Black Marks Your Eye Can Pick Off the Page

“Black Marks Your Eye Can Pick Off the Page,” Ensign, Apr. 1972, 57

“Black Marks Your Eye Can Pick Off the Page”

“One of the most vivid early memories of my life is that first home Bible. It was the first book that dawned on my mind as a book, as a thing made of paper and on the paper black marks your eye could pick off from the page and you could say the words that lay there on the paper.” (Carl Sandburg.1)

Every parent wants his child to become a good reader. Every child wants to become a good reader. Why, then, all the anxiety and frustration over this mutually desirable goal?

To the Latter-day Saint, reading is of particular importance; in fact, we accept it as a commandment to “search the scriptures,” “seek ye out of the best books,” “first seek to obtain my word,” and finally, “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.”

Reading is both complex and simple: complex because it is a highly intricate process involving the receptor organs and discriminative responses within the brain, and simple because once learned, it becomes a natural process just as walking and talking are natural.

When a child enters school, he is usually proficient in a language. In only five or six years, with all of the other things he has to learn when he enters the world, he has still learned one of the most complex of all achievements—spoken language. Without special knowledge or qualifications, and while hardly even knowing that they were doing it, his parents taught him until he achieved verbal communication with remarkable mastery. How? By talking to him. From the time they wrapped him in his first blankets, even before his mind could sort out any of the noises, Mom and Dad talked to him. And when he cooed or gurgled or even cried, they answered him. In time he sorted out all of the confusion of sounds into something with meaning. The miracle of language had begun.

And then another marvel began to occur. As he listened, as he sorted out the sounds, he began to reproduce the sounds himself. He was able to speak, not just make noises, and he was understood. His first efforts bore only a faint resemblance to the words he heard, but they were good enough. They were accepted with cheers, praise, laughter, perhaps a hug and a kiss; at the same time he himself was accepted.

Is it any wonder that when a child enters school he carries with him thousands of words? He may not use them all in his everyday speech, but he knows them and they are his. Even before he has entered the classroom, he has picked up approximately one-fourth of the vocabulary that he will possess by the time he graduates from high school.

When parents have demonstrated this most effective first principle of language, why do they stop? Now that their child is ready for the next great step into the world of language—the printed word—why do they turn the whole instruction over to the schools?

After the foundation has been so perfectly laid, “let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation. …” (Heb. 6:1.) How often have parents argued about teaching methods, systems, and programs of reading instruction, saying, “He just must get a good foundation,” or, in lamenting about a poor reader, “He just didn’t get a good foundation in the first grade”?

Do the parents send him off to learn to read as though it is a thing apart from the language he has already been learning? If so, they are expecting him to construct a new foundation that will certainly impede his reading growth.

Parents should continue to build upon the secure first foundation both before and after the child enters school. Just as they let him hear the words, they now should let him see them. At what age should they start? Did they concern themselves about what age they were to start talking to him? They talked to him because they enjoyed it. He didn’t need to know the words then, and he doesn’t need to understand them all at once now. He needs only to wonder, and he will wonder when he is ready to wonder. Carl Sandburg describes it in his own life thus:

“This wonder, I would guess, came into my life when I was four years old. … It was winter, cold outside, and winds howling. Mary and I heard father by the light of a small kerosene lamp read a chapter. What he read I have forgotten and couldn’t have remembered the next day because I didn’t understand it. But I recall several times that week going to where that Book lay on top of a bureau. And I opened it and turned pages and held it near a window and had my wondering about how those black marks on white paper could be words your eyes would pick off into words your tongue would speak.”

Whenever parents open a book, they are teaching their child to read, by letting him see that those black marks are indeed words the tongue can speak; by letting him follow the words as they fall from their lips; by letting his eyes pick off the words. They are teaching him to read by letting him hear their voices give the words flow, rhythm, pitch, stress. He begins to see that meaning comes from words arranged in groups.

Some have said, “But my child just won’t sit and listen to me read.” Does he have to? Did they ask him to sit and listen while they were teaching him his vast word treasury? No, they just talked to him, about him, and around him. They talked because they loved him.

What should parents read to their children? There are some who are so concerned about “acceptable” reading for children that they completely overlook the richest library that is, or should be, already in the home. Any home with a copy of the Old Testament already has a collection of thirty-nine of the world’s greatest books. Add to that twenty-seven in the New Testament, and there are now sixty-six. Add to that fifteen in the Book of Mormon, and they have a library of eighty-one books.

Parents who read to their children about Joseph who was sold into Egypt, about Moses, David, Job, Nephi, Alma, Moroni, and Jesus, will be introducing him to the world’s great literature. They will be letting him hear and feel the drama of life as it is played out in the lives of great people of the past.

The stories in the Bible and Book of Mormon are everyone’s stories. The child’s mind becomes caught up in the greatness of the central characters and temporarily discards or holds in abeyance any vocabulary, principles, and concepts not commensurate with his maturity.

If the purpose of life is joy, then certainly we should be engaged early in seeing, feeling, and understanding life not only by our presence in it but also by our vicarious participation in it.

Parents and children can read and enjoy good children’s literature. And why can’t parents read aloud some of their favorite adult stories? Some of the world’s greatest literature is enjoyed by both children and adults.

Despite the fact that a great amount of literature for both children and adults is unworthy of the name, still a vast amount is excellent, and more is being written all the time.

I am purposely withholding any recommended reading list. It would only be restrictive. Rather, parents and children can go to libraries; that is where the fruitful fields are. And no one should be restricted by someone else’s lists, thus depriving himself of the joy of discovery.

After they have heard, spoken, and seen the language, children should be encouraged to write it. They should learn early that their own words can be “fastened down” on paper. Anybody who has something to say to another person beyond shouting distance has something worth writing. They can write to cousins, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, missionaries, grandparents. They can write about home, the walk through the park, the new batch of kittens—the little things in life.

What grandparent is there whose day would not be made a little brighter with a letter from a grandchild? In all likelihood the child would receive a letter right back. Parents can help their children become involved indeed in turning “the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Mal. 4:6.) I find it hard to believe that the spirit of Elijah was intended to take effect only after death. We should be engaged in promoting it among the living as well.

Writing, like all virtues, benefits him who gives as well as him who takes. Nothing else can teach as well how words are made and strung together to form thoughts as can the writing of them. And it should spring from one’s own life experience. Every person, regardless of age, has experienced life in a way unique to him. He is entitled to write about it in his own fashion with the best words he can employ at that time.

Some of the world’s greatest literature is in letters, such as those in the New Testament. Luke wrote his account of the life of Christ and then his Acts of the Apostles to a person we only know by the name of Theophilus. Yet all mankind is the benefactor. Luke didn’t know he was writing the greatest story ever told. He merely wrote from the heart “those things which are most surely believed among us.”

Reading is functioning language, and for optimum growth one must read the language, speak the language, see the language, and write the language; and he must participate in these functions not only sequentially but also concurrently. The child begins to learn to read when his brain sorts out and forms meaning from the many sights and sounds around him. Whether it is visual stimuli or aural stimuli, interpretation takes place in the brain. We must remember that oral reading is merely saying aloud words that have already been read.

Reading is a lifelong process. It is an art that is never mastered. We are all still learning to read. And as we travel this course through life I suggest these cautions:

1. Do not confuse the ability to read with reading. The person who can read but doesn’t is hardly any better off than the one who doesn’t because he can’t. The result is precisely the same.

2. Be not deceived or intimidated by reading. There are some who use reading only for its snob value. They must read the latest novel, subscribe to several magazines and newspapers. For what purpose? “I read a lot,” they say, as though they expect an aura of virtue to hover over them.

3. Don’t use reading to avoid coming into confrontation with yourself. There are those who must be reading all the time. For them, reading is a compulsion. These readers will read anything rather than come to grips with the content of their own minds. Total withdrawal from reading for a period of time would be an excellent purgative for them. Their minds would then be cleansed, ready for construction of their own identity.

4. Do not restrict reading to printed words. Reading is the spirit of discernment. It is interpreting, appreciating, and understanding life. It gives form and meaning to the complexities that surround us. And we must always approach this process with wonder, thought, and meditation.

The lives of the great shout this to us across the centuries: John the Baptist wandered in the desert; the apostle Paul, after his vision, retired to the desert of Arabia and later declared, “I conferred not with flesh and blood”; and Jesus went “into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” In our own lives it is vital that we retire mentally to the desert, our sacred groves, our secret chambers.

By applying these principles we may be able to grow in reading from the word, to “line upon line,” then between the line, and ultimately beyond the line—which is the reading of life. This journey should be one of pleasure and learning. It should be like a poem, which, as Robert Frost said, “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” This is the poetry that should be the life of each man.

Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn