Teaching Reading: Adventures in Pedagogy and Parenting

This is an edited version of an piece I published on my old blog, The Me Show, in January 2013 about teaching my older Smartling to read. Why am I republishing it now, you ask? Well, it's not (just) because I've weathered a week of child-care-free Midwinter Break with a sick kid. I mean, not completely. It's also because my younger Smartling [throws confetti, pops champagne, does back flips, demands drum roll] IS SHOWING INTEREST IN READING!

That's right! The child I had earnestly and painfully decided to not push into literacy, given her wildly stubborn and fiery disposition, is finally showing an interest in putting letters together into words and words into sentences. She's only 4 1/2, and so the timing is right for this. But it feels late since my older Smartling was so early in all of her verbal development and literacy acquisition. Smartling-the-younger is right on time with wanting to learn to read, and I'm right here, ready and willing to help her learn.

How I plan on doing this is largely how I introduced reading to my older daughter, at least until it becomes apparent that I need to try different strategies. I'm prepared for this possibility, since my girls are so different from one another in temperament and learning style. Until the need to differentiate my instruction arises, though, I'm going to do what I know. And what I know is the following essay from 4 years ago.

I hope it helps you if you're considering a similar literacy venture soon. And I hope it helps me, too, because it's been a loooooooooooooong time since I've done this.



Teaching Reading to Littles: A Suggested List of Activities

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1. Read to your kid frequently, early, and often.

This seems intuitive, but it was really hard for us to implement until I built it into a regular schedule. I began when my older Smartling was a little over a year old by choosing three hardcover picture books every morning and reading them to her with her on my lap so that I could control the paper pages and make sure she couldn't maul them too badly during story time. Then I added in an afternoon, post-nap book time during which she and I would paw through her basket of board books, and I'd read anything she chose as many times as she chose it until she was ready to do something else. Sometimes afternoon book time lasted 5 minutes, and sometimes a half hour or more. Now, being an Awesome Housewife, I had the luxury of time on my hands, but I believe it was the regularity of this practice that nurtured her love of books rather than the quantity of time we spent reading. On days when we're really pressed for time, I read to her during meals and during bath time.

Then I had a second kid, and it all went to hell. (The regular reading practice, not life itself... mostly.) We did the best we could to keep reading to the girls, but most story times for the older kid had to wait until the younger kid was sleeping, and the younger kid never slept. Sadly, my littler girl hasn't been as exposed to reading as much as her older sister was. That's the price one pays for being the second kid instead of the first.

With my younger fireball, I propose story times as much as our schedule and her tolerance will allow, and I'm sometimes taken up on the offer. She's a different kid, though, and she often wants to do other things instead of sitting and reading with me. Sometimes she'll consent to listen to me read her a story while she does other things, and sometimes she'll give me a flat refusal. But I offer, and I try, and I let her listen in when I read with her older sister. She's surrounded by books and always offered the opportunity to read. That's the best we can do.

2. Regularly expose them to letters.

It's easy to understand - if you want your kid to learn their letters, then you've got to show them letters. We started early with both girls because I am an insane babbler and constant singer. In addition to repeating the alphabet song until my voice hurt, when both girls were babies I also made up goofy little song whose only words are the letters of each girl's name, which I then sang all the time. This led to the older, atypically verbal Smartling spelling her name correctly at 19 months. Typically for her personality, my younger Smartling can spell her full name correctly if you sing her name song with her, but she will refuse to do it otherwise. Dammit.

My older Smartling and I also played with a smaller set of these foam letters a lot, at first in the tub and then out of the tub, where she'd randomly fish them from the dispenser lid of old, plastic wipes holder for me to identify. We had to throw them away when my younger Smartling chewed bites out of the foam. Sigh. Luckily, the magnetic letters from this fantastic toy, serve as tactile examples of letters that aren't as tempting as chew toys. Win-win!

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3. Books, Books, Books.

Quality is good, but at this point quantity is better. If you're going to read lots of books with your kids, then you need lots of books to read. Although I am an admitted book snob (Sookie Stackhouse and Alexia Tarabotti notwithstanding), in the early days of my older daughter's book journey, I put no limits on what we read during the day.

The booty from a book shower at the school where I was teaching when pregnant with my first kiddo got us off to a good start in building a children's library in our home, and my rampant bibliophilia has added to that library mightily. Once my older daughter developed a keener understanding of narrative and plot, I started to weed out the literary twaddle and replace it with more quality children's literature, specifically feminist picture books, Caldecott Award winners and nominees, and excellent nonfiction.

I buy from everywhere, but especially love finding books at thrift stores, yard sales, and used book stores. Scholastic (Remember book orders?) is a great resource for paperbacks and thematic packs of books, plus our school benefits from our purchases made there. We also bring home stacks of books from the library to enjoy, and I'll order particular favorites online or request our local bookstore to order them for us. Out of print favorites from the library are easy to find on Abebooks.com. If we're feeling adventurous and have the time and patience to go browsing, the girls and I will spend a good long time filling our book bags at our excellent local bookstores.

That's what has worked, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the kid, with my girls. And here is what's coming next in terms of direct instruction.

1. The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading.

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So far, with some tweaking, I really like using this book. It's a great, straightforward curriculum for teaching phonics at home. With my older Smartling, we followed the plan strictly for learning short vowel sounds, and then veered away from it a bit since at that point she already knew her consonant sounds. By the time we started following the instructions for learning three-letter words using those short vowel sounds, she was off like a shot and just started reading.

For my younger kid, I'm anticipating following each lesson as given. She may surprise me and perform autodidactic feats of literary strength like her sister, rendering the book moot, but I'll stick to the book's daily lessons until then. The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading system uses a lot of index cards, so we've invested in a few packs of those and a plastic envelope for containing them. Beyond that, all it requires is the book - no special materials required. Easy peasy.

2. Bob Books

Published by Scholastic means available through Scholastic book orders, people! (Image Source)

We used to sell the daylights out of these when I worked at the best children's bookstore in the whole wide world, the Bank Street Bookstore, and I know why now. They're fantastic for the little people using them to learn how to read and easy for the big people helping those little people learn. Each book has an illustrated list of the letter sounds used in it (M has a moon next to it, etc.), so kids can tell right away which sounds to look out for. The stories are not riveting for adults, except for the book with the line "Muff has nine rags," but both girls genuinely like them.

3. School binder & activity books.

When I started this with my older daughter, it was more of a playtime toy than a serious piece of instruction. Smartling-the-elder had a number of preschool-oriented workbooks, and I tore out some of their pages and put them into page protectors in a "school binder." With the page protectors over the worksheets, she could use them over and over again with whiteboard markers. My only intention with these pages was to get her to practice her pencil grip and start controlling her pen strokes in preparation for learning how to write. She thought it was fun to use the whiteboard pens, and she got in a few minutes of concentrated small motor practice a day.

She also had a number of cheap activity books with dot-to-dots, puzzles, and mazes in them that she liked to do. While the activities in these books were clearly games, I consider them legitimate educational activities in that she was practicing her reading and small motor skills while improving her concentration and perseverance. (You bet I didn't let her leave pages half done.)

Now, my older daughter's use of these books was low-key at best, but my younger daughter LOVES "doing school books." When my older daughter is practicing piano or doing her math homework at night, my little one proudly grabs her stack of little activity books and her binder and sets down to work. It is adorable, and her pride in her work is so evident that it puffs MY chest up. Smartling-the-younger will happily sit for 10 - 15 minutes plowing through page after page of pre-K activities, giving herself a sticker for each completed task. Her success at this big girl endeavor both builds her confidence and teaches her basic reading and writing skills.

So this is the plan! I'm as prepared for it to work like gangbusters as I'm ready for it to blow up in my face. My second kid is not my first kid, and her experience of direct reading instruction will not be what her sister's was. But she's telling me that she's ready to learn, and it is my pleasure to let her know that I'm ready to teach her. Off we go! Wish us luck! We'll write you a postcard - possibly her own words in her own hand! - from our journeys into literacy!

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