This story, about the moment a child learns to read, is one of my favorites. Kindergarten teachers are truly blessed to experience these moments all the time. As many of you know, I’m using Megan Milani’s amazing The Three Habits of Highly Successful Reading Teachers, so my class this year knows many more sight words than in this story from last year. I still see Chris in the hallways almost every day. He always stops, smiles, and waves. I always remember the look on his face when he realized he could read when I see him and smile and wave back.

When I taught second grade, almost all of the kids came to me able to read to some extent. A few really lower ability readers struggled and needed tons of extra help, but even they could read a little.

I figured that kindergarten would be different, and boy was I right. One child came to my class able to read—I mean really read. The rest fell somewhere in between being able to read a few simple words and not knowing what a letter was. Some can’t read or write their own names and a few don’t know how to hold a pencil. I’m not sure what their parents were doing for the first five years of their lives, but teaching their kids how to read, spell, and write obviously weren’t among their priorities.

When I saw the enormity of the task ahead of me, I panicked. Had I made a huge mistake by switching to kindergarten? What had I been thinking, taking on this huge responsibility? Would it be possible to bring all of these kids as far as they needed to go? Was it too late to hop a plane for a warmer location and change my identity? I truly had my work cut out for me, and in truth I was more than a little bit scared.

And then, something happened. After the first few weeks of learning the rules and routines of school, my students slowly began to focus on their work. One letter at a time, they learned how to read and write their names. They learned other simple sight words too. These are words that can’t be sounded out and therefore just need to be known at sight. If you tried to sound out the letters in the, you’d never read it correctly. And the more we did, the more they wanted to do. I’ve always heard people say kids that young are like sponges. I think they’re more like those fancy Sham Wow cloths you see on the late-night infomercials—soaking up gallons and gallons of whatever you put in their path.

In kindergarten, we focus on learning two new sight words every two weeks. That’s not many, but it’s enough. For the first four weeks of our reading program, a research based curriculum for teaching letters, sounds, sight words, and reading comprehension, we learned the words I (yes, it’s a word, not just a letter!), am, the and little. We drilled those damn words every free second of the day. Then, I pulled out the readers that came with our program. These simple little books have only a few words on each page and large colorful pictures to help beginning readers feel successful. You’d be amazed at the sentence variations you can make with those four simple words:

I am happy.
I am sad.
Am I happy?
Am I sad?
I am the little cat.
I am the little dog.
Am I the little cat?
Am I the little dog?
The list goes on and on.

One day I was reading with two of my lowest kids, Kevin and Chris. These are the ones who couldn’t read, spell or write their names coming into school. Chris still struggles with holding a pencil. I wasn’t sure how smooth this learning process was going to be for them.

I showed the boys their copies of our reader. I asked them if they thought they could read it on their own. Both of them shook their heads no. I could smell the panic. I read the title of the reader aloud to them, and then we opened the books, and I explained that we would take turns reading each page. Then, I sat there and waited.

Chris began: “I…am…the…little…” He paused, stuck on the next word. There was a picture next to it to illustrate its meaning. I pointed to the picture. “Cat!” he finished. There was no exclamation point at the end of the sentence, but you’d never know by the way he read it. His face lit up—and mine did too. I was pretty sure he’d never read anything in a book in his life.

“You’re reading!” I shouted, wiggling around in my chair. The boys giggled and asked what I was doing. I told them that sometimes, you just have to do the Happy Dance. I demonstrated mine for them again, and then they joined in, coming up with their own expressions of their happiness. Sitting in our chairs, we shook our hands, bopped our heads and celebrated. We had good reason to.