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Early Reading

I originally wrote this in early 2002, when my three-year-old was almost reading. A few months later, using the method described here, he really did start reading. He's still a beginning reader, but he really does sound out words and read them.

Here's my strategy of teaching my preschooler, Arlo, to read. My mom was a pioneer in the field of early reading. So, originally I started with my mom's method, which assumes that reading and writing is a language just like hearing and speaking, so she taught reading in ways that are parallel with learning spoken language. In particular, she taught kids to recognize whole words rather than sounding out words, since if you're speaking, the kid learns the word dog, for example, as the whole word dog rather than learning d and o and g and then putting them together to say dog. Also, Mom taught with words written in lowercase, since she felt that this is the way people encounter words most the time.

That didn't seem to be working very well for us. Arlo learned to recognize Arlo and maybe 10 other words, but then we stalled there for about a year. So I set out to do some reading about how to teach early reading, to see if there was something I could do to help.

I read the book Teach Your Child to Read in Just Ten Minutes A Day by Sidney Ledson. That book had a philosophy that made a lot of sense to me, although it's almost the total opposite of what my mom did. The author of the book runs a preschool and claims to have a 100% success rate in teaching preschoolers to read -- even children with Down Syndrome. He says the preschoolers spend about 5 minutes each day in reading instruction, and that's enough to have them reading in just a few months. His approach involves sounding out letters and using words written all in capitals. I think sounding out words makes sense, rather than recognizing familiar words, since sounding words out is the only way anybody can decode an unfamiliar word. Indeed, this author thinks so too, and he gives examples of 9 year olds who were taught to read by the whole-word-recognition method, who can't read some simple word because they've never been taught it. He claims that kids who succeed at learning to read must figure out how to sound words out, and so the most sensible way to teach reading must be to teach sounding out words directly rather than making kids guess to pick up the technique. He also suggests teaching kids to read with all capital letters, because words written in capitals all have the same shape, while words written in lower case have unique shapes to them. He says that if a word is written in all capitals, that forces the kid to sound out the word, while if the word is in lower case, the kid may recognize the word by its outline, without sounding it all out. The author is extremely fervent that all kids should be taught to read by phonics; he says no other method has been proven to work. (He spends a lot of pages talking about his futile attempts to get the Toronto public school system to use his method. He says Toronto is teaching reading by an un-proven method and that the system is failing the kids. He is very fervent about this.)

Some time ago I posted about this in my online baby diary. A reader there, who is an educator who has taught reading for many years, posted that successful readers use a variety of approaches to figure out words. She says that people generally read common words like the by recognizing them, rather than sounding them out, and we sound out other less common words. She says a good reader uses a variety of approaches to figure out words, not just one method. That made sense to me.

In the book I read, the author teaches you to call all the letters by the sound they make rather than their usual names. For example, the letter p is called puh, not pee. He says that if you see the word up, knowing that it is made of the letters named you and pee doesn't help you to read it, but knowing that it is made of uh and puh gets you much closer to putting the sounds together into a recognizable word. He spends a very long time explaining how to pronounce the names of each letter of the alphabet. For example, p isn't exactly puh -- that is, don't say the uh in puh, but rather must make an explosion of the p part with your lips, as if you were saying p-p-p-p-please. He goes into lots of detail about how he wants you to pronounce every single letter.

He makes the really important point that you don't want to go too fast. In teaching anything, if you throw too much at someone, they get overloaded and lose interest. If you teach in little dribbles and drabbles, you leave the kid feeling confident about what she's learned, ready to learn more, feeling that this stuff is easy. One of my earliest teachers used to always teach things at me until I was overloaded and felt sad and frustrated and incompetent. So I know how it feels to have way too much thrown at me before I was ready. So I aim to keep this reading stuff slow -- especially since we've got several years before anybody expects Arlo to be reading. The most important goal is to keep it comfortable for Arlo.

The way the author of this book teaches reading is that he starts with just two letters: U and P. He teaches those sounds on the first day of instruction, and practices them vigorously. The next day he teaches combining them into UP, and practices that, plus reviews U and P alone. Then the next day he goes on to something like PUP, or introduces a new letter, or something small like that, never a big step. In fact, I think he spends several days at each of the things I've listed so far. He has a game that the kids play to keep them interested in practicing. He has the kids practice and practice what they know before they go on to the next step. He has a game that involves reading 10 things and then getting 10 little rewards (eg. 10 Cheerios) for finishing the sequence. I wasn't really keen on his game, so I invented my own version of teaching Arlo to read, based on his method but without the game.

We read a lot of books, so what I've been doing is sounding out the title of each book, then reading the rest of the book to Arlo normally. Sometimes if there's a particularly Arlo-appropriate looking word inside a book, we'll sound that out too, but not very often. For example, to read the title of the book At The House, I'll point at the A and say ayh, then point at the t and say tuh (well, more like just the sound that the t in at makes, without the uh -- like the T sound in t-t-t-t-tuesday). Then I'll put them together and say ayh-t and then at. For a while I glossed over the word the whenever we saw it in a book title, because sounding out th in it is hard, but now I'll point at the th and say "tee and aych together sound like 'th' and that other letter is 'uh' so together this word is 'th-uh' or 'thuh'." Or, more often lately, Arlo recognizes the word the and says the himself and we go on to the next word without sounding out the. Then to read house I'll point at the h and say hhh, point at the o and say ow, point at the u and say oo, point at the s and say sss, point at the e and say uh. Then I'll put it together faster, saying hhh ow oo sss uh and then faster yet as house. Gradually, after doing this for some time, I've started asking Arlo about the sounds of the letters when I think he knows them. So when we get to the s I might ask him what sound it makes and he will say ssss. (Or, often he'll say, "I don't know" or "uh" -- sometimes he thinks all letters sound like uh. Then I'll tell him it says sss, or I'll point to another sss earlier in the title and see if he can get it from there.) I always try to keep it very low-pressure, never putting him on the spot.

Recently I've seen him starting to sound out words when he is playing by himself. He mostly tries words he knows, like LEGO on the Lego box or STOP on a stop sign. But he really goes through the whole process of making all the sounds (LLL eh guh oh) and putting them together into a word, so I think he's really getting the hang of it.

Some other notes from the book:

Don't expect kids to understand the blending of the sounds into a word right away. The leap from hhh ow ooo sss uh to house is a big one. Just keep doing it yourself and the kids will catch on.

The book suggests saving letter combinations (for example that th doesn't sound anything like tuh huh) for later. We've done that to some extent, but to some degree have gone right ahead and explained that when t and h are together, then they sound like th. Ditto for oo, which turns up everywhere.

For letters that can be pronounced in more than one way, the book suggests not making a big deal of the rules, but rather just going ahead with pronouncing it and let the kid figure out what the rule is later. For example, sometimes c sounds like sss and sometimes it sounds like kuh, and sometimes a sounds like ahh (short a) and other times it sounds like aay (long a), but don't make a big deal of the rules for when to use which. I've been doing it this way, but I'm not sure it was a good choice, because it means that Arlo doesn't have the tools to decode a word with any of these letters in it. So I've been starting to tell Arlo that g can sound like gee or like guh and that when he wants to figure out a word, he needs to try it both ways and see which seems right. I don't think he gets this yet, so I guess it is an advanced topic that he'll be ready for later. [A note from later: When I finally told Arlo the rule for this, it seemed to help him a lots. A g with an e after it usually sounds like jee, while a g with any other letter after it usually sounds like guh.]

Some activities we've been doing to support reading:

One of Arlo's favorite foods is crackers with cream cheese spread on top. Often I'll carve a simple 3-4 letter word in the cream cheese and work with him to sound it out.

I bought a deck of blank un-lined index cards and a box to put them in (a net investment of about $1.30). I use a black permanent marker to write words on the cards. We started doing this when we were using my mom's reading method, so the words are in lower case, not capitals. We started by writing just a small number of familiar words on the cards: Arlo likes Daddy, Mommy hugs Arlo -- very simple things like that, mostly words like truck that are important to Arlo and that he can recognize simply. And we started with very few cards -- maybe 9 of them. The original idea was to use these the way my mom did with my sister when my sister was an early reading toddler: My sister used to delight in writing out long non-grammatical nonsense "sentences" that spanned across the living room, and asking an adult to read her sentence to her. But Arlo isn't much into that, so Jan and I tend to put together the words into cute sentences (Arlo hugs the truck) and then rearrange them and practice reading them all. We make up other games with the word cards too -- whatever seems interesting. Lately Arlo has been requesting additional words that he feels are missing from his collection of word cards, so the number of cards has increased substantially. Jan points out that one thing that's key to using the cards is that they have nothing on them but an unadorned word, so that the only way to recognize the word on the card is to read it, you can't get away with recognizing something else on the card that reminds you of what it says. That is, you don't want to put a picture of a dog right next to the word dog on the card that says "dog".

Our stick-on bathtub letters seem helpful to our current approach to reading. Arlo likes to stick them to the wall in long "words" and have us read the "words" to him. He also knows how to find the letters of his name and put them together to say ARLO. One time when one of his friends visited, Arlo and his friend together wrote an incredibly long "word" and had me pronounce it again and again, which they found incredibly amusing and which I figure was educational too.

So, that's our approach to early reading. The most important key seems to be taking things slowly, viewing it as a game to dabble in as long as everybody is enjoying it. It seems to be working.

If you have questions, thoughts, things to add, things you disagree with, things that are outdated, please let me know

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