I have warm, fuzzy memories of teaching each of my four children to read. I can remember holding up flash cards for my oldest when he was three years old, drilling those phonics until we were both exhausted. I remember how he struggled to blend consonants and vowels together, so I taped letters to the cars of his Thomas the Tank Engine set to visualize how you connect the sounds to make one sound, exaggerating my pronunciation as he looked at me like I was crazy.
I realize now that I was, indeed, crazy.
I remember my four-year-old daughter standing beside my desk, sounding out sentences I had printed for her to read. She was proud of her accomplishments, though she couldn’t tell you what she had read by the time she got to the last word. Again, I was crazy.
Then there was the little Sweetie Pooh who just wanted to cuddle. He’s the one who finally got it through to me that reading takes time, for there was no rushing the love bug on my lap who would bury his face in my shirt in exasperation when he couldn’t recall a single sound he’d learned the day before. That’s when I finally learned the lesson and put the phonics away for a year or two until he was mentally and emotionally ready for it all.
So that’s why I have treasured memories of reading together with my youngest, snuggled in the recliner under blankets and piles of Bucky and Dr. Seuss and Frog and Toad.
It’s a shame, when I look back, to realize how long I had to homeschool my children before I could learn how to homeschool my children! If I didn’t have a sense of humor about it—and enough of that to pass down to them too—it would be tragic. But we all laugh about it now.
The process of reading is relatively simple for most children: learn sounds, learn to blend sounds, learn to sound out words, learn “special sounds” or blends, read and comprehend sentences. But the journey from start to finish isn’t what we expect. The easy stuff is hard, and the hard stuff isn’t that big a deal.
Looking back now, I’ve discovered several lessons about teaching reading that really surprised me.
1. There is a lot more involved in learning to read than I expected.
It isn’t like learning how to sort by color, or memorizing the days of the week, or even learning how to count to twenty. Learning how to read involves many skills we adults now take for granted.
For instance, the child must recognize that letters are different, that each letter stands for a different sound, that some letters stand for more than one sound, that these sounds are blended together to make even more sounds, that letters look different when handwritten or printed in different fonts, and that all these letters and sounds go together to make words and sentences that tell a story that people should remember.
It’s so much to remember, it can be overwhelming for young learners.
2. Children learn to read at their own rate.
It has little to do with intelligence or learning aptitude or upbringing or quality of education. The child simply must be ready to learn! We accept that when it comes to a child learning to walk, or saying his first word, or even feeding himself, but when it comes to reading, we’re so tempted to point to the calendar and declare It’s time! Start reading now!
I laugh so hard at my attempts to teach my three- and four-year-old children how to read fluently. And bless their hearts, they really tried admirably. But while they squeezed out simple words and paper pamphlet stories bravely, they didn’t begin reading fluently and independently any faster than the two boys I let take their time. All I did was create months and years of more work for all of us.
So while I’m a huge proponent of reading, I am no longer a fan of “teach your three-year-old to read” programs. There are so many things early learners should be learning well during those formative years. When they are five or six or seven, they will be mature enough to enjoy the process of reading so much more.
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