In the first part of this two-part series, I discussed teaching your child the letters of the alphabet and their associated phonetic sounds. Please click the link to Teaching Your Child to Read…Part 1 if you haven’t already read it. Only after your child has mastered the skills in part 1, they are ready to move on to this next step:
I love the “I See Sam” books. They have been around for decades, teaching children how to read phonetically. There are other sets of great phonetic readers, too. Occasionally I have used the Bob book series and they are good. But my go-to phonetic readers are definitely Sam Books. There are 52 books Sam Books altogether, usually sold in sets. You can buy the sets of paperback Sam books on Amazon or if you prefer the electronic versions you can get them for your Kindle or iPad. What I do not recommend are the “animated” Sam Books that you can find on the Internet. They animate the characters, and the books read themselves to your child. I believe that the animations are very distracting from the goal of focussing on the letters and words, and when the books read themselves to the child, not only does it take away any incentive they may have to work hard and decode those words themselves, it also encourages the children to memorize the words, rather than decode them. There will be a time when they need to start memorizing sight words (frequently used words that defy the common laws of phonics, like the word “the”), but right now we are trying to teach them to decode the words.
The magic of the “I See Sam” book series is that they have created a system where the child can be a successful reader of books, even when they only know one or two words. This builds confidence. And book 2 builds on the knowledge gained by book 1. Each of the 52 books get progressively more difficult, but the children can succeed because it builds their reading vocabulary just a couple words at a time. And they are almost all decodable words. The Sam books do introduce some necessary sight words, but most of the words are meant for your child to decode. And that is the goal, to teach your kids to be able to decode.
Another advantage to the I See Sam books is that on the back of each book they have some comprehension questions about the story. Sometimes I get so excited about the fact that they are learning the mechanics of decoding and reading, that I forget that there is actually a story represented in each of these books, and after the hard work of decoding them is done, it is fun (and great training) to go back over what the book is actually about with your child. Ask them what they think is happening on each page of the story by looking at the pictures.
If you get the “I See Sam” books (in whatever form you prefer) the next step is to start at book 1, and help your child to see how the words in the book are made up of the same letters and sounds that they already know. Only have the child read a couple of pages, if it is still difficult for them. Try not to overwhelm them. For most children decoding is hard work, in the beginning. If they need help, don’t just “give” them the word, but rather remind them of the sounds that each letter makes and set an example of “sounding them out” for them. In other words, if they get stuck on the word “Sam”, instead of just saying “Sam”, say “look at the letters, see? S – A – M, what sounds do they make? That’s right, /s/, /a/, /m/.
After your child has read through book 1 of the series several times, and mastered it, then make a big deal about how they are reading! Videotape it and show all your friends, and relatives, and brag away! Your child is reading! Now you need to build on that foundation. Reading fluency is all about practice, practice, practice. As they master book 1, move on to book 2 and help them master that one. Remember, you are helping them sound out the words, not reading it for them. When you read your storybooks to them if you see a (short vowel, 3 letter word) word in the story that you are reading that you think they might be able to read, show it to them and see if they can sound it out. Get excited if they do! Enthusiasm is the key here! Keep reading. Have them read phonetic readers to you, and you read stories to them. Keep building on that foundation by reading, reading reading.
Decoding phonetically vs. memorizing
This reminds me of the familiar saying:
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
My translation of that is
“Teach a child to memorize words and they can memorize only a finite number of words. Teach a child to decode words, with a solid foundation in phonics, and they can tackle any new (English) word they ever come across, for the rest of their life, with confidence.”
Some children are so visual that they will try to memorize rather than decode. It is easier for them. This is actually a good thing, because in the end we actually all read that way. We don’t stop to decode every word we see, we know what most of the words are because we see most words as whole words, and not the individual letters within the word. In other words, we have memorized them. The child who memorizes the words quickly will probably have an easier time reading in the end, rather than having to struggle with decoding the same words over and over again. That is actually why I say we need to practice, practice, practice, so that the child can become so familiar with mechanics of phonetic decoding that it becomes second nature and because they will start memorizing the simpler words and save the decoding for the new, unknown words. The important thing to note here, however, is that they will not be able to memorize every word, and when they come across a word they don’t know we need to encourage them to use the tools we have taught them, phonetic decoding.
Beyond Sam Books
While I help and tutor kids that have gotten older and gone beyond the Sam Books in reading, my expertise is teaching the preschool age child, so I will stop my specific teaching instructions here. Since I have discovered Zoo-Phonics and Sam books, and developed this step-by step method, I am proud to say that 95% of the children in my preschool are reading phonetically and confidently before they start kindergarten.
If you are homeschooling, I strongly recommend that you use a strong phonics program in your curriculum. If you are not homeschooling, do not assume that the pre-school or the elementary school you are sending your child to is teaching phonics. Find out. Most teachers will say they are teaching phonics, but ask the teacher to see/explain the curriculum. If what they are doing doesn’t compare to this method, I highly recommend you either change schools or supplement your child’s phonetic education at home.
As they become familiar with the basics as I have outlined them above, it is time to introduce more sight words, and start on the long journey of teaching your kids more and more of the phonetic rules, and the exceptions to those rules. There is a reason they say that the English language is the most difficult to learn. Because it is. But giving your child the foundation in phonics and is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.
See a video of the magic in action:
While watching the video there are two things you might notice:
a) The reason my student suddenly leans back and puts his hands in his lap is because he is using the physical motion associated with Zoo-phonics “H, Honey Horse” to help remember the /h/ sound.
b) The look of pride and pure joy on his face when he discovers that he just read a word!