Learning to Read – Brace Yourself for a LONG Post

09 Jun

Lots of people ask me, “How do you teach a child to read?”…like I know.  “I fluked it” never seems like a good answer even if it is half the truth.  So it got me thinking especially since I have another child going through the learning to read cycle now.

I truly don’t think I “taught” them how to read.  I think teaching someone to read is a lot like growing a plant.  The actual growing or learning part is not in my hands – thankfully.

As a homeschool mum I delighted in the learning to read milestone much more than the learning to walk milestone.  But think back to your role in the learning to walk milestone.  Do we ever say that we “taught” our children to walk?  No, of course not.  But we do know that there were things we did that cheered them on, environments that we provided that helped in the process and certainly things that we might have done that hindered the process.   The learning to read process is very much the same.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think children will spontaneously learn to read without us.  It’s just as likely as a seed blooming into a plant  in the seed packet.  Our little learners do need us to provide an environment that will encourage and shape their learning.  So it is important to know a little about the growing/learning process in order to be a good gardener/teacher.  In our role we have the potential to help or hinder our little plants/learners.

We could plant our seed in the wrong season and expect it to grow.  A child is not going to learn how to read properly or at all if we expect them to learn before their time.  But remember that every seed is unique.  The season will be different  for every child.  Some children will be ready to learn when they are three, a majority will be ready to learn somewhere around 5, 6 or 7 and some will be ready a while after that.  You have to know your little seed well.  Check with their Maker.  Watch for the signs.  They may know a lot of their sounds, they may frequently ask what words in their environment say, they may pore over books by themselves and they may flat out ask to learn to read.   The signs won’t be the same for every child.  You’ll feel it when it’s time and if you start too earlier you’ll feel that too!

Sit back and enjoy watching your little plant grow.  Don’t stand there demanding that they grow and grow faster.  You can not hurry this process.  Some readers learn quickly, some learn in spurts and some are the slow and steady variety.  Get to know which sort of wonderful learner you have been given and marvel over the process.  I love to sit back and think, “Wow I helped tend that little learner.” or ” My child learned to read in MY garden.”  It’s a precious time so try not to spoil it.

So what exactly do you need to do to ensure your little learner is growing in their reading skills.  First you’ll need the right soil to plant them in.  A soil rich in language.  Add plenty of great books to their environment.  In our home we have a special smaller shelf just for fiction picture books.   We also have areas on our shelves (the lower shelves) that cover animals, science and history.  The boys know our shelves well and happily seek out books on various topics and bring them to us to read.   But you don’t have to turn your house into a library (although I do thing it’s a positive thing to aim for).  You can go to your local library and borrow bags full of their books.  However you get them, it does not matter, as long as there are always great books begging to be read in your house.

Having the books on the shelves is not going to help at all unless you pop your little one right in the middle of them all and read aloud to them often.  Don’t wait until they are three or four or five to start reading to them.  Start when they are small.  There are books to cater to every age.

Encourage the dads to read aloud to their children also.  This is especially important for little boys who need to see that reading is a male activity too.  In our house Daddy reads the bedtime stories.

Start reading novels to young children as well.  This will help develop their listening skills and attention span.  Picture books are wonderful but novels open up a whole new realm to our children.   And if you read high quality literature it won’t be long before you are marveling at the vocabulary your little ones use.

Now this might all seems pretty obvious but I know there are children coming to schools who, at the age of five, don’t know which way up to hold a book and certainly can’t sit through a simple story.  Sad but terribly true.  So it seems that it’s still something that needs to be said.

Where to next?  Well the first step we took was to teach the sounds of the letters.  We did this fairly informally.  We purchased products like the Leap Frog dvds, the Letterland dvds and books,  Reader Rabbit cd roms and various toys that encouraged children to interact with language and sound.  We also played simple games with letters and sounds.  My approach has always been to focus on teaching sounds rather than the letter names, leaving the letters to find their own way into the boys’ heads (And yes that did happen quite nicely without me).

We used Letterland dvds to give letters a fun “handle” (rather than their alphabet name) that they could easily remember.  For some reason children can remember  long winded character names more easily than they can remember a seemingly simple letter name.  So we worked with this ability and learned character names like “Clever Cat” instead of “c”.   Well we didn’t actually “teach” these names to the boys.  They just naturally picked them up after watching the Letterland dvds a few times.  They never seemed to forget “Clever Cat” but would struggle to remember who or what on earth a “c” was.  So we went with their flow.  Letterland has a number of great products (books, posters, flashcards and games) but to be honest all we really needed was the dvds.  They really enjoyed watching them and it made learning letter sounds so much easier as the name “Clever Cat”, when said just right, gives you a little nudge towards the sound it makes.

We also played plenty of games to reinforce letter sounds.  We do have plenty of store bought letter games but we tended to play simple homemade games more often.   Things like these:
*  We laid out foam letters around the room (or wrote letters on the floor tiles with chalk) and got the boys to jump on specific sounds.  As  the sounds were located we sometimes removed them from the game or sometimes we left them there to make it more challenging.
*  Sometimes we laid the letters out in a line and got the boys to walk from letter to letter saying the sounds.  They could advance to the next letter if they got it right but had to return to the start if they got it wrong.  Of course you have to be sensitive to how a child will react in this game so provide some help if you think they’ll have a melt down if they have to return to the start again or put all the harder sounds closer to start so there’s not so far to return to start.
*  We wrote letters all over the house and would challenge them to say the sounds or find letters that said particular sounds.  They loved to do it and if the letters were always in view we could play the game whenever the thought came to mind.  We had letters written on the windows with window markers, we had fridge magnet letters, we had an alphabet frieze on the walls, wooden movable letters and many more.  They were everywhere and very much a part of the boys’ day.

We didn’t only use fun and games to learn the sounds, although you most certainly could.  My boys enjoyed workbooks (in the beginning)  so we worked through the Explode the Code primer books together.  At first we worked orally with the workbooks as they required more writing abilities than the boys had at the time.  But as we moved through the three primer books the boys both insisted on writing in their workbooks so we just skipped the writing activities that were too challenging (they start teaching letter formation in these books and require the children to use these skills) and some days the boys tried their hand at writing.  We didn’t let the workbook dictate our lessons.  We used it as a tool on our learning to read path rather than jumping onto the path it dictated and following it.

When it was time to move to blending sounds together to make words (once all the sounds were well known) we played a different  variety of games:
*  I wrote words in a stretched out manner (eg.  c………….a……………t)) across the page and had Ethan drive one of his Matchbox cars across the word.  As the car passed over a letter he had to make the letter sound and hold it until he reached the next letter.
*  I got Ethan to sing the sounds which really helps with hearing the word you are trying to blend.
*  I put letter bricks until clear plastic cups and had the boys use drum beaters to beat out the letter sounds.

People would say to me, “Boy you’re so creative coming up with these game ideas” but none of these games were my own creation.  I am most definitely creatively challenged.  I’m a hunter and gatherer and the internet and books are my hunting fields.  I just googled things like “phonic games” or “phonic blending” and started ploughing through the pages for nifty ideas that we could try.  Just google yourself a few ideas to try each week.  There are a lot of great ideas out there just waiting to be found.  You don’t need to find them all.  Just a few that your children enjoy as it won’t be long before they are well on their way to reading.

I discovered with this blending of sounds stage that it can not be rushed.  It seemed like a development stage that the reader needed to be ready for or no amount of teaching would be very beneficial.  It took me a while to figure this out.  It was quite some time before Ethan caught on that “c    a    t” spelled cat.  He just couldn’t seem to hear the blended word at all.  He could sound it out perfectly but couldn’t hear the word in all the sounds.  I played all the games I could find on the internet and it was weeks before the light bulb went on.  THAT was an exciting day!  And THEN it occured to me, perhaps he just wasn’t ready.  Something mustn’t have been in place for him to be able to make the connection no matter how good my teaching ideas were.  Brayden however was a different kettle of fish.  I waited a little longer before starting the reading process with him.  But then he figured out the blending process without me.  Admittedly he was always involved in his brother’s lessons (He never allowed me to leave him out of anything!) so he was primed and ready to go before I expected.

Once the boys could blend sounds together to make simple “at” words I introduced basic phonic controlled readers.  Some people detest these books saying that they are poor examples of literature but I think that they are forgetting that they are tools that will help children practise the skills that will one day lead them to reading great books.   Once my boys have the skills to decode most words they will move from their practise readers to real books which is where we are with Ethan at the moment.  A whole new world of reading is opening up for him at present.

With readers I have discovered several things that has made our reading practise more successful.  First, don’t be afraid to tell your child the word they need.  Judge carefully whether you should help them sound out the word or just give them the word.  If you make them sound every unknown word they encounter they will quickly resist the lesson.  If you find you are having to give them too many of the words, then perhaps the book level is not appropriate to their skills.  I am acutely aware however that there are not enough books at the very beginning stages so there will be days when you have no choice but to tell them many of the words.

I found it useful to select one reader for the week and to have my child read that reader every day.  On the first day their reading will be stilted and slow and you will probably have to help them with several words.  But as the week wears on their reading should become more and more fluent.  By the end of the week they should be able to read that book with ease and comprehension.   In this process I tend to give them the unknown words earlier in the week but later in the week I would stop them and help them sound out more and more of the words they needed.  This seemed to work for my boys.

Lots of people utilise books like “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” or “An Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading”.  We used the later.   I started by utilising the book exactly as they described but I found that the process didn’t suit my boys.  They found the lessons dry and tiresome and reluctant students made life difficult for me.  I didn’t toss the book however as it’s really helpful as a map of where to go next with phonics and reading.   It’s more of a security blanket for me – “I can teach reading if I have this book” kind of thing.  Having said that there are lots of websites on the internet that outline very similar teaching reading schedules so I wouldn’t say these books are vital.

Okay so let’s quickly summarise all the things I did to get my readers to where they are now:
– I filled their environment with books and language (and have continued to read aloud to them for a couple of hours a day).
– I taught the letter sounds but didn’t fuss too much over letter names. (Later we used sound posters and learned more difficult sound combinations just be repeating them once every day).
– I helped the boys develop the skill of blending sounds together but had to realise that there seems to be an optimal window of opportunity and that I couldn’t rush it.
– I started a good phonics program.  We chose Explode the Code and love it.  But we also add in other phonics activities like worksheets, cd roms, dvds, games etc.
– I introduced phonetically controlled readers and had my children read aloud to me EVERY day
– I used a phonics sequence to guide my book and work selection and to keep us moving forward.

Once your little plant is planted in well prepared soil, then what?  How did I get Ethan from the beginning stages of reading to reading real books by himself?   We just kept making time for him to read aloud to us.  Every day Ethan sat with me or his Daddy and read aloud from at least one of his readers.   We did this in faith knowing that it would eventually lead us to where we are today, just like a gardener knows that if they lovingly tend to their little plants needs on a daily basis they will be rewarded.  Now Ethan too is starting to bloom into an independent reader as he moves onto reading short chapter books.

To see the fruits of your works is a wonderful feeling.  I used to think to myself that if I could just teach my boys to read I’ll know that I can do this homeschooling thing well.  And here I am having graduated one reader into the world of independent reading.  It’s an awesome feeling…however I’ll have to tweak my original statement to say “If I can teach my boys to read AND WRITE I’ll know that I can do this homeschooling thing well!”.  But that will have to be the subject of another post.

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Posted by on June 9, 2009 in Language


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