Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How I taught our boys to read: The informal version

I am frequently asked how I taught our boys to read.  I think my friends are curious for two reasons:  (1) our boys learned early, and (2) I've been fairly laid-back about it.  Or at least not terribly formal about it.  I haven't used a curriculum, and no flashcards around here.

I'm writing this post because it's pretty hard to answer in two or three sentences.

So I'll try to keep it to under 50.  Or 100.  :)  I realize long posts are against blog etiquette or blog wisdom, but I think keeping everything together would be simpler.

This will not be a post that systematically explains how I took my kids through the steps of learning to read.  Maybe I'll post that in the future, but this post will (hopefully) give lots of ideas to parents who want to prepare their children for a time when they or someone else will take them through a formal curriculum.  It will be full of things that, when scattered through their days over a number of years, teach a giant chunk of what they'll need to know.  The pieces probably won't put themselves together in a finished whole (kids decoding words), but I bet they'll be very close.

As for learning to read, here's my M.O.:  Capitalize on the words, phrases, and books around them that they're already interested in, and also create interest in additional words and phrases around them.  Beginning around their second birthday, gradually, gradually, gradually teach them to spell and recognize those words, dissect them, play with them, contort them, and play tricks with them until they have a nice arsenal of phonetic skills and sight words.  And then teach them to use that arsenal to attack new words.  All the while, teach them that they can do this reading thing and they shouldn't be intimidated by it.

I'll tell you what that's looked like practically around our house:

Environmental print:  This is a phrase used in the teaching world to describe words in kids' environments, such as "Colgate" or "Home Depot."  Some of these words just aren't worth pursuing (my boys call it "toothpaste," not "Colgate"), but others certainly are.

When your child asks you which faucet is for hot water, say, "This one.  See how it has an "H" on it?  H-h-h-hot.  So this one is for cold.  See?  C-c-c-cold."  

Point out stop signs when you see them.  They're everywhere, of course, and somewhere around two or three, kids seem to think it's pretty fun to shout that they've seen them at every single intersection.  So take advantage of it.  Point out that "STOP" is spelled S-T-O-P.  (And "stop" is only spelled S-T-O-P, not P-O-T-S!)  Shout it out every time you see one:  "Stop!  S-T-O-P!"  You can do the same thing with "Open" signs if you like.  They're everywhere. 

Just teaching them that print goes from left-to-right can take a two-year-old months, but they can learn it, and if it's just done with the word on the shopping cart handle or on their lunchbox, it can be done without any skin off your back.

You can do these things even before your kids know their letters and sounds; really, you can do this to teach them their letters and sounds.  Leap Frog toys, TV shows, and placemats can be nice ways to teach letters and sounds to kids, too, but, really, just spell things everywhere you go.

Pay attention for additional environmental print that just happens to be everywhere and in many different contexts:  My husband and I are proud Texas Longhorns and own a fair amount of beautiful burnt orange clothing.  Between those shirts, plus driving past Texas State Bank and Don't Mess with Texas signs and the many other narcissistic ways that Texans seem to plaster the word "Texas" everywhere, well, the word "Texas" is everywhere.  And that is very, very useful because it comes in many different fonts.  Don't fool yourself thinking your child knows how to read "McDonalds;" they know how to recognize a particular logo.  But if they can recognize the word "Texas" in many different fonts, well, that means they know how to recognize "Texas."

Pay attention for unexpected words in your environment that appear in different kinds of places.

Artificial environmental print that they must interact with: Create environmental print.  Preschool teachers are often encouraged to label everything in their classroom so that kids have a chance to learn words. you think most kids really pay attention to the label "door" over the door or "table" on the table?  Neither do I.  But you can create print they must interact with.

Even if your child can't read yet, their chore chart can be text only.  No picture cues.  If you daily help them figure out that "F-f-f-fish" is their next chore, they'll catch on after a few weeks and go grab the fish food on their own.  If more than one chore starts with the letter "P," you can gradually teach them to distinguish between "plants" and "pajamas" by the second letter.  

Create other situations where kids have to recognize a particular word to know how to proceed.  Label drawers in your toy storage with words like "Animals" and "Toy food."  Write each kid's name on a different party favor and have them find their own and their brother's.  There are probably ways in your world that you answer the question of which is which for your child; well, label those things and teach them to figure it out themselves.

Their own name and the names of family and friends:  There's a fair chance your child's name is embroidered on their lunchbox or plastered on their wall or written inside their backpack.  

Take huge advantage of your child's love for their own name.  :)  They should know how to spell their own name early, and then you can begin to help them understand the sounds in their name.  Some names are much trickier than others, of course, but do what you can.  Do the same with the names of their siblings or best friends. 

Our sons' real names (not these fakes that I use on the blog) are actually names that occur very frequently in books.  It's kind of amazing how much we stumble across them.  That's been fun for both of them.  Even when they were just little guys, they each knew their own name and their brother's, so they were pretty stoked to come across them in real books.  They felt like they were really reading something (even though it was just the same word every time).  Great!  I want them to feel very empowered to read.

Most kids' names won't fall into that category, of course; Olivia's real name doesn't show up in many books, so she won't have that advantage.  Thankfully we have some nice grandmothers who have scouted out books that do have characters with her name.  Maybe you can find one or two for your own children.  

Have them begin to recognize lots of family members' names.  Maybe you can tape pictures with names written underneath at their eye level on the refrigerator.  (Do this for some of their favorite things, too, like Elmo or trucks.)  Maybe they can be "Santa" at Christmas and pass out presents.  Maybe they can help you find your sister's name in your speed dial.  Look for chances.

Read, and have them believe they can read:  You were expecting this one.  Maybe you read to your kids a lot, or maybe you don't and feel guilty about it.  Actually, I don't read to my kids a whole, whole lot.  

But I do read to my kids some, and I try to take advantage of that time.  Not too much advantage, mind you--I want them to enjoy reading, and there are many other things to be gotten out of reading a book together other than learning how to decode words.  But when I am able to sneak in some "work" without them minding, or minding much, I do so.  Some examples:

Have them read anything they possible can.  If you are reading Dr. Seuss' ABCs (an absolutely fabulous book for teaching reading), have them read each of the letters as they come up.  Sure, that's just the letter F, but they're participating, and that's golden.

Along the same lines, look for rebus books.  We have an old, out-of-print one that we use around here (and looks like this):

so I haven't really researched to find out what else is out there to buy now.  I do know Big Backyard magazine includes a rebus every month.  Rebuses (rebi?) are great because it gives kids a sense of how print works (left-to-right, and then continuing on the next line) and because they get kids used to piping up with anything they are able to contribute.  

Other ideas:

Have them "read" the main character's name every time it appears.  In Where the Wild Things Are, "Max" is on every other page or so, plus it's written on the side of his boat.  That's frequent enough for the kid to get the hang of what they're supposed to say without slowing everything way down.

In Arnie the Doughnut, Jake's job was first to "read" the name "Arnie" every time it appeared.  Then I asked him to start reading "Mr. Bing."  Of course he just said "Arnie" for a while at first; he thought his job was to say "Arnie" every time I paused and waited expectantly.   So we had to work on him being able to distinguish between the print of "Arnie" and of "Mr. Bing"--which of course look very different, so that didn't take all that long.  It was a bit of a game for him.  

In Happy Dog, Sad Dog, my kids had to read the word "dog" on each page.  In any of the Biscuit books, the kids can be responsible for each of the Woof! Woofs!

Have them read favorite lines.  Jake loved to shout, "Arnie!  Arnie!  Wait up!" at the appropriate place every time we got to it.  It's not that he knew how to recognize those words--at first.  He just recognized the crazy picture and enormous and distinctive font.  But he thought it was funny to shout it when we got there.  Then I started pointing at each word as he said it, and soon it was his job to do so.  Then he noticed that "up" was also on the movie Up!...and in Ten Apples Up on Top... and so on.

Have them "read" repeating sections.  In (the fantastic, marvelous masterpiece) The Cat in the Hat, there's a page that says:  "So all we could do was to sit!...sit!...sit!...sit!  And we did not like it, not one little bit."  Read the first "sit" and have them read the rest.  They won't know what to do at first, of course, but say, "Look!  That's the same word.  See?  S-I-T, S-I-T.  So it's 'sit' again."  Read them the page, pointing at all the "sits" as you go, and then have them do it.  They'll feel like they're reading, right?  If you do that every time you read The Cat in the Hat over the course of a year or two, well, you get the idea.  Inch by inch.

If you're reading The Foot Book, look at the front cover before you began and say, "Where does it say 'book?'  No, not there.  B-b-b-book.  Do you hear how 'book' starts with a 'buh' sound (de-emphasizing the 'uh')?  Then it has to be this word because it begins with B and B says 'buh.'  That word is 'foot' and it starts with an F.  F-f-foot.  But this says "book.'"  And then read the book without making them do anything else with it, if you like.  What you did with the front cover was a good lesson for a three-year-old.  

You can also watch for books that have onomatopoeias or other "words" that will lend themselves to emphasizing how letters translate to sound.  In Snuggle Puppy, the author repeats an "Oooooooooooooooooo" on many pages.  Run your finger under the letters as you make a big deal out of the sound.  You can also do the same thing with characters who sleep ("Zzzzzzzz") or draw out a particular word ("I caaaaaaan't!" or "Noooooooo!").
As they get older and begin a math book or any kind of other curriculum, expect them to read as much of the directions as they're able to (even if it's just the words "the" and "and").   Have them help you read recipes or maps.

Once they get some words down, try to trick them.  If they've been reading "Max" and you see the word "mat" somewhere, ask them what it says.  They'll likely say "Max" at first and you'll have to show them why it doesn't.  Same with "Sam" and "sat," or "car" and "cart," or "pig" and "pigs."  (As an aside, The Three Little Pigs is fantastic because your child will have to navigate back and forth between "pig" and "pigs.")  Make a game out of the "tricking" and they'll think it's fun.  

Show them how the words they already know (like "all" or "in") are in other words ("tall," "into," or "win").

And, just as you expect them to read...

Expect them to write: I've got another post about our makeshift handwriting,, those words are too generous...handwriting doings around here, but in addition to that, if your child can write letters, have them do so in real situations.  If you're wrapping a gift for a birthday party, have your child write the card to their friend:  "To Isaac.  From Michael, Jake, and Olivia."  

That wouldn't be where you start, of course.  You might start with them writing their name only, or the first letter of each name, or tracing it all on a paper you printed out.  But give them opportunities to do some genuine, purposeful writing.  Approach it very casually as, "Here write this.  Of course you can write; we all write."  And provide them a way, however modified, to do it.

And the next thing you know, you might have kids teaming up to make "tickets to Hippo's house" (for some make-belief circus) or asking how to spell "Creature Power Suit" for the Wild Kratt's makeshift-costume they're pasting together... 

I teach a class at a Classical Conversations group once a week, and one year my class was full of very young four-year-olds.  We had to learn locations on a map every week, and so I began the year expecting them to label their own maps.  It was only the first letter of each word, which I give them of course, and I soon began encouraging them to write the whole word if they were able.  All along, I stood at the front saying, "A-a-athens.  See right there?  And see it on your paper?  Write 'A' for A-a-athens right there."  And you'd be surprised--they really did!

Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin.  There's a giant, positive feedback loop between reading and writing.  Encourage them to write anything they'll write.  Anything!  Make them figure out what letter the word they want to write starts with...and then what comes next...and next...etc.  Around here, a big Magnadoodle has been pretty key in this.

Rhyme, etc.:   Maybe this one should have been listed at the beginning.  You can't read unless you can manipulate sounds.  This is called phonemic awareness, and it's different that phonological awareness (phonics).  Phonics involves print.  Phonemic awareness can be done in the dark or on a desert island.  It's just working with what the kid can hear, and it's every bit as important as knowing letters and sounds.  

Pull out nursery rhymes book, listen to lots of songs, and play silly games like "Jake, Jake, bo Bake, banana fana fo fake, me my mo Make, Jake."  Rhyme words of food while you're at the grocery store and of their favorite stuffed animals while you're at home.

Kids also need to be able to manipulate sounds in other ways, like by identifying what sound a word starts with, and later, what it ends with.  Sometimes when they're walking around the house, just ask what sound "duck" or "house" starts with.  Once they learn to do that, ask them what letter "duck" or "house" starts with.  Once they've got that skill down, ask them to figure out the next sound (and letter) in the word.  (Oh, now I'm mixing phonological awareness and phonemic awareness in together...oh, wait, that's the way it's supposed to end up.)  Work your way up gradually.

Once they've got that, have them make up silly alliterative sentences with you:  "Michael makes mudpies on Mondays."  Have them help you expand the sentence and make it even sillier.  Buy this great song by Raffi or this great (but tricky!) song called "Gumball" by Dr. Jean.  At dinner, start things with the same sound just for fun:  "Pake, pill poo pass pe pacaroni please?"

Give them sight words:  "Sight words" is a dirty word (term) in some reading circles, but I am all for the right way.  Yes, I teach my kids sight words at first--lots of them--such as the names of their family members, stop, Texas, all those things I mentioned--but so that they can learn to mess with them, break them down, twist them, and learn phonics and new words through them.  My goal is phonemic and phonological awareness through the words.  They will be broken down at some point.  Most will not remain merely "sight words."

So.  Teach some words like "the" and "and" and "could" and "should."  If your child can get these basic words:


...down, your child will have something to carry them through longer sentences without feeling completely defeated.  They can work on decoding the title The Cat in the Hat, because, well, they're only decoding two words.  

Mostly you can work on sight words as you read together.  Just pick one or two at first and expect them to read it every time it pops up.

We also have these lovely magnets for our fridge:

Or you can tape a word or two or three to the bathroom mirror and talk about them while they brush their teeth.

Okay, that's the end of my informal ideas for helping your child be ready to read.  

And last but not least, watch SuperWhy! and do what they do!


  1. This is great! Thanks for the many awesome tips! We're not homeschooling (as you know) and have no set curriculum. Learning to read and write is just happening organically for V. He love, love, loves to write his name and finds "his" letters everywhere in the environment. One question though: How did you progress from capital to lower case letters?

  2. Thank you, thank you fortune fun and practical ways you have taught the boys to read. I appreciate you taking the time to give so many examples.

  3. Agnes, I bet your style and my style are pretty similar (except that we're only handling one language!). I've thought of the word "organic" before, too.

    As far as lowercase letters, as long as they've recognized all of them and known that "b" = "B," I haven't been too worried about when they begin writing with them. I've taught both boys to write in all caps first, which is what the occupational therapist at my old school recommended because they're so much more developmentally appropriate. Many kindergarten teachers (so here, for five- to six-year-olds) get pretty frustrated with kids who come in writing in all caps because it's a hard habit to break and also because they spend a lot of time teaching kids the mechanics of sentences--and if they're writing in all caps, obviously you can't tell if they've capitalized the proper noun, etc. But since our boys both began writing at three, I thought it was much more important that they had letters they were actually able to form correctly (and were willing to attempt, even), so all caps it's been around here. Michael gradually started writing in lowercase letters on his own...maybe around his fifth birthday? If Jake doesn't do it on his own, then I'll give him either tracing pages of sentences he likes, or maybe copywork of sentences he likes, so that he'll have to start doing so. I think that's still a number of months off, though. He still has trouble enough writing some of his capital letters with the strokes in the correct order, so we'll hold off on "e."

  4. Lindsey - first of all, thanks for commenting on my blog so I could find YOUR blog. It's absolutely wonderful, and I can't wait to read (and learn from) more of your posts.

    This one instantly caught my eye because I've encouraged my children to read at an early age as well. With my oldest I used the famous Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. It worked like a dream. Now I'm using it with my next son. We're on Lesson 42, but I feel like we're losing some steam and I should focus more on just making it fun and a part of our every day life. So I really, really love your ideas in this post. I think he has a great foundation, and now maybe I need to just relax and enjoy words and phrases and sentences together without going about it in a terribly structured way.