When you drive a long distance, it’s reassuring to have signs along the route that tell you when to turn or that your exit is coming up. Well, the same holds true when you’re teaching your child to read. There are signposts along that road. Let’s talk through the five steps involved in teaching your child to read, and I’ll point out the signposts for each one that will tell you when she’s ready to take the exit and move on to the next step.
Teaching your child to read can seem like a daunting task. I remember the fear and trepidation I felt with my first child. I was so afraid I was going to do it wrong and ruin her. I could just imagine the whole sad scenario: I would make one mistake in teaching her how to read and it would mean all the difference. She would never read. She could never go to college or get a good job. She would end up a bitter old woman who hated her mother because I messed up teaching her how to read! (Isn’t it amazing how our minds go down those dark paths so quickly?!)
The truth of the matter is, if you surround your child with good conversation and a literature-rich environment, she’s most likely going to do most of the heavy lifting herself. In fact, you will have a hard time preventing her from learning how to read—when she is ready.
And that’s the key.
So much of the process of teaching your child to read is based on readiness: When is my child ready to take the next step?
So let’s talk about some of those signposts, some cues you can watch for to see when your child is probably ready to move on in the process.
Step 1: Playing with Letters and Sounds
You start the process by giving your child letters that she can play with. This can be done at any age. Just as you might give her toy animals, give her some wooden letters or magnetic or foam letters to play with. You can teach her their names informally, just as you do the toy animals’ names, during play times. (“Oh, you’re taking cow and M on our walk today.”)
If you want lots of informal activity ideas for this step, check out the kit Delightful Reading, Level 1: Playing with Letters and Sounds.
Surround your child with good conversations, use good sentences, and read ABC books together. Read rhymes and poems to her, and soon she will start to experiment with letter sounds in her speaking. When she exhibits the cues below, she may be ready for an introduction to Step 2.
Signposts to Step 2
- Knows most of the letter names and the sounds they make
- Points out letters around her on signs, book covers, etc.
- Asks what different words around her say or tries to read them for herself
- Asks questions about a story you are reading aloud, demonstrating comprehension
- Can identify several beginning and ending sounds in words
- Has a pretty good sense of rhyming words
If that describes your child, she may be ready to move on to Step 2. To find out whether she’s ready for the next step, you simply present a little of it and see if the child understands, see if it “clicks.” I like to think of it as knocking on a door. Knock, and see if it’s ready to open. If it opens, then keep going; move on to do more of that step. If, on the other hand, the child is confused or frustrated, then back off. Continue doing the current step for a few more weeks, then knock on the door again. You’ll be able to tell when it’s ready to open—when the child is ready to move on. The whole process will go much smoother if you are patient and proceed at each child’s individual pace. Respect the child as a person. Knock on the door.
Step 2: Word Building
Word building should also be as play to your child. No formal reading lessons yet. Simply take two of her play letters, A and T, and put them together. Tell your child that this is the word at, and use it in a sentence that means something to her: “We use this word when we say, ‘We are at home’ or ‘We are at the park.’ ” Let that idea rest for a while.
Later that day, or the next day, put those two letters together again and see if she remembers what word they make. If not, tell her and then set it aside again. If she does remember the word, grab a C or an H. See if she can tell you what sound that letter makes, then put it in front of the at and say the two sounds separately: c . . . at. What have we if we put it together? See if your child can figure out what word you have built.
If it “clicks” and she can read the word, the door is open; continue to play with word building using different vowel combinations. Introduce short vowels, long vowels, what R does to a vowel, other vowel combinations (oi, ey), some consonant blends (th, sh, ph, ng), etc.
If it doesn’t “click,” the door is not ready to open yet. That’s not a problem. Don’t force it open. Simply go back to playing with letters and sounds for a few more weeks and then knock on the door again.
Take your time and secure the ground under your child’s feet, no matter which step of the process you are on. If you move on to Word-Building, remember to keep the activities informal and enjoyable. (If you want some help with word-building, take a look at Delightful Reading, Level 2: Words I Can Build. That kit will walk you through this step.)
After the word-building step comes actual reading lessons. You can knock on the door to that step when your child shows these signs:
Signposts to Step 3
- Can read several hundred individual words that include short vowels, long vowels, blends, some vowel combinations, and R-controlled vowels
- Recognizes words she knows without much prompting
- Can build word families; for example, words that use the -en ending
- Can build a word from memory after studying it
Step 3A: Reading Lessons
In Step 3 you will start formal reading lessons, but they will be short: just 10 minutes or so each day. Charlotte Mason used a variety of techniques that involved many of the child’s senses in the learning process. I don’t have time to walk through exactly what these lessons look like in this episode, but you can watch a demonstration that I did in a video about the kit Delightful Reading, Level 3: From Words to Books. That video will walk you through what reading lessons look like in the Charlotte Mason Method.
In reading lessons, you work your way through several selections: a children’s poem, a Bible verse, a short fable, etc. And you use different approaches to help your child make the transition from reading individual words to reading sentences and paragraphs. So one day you teach the words as sight words; the next day you reinforce the phonics by doing word building with those same words.
Now, I’m calling this step 3A and 3B, because you get one part up and running and then bring in the second component. So you start in with the reading lessons, and after you have finished working through one of those reading selections (let’s say, a children’s poem) and your child can now read that whole poem with confidence, as well as all the other sentences that you and she have built and read in the lessons, then I like to introduce a reader into the mix.
So the signposts for bringing in a reader, alongside the reading lessons, would be . . .
Signposts to Step 3B
- Can read a complete selection (poem, Bible verse, fable) with confidence
- Can read sentences you and she have created from words she has learned
Step 3B: Adding a Reader
It’s good to have variety in the lessons. So when I bring in a reader on the side, I like to do a reading lesson on one day (whether that is using sight words or word building—it varies, and the video I mentioned will show you how) and then have the child read from the reader the next day. Then do a reading lesson, then read aloud, . . . and just keep alternating.
My favorite readers are the Pathway Readers, because they follow the same family of children throughout the first few books. My kids formed a relation with Peter and Rachel and Andrew, and were always eager to find out what was going to happen next with them. The first book in the series is called First Steps, so that is the book I bring in alongside the reading lessons first.
Then we just continue with reading lessons and reading from the readers until the child is ready to move on to the next step: dropping the formal lessons and just practicing reading in order to gain fluency. Here are some cues to help you know when you might do that.
Signposts to Step 4
- If your child is hesitant and looks for help with most words, or even half of the words, in a sentence, stay on Step 3B: with reading lessons alongside reading from a reader, alternating them on different days.
- If your child reads more than half of the words on her own and tries to read the others—getting the beginning sounds and some of the other sounds correct—but needs your help fine tuning and sounding out sometimes, go ahead and stop reading lessons and knock on the door for Step 4: more reading practice.
Step 4: Reading Practice
Here’s how to knock on the door for this step. Set aside the reading lessons for a couple of weeks and just have your child read aloud to you every day. You are looking for gradual improvement in her reading fluency: fewer hesitations, less help from you, more smoothness, more recognition of words that you thought she might stumble over, more speed. If it’s helpful, you might discretely keep count on your hand—hidden under a couch pillow or behind your leg—how many hesitations/stops, how many helps. Record your counts somewhere, then you can see accurately over time whether your child is progressing or struggling. If you don’t see any improvement in two or three weeks, then back up to Step 3B and bring back that additional support of formal reading lessons alternated with reading aloud. Do that for another three or four weeks, then knock on the door again and see if she’s ready to stop the lessons and just do reading practice.
If your child is reading most words without your help, she probably just needs more reading practice in order to gain fluency. Give her opportunity to read aloud to you every day or two, working through the Pathway Readers until she completes Days Go By, More Days Go By, Busy Times, More Busy Times, New Friends, and More New Friends.
When you’re having your child practice reading aloud, there are several ways to slice and dice the books into individual reading sessions. You could set a certain number of pages to be read and stop at the end of the last page, regardless of where it is in the story line. Another option is to set the timer for 15 minutes or so and stop when it dings, regardless of where you happen to be in the chapter. A third option is to look through the chapters and divide them according to little episodes. With that option, one reading might be a little longer or shorter than another, but you pay more attention to the story line and stop at logical spots.
Choose the option that works best with your child. The main thing is to avoid dragging out a reading session foreverrrrrrrrr. Keep it short and require full attention and best effort for those few minutes.
It has been my experience that once your student can read aloud More New Friends without help, she is most likely ready to begin to make the transition into reading independently, reading her own school books in history and other subjects.
Signposts to Step 5
- Reads the final chapters in More New Friends smoothly
- Rarely needs help with a word
- Can narrate what she read, proving comprehension
- Might remark that she would prefer to read on her own now
Step 5: Reading Independently
As with all of the steps in this reading process, you’ll want to make the transition to independent reading gradually, knocking on the door and monitoring whether your child is ready.
To knock on the door, assign her a reading from one of her school books to read to herself. Select one of the easier books or one that she’s really interested in, in order to boost her confidence and motivation level. Set up the reading as you would normally, with a pre-reading review and a short introduction that points out any key words she will need to know. After she has read the assigned portion of the book independently, ask her to narrate it. That narration will let you know how well she comprehended what she read.
You might give her three or four opportunities to adjust to reading independently and narrating from that type of reading. I wouldn’t give more than one per day, by the way. Make sure she is well rested and mentally ready for the challenge. If her narrations plummet, you’ll know the door is not quite ready to open yet. Back up to Step 4 and give her more practice with reading aloud to you. You might ask her to read some of that school book aloud, so you can hear whether she is struggling with reading fluency or if she’s just floundering a bit to find her feet with this new set up.
Make the transition to independent reading gradually. Take your time in assigning more books to be read independently and fewer for you to read aloud. Remember, there’s no hurry. The important thing at this stage is to encourage a habit of reading for instruction—coming to the book with a mind that is eager and ready to learn. Once your child has that habit, along with the ability to read, she’s set for a lifetime of learning.
Now, let me just add one more thought: even after your child can read all of her books independently, it’s good to continue some reading aloud. As we have discussed in other episodes, it takes a lot of intentional practice to learn how to read aloud well, to read aloud for the enjoyment of others. So continue to provide opportunities for your child to practice that skill, that art, throughout her school years. You might invite her to read a favorite poem to the family, or sometimes you might ask her to read part of your family read-aloud book‘s chapter for the day. Just keep in mind that once your student has shown that she can read her school books independently, and comprehend what she has read, then keep giving her opportunities to read aloud, not to test her reading skills but to help her cultivate the art of reading aloud well.
Learning how to read is a step by step process, a long journey, and I hope the signposts I’ve given will help you confidently guide your student through that process.