Teaching Reading

D1 is edging closer to really reading, and I’ve been re-examining how to teach (or just promote) reading yet again. She is memorizing whole books; she knows the most common sound of each letter (we used those first, before letter names) and she has heard me break words apart into sounds and put them back together many times, sometimes as a game, sometimes when writing words at her request. She will spell words with me just helping her break apart the sounds and explain any unusual constructions.

Now she is starting to be able to hear all the sounds in a short word herself, and even blend together sounds. She will "read" books and stop and correct herself at times when she sees that the words she is saying are not the ones she is seeing.

The more aggressive phonics advocates would probably say this is bad. She clearly knows many words by sight, and she might get in bad habits of guessing at words. However, this is exactly how I learned how to read and how DOB learned how to read, and we read and spell better than most. Since she understands the basic concept that letters represent sounds, she looks to understand how the sounds are represented in the words she knows. I think this will lead her to the same place as a more orderly phonics progression, and it’s far more natural for her.

I do think it’s about time we had some more formal lessons on reading, though, and I’ve promised her we will start on her fifth birthday. I’m dissatisfied with everything out there, though (of course!). The sight-word people are right that real reading involves *knowing* words, not sounding them out or guessing; the phonics people are right that memorizing every word in the English language is simply impossible; and the whole-language people are right that reading controlled-vocabulary or phonetically-correct text is unbearably painful. I’m impressed with the way Diane McGuinness organizes the sounds and spellings of the English language, but the curriculum based on it, while quicker and simpler than phonics, is just as tedious and twaddly while it’s in process. Also it seems to be written for children who are struggling readers, which doesn’t seem necessarily appropriate for a child who takes naturally to decoding.

The trouble with English is the irregularity is up front. If you simply start with the most common words, many of them use advanced spelling patterns (the) or practically unique spellings (once). On the other hand, if you start with the most common sounds that will be used in words of every length, you find it impossible to write an actual sentence, and even with a few concessions like "the" and "of" the books are full of sentences that sound like nothing else in the language. (Dad did nab a dab of jam. Right.)

Charlotte Mason advocated an approach using short poems and simple prose (but real ones, that you might actually want to read), working with the words until the poem can be read off perfectly and with expression at once, and then doing word-building exercises with the words thus learned. The lessons sound fun and engaging, but the actual understanding of the English code seemed haphazard. English may not be as regular as some languages, but there is some logic to it and trying to learn it without that logic makes it unnecessarily difficult.

Naturally not being satisfied with anything out there, I want to do my own. With careful selection, I can find real poems, Bible passages, folk tales, that predominantly use the spellings and structures studied thus far. A few words will need to be memorized at sight, but very few. A few other words, to be studied later, can simply be read by me. We can work with these words until they’re known at sight–so that reading proceeds easily–and with care I can also make sure we spend the most time on the most common words, so that she will be able to easily read most of the words in real books. But because we start with a firm understanding of the basic code, she should still realize that individual letters represent individual sounds and she doesn’t need to guess at whole words. (Even the most irregular words usually only have one or two sounds spelled irregularly.)

That’s my theory anyway. We’ll see how it works.

One thought on “Teaching Reading

  1. You've voiced my exact thoughts about teaching reading. I've used your theory to teach all my children to read as well as the kiddos I taught in the public school system. It works. Finding the right non twaddly beginning books is the challenge. Learning to read is as natural as learning to walk for a young child. They just need time and practice.

    Warmly,
    lindafay

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