Word-Building and Phonics: Teaching Reading, part 4

homeschool boy spells play with letter blocks

As you learned last time, Charlotte Mason’s reading lessons used two approaches: sight words and word-building. To add variety and keep things interesting for the student, Charlotte alternated lessons between the two. Last week we described how to do a sight-word lesson. This week let’s take a look at a word-building lesson.


Word-building lessons are a great tool to help your child learn to break words down into their smaller components. These type of lessons are also a wonderful opportunity to let your child discover that not every word with the same letter combination will be pronounced in the same way. Yet all of this is done in an interesting and gentle way. Here’s how.

For the word-building lessons, you’ll need the loose letters and a chalkboard or white board. You might also want a blank notebook or small journal to use as your child’s Word Notebook. Let him decorate the cover, if he would like to.

  1. Write on the board one of the words your child learned in the previous sight-word lesson. For our example here, we’ll use “twinkle.” Ask your child to read the word.
  2. Erase the word on the board and see if your child can spell it from memory with his loose letters. If not, simply write it on the board again so he can look at it as he creates it with his loose letters.
  3. Write the word on the board, if it is not there already. Say the word slowly and ask, “What do we have left if we take away tw?” Erase the beginning letter(s) and help your child get “inkle.”
  4. Ask, “What would you add to “inkle” to get “tinkle?” Have your child add a “t” to create the new word with his loose letters. Use the same process to make “sprinkle” and “wrinkle” and any other “inkle” derivatives that you can think of. Remember, you don’t have to do every possible combination. Choose words that will mean something to your child, and discuss them as you go along.
  5. Write on the board all the words you make, forming them into a list for your child to read aloud. Review this list in various orders as you go through the lesson.
  6. Repeat the process with all the sight words your child learned last time. In this case, you would do word-building with “star” and “little,” as well. “Star” could produce “jar, bar, car, far, mar, par, tar, war, scar, spar, char,” etc. From “little” you could make “brittle, spittle, whittle.”
  7. Let your child notice exceptional pronunciations within the word lists; for example, “war” is pronounced differently than “jar, bar, car” in the list above. Don’t feel like you have to explain the reason a word is pronounced differently even though it looks the same. Simply point out how each word is pronounced, and your child will form his own mental guidelines.
  8. Use all the words your child has learned to create more sentences. As you progress through the lessons, you’ll have a large storehouse of words to use. Write new sentences on the board and have your child read them aloud.
  9. You can also keep a record of all the words your child has learned by writing them in a notebook or journal. Use the Word Notebook for review and to celebrate his progress.

What about the Phonics Rules?

You may have noticed that we haven’t said a word about phonics rules in all these reading lessons. That’s because Charlotte did not emphasize them. Yes, she included some phonics guidelines as they would be helpful to the child, but she did not teach them as rules with multiple exceptions. She encouraged the child to form his own general mental guidelines based on his experiences with sight words and word-building. She trusted the children to deal with language capably.

The fact is, we become so familiar with the words we see often, that we recognize them at sight, even whn they are mssng lttrs. And that is what makes a fluent reader: recognizing words quickly as you see them. When we come across an unknown word, we try to figure it out based on components that we recognize. And those are exactly the strategies that Charlotte’s reading lessons emphasize.

Yes, phonics is one tool we can use to help a child get to the place where he will recognize words as he is reading. Studies have shown that phonics guidelines can be very effective when introduced as needed, rather than as a list of rules to be memorized. But keep in mind that phonics are not the only tool we have.

With Charlotte Mason-style reading lessons, we can give our children multiple tools to help them learn to recognize words and to enjoy reading.

Next time we will tell you about an exciting new resource created to make it easy for you to give your child Charlotte Mason-style reading lessons!


  1. Thank you so much for this timely series on learning to read. It has been such a hard lesson for me to learn how to teach. My twins are 5 and my oldest is 7 and we have been hitting around the internet and trying different methods to get to a way of learning that seems to work for a few years now. In desperation I have mended together bits of programs here and there and instictively have felt very uncomfortable with my mending job. I was coming again to a road block when your series began. I have read about this in Charlotte’s writings but just did not get a clear view of how to put it into place. Now I do. Much thank to you.

    We spent much of last year learning the basic 48 phonograms and reading simple words. This year I have already begun to use the McGuffey Primer to practice putting words together into sentences and I don’t want to shake things up too much but I am aiming to try to add in Charlotte’s and your ideas for they just ring true. I have often felt uneasy about the phonics rules though I am a firm bliever in phonics. I have seen how many of Charlotte’s ideas have panned out to be right so I am willing to have faith in the idea that the child is capable to make meaning out of our language with some simple practice and guidelines and let them fidn the rules with some guidelines. I am hoping this will breath some new life and interest into our reading lessons.

    Since the McGuffey reader has such wonderful little lesson do you think I can incorporate the above ideas into it? Here is my idea thus far,

    Day One: Intrduce the sight words via CM methods.
    Day Two: Read the McGuffey lesson. with copywork of a small portion of it.
    Day Three: Note new words for word building acording to CM methods.
    Day Four: begin again with next lesson.

    Thanks again,

    • Hi, Sarah. Yes, I think you can apply Charlotte’s ideas on teaching reading to any number of reading selections. As long as a selection is interesting and rich (not twaddle), you should be able to do the sight words and word building concepts with it. I’m glad this series has been helpful, and I hope you and your children enjoy the lessons!

  2. Thank you so much! I am not as intimidated about this process now. While I do have several older children, most of them have been schooled through the public school system as well as at home. My youngest, 6, has never been to school and I was not quite sure how to start guiding him toward reading. This is such great information!

  3. Sonya, thank you so much for writing this series of articles! Last year I bought a reading curriculum based on many good reviews. It just did not work for my daughter. I kept trying for a while because I paid for it and didn’t want to have wasted my money. Finally when reading lessons started to become torture for both of us, I ditched it and just started to wing it. This worked better but I felt like I needed just a little guidance, and your articles came at the perfect time. We are using your methods and they are working great. My daughter is enjoying reading lessons and feeling a sense of accomplishment instead of frustration! These ideas are just so simple and practical. And I don’t know if this makes sense, but it was a relief to me to hear Charlotte say that learning words by sight is even more important that learning phonics. It seems like a lot of things I have read about teaching reading make it sound like sight reading is bad. One popular curriculum I looked at said in the introduction that “there is no such thing as a sight word.” But once you are a fluent reader, you hardly ever stop to sound out a word–you recognize the shapes of most words at a glance.

    Can you recommend a good set of letters to use for the lessons? We are using the letters from a Lauri alphabet puzzle, but we run into trouble when we need more than one of the same letter.

    I am also about halfway through your language arts e-book, and I love it, too. It’s very inspiring and also helps me see how effective and efficient CM-style lessons can be.

    • I’m so glad this series has been helpful, Amee. It sounds like you are enjoying Charlotte’s wonderful ideas!

      I don’t have a particular set of letters that I recommend, but if you Google “letter tiles” you will see some options that include more than one of each letter. You’ll probably be able to select size and style from the various possibilities you’ll find there.

      • I just heard about something called Sticky EZY letters. They are nontoxic and stick to everything and anything. The sets come in groups of 50. The only place that has them is Timberdoodle (they have a video of how they work) or Rainbow Resource.

  4. I loved this series. Very helpful, even though my first 3 children pretty much learned reading without effort at an early age, my 4th child was so different! At 7 she is still struggling with simple words.
    What I have done is to use the list of verses from your Curriculum guide from Pack 1 and print out the individual words from the verses to use them to “play” with the words like mentioned above. I laminate them with clear contact paper and put them in little ziploc snack bags.
    I’m going to do the same with a Rod and Staff poetry book that our family uses for memorization.

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