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The Good Reader: Teaching Reading From Birth On

Jessie Wise
Jessie Wise

This is an edited version of Jessie’s conference workshop,
Teaching Reading, Birth – 4th Grade.

The last year I taught sixth grade, I had 2 sixteen-year-old boys in my class who had not yet learned to read. I’d never heard of home schooling, but I remember thinking, “If I ever have a child, he will know how to read before he goes to school.”So when my oldest child turned 4, I said to him one day, “Bob, would you rather take a nap, or would you like to learn how to read?” He chose reading! I started him on the old-fashioned phonics I’d been taught when I was a child. I’d lie down with him on his little bed after lunch and work on letter sounds. (Since I also had a two year old and a thirteen month old, I was always glad to lie down.) We practiced vowels and consonants, and sounded out new words that year. We called it “doing kindergarten.”

The next year, my middle child was three, and she wanted to be included. “My do kindergarten, too,” she’d say. I would boost her up and let her repeat the sounds after me. She learned to read that year!When I had the children tested two years later, Bob was in school in second grade and reading on a 7th grade level. Susan was in school in kindergarten and was reading on a 5th grade level. This is what I had produced by my careful preparation for school.. The psychologist suggested I teach the children at home because they were so advanced. This was in 1973, and I had never heard of modern home schooling, but I began that academic journey. I believe early reading instruction played a major role in producing three children earning three bachelor’s degrees, three master’s degrees, and one Ph.D.

I hear parents say, “I don’t want to push my child.” Making sure your child is a good reader when he is young is not pushing; it is opening before him a world of information, pleasure, and opportunity for a lifetime. I think it is common for parents to underestimate what a very young child can learn easily. I know I was surprised at what I had done with my children’s reading abilities.

When can you begin reading instruction?

Pre-reading activities start from birth as a child learns spoken language from family. A child learns first to understand language, by being talked to and read to. Then he learns to talk and sing. Now he is ready to begin learning symbols that represent sounds. The first exposure to the alphabet comes most easily with the parent singing the alphabet song often — when rocking him, when riding in the car, just in play. Put an alphabet poster in his room where you can sing the song and point to the letters. My daughter Susan put the alphabet on the wall just above the changing table. She sang the alphabet song and pointed to the letters when she changed the children’s diapers–that was often!

Another important exposure to the alphabet comes with the reading of alphabet books. Read the same ones over and over. A favorite of my children and grandchildren is Dr. Seuss’s A B C. It starts off “Big A, little a, what begins with ‘A’?” Read rhymes. Especially traditional nursery rhymes. Read large colored picture books, pointing out the object as you say the word. Read books onto tapes, along with your child’s comments so that he can listen to you read over and over again. Get an infant-proof tape recorder so that he can listen to you reading, singing, talking, telling stories, and reciting poems while he plays in his crib. Read, read, read to the child. Let him snuggle in your lap. Start bedtime early so you have time to read.

Talk, talk, talk to the child, telling him what you are doing. ” I’m putting your red shirt on you. Here it goes over your head. Now, let’s put on your socks. Here’s your left foot. On goes the white sock.” Talk out your daily activities.

In summary, I am saying the way you teach pre-reading is exposure, exposure, exposure.

By two years of age a child that has been talked to and sung to, read to, often and consistently will begin to mimic language. A very small percentage of children may have a medical disability. But there are common reasons why a child of normal ability may not begin to talk by age two. One mother told me, “We never talk when the children and I are home alone unless it is to give a direction.” Both of her children were late talkers and very slow to learn to read.

When you get to the place with your toddler that you can hold up a round, sweet treat and the child can say “cookie,” he is ready for you to start holding up an “A” and learn that the symbol is an “A” Use a wooden or cardboard “A” . The naming of a letter is just like naming “nose,” fingers,” etc., all the things you teach little children to name. There is no pressure. You are not pushing your child. Children love to learn new things.

At any time when the child is learning the name of the letter, you can also teach him that “The letter’s name is “M” and it says “mmmmm”. Because of M & M’s and McDonald’s, this is often the first letter that the child learns both the name and the sound. Children have little trouble learning that the letter has a name and it says something. They soon learn that the name of their pet is “cat” and that the cat says “meow”. They easily learn that “A” is the letter’s name and that it says “a” as in apple. Use the same approach for “e” as in egg, “i” as in igloo, “o” as in octopus, and “u” as in umbrella.

Put corn meal or grits in a cookie sheet with sides. Guide his finger to draw the letters. Some children will try to use a pencil at age 2 or 3, others are not physically mature enough. IF your child shows interest in “drawing” with a pencil or crayon, teach the correct way to hold the pencil from the beginning so there is no habit to break later.

The words I remind parents of when I discuss repetition in early learning are patient, frequent, consistent repetition.

  • Patient means you don’t show disapproval when he doesn’t know it. You just say it yourself and move on to whatever else you are doing.
  • Frequent means you do it often throughout the day.
  • Consistent means you continue without long periods of not doing it. You don’t do it for 3 weeks and then don’t mention it for a month.

Phonics Instruction for Threes, Fours, and Fives

Start with five minutes every day. Work up to fifteen minutes. Don’t ask, “Do you want to do your reading now?” unless the alternative is truly awful, like my son Bob’s opinion of taking an afternoon nap! Plan it as matter-of-factly as you would plan toothbrushing.

Around 4, certainly by age 5, I would start a systematic daily phonics teaching session. Most five year olds are capable of learning to read, which doesn’t mean that all of them will want to do it instead of playing. A child who squirms, complains, or protests isn’t demonstrating “reading unreadiness,” he is simply being five. If the child doesn’t want to learn to read, tell him that you’re going to do ten minutes per day anyway. Susan’s 4-year-old boys were like this and within a year they were reading.

The beginning stage, when the child is learning to sound out three-letter words for the first time, is the most difficult. Persist. And it begins to click. You have to be patient until the break- through but use common sense. If you’ve started on three-letter words, doing a faithful 10 minutes per day for a month or so and the child shows no comprehension, and he hasn’t made the connection between print and sounds, drop it for a month or two and then come back to it.

A primer that systematically teaches the sounds of the letters and then shows the child how to blend them from left to right into words is all that is necessary. When I taught my children (and then grandchildren), I used Phonics Pathway, the Victory Drill Book, and Phonics First by Modern Curriculum Press. I have now written my own parent-friendly phonics primer, scripted so that no expertise is needed: The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading.

Many of the programs that contain reinforcements were originally designed for classroom use. A teacher teaching a whole group of students to read can’t sit down with each one and teach each letter. That is intensive one-on-one process. The teacher of a group has to resort to reinforcing correct sounds through secondary aids in a non-reading context. If you want to do a phonics workbook you can use Modern Curriculum Press’s level K with a 3 or 4 year old who can manage a crayon or pencil. Use their lst grade workbook with your 5-year-old.

Some good phonics programs insist that you combine writing with reading and tell you not to progress on until the child is able to both read and write sat, fat, bat, from dictation. I think this tends to frustrate very young readers. Your goal is to get the child to read quickly, easily, and early. Many children are ready to read before they have the muscular coordination to write as fast as they can learn to read. I have done the reading and writing drills separately until first grade. Teach one letter (always do capital and small letter before going to next letter) at a time.. you can just go through the alphabet, or you can follow the order in your primer, going back to the beginning with the writing, but forging ahead with the reading. It is important to closely supervise the forming of the letters in the beginning. It is more work to break incorrect habits later.

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Jessie Wise

Jessie Wise is an educator and writer with extensive classroom teaching and school administration experience. She educated her three children at home in the 1970s and 1980s. She is the co-author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home and the author of The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading and the First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind series.

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