Teaching your child to read is a momentous undertaking, and an incredible gift you can give to your child, even before they go to school. Please don’t think that only the “professionals” can teach your child how to read after they go to kindergarten. In fact, in most cases, I think that you as the parent are in a better position to give your child the fundamental building blocks that they need to learn to be a successful reader than some (dare I say most?) public school curriculum. (For the sake of brevity I will refrain from jumping on that particular soapbox!)
Reading (in English, at least) is all about learning how to decode words phonetically. We have only 26 symbols…(well, 52 if you count upper and lower case.) Once you have memorized those 26 letters, and their associated phonetic sounds, then it is all about learning all the tricks of putting those letter sounds together to make words. Simple, right?
Well, no, not exactly simple. But systematic. Step one, then two, and after that step three, and so on… and in my experience they pretty much need to be done in order.
Here is a tricky little note. Reading takes development of a certain part of the brain, and if the child’s brain is not ready, then it simply isn’t ready. You can still start with step one, at almost any age (we include our young toddlers at circle time, when we are teaching phonics), but until they master step one, it isn’t fair to go on to step two. Be patient, and above all have fun! To get a little perspective from the child’s point of view, look at a page of Chinese writing and try to read it without first being taught what those symbols mean. Pretty impossible, right? (Unless of course, you speak Chinese!) So, for our children, the first step to learning to read is to teach them the symbols.
Teach your child the alphabet
… and the phonetic sounds associated with them. At the same time! My sister-in-law, Astrid, says that in Australia they actually teach only the phonetic sounds first, and then they associate the letter names to the sounds afterwords. That thought gave me pause to ponder and I thought it was an intriguing idea, but in the end I decided that I would stick with what I knew.
The most successful way that I have learned to teach my children the alphabet (after many decades of trial and error) is to involve their entire mind and body in the act. Some children are visual learners (they learn mostly through what they see), some children are audio learners (they learn through hearing things) and some are kinesthetic (they need to be moving and touching and feeling things to be taking in information). Most kids learn using a combination of those modes, and I have learned that teaching the alphabet is best done with a strong use of all these inputs. The challenge is that The Alphabet is completely symbolic, completely abstract. In and of itself The Alphabet is indecipherable to young children in their current stage of cognitive development. It is simply a bunch of black and white marks on a piece of paper, and not nearly so interesting as the pictures! So we need to make it real and memorable for them! We do this by temporarily attaching each letter to:
- an item that they are familiar with
- the phonetic sound (Note: In the beginning we only teach them one sound per letter; short vowel sounds, and ‘hard’ consonant sounds. We will teach them all the exceptions to the rules after they have all of these foundational rules figured out.)
- a body movement (this helps with those kinesthetic wigglers!)
Zoo-phonics has done a fantastic job of doing this, creating a set of zoo animal flash cards where each letter is represented by a zoo animal that is contorted to look like the letter, and a sound and a movement is associated with each lower case letter of our alphabet. For instance, for the letter A, you show the child the letter “a” card, which looks like an alligator curled up around the letter a, and you say “This is the letter A. This is Allie Alligator and he makes the sound /a/, /a/, /a/.” Simultaneously you teach your child to open and close their arms like a giant alligator mouth while repeating the short vowel sound of /a/. You can access the Zoo-phonics webpage here, if you want to buy their product. I use their cards daily with all the kids in my preschool, and it is what I used to teach my daughter how to read. If you want to see the Zoo-phonics system in action, I found the website of an elementary school that uses zoophonics and it shows the Zoo-phonics system in action.
If you prefer, instead of buying the pre-made Zoo-Phonics system, you can also make up your own phonetic alphabet system, or look at other programs out there that teach the phonetic sound as well as the letter name, and a physical movement to go with it (this really seems to be the key to success with many children). In the early stages stick with one system. Don’t change up the items that represent the letters (or the movements) mid-stream because then the child will get confused. Twenty-six symbols and sounds is enough for anyone to have to memorize! Keep it as simple and consistent as possible. The point is, the kids need to associate and internalize the phonetic sounds with all 26 lower case letters, and know them thoroughly, before you move on to the next step. My kids have so much fun learning the zoo animals that all you have to say is “What sound does Allie Alligator make?” and they instantly start flapping their arms and saying Ahh Ahh Ahh!
A few helpful tips with this step of teaching your child the alphabet:
- If you have a wiggly kid it is perfectly acceptable to do these lessons while they are standing up (the better to move!), or even outside.
- It is my opinion that it is best to teach all of the alphabet and all of the sounds as a whole. If you concentrate on only one letter at a time then they will forget A by the time you get to Z.
- I do concentrate on lower case letters first. If you look around you, you will notice that most reading material is mostly lower case. I have never understood why people tend to teach the alphabet as all caps. I do teach capital letters eventually of course, but it is never my first emphasis.
- Learning the traditional alphabet song is a great idea, as it helps kids learn the order of the alphabet and it will help them later in life when they are trying to learn to alphabetize things. But please don’t think that because your child knows the alphabet song that they know their alphabet. Knowing the alphabet thoroughly means that your child has memorized all of the different letters, and their associated phonetic sounds, and is able to tell you what they are even when they are presented to them in a random, non-alphabetical order. This is actually a pretty monumental achievement. For some kids it will take only a few weeks, but I have taught some children who simply couldn’t learn all 26 letters and sounds for a couple years. Just take your time and keep it fun!
- Try to practice every day, or at least 3 or 4 times a week. Kids learn from repetition, repetition, repetition. Also, your dedication to the task will add importance to it in your child’s mind.
- I assume that this goes without saying (because everybody is saying it!) but you should read to your child as often as possible. At least daily! Bedtime stories are a great family routine to adopt. But anytime you can find time to share a story with your kids, do it! It teaches them the enjoyment value of books, stories, and most importantly, reading! And as your child starts to become familiar with the letters, point them out in your books, and in the environment around you. Stop signs, labels in the grocery store..anywhere, everywhere!
- Depending on the age, their interest and the fine motor skill development of your child, you can also start having your child trace the letters (write them first with a highlighter) but this is not necessary to learn how to read. And for some kids it could turn a fun activity into a battle.
When your child is truly and thoroughly familiar with the alphabet then you can start step two:
I usually start with the “at” words; at, bat, cat, rat, etc. I use a white board and a wipe off marker and I write the lower case letter on the board and I ask them what sound that letter makes. If I have done my job right, they should instantly start sounding and looking like a ravenous alligator! /a/! /a/! /a/! (If they don’t, back to step one! They aren’t ready!) But, assuming they know the letter sound, then I write a “t” after the letter “a” and I ask them what sound that letter makes. Then I get quiet and conspiratorial and I say..”Do you want to learn a little magic?” That usually gets their attention and I continue, “Say this letter sound (point to the a) /a/and then this letter sound (point to the t) /t/. Now, say them again, but faster! /a/ /t/! now faster! Do you hear it? That’s right! This is the word at!” I repeat the word “at, at, at” several times. Then I put the letter b in front of the word at and I say “And now is the real magic! What sound does b make? Thats right, /b/, /b/, /b/! Now, say it real fast with the word you just learned, at! /b/ /a/ /t/. Say it all together! Can you hear it? What word do you think that is?” Model sounding it out to them. You say /b/,/a/,/t/. “Now here is a different word. It sounds almost like bat, but we are going to put an r here instead of the b. What word do these letters make? Remember the sounds? That’s right, its /r/, /a/,/t/. Now put all the sounds together. Can you hear the word?”
Just start with 3 or 4 words. You can continue to use the zoophonics cards and characters for this step of creating the first few small words, but I tend to jump to a white board or a chalkboard at this point. Something about being able to write and erase the letters quickly appeals to me. And sometimes, after they have sounded out a word, I will entertain the kids with quickly (poorly? lol) drawn pictures of the words they have just sounded out.
Okay, I should stop right here and let you know that even though this step may seem simple and obvious to us, it is a big leap for many children. It is tremendously rewarding to see the lightbulb go on, and you can see the understanding in their eyes as they say “Bat! Rat! Cat!” for the first time. However, many, many times when I first approach a child at this stage they simply do not understand it the first time. There is a huge cognitive step between memorizing the letters and sounds, and decoding words. If they don’t get it at first, please, please be patient with them. In my experience I have learned that this is a very difficult step for many children, and it is a critical step. If you get angry at this point, because they simply cannot see what is so obvious to us, you could seriously sour their desire to learn to read. If they don’t “get it”, then you simply need to keep practicing those letters, movements and sounds, and regularly try to teach them some very simple phonetically correct words. Don’t worry, eventually that light will come on! Keep it light and fun. Try different combinations; hot, pot, cot or ham, bam, Sam.
And speaking of Sam… Once you have truly seen that lightbulb come on, and you see that your child understands the idea that if he puts letter sounds together he can make words, then you are ready for the 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.
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!