Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Learning to Read

Learning to Read
by Virginia Knowles

Before I get into specific methods we use, let me digress into a little educational philosophy. There has been constant controversy between proponents of phonics instruction and those who favor whole language. Phonics teaches a child how to decode each word, exactly as it is written. The emphasis is on rules for systematically learning letters and their sounds. Whole language teaches the child to use context clues, sight word recognition, pictures, and previous experiences to extract meaning from a story. Here is the conflict. If you emphasize phonics too much, your child might get bored and frustrated. He isn’t reading anything real, just isolated words and sounds. If you emphasize whole language too much, your child may not learn to read accurately, thinking that guessing is good enough. This defect can cause him major trouble later. Let me put my two cents in. WE NEED BOTH! As home schoolers, we are not the least bit limited by what the school board chooses to use in public classrooms! YEAH!

I have taught nine of my children to read, though actually they are the ones who should get most of the credit. It’s truly been a jaw dropping experience to see them take the accumulated tidbits I have given them over the months and years, and then when they are ready, launch themselves into the world of books. Four of them were reading quite well at age four, one at five and the other four at age six. They are equally bright overall, but had very normal variations in readiness for this particular skill. When people ask what method I use, I am quick to tell them that I’ve never stuck to one packaged program or text book. I like what I have nicknamed tandem reading. (Picture a tandem bicycle, with two seats and two sets of pedals.) Tandem reading is basically participating with our children in the reading process as we transfer the skill to them bit by bit.

Try to keep the sessions brief and fun. You might not do these exercises every day, and perhaps not at all until your child is willing and interested. I personally don’t prefer to push learning to read very hard. When the child is ready, she will learn fairly quickly, and won’t have as many negative feelings about the process.

First teach the alphabet -- the names and sounds of each letter. I know some people say that you should teach only the letter sounds and not confuse them with the names yet, but that’s how we do it. You can do whatever is easiest for your child. We use puzzles, games, flash cards and other low-key methods at a very unhurried pace throughout the preschool and kindergarten years. Computer software like Jump Start can greatly help in this process since it offers fun drill and feedback. When Julia was four, we made letter pages. I would draw the outline of a very large letter on the page, and she would fill it in with pictures (cut out or hand drawn) of items starting with that letter. For c it might be cookie, car, carrot, and cat.
  • Use hands-on experiences to make learning letters more effective.
  • Feel the shapes of letters using a wooden alphabet puzzle or sandpaper cutouts.
  • Play with lower case alphabet magnets on your refrigerator or magnet board.
  • Glue string letters onto index cards.
  • Trace the letters on paper with a pencil or use fingers with bright washable paints.
  • Use fingers to trace letters in a tray filled with sand or cornmeal.
  • Mold letter shapes from play dough.
  • Do crafts with alphabet shaped hard noodles or stickers.
  • Make letters shapes in the air using fingers or whole arm motions.
  • Go on a scavenger hunt for household objects which begin with a given letter.
Drill letters with a good set of flash cards. One weakness of many sets of illustrated flash cards is the poor choice of example words, such as n card that has a dark starry “night” sky, or a picture of a rocking horse for r, or an owl for o. Too ambiguous and confusing! Choose a set with good pictures, or no pictures at all.

Start with lower case letters. Uppercase may be easier to write, but your child will primarily encounter lower case letters in reading. Your child should learn both fairly quickly. One common flash card exercise is to match the uppercase letters to the lowercase letters.

Familiarize your child with a variety of letter styles. Children might become temporarily confused by seeing letters in different styles. For example, handwritten letters are different from those printed by a computer. My four year old said, “There are three a letters!” He pointed to upper and lower case in a workbook (A and a), and then to a lower case a on a poster. The difference is that the one on the poster had no serif on it (this is called sans serif). Serif letters are easier for the eyes to read, but sans serif letters are easier to write. I also once realized that my third grader could not read traditional loopy cursive, since I usually write in italic hand. It only took her 15 minutes to learn to decode cursive, but it was still a surprise to me that she hadn’t done so already!

Use alphabet books as a supplement.
Alphabet books can reinforce letter learning, but since there is a lot of other information on the page to capture the child’s attention, they are not usually sufficient for direct, concentrated alphabet teaching. The same goes for the alphabet song, which is great fun for learning the order of letters, but does not, by itself, teach your child to recognize them by sight.

Aim for instant sight recognition of letters and their sounds. Hear it, touch it, see it, say it, write it, and play with it. Get those letters down pat -- names and basic sounds! You don’t need to teach all of the sounds right away. For c and g start with the hard sounds found in cat and goat, rather than the soft sounds in cent and giraffe. For vowels, teach short sounds found in cat and get before the long sounds in cake and gate. Blends and unusual pronunciations can wait much longer. Stick to the basics at first!

After teaching at least a few basic letters, move on to some words! Some of these will be phonetic (decoding letter sounds), and some will be sight words (memorizing whole words that are relatively non-phonetic). Using bright colored markers and index cards, make a set of simple flash cards. At first, use only a few cards at a time, and then work up to a dozen. Show the child how to sound out the letters from left to right, and practice until she can do these without errors before introducing new words. Lay the cards on the floor and ask the child to find the ones that you name or spell. Or have her pick ones to read to you. (Do you notice the Three-Period Lesson concept again?) Here is one possible (and very general) sequence of word types:
  • Short vowel phonics words with the same endings: cat, rat, mat and fat. Once they learn the common ending (at) they just have to figure out the first sound.
  • Short phonics words with the same vowel but different ending sounds: Add can, ran, man and fan to the previous words. Here they have to learn the difference between words that start the same but end differently, like cat and can, or mat and man. Notice that I have only used the vowel a in these words so far.
  • Other short vowel phonics words: on, if, get, leg, fix, pin, sun, fun, hot, fox
    Easy long vowel words: go, no, so, me, be, he, me, we, my, by
  • Easy sight words: the, of, to, from, they, are, you, was, were, family names, etc.
  • Easy two-syllable short vowel words: picnic, basket
  • Long vowel “silent e” words: cake, Pete, bike, poke, cure
  • Consonant blend words: ship, trick, trap, bark, stump, scrap, sing
  • Adjacent vowel combinations: boat, read, meet, coin, loud, diet, joy, book, food
  • Longer concept words: numbers, colors, and other commonly used words
Use computer software to reinforce letter and word skills. We can’t depend on this entirely, but software does give children an extra boost, and it is fun for the child and time-saving for mom. This has been a huge help in our family.

Use the word cards to make simple sentences. “I hug and kiss Mom” and “The cat sat in the hot sun” are easy ones to do. Let your child make some sentences, too. This will help him learn that each sentence needs at least a noun and a verb.

Display your child’s progress! Do you have a child who is proud of her accomplishments and likes to show other people what she knows? Give her a key ring or necklace strung with small cards all of the words she has learned so far. Take her over to Grandma’s house and let her do her stuff! Or turn on the video camera! Anything to motivate!

Use the “tandem reading” approach. Let your child try figuring out words in a book you are reading together. Don’t wait until a child is really fluent with flash cards before you start tandem reading with real books. When she is able to decode just a few short words (at, in, on, the), try reading an easy book to her, and then pause and point when you get to a word you think she knows. This does not always have to be a short simple word; it’s fun to try longer words which are often repeated and distinctively recognizable, such as Rumpelstiltskin. Your child can try the word, and if she can’t get it, just read it and proceed. As her skills progress, she can read harder words, and more words. She does what she can, at her own comfort level, and you do the rest. Eventually, as her fluency improves, and if a book is at the right level, she can read almost all the words, and you are merely there to listen and help with the few she can’t get. There is a gradual transfer of the reading from you to the child. This low stress approach creates a spirit of teamwork and comradeship between parent and child. Don’t tandem read for every session; sometimes you should just enjoy the story for its own sake. The real beauty to tandem reading is that it is real reading from the start! It never pushes the child beyond what he or she is comfortable doing. The process might take several weeks, or several months, or even a couple of years, but it works.

Work on page skills. Show your child how to read a page from left to right, top to bottom. (Unless you are reading Hebrew or Chinese, and you read right to left!) You can do this by tracking along under the words with your finger as you read aloud, which also helps make a more direct connection between the spoken word and the written word. If your child loses track of which line he is on, have him hold an index card just below the current line and move it down the page as he goes. While you are working on page skills, you may as well demonstrate how to turn a page without ripping it. (Those who like to snuggle up with a book on their laps often catch the edge of a page on their clothing.)

Write your own very short stories using the words your child knows. The stories may only be a few sentences long and use a lot of repetition, but they can be fun. I jot them in neat handwriting on regular notebook paper so we can store them for safekeeping.

Use early phonics readers as necessary. Yes, I know that some people think that children should never use basal (controlled vocabulary) phonics readers, but these have their place in the scheme of things. Here are some we have used:
Use phonics texts or workbooks as needed. You can get simple phonics workbooks at Wal-Mart or any bookstore if your child likes to do this sort of thing. As far as phonics texts or guidebooks, here are three that you might want to try:


  1. A great activity to assist children in learning to read is to play a board game called, Er-u-di-tion.

    This award winning game incorporates over 300 sight words and the letters of the alphabet and their basic phonic sounds in an enjoyable, engaging activity, providing both teachers and parents with a useful tool.

    Cards are categorized so children of all reading levels can play together!

  2. thanks for this information! do you suggest any games that can improve vocabulary for elementary grades?


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