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When Reading Becomes a Long-Distance Event

Last night I was a timer at my daughters’ conference track meet. Event after event found me watching for gun smoke, clicking the start button on my timer, and eyeing athletes as they approached the finish line. The cycle continued on repeat for four consecutive hours: a huddle of athletes would appear, run their race within seconds, and shuttle away to their next event(s). Having witnessed numerous repetitions of this process, I noticed a trend: short-distance races, such as the 100m hurdles or 4x200m relay, enjoyed ongoing encouragement from the sidelines.  Spectators readily shouted words of motivation and hope along the runners’ route, and raucous cheers met athletes at the finish line. However, in stark contrast, friends, coaches, parents—and even timers!—milled about casually as runners participating in the 3200m race accumulated their laps around the track. Only when the bell for the last lap rang out did a crowd begin to assemble around the perimeter, each school’s coaches and students beckoning their runners toward the finish line with shouted admonishments and cheers. Why the difference?

Surely the reason is clear: the 3200m race is the longest event of the track meet. Few athletes want to run it; it simply takes too much time (and maybe too much effort?). Additionally, runners usually participate in more than one event—so “distance” or “mid-distance” track athletes’ schedules include racing far more miles than the other runners. A distance track athlete might be signed up to race the 4x800m, 1600m, and 3200m all in the same night! To most, the 3200m race is not glamorous: typically, there is no explosion of speed. It’s a game of endurance. We may all respect the runners who cross the finish line, but perhaps more often than we’d like to admit, we’re glad we’re not him!

Only a short night’s sleep separated last night’s track meet from my daily routine of meeting my 12-year-old son for reading lessons at his school today. As I listened to him read today’s text, the experience of last night’s 3200m race was fresh in my mind. In fact, I could almost imagine someone ringing the bell for the last lap as my child’s lips formed the words on each subsequent line of the page. After years of intervention, remediation, and patient labor, I now witness what I once doubted: my son can read. It’s taken a long (long, long, long…) time; it hasn’t been glamorous. There wasn’t one day when I suddenly saw an explosion of growth. On the contrary, my son’s reading life has been borne of the seven laps leading up to the bell in the 3200m race—repetition, effort, endurance, and a strong desire to reach the finish line.

Perhaps not unlike most track athletes’ disinterest in running the 3200m race, parents and teachers sometimes struggle to persevere in teaching reading when the task takes longer than expected. Naturally, we’d rather witness the explosion of literacy that often accompanies a child’s passage through kindergarten, 1st, or 2nd grade. When that expectation goes unmet, we grow uncomfortable, worry, or even become paralyzed by fear. If you’re the parent or teacher of a struggling reader, allow me to offer a different perspective: helping a child build skill and character over the (sometimes many) years it may take him to learn to read is one of the most worthy endeavors you could ever pursue. Is it hard? Yes. Does it sometimes feel like forever? Absolutely. Will there be hordes of cheerleaders scattered across your path? Probably not. And yet—the joy and satisfaction of watching a child you love step into the reading life for himself is worth every single moment. The reading life is one of the greatest gifts you can give to a child—no matter how long it takes for him to receive it. Striving after it is good. For me, my child, his school, and our family, this long road to reading has even been a blessing.

I plan to volunteer at one more track meet before the school year ends, and I have a particular goal in mind for myself: I intend to cheer boisterously for the runners in the 3200m race as they count each lap off of their distance. Of course, I’ll applaud every athlete—sprinters, too! —but the distance runners have my heart. I know what it’s like to run a long race, and I want to stand beside them in their journey. It’s a picture of the most important long-distance race I’ll ever run:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV)


To read more about Sara’s journey teaching her son to read, check out her new book Reading for the Long Run: Leading Struggling Students into the Reading Life. 

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