Teaching My Five-Year Old to Read
by Jay Carper
I’ve never read anything on teaching children to read, so I’m sure I took the hard route. I’m not sure now that I want to go back and read about the correct way to do it–I might just kick myself for how much time I wasted. If you’re getting ready to teach your youngun to read, I hope my experience is helpful to you. The process I describe below is not a quick and easy one. Until someone invents learning-enhancing wetware (and I’m not sure I would trust it if they did), there won’t be an easy way to do it.
When I decided to homeschool my son, I thought that teaching him to read would be easy. But when it finally came time to do it, I couldn’t even figure out how to begin.
I would say, “A sounds like ay” and my son would give me a blank look.
So I tried a different approach. “Cat starts with C.” Another blank look.
Eventually I realized that I was skipping something. It took thousands of years for the human race to move from pictograms to a phonetic alphabet, and I was trying to get my son to do it in a single step. The key was to find a letter that looked like the sound it represented. I picked out two letters, B and S. B looks a bit like a bumble bee, and Slooks a bit like a snake. Once we got past the initial hurtle of letter equals sound, the process became almost as easy as I always thought it should be.
My son is still only reading simple words, but now that he understands the concept, we are moving much more quickly than he ever could in a classroom environment.
Heres a summary of the steps I’ve used so far and the steps I plan to use over the next few weeks:
- Pick a letter that looks like it sounds. S is pretty obvious to most toddlers: it looks like a snake which makes the sound sssssss. Show your child a card with the letter S and a picture of a snake in a pose that emphasizes the resemblance between the two. Then tell the child that whenever he sees this letter, he should make a sssssss noise just like a snake.
- Get excited about his progress! Have him go wake up mom to tell her what S sounds like.
- Once your child has the S down, move onto another letter. If you can find one that looks like it sounds all the better, but it’s not a huge leap for the child to understand that a Z makes a zzzzzzzsound just like the S makes a sssssss sound. Once you’ve got two letters, the rest should be easy.
- Jump up and down and clap! Have him call his aunt and tell her what Z sounds like.
- Have your child memorize the alphabet, using the alphabet song and pictures of objects which start with the most common sound for each letter. In other words, don’t pick an object that starts with the ä sound, like ark, for A. Pick apple or ant or axe. Don’t pick cent. Pick cat or comb or caterpillar.
- Shout “Hooray!” and call grandma so he can sing the alphabet song for her.
- Once your child knows the sounds of enough letters, have him start reading a few three-letter words. Cat and dog are obvious choices. Cat is a better choice because of how many other words sound just like it. Do a few words yourself to show him what you’re looking for. Write C-A-T in big, bold letters, then pronounce each letter individually several times. Once you’ve pronounced each one and your child understands what you did, pronounce them all together, but distinctively, several times, slowly shortening the gap between them until you are no longer pronouncing letters, but saying the word. Your reading should sound something like this:
Once he realizes what you are doing, get him to read the same word, then another word with only a single letter changed. Don’t use a lot of different sounding words, and stay away from diphthongs. Try cap or rat.
- Do a jig and give him a big hug!
- After your child understands the general concept of reading, get him to reverse the process. Give him a word and have him tell you how to spell it. Make sure you only pick simple words that are spelled exactly as they sound: cat, hat, rat, mug, rug, hug.
- “Yee-haw!” Go wake up mom again!
- Now it’s time to move up to four letter words with adjacent consonants. (No! Not those four letter words!) This is a pretty easy step as long as you pick simple words that are spelled the way they sound: snag, trap, snip.
- Have a short graduation ceremony to present your child with a colorful certificate. Make sure it looks important! The grander the better. Use ribbons and foil seals and whatever else he might think is cool.
- Using a chart of the alphabet, point at a letter and have your child make the appropriate sound. One letter at a time, introduce alternate pronunciations, so that when you point at A, your child says ay, a, ah. The same day that you introduce a new sound for a letter, have your child practice reading and spelling words that use that sound: cot, hot, dog, log.
- High five! You are awesome!
- Diphthongs? Eeeeyw! I’ve got a real bone to pick with that William of Normandy. Letter combinations will mostly just have to be memorized. I started with th since it’s so common. You can’t hardly get through a single sentence without it. (BTW, two vowels together, like oy and au, are called a diphthong. What do you call two consonants that make a single sound?)
This is the point we are at right now. I suspect from here on reading and writing practice and phonics drills will be our staple. Eventually I may investigate methods for teaching scanning and speed reading to small children, but for now, just the basics.
P.S. I tend to stick with the convention of using the masculine as a generic pronoun. It’s simple and everyone knows what I mean. English is complicated enough without everyone always changing the rules.
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