So often I am asked about learning to read, in particular how to motivate and teach boys to read. The pattern I’ve seen repeated is families push long, early, structured lessons on their four and five year old boys (probably due to comparisons between their female counterparts who may already be reading bits and pieces). Then, in despair, these same families flip over to letting ‘learning to read’ happen naturally through play, because these boys complained so much about their sit-down-reading lessons.
I have/had two such boys with the same determination to do anything other than bookwork and learning to read. I also tried both ways to get them moving in a literate direction – too much sit-down-bookwork and then, swinging to the other extreme, lots of what they wanted, fun and games and not much else. For my own children I learned that a happy medium worked best.
While it’s a commonly held belief in homeschooling that everything should be fun and our children should be interested it, I take the notion with a grain of salt. Work is almost a dirty word in some homeschooling circles, bookwork being amongst the worst, but training our children to work, I believe is a good thing. We train them to make their beds, some would say before they are ready, and definitely when they aren’t interested in doing it, but I would say that we do it for their benefit. We train them to brush their teeth, take a shower, put their toys away and a myriad of other chores and habits. So it’s always baffled me as to why a line is drawn in the sand at education and we feel it’s right to let them have their own immature ways on what I would consider one of the biggies.
So I approached learning to read like I approached many of our other training tasks – with an element of fun and excitement, balanced with an element of work, consistency and persistence. By age 5 my boys were in love with books and would sit for long periods looking at books or being read to and we continued providing for this. I’ve always read during the day and Daddy reads bedtime stories at night (boys need to see men reading so they know it’s not just something girls do). We also filled their surroundings with enticing titles.
We also played phonic games (you have to be able to sound out words to read)
– I spreading foam letters on the ground and had the boys jump across the ‘river’ of letters but they could only jump on the sounds I called out
– I wrote letters on our tiles with chalk (yes inside the house. It provided the incentive I needed to mop. I recall my men fighting over the chore…that didn’t last… hehehe). Then I had them hop on each letter and say the sounds correctly to move on. If they made an error they had to go back to the start (I made going back fun by grabbing them and tickling and kissing them all the way back so it hardly seemed like a punishment).
– I put letter stickers on the upturned bottoms of plastic cups and the boys used a drum beater to beat the sounds I called out
– I wrote simple words on paper (sometime also on the tiles with chalk), with the letters spread out. Then the boys drove a matchbox car over the sounds, holding/singing the sound until they got to the next letter (this activity is great for blending sounds into words).
– The boys also watched Leapfrog phonic dvds (great) and loosely used the Letterland program of characters and resources.
The internet is a great source of nifty ideas.
As well as fun and games we had a small period of bookwork each day. I kept it consistent and short in the beginning. At first I was teaching, not only learning to read, but also good bookwork habits and attitudes. Just as with most things, teaching them good work habits now is a lot easier than when they are ten, when the usefulness of fun and games runs out. However, when they were small (5 and 6) we only did one or two things totaling no more than twenty minutes at most. My boys didn’t mind this small bit of bookwork. In fact the often enjoyed what they thought of as “real” work. I remember doing an alphabet scrapbook with them, where the boys had to look for pictures that started with each sound to glue into their scrapbooks. The boys also completed workpages from “Get Ready for the Code“. Once they could blend letters together in words we started practising reading with little readers as well. So our ‘real’ work was just a little at first, but it was everyday, at a similar time, without fail. If I tried to skip around, change things or become inconsistent their complaints increased and my troubles started.
Practising reading the phonic readers was the hardest struggle for us both. It was hard work and not entirely fun for either of us. But as a short consistent part of our day (we started this around 6 years of age) it was manageable. I could have left it until they were ‘ready’ and they may well have been teens before they were ‘interested’ or self-motivated but I just couldn’t fathom them missing those years of reading pleasure. Yes I read to them a LOT, we also listen to LOTS of audio stories, but my boys would have missed years of reading under the covers and spare moments huddled over a book. I couldn’t steal those years from them and, since they knew no better, I couldn’t let them steal it from themselves either.
My eldest book worm, fought me tooth and nail over his early reading lessons. It was hard work for him and I worried about whether I was teaching him properly. For me, my success as a homeschooler rested on being able to teach my child to read and it seemed to be taking so long. Both of us thought the process would be faster and more pleasant. But I discovered that learning to read is not much different from learning to play an instrument. It requires daily practise, which the student isn’t always keen to do, dedication, which the parent needs to encourage/coerce until the student is mature enough to take it on for themselves, and an element of torture (okay, call it ‘real hard work’ but it seemed like torture for us both at the time). But one day all the hard work will pay off. That’s the day and goal you need to keep hold of.
The day my eldest started reading his own novel by himself was a big day. He’d seen a book he was keen to read and asked to buy it. Both Hubby and I listened to him read a little from the first chapter (we were as excited as he was) and were dubious about whether he was quite ready to go it alone but his motivation to do so was enough to see him soon devouring book after book. Nowadays I joke about how much cheaper it would have been to have kept him illiterate until age 12 or so. I also joke with my son about what if we’d skipped our reading lessons, like he’d begged to do so many times (and I was tempted to do as well). He gives me a knowing smirk and I know he realises that I did a good thing for him by asking him to do something he didn’t want to work hard for at the time.
So start where your children are, with play based learning, and move slowly into short daily work sessions. With learning to read, practise is key. A little reading aloud by your child everyday is better than inconsistent bursts of this and that whizz bang curriculum. Phonics-focused readers make more sense to me than sight word books (ie. I like the dog, I like the cat, I like the….etc) or using real literature in the beginning stages. And finally, persist. Don’t give up if it takes a year or two or three. This is where we patiently wait for the penny to drop and start rolling. It will happen and if you stick with it they won’t be twelve or worse when it happens. In fact, if it does get to that point, with instruction, then there must be an underlying reason preventing the learning from happening. And don’t compare your children’s progress – not boys to girls, or same age peers, not even siblings at the same age. They are all so different so let them take it at their pace, within your instruction.
It’ll happen. It will. I promise. Just keep on keeping on. Your children will thank you.