sentient – character with expertise in phonics take a shot at getting Dylan to love (tolerate?) reading.

Ello occupied a sweet spot in our parent-child negotiations. I wanted him to read, he wanted to play on his iPad: violà, the Ello compromise.

Dylan grew into Ello: beyond the prizes, as he got books that were more engaging, I could see his pride in working his way through stories such as Balto, the heroic Siberian husky whose statue he had seen with his grandma in Central Park. He developed a rapport with the turquoise elephant, too, critiquing the jokes and complimenting the choice of videos.

It was a slow and steady climb, until one day, mid-first grade, we were at the bookstore shopping for holiday gifts. A chapter book caught Dylan’s eye. A long one. “I want to read that,” he told me. I had my doubts. He was unwavering. We brought it home.

Over the next week, I watched Dylan muscle his way through the first chapter, page after painstaking page, his entire body engaging with the challenge of hoisting himself up to this new reading level. It was all him. No parenting playbook. No parenting roadmap. With a dose of determination I had only seen him exhibit in the activities in which he felt most at home. Without warning, he had turned a corner and was heading for the straightaway. It was clear I needed to stand back and let him do his thing.

Dylan grew into Ello: beyond the prizes, as he got books that were more engaging, I could see his pride in working his way through stories… He developed a rapport with the turquoise elephant, too, critiquing the jokes and complimenting the choice of videos.

The next in-school reading assessment, he rushed home to tell me he had leaped two levels: as much as tests aren’t my thing, his proud face was all I needed to see. 

The summer between first and second, he made another leap, putting his big brother’s favorite reads – Dogman, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Captain Underpants – all within reach. When our family traveled and I was collapsing from jetlag at bedtime, he took it upon himself to read me a story until his eyelids got heavy as well.

Now I’ve got a kiddo who can disappear for hours inside a book, who chatters happily about the characters he’s following and who reads my text messages when they pop up on the family iPad (oops). Along the way, he stretched everything I thought I knew about parenting. And if I ever find myself on a playground with first-time parents, wondering how to transmit a love of reading to their kids, I certainly won’t be emphatic. Our family gave Dylan as many ingredients as we could, from a library chock-full of classics to a newborn AI app. But in the end, he wrote the recipe.

The next in-school reading assessment, he rushed home to tell me he had leaped two levels: as much as tests aren’t my thing, his proud face was all I needed to see.

Marisa Escolar is a writer, coach and author of Allied Encounters (Fordham University Press, 2019). After stints in New York City, California and Italy, she now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with her husband and two sons. For more, see marisaescolar.com.
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First Grade
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