What Do We Read Beyond Words?

I have always thought judging Pre-K and K students only on their ability (or inability) to read letters and words was short-sighted. I remember the 2nd grade student who told me: Miss Ra-ra I can’t read. (Yes, Miss Ra-ra because Ferrara was a mouthful for some students.)

I showed him a picture of a cereal box. What is this? Without hesitation he gave me the name of the cereal. See, I remember telling him. You can read!

That encounter replayed itself in my head this morning as I shoveled my driveway. Regular readers know I grew up in Upstate New York, outside of Syracuse. There, snow can arrive as early as Halloween and continue to dance around well into May. It just depends.

One thing we learn to do upstate is to read snow. We learn the difference between snow that’s good for making snowballs, snow people and igloos versus the powder skiers live for. Powder snow isn’t wet enough to pack; wet snow packs down and gets icy making skiing tricky. And if you want to skate on the Erie Canal, it’s a lot easier to shovel powdery snow from the ice.

While thankfully moving powder this morning, as opposed to the dense, wet snow of last week, I was thinking about what else people read.

My high school classmate, Don Moore, dissected owl pellets with my daughters when they were younger. In case you aren’t familiar with owl pellets, owls don’t poop. Anything remaining after digestion gets coughed up in pellet form. If you own a cat, it’s like a hairball. Dissecting those pellets is a biological dig and tells the explorer just what the owl ate before egesting the remains. As the girls found bones, Don helped them identify skulls of voles. He noted what was a scapula of a mouse. My girls still remember that adventure! And, they were reading bones like a biologist. You can virtually dissect a pellet here.

Don also introduced my daughters to the magical world of reading animal poop, called scat! (Every kid needs a Dr. Don in his or her life.) There are plenty of websites with photos devoted to teaching people how to read poop. And besides, what kid doesn’t go through that inquisitive poop stage? Just use Google to find children’s books on the topic; you’ll be amazed. Hey, it’s science!

Picture of a book titled Poop.

Medical examiners also read bones. As a radio reporter, I once spent an afternoon with Dr. Page Hudson, North Carolina’s first chief medical examiner. He was a tall man, with a deep voice like Lurch from the Addams Family. He grabbed a box from a shelf in his office. The box contained some rope and bones. One of the bones was a femur (thigh bone). With that one bone, he told me the sex, age and race of the victim. He knew where the bones had been found. He suspected the rope had been involved in the homicide. It was absolutely incredible what he could ascertain from those pieces of evidence. Unfortunately, he hadn’t find the perp. That was 1979, long before DNA analysis became readily available.

With the Lunar New Year upon us, I thought about how the Chinese use a character for a word. Tomorrow night, people will ring in the Year of the Ox. Here are the characters for that animal.

Chinese symbol for Ox.
Long Is a Dragon: Chinese Writing for Children by Peggy Goldstein

Humans have the ability to learn to read so many things. We look at birds and read the feather colors to tell the difference between a cardinal and a blue jay, for example. And in the case of these two birds, a reader could go further and identify the cardinal as male. But male and female blue jays look alike. So in order to read the difference between a male and female blue jay, bird banders use a selection of measurements to make that determination.

Left- Male Cardinal, Right-Blue jay

My daughter reminds me that politicians and entertainers read a room, or read an audience. We all learn to read facial expressions and body language. And, some of us read those cues better than others.

I’m sure readers could think of many other examples of what we read without necessarily reading words or sentences. Universal symbols like these, for example.

Pictures of different symbols.

So this brings me back around to teaching, learning, and my long-ago student who thought he couldn’t read. Maybe we need to expand student understanding and appreciation of reading by building on what they can read when they get to school, even if that reading doesn’t involve the alphabet and English words. Maybe if students believe they can read because they see a box of Cheerios and identify it as such, it would begin to build some confidence. That’s how teaching begins, isn’t it? I have already taught some people about the difference between snowball snow and powder, including the fact that powdery snow will disappoint the most determined snowball maker every time.

And isn’t transference of knowledge from one realm to another a part of teaching?

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