Thursday, August 26, 2010

The importance of teaching your child(ren) to read

Whether or not you plan on homeschooling your children, you should make it your priority as the parent to teach them how to read. It is the single biggest factor in determining their future academic success, which indirectly also contributes to whether or not they will love school/learning. Do not rely on a school or a teacher to deal with this "hassle", as many children simply do not fit the one-size-fits-all approach offered in a classroom full of kids.

As I am embarking on teaching our fourth child to read, I thought I should share some things I have learned along the way.

I am a firm believer in the phonetic approach to reading. All of our kids have had very different learning styles so far, and some took longer to catch on than others, but I think it is imperative to take the time and effort to teach our children how to actually read, rather than just memorizing the meaning of a certain arrangement of letters.

Most public schools teach the "see and say" method, with some phonics thrown in here and there. The smart kids will pick up on it, while the slower ones will struggle with reading their whole lives.

The problem with English is that it is NOT a phonetic language. In Hungarian, for instance, everything is spelled 100% the way it is pronounced. Using the same 26 letters that we have in our alphabet, plus a few diphthongs and accent marks, they have a total of 42 sounds that make up every single word. One could read Hungarian perfectly just by knowing those sounds, without understanding or even knowing a single word in Hungarian.

English is not like that. The letter "a" alone can make a half dozen different sounds, while not being spelled any differently or having any accent marks. "ow" could say "owl" or "bowl". The words "read" and "read" have different meanings depending on how they are pronounced. Then there's "red" and "read"... you get the idea.

Nevertheless, a solid phonics foundation will help decipher most words, and the rest usually have uniform exceptions.

The phonetic steps to reading are:

1. Teach the vowels and their short sounds

That's "a" as in "apple", "e" as in "elephant", "i" as in "Indian", "o" as in "ostrich", and "u" as in umbrella.

I make a point not to tell the kids that vowels can make many other sounds, because I want to solidify certain basic concepts before moving on to all the exceptions. About 80% of words follow the strict one vowel/two vowel rules. But I do teach them the name of the letters: "A [ay] says a as in apple", etc.

2. Teach the sounds of the consonants

Again, stay with one sound per letter. For "c", it is enough to teach the [k] sound in "camel", not the [s] in "ceiling".

3. Teach consonant-vowel blends

Once your child knows the five vowels, start combining these with consonants he has learned, applying the one-vowel rule: If a word only has one vowel, that vowel usually says its short sound.

For example, "ba, be, bi, bo, bu".

This is the first step where kids have to blend two letters together, which is actually a major milestone in reading. Some kids will struggle for months trying to say two letters without leaving an unnatural gap in between, ("buh-a" instead of "ba"), while others will pick it up the first time. Be consistent in not allowing your child to add "uh" to the consonants, as this will only delay their blending. "b" says "b", not "buh".

There is no rush, just make sure to work with your child consistently and in small increments. If they or you are getting frustrated, it is high time to put the book down and try again another time.

It is important that kids get to where they can say these blends without having to sound out the two letters individually, i.e. "ba" instead of "b-a". It is helpful to ask the child to think of words that begin with those blends (such as "bag, bed, bit, Bob, bug)

4. Teach consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words with short vowels.

Once children have mastered the blends in step 3, all they need to learn is to add one more consonant at the end of a familiar blend, such as "ta-g". This is usually a pretty easy step.

5. Teach the long sounds of the vowels, and the two vowel rule

When your child is very comfortable reading CVC words, it is time to teach them the long sounds of the vowels. If you have been teaching your child the names of the letters as well as their sounds, this is a quick step because the long vowel sounds are also the names of those vowels: "a" as in "acorn", "e" as in "eagle", "i" as in "ice-cream", "o" as in "overalls", and "u" as in "unicycle" or "u" as in "rule".

Then explain the two-vowel rule: "When there are two vowels in a word, the first one is usually long and the second one silent", or our kids' favorite: "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking; the second one is silent - shhh!"

When the child has mastered the long sounds, practice reading words with two vowels, like "bake", "bee", "read", "Mike", "road", and "mule". Then practice how the difference between a short vowel and a long vowel can alter the meaning of the word, such as "rip-ripe", "Jan - Jane", etc.

6. Add beginning and ending blends

Next, rather just reading words that start or end with just one consonant, use consonant blends: "Blake", "flag", "camp", etc.

7. Teach sight words

There are a few words that, even with a phonetic approach, will still have to be memorized as sight words because they follow no obvious pattern whatsoever. Common first sight words include "the", "a", "I", "you", "to", "do", "from", "one".

You can make an endless number of phrases and sentences by combining these sight words with the simple one and two vowel words above, for example: "Blake fed the five pigs."

8. Teach diphthongs, exceptions, and special phonics rules

Time-wise, this last step will likely take up as much time as steps 1-7 above. Depending on which reading program you are using, there are likely a hundred or so of these listed.

They start with simple diphthongs like "sh" in "ship", "th" in "that", "th" in "think", "wh" in "what", "ch" in church, etc.

One common exception is that "s" sometimes sounds like "z" at the end of words, i.e. in "kids". Another common exception is that short words that only have one vowel at the end of the word usually say the long vowel sound, such as "we", "go", "be", etc.

Then there is a long, long list of special letter combinations, such as "ow" in "owl" or "bowl", "oo" in "moon" or "book", "ay" as in "pray" (y acting as a second silent vowel, rather than a consonant), etc.

At this point, it would definitely be best to use a successful, phonics-based reading program to make sure you cover all your bases.

During this final step, your child's reading will at some point take off to the extent that you no longer need to teach them these special rules and exceptions - they will simply figure them out and internalize them as they decipher more and more words on their own. Again, each child will have his/her individual learning style, and may do so sooner or later than another child from the same family.

Our two oldest (8 and 7 years old) both read at an adult level. This is a tremendous help and blessing, as I can simply assign them their daily school work, and they can work it independently. They also each read for a couple of hours every afternoon while I do chores or nap, and it is mind-boggling how much information and facts they take in during that time. John is on step 8 above , and probably won't be done learning all the special phonics sounds until he finishes up first grade next summer. Miriam is just starting on steps 1 and 2.

I have used and can highly recommend the following as my favorite reading programs:

A Beka "Handbook for Reading" A Beka also offers a plethora of related phonics items, which add up to several hundred dollars' worth. While nice to have for those who are independently wealthy, the "Handbook for Reading" is the only thing needed to teach your child all steps listed here. The teacher edition gives lots of tips and pointers for those new to teaching reading.

LFBC's "Beginner's Champion Phonics Reader" Same approach, not as colorful as A Beka. Good for students who are distracted by colorful pages with lots and lots of interesting pictures, or those who prefer a less "childish" approach.

Nothing fancy or expensive, and nothing that will require an addition to your house to store year after year. Patience and perseverance are the two main keys to teaching your child to read, and neither can be bought with money or ordered from a publisher online.

Bribing your student with gummy bears or other small candies for each correctly read column or line also helps greatly! :)


  1. Have you heard about THRASS? It stands for Teaching Handwriting Reading and Spelling Skills and it's one of my favourites because it groups the sounds together for example giant, jam and bridge all go together because the 'G' sound is the same. It makes that letter-sound relationship very explicit
    Here in Australia we've been under the spell of the truly, truly atrocious 'Whole Language' approach where students are supposed to learn how to read, write and spell through some weird form of osmosis. Thankfully, we are now moving back towards a phonics based approach

  2. Again- a great and needed post. I taught our 6 children to read and want to help teach our 4(so far) grandchildren to read. The main goal is for them to read their KJV Bibles. My youngest son(17) wanted to use Landmark Freedom Baptist for algebra and geometry. He also liked their high school American history. We used Abeka history for a reference book with it.

  3. Wonderful post! You are one of my favorite bloggers! I'm so excited for when I can homeschool my own babies (now 2 & 1).

    ~Mrs. E.

  4. I learned to read quickly and easily. My sisters had a lot of trouble with it. At the time my parents only had King James Bibles (it's not like that today) and so they decided to teach the girls to read specifically from the Bible alone, and it worked! I'm going to use an approach similar to yours, and the reading the KJV method as well. Do you think a 3 year old is old enough to start? I want them to love reading. He loves his letters.

  5. We use A Beka book and love the method it uses. The only complaint that I have with A Beka is that in the K4, K5 levels the child can sometimes get around actually reading the text because the pictures tell exactly. Example, text reads: The red hen sits on her nest. The picture above shows a red hen sitting on her nest.

    Oh, and using a phonics based program my 2nd grader can read and comprehend the majority of his King James Bible, save for some of the longer names. My 5 year old can read and comprehend the psalms, the gospels and some of the easier. He may not be familiar with a word's definition, although he can read it.

    Great post. I cannot understand why anyone would use a "see and say" approach to reading.

  6. Katy-Anne,
    I am beginning to teach my 3 1/2 yo daughter basic phonics. She gobbles it up!

  7. We have 3 children. All learned to read differently. The best approach is to figure out their style and work with that.

    Our oldest could not do phonics and was labeled "slow" and placed on an IEP. In 4th grade, she still couldn't read any more than sight words. Then, she finally got a great teacher who figured out the problem. Since, we did phonics as kids, we didn't really know any other way to help her until this teacher. She's grown and has her own child now. And, she loves to read!

    Our second child read at 3 and could read phonetically very well. In 9th grade, she is doing 11th grade work in most of her classes and scores in the top 1% on national tests.

    Third child couldn't do phonics early on. I picked up on that and let his 1st grade teacher know that he was a memorizer. She had never had a parent do that and said I was exactly right on him. However, as a 4th grader, he reads above grade level and can sound out words.

    It's best to not fall into the school system way of one size fits all, even when you're teaching at home.

  8. The only books my dad had in the house when I was growing up were computer manuals, so I learned to read English with those and a computer program called Living Letters. I learned very quickly and could read pretty well at age 3. It might not be your typical reading material for children, but hey, it worked for me!

  9. When they read we must have discernment. I just finished reading the 1996 book, Disney and the Bible. On page 145 it discusses how The Lion King teaches Buddhism. The author uses only King James Bible Scriptures. The Marketing of Evil
    (2005) is another book where the author uses only KJV Scriptures.

  10. I love this post and your tips. I love using Phonics Pathways with my littles. Just a simple phonics book really can be so effective. I hope your pregnancy is going well.

  11. I hope you are doing well, Zsuzsanna! I read this article:

    and I thought you'd like it. It's happy overall, but it's still a reminder of how some doctors seem to just not care about babies, or think that they aren't human beings.

  12. Thanks for this post!

    I'm homeschooling my oldest who is a kindergartener (so I'm a first-timer) and I felt overwhelmed by all the broken rules in the English language. I was feeling totally ill-equipped to teach her, but your post really helped me. I've been wanting to get a book to simplify things for me. Your recommendation is timely! Thanks!

  13. Great Post. I homeschool and am looking forward to starting a fresh year in about a week or two


  14. Hi, I hope you can give me some tips. I'm trying to teach my son to read "papaya". But he tend to break the words up and make the sound "p" followed by "e" as in elephant. Instead of "pa", "pa", "ya". What is the rule for teaching consonant-vowel? For like ba, be, bi, bo, bu? I tried to get him memorize but I cannot explain like "table" is read as table instead of "ta" "ble".

  15. Great advice. The English language is so very confusing, it's amazing learn it eventually.

    I didn't homeschool and my youngest is a senior, so I have a different perspective, that I want to share. While teaching your child to read early is awesome, not all kids will do well in public school being ahead of the other students.

    Public school is aimed at the average student (I was an average student and did great). My brother was very bright and barely graduated because he was soooooo bored. My son who is 6 years older than my daughter was the same way once he got to high school (did great in elementary school as he was the average student then). Thus, when my daughter started kindergarten at almost 6 years old, I had deliberately not encouraged her to read. She could read simple words, write her name, read and write the names of all the children in her preschool class and everyone in our family, knew all of her numbers, could do simple math, etc. Thus I was very worried about her being bored and knowing my daughter as I did I knew if she was bored she would do something to entertain herself. Fortunately, it was a good choice on my part (for once), she was reading very well by the end of the school year and was put in a reading program in 1st grade (something that was not offered in kindergarten).

    However, If I had it to do all over again, I would probably have home schooled as in the almost 20 years I have had kids in public schools I have seen the schools get worse, not better.

    Cute story:

    First day of my son's kindergarten, I pick him up from school. I ask him how his day was as we are heading into the house. He stomps up the stairs, turns around and looks at me and says "It was a terrible day, I didn't get to ride the bus and they didn't even teach me to read."

    He thought he was going to learn to read the very first day and was so disappointed he did not. :)

  16. Ok you just made me feel incredibly stupid! And i was born and raised in the USA! Our school systems have defiantly failed me. I am struggling bc my son who is almost 4 says he cant remember what i try to teach him. I have worked on simple thongs like colors shapes and the alphabet. He also miss pronounces most words even after i correctly tell him ovwr and over. Is there any advice to help with him pronunciation and remembering what he is taught...thanks April


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