When and How Should My Children Learn to Read?
Last summer when I posted about our favorite resources for teaching reading, I promised to post
about the methods I used for teaching my daughter to read. I certainly didn't think it would take me nearly a year to get around to doing writing this post, so my apologies to any of you that were waiting and anticipating this post.
I focus on reading as the most important skill in my children's early schooling. When a child can read well on her own, she immediately gains access to all sorts of knowledge through library books and your own bookshelves. When a child can read well, it also lessens the burden for the parent,
since the child is now able to learn about any subject of their choosing on their own, without the parents having to read aloud for every subject. I believe that science and history can wait, but reading is foundational in my children's early education. Reading is our top schooling priority.
What works for my child...I admit that I am no expert at teaching reading. At this point I have only taught one child to read. Right now she is 6-years-old and reading 7th-grade level books with good comprehension, so she seems to have some natural aptitude for reading. She absolutely loves to read, and even though we no longer do any formal reading lessons, she reads 1-2 hours every day on her own.
However, my daughter didn't self-teach reading; we did work at it. What works for one child may not work for another, and it may be that the techniques I used in teaching my daughter to read won't work with her little brother (who is 3-years-old presently). There is an excellent article about teaching reading to three children with different learning styles here.
Read to them, read to them, read to them!I read aloud to my kids at least once every day, and often twice a day. Reading aloud to my kids is one of the most important aspects of our success in teaching reading. Through reading aloud daily, my kids have learned that books are gateways to wonderful stories, interesting facts, and important lessons. If we did not read aloud to our kids, they would have no interest in learning to read. Because they have already learned to love books through read-alouds, both of my kids have enjoyed looking at books on their own from the age of two. My 3-year-old-son will often sit and look at books for 20-30 minutes on his own, and some of the books have been read aloud so often that he knows all of the words by heart.
In addition to reading picture books, from the age of 3-years-old I read aloud full-length chapter books to my kids. These books seem to help in developing sustained concentration as well as memory since each time we start reading the kids need to recall what happened previously. Some of our favorites to start with are:
- Charlotte's Web
- Mr. Popper's Penguins
- Pippi Longstocking
- Stuart Little
- Little House in the Big Woods (as well as the follow-on books)
- Chronicles of Narnia (books 1-3 only at this young age).
Age 2-4: work on letter recognition and phonetic sounds
When they are 2-4 years old, I work with my kids on letter recognition and letter sounds. This is not done with a set schedule, but rather as opportunities arise. For instance, when reading picture books aloud to my son, I will often show him specific letters in the book and talk about the phonetic sounds those letters make.
One method I learned from Maria Montessori's writings was to only teach two things at a time. For instance, if you are teaching colors, only show two colors; trying to teach all the colors at the same time can be frustrating for kids whereas just remembering just red and yellow is relatively simple for them to do. To apply this concept to reading, I make sure that during any reading session, I emphasize no more than two letters. I also try to pick letters that look very dissimilar, such as A and T for instance. I try not to interrupt the flow of reading to talk about the letters and their phonetic sounds. Instead, I talk about them before we read the story, usually focusing on letters on the cover page or first page.
In addition, we use the following for teaching letter recognition and phonetic sounds:
- Bob Books alphabet books: my son loves reading these books and they are great for teaching the phonetic sound of each letter.
- Starfall: this is a great, free website. Both of my kids love using this site, although I limit them to using it only a few times a month since my son has a hard time with boundaries on screen time.
- Alphabet refrigerator magnets: these are great for teaching letter recognition as well as beginning spelling once the kids are older
- Uppercase and lowercase alphabet puzzle: This puzzle works well for teaching alphabetical order as well as recognition of both uppercase and lowercase letters.
At Age 4 or 5, start formal reading lessons
Our phonics programInitially, we used The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading for my daughter's reading lessons. This book contains no pictures, and is a phonics-based approach to teaching reading that includes over 200 lessons. In addition to providing incremental reading material, this book also incorporates optional simple games that my daughter loved, and these games really helped to reinforce the reading lessons in a fun way.
This book was especially helpful for us in the early stages of reading. My daughter would get easily distracted by any pictures in books and want to just start guessing at words without actually trying to sound them out. Since there were no pictures in this book, it worked very well for us. As my daughter's reading progressed, she became less and less interested in using this book, so we only got about halfway through it. But it was essential for those first few months of reading lessons, and by the time we stopped using this book, my daughter had a firm grasp on sounding words out and could read many early reader books on her own.
Moving onThe Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading, our reading lessons focused on early reading books and reading games using homemade notecards. While phonics-based reading lessons worked very well for us in establishing enough knowledge to get started reading simple books, I found that teaching sight words also really helped once we were encountering more difficult words in the text. Rather than using flashcards, I would just tell my daughter what the words were as she came to them in the text. In this way, she learned words such as "precipice", "spaghetti", and "catastrophe", without having to remember some very obscure phonics rules.
Some of our favorite early reading books were:
- Bob books: These great books take a gradual approach to reading, introducing very simple sentences initially and working up into quite complex sentences by the end of the series. There are 50 books in the series. The first book has sentences such as, "Sam sat." By the last book, kids are reading sentences such as, "They sat down together, and as far as I know, they are sitting there still."
- Dick and Jane books: With their charming illustrations and plenty of word repetition, these books are perfect for early readers.
- Biscuit books: These books are about a little puppy dog, and my daughter loved reading them. There is lots of repetition of certain words in each book, which is great for beginning readers. These books are also readily available at libraries.
- Progressive Phonics: This is a great, free online resource that works up from basic alphabet recognition all the way to advanced reading using phonics. There are numerous books and activity sheets that can be used for each lesson. One thing I really love about this program is that you can actually save the books on your computer and print them out! The stories are silly, and kids love to read them. The books incorporate some more complex words for parents to read (and it is easy to tell which words are for parents since they are color-coded). This is nice because the stories can be much more engaging when they don't have to strictly stick to words the kids can read. I relied on these books on days when my daughter was a bit reluctant to read, as she knew I would all of the "hard" words.
- Step Into Reading books: These books cover a huge range of subjects and are great for getting kids interested in reading about new topics.
- Magic Tree House books: These books tell of the adventures of a brother and sister who can be transported into the scenes of books in the Magic Tree House. These books captured my daughter's imagination and kickstarted her into reading lots of chapter books on her own.
Keeping motivatedSometimes, my daughter's motivation to do her reading lessons would start to drop. Rather than getting frustrated or forceful, I tried to take these days in stride, and see them as opportunities to get more creative about with our reading lessons. There were many different ways to help boost
- Variety: Providing a variety of reading materials and activities for my daughter was key to keeping her motivated. Some days we would read books, some days we would play reading games, some days we would take turns reading to each other. Since my daughter rarely liked to read the same book more than once, I regularly checked out large stacks of books from the library so she could always have something new to read for our reading lessons. (A couple of our favorite reading lesson games are described in my post about our favorite resources for teaching reading.)
- Choice: Giving my daughter the opportunity to choose what we would do for her reading lessons really helped as well. I would let her choose whether she'd rather play a specific reading game or pick some books to read from a stack of reading-level-appropriate books.
- Location: Rather than having our reading lessons in the same place every day, it worked well for us to vary the location. When the weather was nice, we would often do reading lessons on the back porch (which seemed to have a nice calming effect and had the added benefit of keeping little brother happy). On days when I myself felt too impatient (such as when my daughter would like to spend time looking at each picture in the book before reading the words), it worked well to have my daughter read aloud to me while I emptied the dishwasher and cleaned our breakfast dishes. On days when we were particularly busy, my daughter could read aloud to me in the car while we drove to our errands. She enjoyed reading in the car so much that even now, she won't leave the house without taking a book along to read in the car.
- Routine: Making reading lessons part of our weekly routine really helped as well. Routines give young children a chance to know what will be expected of them, and this seems to minimize their objections. For us, the usual best time of day to do reading lessons was first thing in the morning. Otherwise, it would be too easy for my daughter to get involved in some other activity or play, which would make it particularly difficult to get her to engage in reading lessons without a struggle.
- Rewards: By and large, I am opposed to rewarding children for reading. I think it encourages them to only do the bare minimum, and teaches them that reading is for earning rewards rather than for it's own enjoyment. However, a few times throughout our months of reading lessons, my daughter became particularly unexcited about continuing on. At these times, I found it useful to offer rewards for reading. For instance, for every 3 books she read aloud to me, she could earn 50 cents, a special game of her choosing with Mommy, or balloon to be blown up. These rewards helped her get enough practice to be able to read more confidently. To keep from running into the possible negatives of using rewards for reading, we stopped using rewards whenever I found that my daughter was starting to be expected anytime she read, or after a few weeks of using rewards. I used the rewards just long enough to get us over the low-motivation humps.
- Stay positive: At times when my daughter resisted or complained about reading lessons, I tried hard to stay positive. I had to keep the end goal in mind: that my daughter would be able to read well and would love to read on her own. If I pushed too hard or our reading lessons became thoroughly unenjoyable for my daughter, the likely result would have been that she could read, but hated to do so. I had to rein in my own desire for control and realize that any time my daughter started to dread our reading lessons, it was time for me to get creative and come up with new ways to accomplish our lessons.
- Take breaks: One surprising thing that I learned during our months of reading lessons was that breaks really helped my daughter integrate what she had learned. For instance, back when she was still under 5-years-old and beginning to sound out words, I worried that she would forget everything if we took a long Christmas break. We ended up taking an unintentional break for over 3 weeks, and I found that her reading ability had actually greatly improved while we were on break. Before the break, she was sounding out each letter ("c-a-t") but afterwards she was actually just reading those simple words ("cat") without sounding out each letter. That experience showed me that having time to rest and stop learning new material for a time can be hugely beneficial in the overall learning process.