- Education and Science
They Need To Read. FIRST STEPS For Teaching Children To Read.
English letters and words mean nothing to the child. It’s all mush. Glance at a page of Chinese, Arabic or some language you don’t know and remind yourself, “Hey, that’s how English looks to my kid.”
Don’t force anything. Have fun. Casually explain things when it seems appropriate. Wait a few weeks, explain them again. A month in the life of a child is about six months for the parents.
The total mystery that every language presents to the learner is the reason why you have to start with the smallest, simplest, easiest bits and pieces. You start with the letters.
1: Learning the Alphabet is JOB ONE
Whether it’s age two, three, four, or five, or starting over as an adult, the first big step is memorizing the 26 letters of the alphabet. Everyone should be able to say the ABC’s decisively and quickly.
Everyone needs the alphabet to look up words in the dictionary or names in the phone book. Everyone needs the alphabet to learn to read.
A baby might have blocks or plastic letters in the crib. Letters can be taped to the wall. Montessori pointed out the advantages of using three-dimensional shapes and textures (for example, letters cut from sandpaper).
Probably the easiest way for children to memorize the alphabet is to use the Alphabet Song. You can say it as sing-song. You can sing it. In any case, make it fun. (You can find many clever variations on YouTube; search “alphabet song.”)
The video below is one I have on YouTube that shows just the capital letters. You can play games where a child is asked to name the letters; or you just trace your finger over the shapes and talk about the features: “See how round this O is.” (The link below the video is a second video for lowercase letters. Both videos will bring up lots of similar videos on YouTube.)
At some point saying the alphabet and recognizing the shapes of the letters will converge. At that point the child can “read” the alphabet.
My impression is that most experts say start with UPPERCASE (and ignore lower case for a while). You can search on the Internet for “printable alphabets” and find many interesting designs.
Alphabet -- lower case
- YouTube - A-Z Arty Alphabet
Children can name the letters and study the shapes. Mainly, this is just for fun.
2: ENJOY Stories and Rhymes
Read Mother Goose to your children. Stay with the short funny stories and easiest poems. Tell the stories, act out the stories, discuss the stories. Tell knock-knock jokes. If you can make children laugh at anything verbal, you’re halfway home.
There are many helpful sites. Search such words as: children, poetry, stories, funny, audio.
Please do not think of poems as Literature, i.e., something serious and academic. There is often in the schools a silly literary pretentiousness. That’s not the way to bring in new recruits. Pretty much all of literature started with people of all ages sitting around a campfire telling stories, enjoying themselves.
Sing any songs you can sing. "Happy Birthday" is fine. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" is a great story and a great song. If a child shows ANY interest in a song, come back to it on other occasions. Sing it together. Discuss the words. Subtly encourage the child to MEMORIZE the song.
Think of nursery rhymes as little plays, little dramatic scenes. Be emotional. Hit those rhymes; have fun with those rhymes. “Along came a SPI-DER and sat down BESIDE-HER!” Have fun in general.
I think the best perspective is that you’re not teaching the child things the child should know; you are SHARING with the child things that you love!
Think of Patty Cake as sports. There used to be school yard rhymes for jump rope--maybe you can find someone who knows them. Or find a teenager who can perform cheers: “2, 4, 6, 8! Who do we appreciate?”
Let me share with you the most beautiful poem in the English language:
Twinkle twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,
up above the world so high,
like a diamond in the sky.
Most children will love that. If the child shows any response at all, repeat it every few weeks until the child can say it from memory.
Children need to learn to use their EYES and EARS when reading. Immersing children in stories and rhymes makes both happen. MEMORIZING words locks in these skills.
(I have some of my own silly poems on the web. On Lit4u.com, see: Silly & Serious, Poems for Kids....Also search: audio, schoolyard rhymes. Visit: kids.learnoutloud.com -- Free Stuff)
3: Explain UPPER CASE and lower case
At some point, especially if the child shows an interest in text, you will need to explain why there is UPPER CASE and lower case.
Probably the average person has no idea. The actual explanation is a fascinating story. Thousands of years ago, people didn’t have paper and pencil. What they had was a stick and dirt; or they had stone and a chisel. Carving curved lines in stone is difficult. Additionally, upper case tends to be more legible and emphatic. So all ancient inscriptions tended to be capitals, as in the example above.
Then during the Middle Ages, scientists improved pens, inks, and papers. Now they could draw a long curving line. Furthermore, ink drips all over the place. So there was an advantage to keeping the pen on the paper and writing a lot of letters at one time.
It’s easy to write the entire alphabet without lifting the pencil from paper. At some point you could illustrate this for your child. (See below, the alphabet in a common font called Brush.)
Montessori stressed writing before reading. Encourage children to practice drawing letters or printing their names.
Many phonics experts say that learning cursive handwriting speeds up learning to read.
At some point it would be appropriate to have both alphabets on the wall or available. Key words to search: alphabet, printables, cute coloring pages. (ThatsMEonTV.com puts child’s picture in video.)
4: Enjoy Books, Magazines and Newspapers
Books are wonderful but they aren’t everything. There are also magazines and newspapers. Point is, it’s good to have a variety of printed material. Newspapers, for example, are large, cheap, and often have interesting photos and exotic typefaces.
Any glimmer of a hobby or interest that shows up, let kids know that there is a book, magazine or other media dealing with it.
It is good to have the child sitting next to you, not across from you. Then you both have the same view of the page, and you can discuss words, pictures, little details. Point out, now and then, that letters are put together to make words; words break into syllables; English moves left to right; sentences start with capital letters and end with periods. Read WITH your child, not to your child (as in photo below).
Basically, you hook the child with stories, characters, pictures and the sounds of language. Entertainment, that’s the name of this game. The educational part comes along slowly and in the background.
My impression is that a great majority of children at ages four or five, if exposed to a year of stories and side-by-side reading, would learn to read without much further instruction. I believe this is how I learned to read. And I have encountered many anecdotes about how lots of children, at some point, finally “figure it out.” Figure out, that is, that letters are symbols for sounds, which is the fundamental genius of phonetic languages.
More musical kids will easily learn to play an instrument; similarly, more verbal kids will soon learn to read. It’s precisely the less-verbal kids that need the direct instruction that is usually called “systematic phonics.” These kids welcome the control gained by actually knowing the rules and how English works.
And all students need to know what might be called the technical aspects. So continue along two paths: have fun with stories and language; and simultaneously explain that letters stand for sounds.
5: Teach The Letters and Their Sounds
One odd thing about English is that every letter has two names. A is “a” and it’s also “ahhh.”
Even most adults get confused about why the letters have two names. Often, the topic is not mentioned because it might seem difficult to explain.
Here is my suggestion for an explanation that a child might accept. Many adults have two names. The real name that is on the birth certificate, such as William; and a short version or nickname that is used commonly in conversation, such as Will, Bill or Billy.
Let’s go back to A. Its nickname is the short, easy-to-say name that we learn when we learn the alphabet: A.
But A’s real name, we might say, is ahhh. It’s precisely that sound that the graphic shape was designed to capture. It takes more time to say the real name, so for convenience we use the nicknames: A, B, C, D, etc.
The point is, you want the child, eventually, to be able to say both the short name and the longer sound associated with each letter.
A, ahh; B, buh-; C, ca-...One way to teach all this is obtain a chart that shows “A is for Apple, B is for Boy...” When you say, “A is for Apple,” then repeat the word slowly: “Aaaaa-ple,” so the child really hears that A-sound.
As for consonants, here’s an easy way to know how they are pronounced. Take any short word, for example, BET. Say it loudly and decisively. Now drop the -ET, and say what is left, Buh-. That’s the B-sound.
Or say BE. Now, what sound do you need to add to get BET? The T-sound, tuh--. Say BE--tuh fast, as one word, and you get BET.
It is actually very logical and rather charming. You can add letters and subtract letters, to make new sounds or words. Play with various words until you find examples that you really like, and teach with those.
Experts say English is almost 98% phonetic and consistent. Irregularities are caused by shifts over the centuries, and by our adoption of many foreign words. However, the sight-word fanatics go way too far in complaining that English is unpredictable. Their desire to discredit phonics has led them to propose many irrational theories and views.
And keep in mind that the typical American kid, even at the age of five, has a recognition-vocabulary of more than 5,000 words. The child ALREADY knows how to pronounce all these words, having heard them on TV, around the dinner table, whatever. In the first few years of school, the child will be trying to read from a much smaller vocabulary than that, less than 1,000 words. Words that the children themselves have probably spoken many times.
In summary, children do not need phonics to pronounce the words, but to connect to the printed versions on the page. And this is not some nearly impossible task, as many public schools like to pretend. One team of experts concluded: “It is remarkably easy to teach the average five-year-old to read in a few months.”
There are really only two ways to go wrong: 1) NOT immersing the child in verbal and literary activities; and 2) making the child memorize sight-words, which are not necessary and, even worse, block the phonetic reflex which you hope to cultivate.
(For background on why the US has 50,000,000 functional illiterates, see such articles as "42: Reading Resources" on Improve-Education.org. This article also has a list of phonics programs.)
6: Blends, Anyone?
The next step is to find an elementary phonics program.
Or you can search on the Internet, and find material about blends. That would be pairs of letters such as TR, ST or PA. A blend might also be three letters, such as STA or PLU.
Playing with blends, and sounding them out, is the child’s last step toward really reading. Indeed, “sounding out” is reading.
Note that this article is not based on theories, but on bringing together the empirical observations and practical advice given by the phonics experts. If almost all these people more or less agree on something, then I figure that's a safe way to go.
One thing to keep in mind: in the process of trying to eliminate phonics, the education professors told a lot of lies. Whoppers, actually. So now there is so much disinformation in the air, it's a wonder anyone can think clearly about reading. I have an article on the web called "Nine Reading Experts Explain the Sad State of Reading," with quotes from: Don Potter, Mona McNee, Siegfried Engelmann, Samuel Blumenfeld, Malkin Dare, Kim Latta, Elizabeth Brown, Wanda Sanseri, and Geraldine Rodgers. These are nine people you can trust and they are, you might say, the inspiration and source for this article. And of course, the patron saint of reading, Rudolf Flesch.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, poet and education activist. He founded Improve-Education.org in 2005. This site has 60 original articles, many about reading.