Many parents have asked me over the years about teaching their child to read. There are huge amounts of curriculum out there - fancy schmancy phonics programs with flash cards and progress charts or scripted - say this now - kind of formats. How much should we expect to spend on teaching a child to read? How much time and tears should be invested? Is this kind of a formal setting even the best way to teach your child to read?
I'll admit, I looked at my share of phonics curriculums, and even liked parts of each one, but in the end I had to ask myself, "why should I pay a lot of money for something I can do myself?" Does teaching a child to read even have to be a formal process, or can it fit into my overall homeschooling philosophy based on Dt. 6:7?
In the end, my first son pretty much learned to read on his own while I tried to figure out how to teach him! Well, somewhat on his own.
Just as we took the next step when he was learning his first words and his colors and shapes, so we took the next step in learning to read. The first step was simply to read to him - as much as he would let me. We made it a habit to read before bedtime from the time he was born, so that at least was one time each day when I knew I could get my active toddler to sit down next to me and listen to a story. As we read, I might point out a letter here and there. "Do you see this, Micha? This is an A. We made our own alphabet books with pictures of things he was very familiar with for each letter and used these as our bedtime story occassionally.
Maria Montessori explains the didactic steps very well in her writings... 1. "This is". Show the child the letter or object and say, "This is a..." and tell him what it is. Do this naturally as God gives you the opportunity in your reading together and in your life. There are letters all around us. Use them!
2. "Which is?" Show the child two or three letters and ask "which one is the letter A?" Sometimes a child may know the answer but still find it hard to articulate. This approach gives him the opportunity to see the answer in front of him and even answer without speaking. This makes teaching a toddler to read possible even if he doesn't speak yet! Sound surprising? I've actually seen it done. One of my younger sisters was taught to read by my mom before she was two. If you showed her two or three phrases and asked her "which one says..." she could point to the right one every time. You could even write a phrase such as, "Where are my glasses?" and she would go find them. So it is perfectly possible. But I digress...
3. "what is?" Finally, you can ask them, "what is this letter?" and the child can tell you the answer. The important points in all this are to keep the learning sessions as natural and as short as possible and to have fun! If the child does not remember that this letter is called A, tell him - not in a condescending - of course you wouldn't remember - tone, but as if you just remembered it yourself. You can point out some of the clues like the pointy top of the letter and the bar across the middle that looks like the end of the swingset in the backyard, but in the end, if he doesn't remember, that's ok. He'll probably get it next time. After all, he is still pretty little.
When my oldest son was 18 or 20 months old, we started pointing out the letters all around him. When I made up some homemade flashcards to teach him his letters, I was amazed to find that he already knew most of them. We did find a use for those flashcards, playing matching games. Index cards are wonderful things! We found pictures in magazines that went with each letter, some letters we had many pictures for, some only one, and we glued one picture onto each card. Now we could play "concentration" - turning the cards all upside down in a grid format on the floor, turning up two at a time and checking to see if they were a match. If the two cards were a letter B and a picture of a bicycle, (or a bicycle and a banana) it was a match and could be kept. We could also just lay the cards out on the floor and match them up without any specific game format. I still remember the cards my mom made like this when I was little and stretching them across the livingroom floor from A to Z with all the pictures that started with that letter next to the letter cards.
My son wasn't even two years old, and didn't know his alphabet song, but he knew the name of every letter like they were old friends. No curriculum did that - and no genius intellect in my son - although I consider him to be pretty smart - just a natural learning environment. One of my favorite homeschooling authors, Marilyn Howshall, says that if you want to teach your child anything - no matter what the topic - you should simply fill yourself up with it, become passionate about it, and it will naturally flow out into the lives of those around you. If you fill yourself up with good books, if you are excited about reading, if you have fun reading with your child, you will hardly be able to keep him from learning to read.
So, my son knew his letter names. Now it was time to take the next step - learning the letter sounds. In Seigfried Englemann's book, "Give Your Child a Superior Mind" (I know the title sounds terribly prideful, but the information in this out of print book is wonderful!) he lays out a logical progression for teaching children the letter sounds. First start with f,l,m,n,r,s,and x. All of these letters have their sound at the end of their name. If you say the letter's name and just hang on to the end - like effffffffff - you'll hear the sound quite clearly. Second, go on to the letters b,d,j,k,p,t,v,and z. These have the sound at the beginning of their name. You could make some index cards with pictures of 15 children with these letters on their shirts, read the story of the Sneetches by Dr. Seuss, and then play a game about the end sounding letters who thought they were better than the beginning sounding letters. After my children knew these fifteen letters well, I next went on to the short vowels. With a,e,i,o,and u we could start building and sounding out words. We had a little song that we sang when we were sounding out a new word - c,a,t, say it faster, c,a,t, say it faster, c,at, say it faster, cat! Now he could read the word on the bathroom door that said MEN and he did, every time we were at a place with public restrooms!
Finally, there are the letters that you just have to memorize, c,g,h,q,w,and y. These took longer to learn, but that didn't hold us back from reading lots of books and playing matching games with the upper and lower case letter flashcards. Whenever there was a word I knew my son could manage in the book we were reading, I'd ask him to figure it out. Eventually he realized that he was reading more of the words than I was. What a revelation! He could read! And I found that he knew those difficult letters too, just by seeing them over and over again.
By then I realized that we didn't need a curriculum to tell us what to learn and how to learn it. I got children's books from the library and an old Dick and Jane type reader that had been my husband's, and we simply continued to read together. I never made flashcards for the letter combinations like sh and ch and ing. When we found those blends and diphthongs in the words in our book, I simply pointed them out, just like we had pointed out the green truck when he was tiny. When we saw a word like eat, we talked about the two vowels that stood next to eachother and how the a made the e say his name, but we never filled out a workbook page, circling the diphthongs in all the words on the page! I still remember hating those phonics workbooks and how pointless they seemed to me, even as a first grader, even as a child who already knew how and loved to read. As time went on, my children needed fewer and fewer reminders.
One of the disadvantages I've seen of working with a reading curriculum is getting bogged down on getting a particular phonics rule mastered before allowing your child to go on. I've found in every area of my life that when God wants me to learn something new He will drop the topic in front of me, maybe just in some aside comment made by a friend. I may not understand it right away, but while life goes on, in the midst of everything, God will let that topic come up over and over and over again. I will be reading a book or talking to someone after church and out it will pop. Until eventually I start seeking out more information and reading more and more about it, and it becomes a part of me. Learning to read is just like that. Each new concept is explained, and then the real reading continues. It will surely come up again on its own. There's no need to harp on it. And after a while, that concept will be a part of your child's reading strategy and suddenly one day you will be surprised to realize that he's got it! This drastically reduces the time it takes a child to learn how to read. While one child is spending day three on the br combination, the other is reading real books. And then the parents wonder why my child can learn to read before he's even "school age" and love reading while their son struggles with and hates br?
The sooner we learn that life IS learning and how to ask the Holy Spirit what the next step is, and then simply take it, the better off both we, and our children will be.