Friday, January 13, 2012

The Meat: Teaching Reading

Today I thought I would change it up a bit and talk about one of the issues we faced as homeschoolers.  Reading has been one of our biggest challenges- not because it has been difficult for the kids to learn, but simply because it is one of the most important skills we need.  I am not content to have kids with an acceptable level of reading skill, I really want my kids to read easily, understand well, and find reading enjoyable. 

For my daughter, reading was a struggle.  Our local public school did some form of teaching involving whole language, but the real translation was this: if you can't learn with sight words, you'll never learn phonics (kids are expected to pick up phonics on their own).  Our daughter was a sight-words failure.

I began working with my daughter before we became homeschoolers, in the spring of her Kindergarten year (when I became aware of the problem).  You might think we were missing the boat here, but truthfully I didn't realize she was repeating the sent-home readers by memory.  I assumed incorrectly that she was reading.  However, after the teacher communicated her concerns to me, I began a 'test' of sorts, and the horrid truth came out: my daughter did not know all her letter sounds.  She did not know to read words from left to right (therefore confusing 'of' and 'for', and similar words, constantly).  She did not have any idea how to sound out words.

My approach was drastic: I started with the basic alphabet.  Then I progressed to flashcards, but I purposely made them so that there was a flap to cover the letters.  I pulled up the flaps, one letter at a time, forcing her to focus left-to-right, sound each one out, and eventually to put the sounds together.  This was the very foundation of reading, imho, and my daughter had to be taught step by step.

Now I'll take a bit of a break here to say: if you are teaching your child to read, there may be a time when s/he correctly sounds out c-a-t, but struggles to put the sounds together into cat.  My daughter had a month of difficulty with this as well.  I am unfamiliar with specific research, but my own web-travels have revealed lots of kids who take a bit of time to make the connection, and all get it eventually. 

Once my daughter could read very basic words, we upped the anty and began teaching phenomes, then digraphs.  I was at a loss with where to start, so found this website incredibly helpful:  While working through that, I also bought Why Johnny Can't Read by Rudolph Flesch.  If you haven't read it, he is a passionate proponent of good phonics instruction and has some pretty profound evidence to support him.  There is a wonderful step-by-step phonics program in the back- made of word lists for each new sound.  My daughter is still working her way through this and I have nothing but positive things to say about it.  It isn't pretty, it's slow and systematic, and it WORKS.  For $10, it's totally worth our time and money.

As her knowledge grew, I added  readers from Progressive Phonics to the lineup.  My daughter could handle on page per day, so that's what we did.  I gave her a pink highlighter, and she colored every word she read (we didn't stick with just the bolded words).  It wasn't always easy for her, but thankfully she is a very determined little girl. 

Progressive Phonics offers
free printable readers
For most of last year, we stuck with flashcards, WJCR phonics, and the progressive phonics books.  I occasionally gave her a worksheet of something very simple that she had already learned- just to break up the difficulty and to build her confidence.  I think spelling taught in conjunction would have been valuable as well, but my daughter cried and grew incredibly confused when I tried. 

Particular difficulties: er, or, ur, ar, ir were VERY hard for her to understand.  Summer break helped but this is definitely work in progress.  We also spend time breaking up big words into smaller ones, discussing the double consonants and long/short vowel sounds in relation, and generally just READING. 

This year, she decided to dump the progressive phonics (scaring me) in favor of 'real' books.  That's a second grader for you!

I have heard other folks talk about the 'light bulb' moment with reading.  However, if there will be one for us, it is in the future somewhere.  For us, learning to read is all about baby steps, one new sound at a time, lots of review for sounds previously learned, and gradual progress.  I won't kid you- it's difficult, time consuming, and some days you want to run down the street naked.  But it is such an incredibly important skill that it deserves the time and effort to gain. 

This year, I added a phonics workbook to the lessons, but always doing review of learned sounds.  We are still working on WJCR phonics, and daily she reads to me out of a storybook.  I still consider her skills to be behind what I would like them to be, but her progress has been amazing.  I did manage to add spelling this year, but I let her read the words from a slip of paper out loud instead of doing a real 'test'.  Interestingly, she prefers to spell the words without looking at the paper- her choice- which really shows how far her confidence has come. 

I understand that some people would much rather go with sight words than phonics, and while I do agree that sight words seems to get kids reading FASTER, there are some serious drawbacks to this method.  It would be completely inaccurate of me to say ALL kids should learn phonics first, but I do believe the vast majority of kids would do much better with phonics.  There are so many websites written on that subject, by more learned folks than I, that I won't bother to repeat what they have said.  There is a link to Don Potter at the bottom of the page- his information is easy to understand without the overwhelming passion found on other pages.  I've also added a link to I've found his visuals and explanations very helpful to explain our own difficulties.  In my next post, I'll discuss the problems we faced with our son- who learned to read with the public schools "whole language" method- and what we did to correct his reading issues.

Cliffnotes Version of my method:
Teach basic letter sounds
Flashcards showing one letter at a time (to build sounding-out prowess, to prevent guessing)

Step-by-Step phonics teaching (I used WJCR, but there are many other excellent programs available)
Easy Worksheets
Flashcards (to teach reading words in isolation- no context guessing!)
Easy Readers
Spelling (if possible)

Finishing off:
Continued step-by-step phonics instruction until complete
Easy worksheets
Easy/intermed. readers
Spelling (if possible)
Flashcards (to build speed, word familiarity, and practice sounding out words, repeated words build confidence)

We also spent time 'tuning her ears' in the beginning- basically playing with words, breaking them up into sounds, and generally just listening to the natural flow of language.  I am not guaranteeing my method- but it is what is working for our formerly book-phobic little girl who thought she would never learn to read at all.  Good luck with whatever method you use for your children.

One last caveat: there is a school of thought that says waiting is better for some children.  I would have waited with my daughter except- the incredible emotional damage done in the early failed portion of her reading instruction had left her with zero confidence in her intellectual capabilities.  She was trapped in a world where she felt stupid.  In my very humble opinion, it would have been far crueler to let her stay there than it was to teach her to read (no matter how slow or how difficult it was at first).  Constant confidence building was vital for my daughter, and I didn't let up telling her how bright she was until the day she agreed with a nonchalant, "I know I am, Mama." 

Happy Reading!

1 comment:

  1. You have a really well written out explanation here. I'm a little bit less hard-nosed about Phonics because I teach from a Balanced Literacy point of view. But I also believe in starting kids earlier than Kindergarten. I think that there is a "window of opportunity" when it is easier for kids to learn their letters and sounds, that happens around 2 or 3 years of age. (But I don't have any research to back me up.) I have my own ideas about teaching reading, laid out on my blog.