Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What I've learned about learning to read

 This morning, as I gathered my little girls together to work on learning letters and reading, it hit me how much I've discovered about reading since first beginning to teach Eva at home ten years ago.  I've learned that learning to read is not so much about knowing letter names and completing workbooks.  What really makes learning to read happen is consistency, simplicity and familiarity.  It is consistency in practice, simplicity of the learning situation, and familiarity with books, words and letter sounds that makes learning to read interesting and natural.

A friend saved her cut out letters in envelopes from when she taught her kids to read, and kindly gave them to me.  I hadn't saved mine from Eva.

Like everyone says, it really is crucial to familiarize your child with language and the printed word through consistent exposure to books.  My dad always said, "Books are our friends!"  The first trip out with several of my kids as newborns has been to the library!  We've let them play with books and have read to them from the earliest of ages.  Studies have shown that when children are familiar with vocabulary because they have been read to, it is much easier for them to learn to read those words when they encounter them.

Because I'm now teaching my 4th and 5th children to read, I've also learned that speaking their learning language is vital.   My first child was in tears at school time, and I was so frustrated she couldn't get reading.  We used workbooks, drills on letters, and the book "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons."  After much agony, I finally realized that the 100 easy lessons book was not written for Eva's learning and reading style.  It is a wonderful book that worked perfectly for my two boys, but for her it was different.  It begins by working only with sounds and pointing to them.  These sounds soon become blends, then words, then sentences, and finally stories.  It was too complicated and tedious for her, and certainly not hands on enough.  

I started to ask other people what they were using, and found my friend Amanda was using the book
Reading Reflex" with all of her children.  They were reading pretty effortlessly at very young ages, so I knew it had to be pretty simple.  I bought the book, and found it is based around word families and moveable letters.  It begins with the understanding that the child knows the sounds of their letters, which by this time, Eva did.  

 They learn to read by playing games.  The teacher cuts out printed squares with letters on them and a square with a picture.  One of them is a drawing of a web.  There are the letters W, E and B inside little squares.  The picture of the web is set on the corner of a piece of paper or chalkboard, with the letters jumbled next to it.  The child guesses what the picture is, with the teacher's guidance, then proceeds to carefully sound out the word, moving the letters into the correct spot as they hear themselves speak their sounds.  I later did some learning testing with Eva, and found that she had auditory processing difficulties.  I think having three senses working together helped her to connect the symbols on the page with the sounds she was hearing herself say.  It also helped her to focus on the task at hand, having manipulatives to work with.  I am now teaching Saraiah to read with this same system.  I have found that working with the book 3 times a week works very well.

Thinking hard about how to write "web"

sounded it out!

you can tell she has fun!
For the early reader, I've used many strategies.  Maia is learning her letter sounds using plastic letters we move around.  We play a little game that I learned from Brandon's grandma, who was a special education teacher, as well as one of the first crop of occupational therapists educated in our country.  It's been shown that children will learn letters best when they are asked to distinguish them from other sounds.  So in our game, we have about 3-5 letters on the table in front of maia.  I find a letter in the bin that matches one in the row.  I then say its sound, sliding it standing up above the row of letters.  She loves to find the matching letter friend,  then say its sound with me, letting them "go to sleep" next to each other off to the side.  This progresses, with me replenishing letters in the row until I see Maia losing interest, and I let her put the letters back.  I have recently heard that only one minute per year of active learning of new content is effective in teaching children.  This would mean that Maia would only be able to focus on learning something new for 3 minutes.  I find that's about what it takes!  Check it out and see if it's true with your kids!

We bought these tiles at Office Depot about 6 years ago.

I am saying iiiiiiiiiii as "i" slides across the table 

Maia has found the friend for "i"

the "i" friends are having a little rest while the "r" friends get newly acquainted

We also use the Get Ready for the Code and Explode the Code series of phonics workbooks.  Through a series of fun and diverse activities, kids learn to distinguish letters from one another, learn their sounds, then begin to read.  

The Leapfrog DVDs, however, have been the most effective in teaching the kids letter sounds.  Because they can be played for younger children while more intensive schooling is happening with older kids, they can be used consistently and without guilt, because they are very educational.  Letter Factory teaches letter sounds in a memorable way, with a character for each sound.  Talking Words Factory and Code Word Caper teach blending and reading words.  

We also use simple flash cards and say the sound of the letter instead of its name.   This has been very effective in reinforcing letter sounds.  Handwriting Without Tears is a handwriting program that carries wooden manipulatives to build letters in a very simple way.  This was a great thing for my boys, because they were big, wooden, and maybe the long pieces reminded them of swords.  Whatever the case, they loved placing the wood pieces on a small chalkboard or notebook to build letters.  We would say the letter and its name as they worked. 

For Saraiah, our kindergartener, we use a simple notebook with pages divided in half.  The top part is empty for illustrations.  The bottom has lines for writing words.  Saraiah draws something, then tells me what she wants to write.  I condense it into some simple words, write them down, and then she copies what I wrote.  I know that many great thinkers learned what they knew by copying word for word the writing of great masters before them.  This is the tenet I am working with in doing copywork with my kids, even if it is not copying masters, but only copying something I've written down for them.  Sometimes I have the kids copy Bible verses, and they can commit them to memory that way.

As previously mentioned "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons" was very effective in teaching my boys to read.  We worked through learning blends, then words, then sentences together, and never actually finished the book.  By the time they were reading sentences, they had already been reading in practice readers like the "Bob" series of early reader books, and then moving into the simple Dr Seuss books.  The Sonlight Curriculum "I Can Read It", "Harold and the Purple Crayon" and "Biscuit" series were some other early reader favorites.  These books gave them confidence, so that soon they were reading any early reader book they could find.

So I encourage you to learn from the people around you, but most of all, learn from your child.  What draws them in or keeps them intent on learning?  How can you help them focus?  How can you make reading interesting and fun?  I'd love to hear some of your ideas, and what has worked for you.  


  1. Cool stuff, Angie! You've given me some ideas, actually--haha! Since you asked, here is something we've done with Miles as he is learning to read. He had trouble using the sound-it-out concept at first. He would sound out the individual letters, but couldn't figure out how to blend the sounds, and how that worked. So I "built" him a playground on paper and taped over it with packaging tape so that we could use dry erase markers on it. I would write a word on the slide and have him slide his finger down the slide. I used the analogy of screaming "weeeeee" when going down the slide, and said that when he was on the slide he wasn't allowed to stop making a sound. As he slid his finger down the word he would have to change the sound of the letter when he reached a new letter with his finger. When he reached the bottom of the slide, he had said the word, and suddenly the light bulb came on. He loves the slide game, it has come in quite handy when he gets fidgety and needs to "play". We still use the concept when we're reading his stories and he struggles on a word, I remind him that it is a slide, and then he is able to use that to decode the word.

  2. I LOVE that idea. It's like chutes and ladders, but educational, and without the ladders. anyway, I love that concept. I think I may try it with saraiah now! Thank you.

  3. To be honest, thinking of teaching Judah how to read or learn to write totally intimidates me. It actually makes my head spin because I would want to do it right but, there are so many different ways to do it. Thanks for sharing what works with your family! I liked hearing about what you do with Maia since she's closer in age to Judah.

  4. I know, it's mind boggling to try to understand how the human mind can learn to read. I think at our little guys' ages the best thing is reading to them lots and teaching them to love books. The letter factory dvds and the little letter tiles are the only "school" like things i do with maia. glad you enjoyed reading.

  5. Hi, Thank you so much for your blog. I came across it looking for some reading curriculum for my daughter. She is 5 and we are doing home school Kindergarten this year. I have never heard of auditory processing difficulties, but I really think my little lady has this going on. She has always been very bothered by sounds (loud toilets, loud music in outdoor markets or store). She also has always had a very difficult time following directions, mostly when we are telling her to get us something(we would tell her the item is down next to her feet and she will look other places). Anyway, she did great with most of school last year, except for reading. She loves for us to read to her, and she can almost pronounce the letters sounds, but she is really quick to be distracted or gets silly when we are trying to read the bob books(I should say book, because we didn't get too far in them. She also repeats back what I say to her and it's similar but still different words that she is repeating back.
    I am getting her checked for conductive hearing loss (I have that and all of these things go with that diagnosis as well, but I really want to get her tested for auditory processing difficulties as well. How did you test your daughter? What did you use to test her?
    Anyway, thank you so much for writing your experience... this is very interesting and I am excited to look into it more for her. If you want to e-mail me this information you may. :) Thanks so much!!!
    Lauren laurbeverly@yahoo.com

  6. We went to a local tutoring business and they tested her. As a homeschooler you are able to still fully utilize the local school district for testing for developmental delays, especially at young ages. An occupational therapist can work with your child and test her, or the school counselor. I have had my preschooler tested for delays and was just told he wasn't interested and had my daughter tested for dyslexia by the school counselor and told that dyslexia wasn't the issue. Auditory processing and minor dyslexia is kind of our final verdict on her. She's 13 now and doing very well and reading above grade level in spite of her past challenges.


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