RDLG 579: Content Area Literacy
July 3rd, 2015
I cannot remember a time when I couldn’t read in my mother tongue. I have no memories of learning to read, or being read to, or my first book. I do recall arriving in French Immersion and being introduced to this new language which I was expected to master, but the process of acquiring literacy in that language I largely have lost. I recall a time when I didn’t know French and then a time when I did.
I come from a household of readers, including all the kids books my brother, sister, and I owned at various times I would estimate that well over three thousand books have gone through my home over the years. I remember the trips to the comic book store before long car ride across the country every summer. I remember playing a game with my little brother in the car where we would try to stump each other by finding a Calvin and Hobbes strip the other couldn’t recite from memory.
I recall the various series and authors I fell in love with over the years: The Black
Stallion; the Gold Rush books of Jack London; The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCafferey. I remember coming home from University to my mother asking me if I’d heard of this Harry Potter yet. I remember my father giving me On the Origin of Species, pouring over the giant Times of London Atlas, a pop-up book about human reproduction, the twenty shelves of National Geographic issues.
I remember becoming a writer. The first story I wrote, I plagiarized. I stole the opening chapter of Outlaw Red by Jim Kjelgaard—a book about a dog—rewrote it to star a cat, and watched it get published in the Calgary Board of Education’s annual collection of Elementary writing. I thought about this often as I sat in writing workshops at the University of Victoria, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing.
I am currently functionally illiterate. I live in Taipei, Taiwan where they speak Mandarin Chinese and write with Traditional Chinese characters. I speak virtually no Chinese and read and write less. I can identify the characters for ‘noodle,’ ‘meat,’ ‘mountain,’ and ‘person.’ I can write ‘small cat’ and ‘Hammertime.’ The latter I have taken as my Chinese name; it is as ridiculous in Chinese as in English.
Prior to moving overseas I had considered what it would like to be illiterate in much the same way I’d thought about what it would be like to be blind, or paralyzed. I couldn’t imagine the deprivation, the utter loss it would engender in a person’s life. I had no idea how an illiterate person could even function. It has been eye-opening to say the least and has led me to value greatly the book-heavy home I grew up in. It’s shockingly easy to be illiterate and that’s when you don’t speak the language. A native-speaker who couldn’t read could easily live a long, productive life.
I love reading and writing. I read voraciously: at least one fiction and one non-fiction book are always on my nightstand. My Kindle is full of books to be read, my notebook is always at hand to be jotted into, and I start to go really squirrelly if I don’t get to write at least a few thousand words a week. Helping engender a love of producing and reading the written word, in any language, is perhaps my single overriding ambition as a teacher.