Homeschooling with Excellence No. 4

Teaching Reading with Beginning Readers

Teaching your child how to read can be quite a daunting task, especially if you have never been trained how to do so. But we are sure that if you take your time and keep an upbeat attitude, you and your child will have a great time as he learns how to read, write and spell.

But we do have two cautions for you:

  1. Don't become so anxious about your child's ability (or apparent "inability") to spell that you hold him back in reading. Spelling can come along in the years ahead. Reading is a skill that will help your child immediately. So even if he struggles with spelling, keep reading at a level he can understand.

  2. While we believe our early reading program provides just about the right quantity of phonetically-correct reading practice for most students, don't be overly rigid in pursuing your phonics program. If your child already knows how to read, don't force him to go through the remainder of the program for the sake of trying to help him read "better"!

Understanding Context Clues

I once had the opportunity to observe several children as they attempted to read words they had never seen before. All of these children had studied a fairly intensive phonics-based reading program. Some children regularly succeeded at reading unfamiliar words, others failed just as regularly. Why? As I watched, it soon became apparent. The children who succeeded had another strategy for reading up their sleeves; the ones who failed used phonics alone.

When the children came across the phrase, "The dog's tongue hung out of his mouth." The children who failed to read this sentence would sound out the letters t-o-n-g-u-e in the best way they knew how using the rules of phonics at their disposal. "Tawn-gyoo" they would say. They would then repeat it: "TAWN-gyoo." Then they would shout in exasperation, "TAWN-gyoo!?! I don't know what this says!" And they would slam their books down in frustration.

The successful children took a different approach. They would see the unfamiliar group of letters. They would "sound them out." But they adopted an additional strategy. They would say to themselves, Hmm. This doesn't make any sense! I've never heard of a tawn-gyoo! And they would look for other clues in the context of the sentence: What must this word be? "The dog's (t__n-g__?) hung out of his mouth." What t__ng__ word would hang out of a dog's mouth? they would ask themselves. Then they would hypothesize. The dog's TUNG(?) hung out of his mouth(?) they would say.

And they guessed correctly more often than not.

Based on the phonics rules they had learned, there is no way the latter group of children should have been any more successful than their friends. However, basing their interpretation on the contextual meaning; basing it on their knowledge of the English language; and basing it on the regularity of sounds produced by most consonants, they had a very high probability of success. They saw the word in the big picture, so they didn't get frustrated when their rules failed them.

Someone may say, "But there are phonics rules to cover words like tongue!" Yes. In fact, our family owns a book that explains those rules. It tells us there are "139 words [that] have O with a short U sound in a stressed syllable." This book suggests that "the reader must be prepared to try a short U sound whenever the normal O sound does not make sense." It also tells us, "except in the word argue, UE is silent at the end of the word after G or Q" and "43 words have silent UE at the end." Such rules would, indeed (if we could understand and remember them!), explain how to decipher tongue.

Personally, however, I think rules like these are more helpful to computers than to human beings. Computers work well with lists of "228 phonics rules to help you pronounce all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary." God has given us human beings more advanced thinking apparatus. We can shift to a higher-level set of "rules" when our basic phonics rules seem to fail us.

The "rule" successful readers have learned is that the meaning surrounding a word can often help. "What ( thing) often hangs out of a dog's mouth?" they ask themselves. They see the first letter t and the ng combination and they think, "Could this word be tung (what we know as tongue)?" Such readers know that except in spelling tests and dictionaries, words are used in meaningful contexts. We can use those contexts to good advantage. Dogs have tungs. They don't have tawn-gyoos.

The bottom line: teach your child basic phonics/phonetics, but teach him or her the strategy of looking at the meaning context around a word to help figure out its sound and meaning.

Adjusting the Program

And a word of encouragement: We have designed our reading program to match the needs of that nebulous "average child."

If you find your child is chomping at the bit to read more than we have assigned, let him! Some children pick up the skill more rapidly than others. There is no need to get a fat head about it. Nor is there any reason to think we did a poor job by not tailoring our program to suit your child's unique pace. If you have a quality public library nearby, supplement the selection we have made for you. If you are without a library, our advanced readers program should serve you very well.

If you find your child is struggling to keep up with the reading assignments we have made, relax! Some children are simply not ready, developmentally, to read when their peers seem to be. The time will come. For one of our children, reading never clicked until late fifth grade or maybe even the middle of sixth grade. It's okay. We took our time, helped him as he had need, and today he is becoming an avid reader. As an early seventh grader, he won the lead in our church's junior high Christmas play because he was "the best" reader in the entire junior high!

Perhaps the most important ingredient in making lifelong readers is to keep them encouraged.

Should I have my kids read aloud to me or read alone?

Bettina wrote,

"Do you guys have your children read the reader assignments to you or do have them go off to read on their own? I could see doing it either way.

"Also, how important do you deem the dictation? My children have never had it in public school and when I mentioned it to them, they were a little freaked. I could ease into it... I don't know. I am a bit overwhelmed thinking about the responsibility of all of this. I am taking a deep breath now."

Ann responded,

"When my children get confident in their reading, I send them off to do it on their own. For my son, this happened midway through Sonlight's Language Arts C (with the History / Bible / Literature C regular readers). My daughter is still doing Language Arts for Grade 1 Readers (with I Can Read It) and reads to me. I still have my son read aloud to my daughter several times per week, as he reads MUCH better silently than out loud. Good practice for him, nice for her, and good for together time.

"We love the dictation. It is a less artificial introduction to language arts. They start hearing words early on that they keep hearing over the years. It is a way to see these things (verbs, possession, possessive pronouns, etc.) in context. We really like dictation. Easing into it would be easy. I only make my 6-year-old write one sentence of the dictation. Then we do the worksheet together.

"And just remember, fit the Instructor's Guide to your family... not your family to the Instructor's Guide!!! Do what works for you!! There are things that we totally leave out, things that we add, and things that we do straight from the guide. Do what works!!!"

Stacy added,

"I had my daughter read the readers aloud to me through 4th grade. She was a late reader and I wanted to be sure she was doing OK. We did use other readers for her, though, and I read the Sonlight readers aloud. Looking back, I think it was a great experience. Reading aloud is quite a bit different than reading silently to yourself. For her 5th grade year, she went off and read all the readers to herself. But, I've noticed that she no longer has the confidence that she used to have in reading aloud even though she does fine. I'm considering having her read aloud again once or twice a week just to regain that confidence."

Lisa answered,

"My daughter is 8, doing Sonlight D. So far, she is doing the readers on her own, silently. We're doing the dictation assignments as copy work right now. They're a little hard for her to handle as dictation, with all of the quotes and difficult spelling words. We'll begin to transition into dictation later on in the year. She generally reads aloud other material for me throughout the week, and we're still doing some phonics work in Explode the Code as well."

How to Encourage Your Child to Read to Himself

The following method has been used very successfully, even in school contexts, to encourage reluctant children to read to themselves.

  1. Each day, set aside a ten- to fifteen-minute period when everyone in the family, including you, will "read quietly."

  2. Make sure each person has a book to read. (Small children can use picture books.)

  3. Let the children pick their own books to read.

  4. Set the timer and have everyone sit in their "own" places and read quietly.

    Note: It is very important that you, too, use the time to read. Reading is a privilege, not a punishment! It should be perceived as such.

  5. When the time is up, everyone should be free to go on with other activities if they feel like it.

  6. No reports, reporting or records should be kept of what is read during these "sustained silent reading" periods.

What to Do When Kids Don't Like a Book

Diane in Colorado wrote,

"My 10-year-old daughter is definitely not enjoying this year's selections. She will read all kinds of other stuff, so I know it's not a problem with the reading level or eyes, etc. I think it's more all the war, war, war content thus far. She is still trying to get into Shades of Gray, which I felt was wonderful, and we are on week 15 otherwise.

Should I insist she get through every reader, choose other books from the same period (I know she would read the Addy books)? She has enjoyed all the read alouds, even war-related ones. I don't want her to think she can quit when it's not her choice of a book. On the other hand, I know I read lots of books in school I hated and I learned nothing from them..."

KC replied:

"I allow for a certain number of books that can be 'discarded' so that the students have some choice (but my number is very low! ...Of course, each family can decide on its own what is to be the required number of texts to be read). I also insist that a minimum of three chapters is read before even making a judgment about a book--and I may even raise this number. So many books take a bit of getting into before you really get the benefit.

"I can say for myself, even: reading last year's Bold Journey and this year's All Sails Set, I initially wanted to chuck them! Just weren't tickling my reading bone! But boy, now, for both these texts I'm so glad I stuck with them... for me and for my kids!

"The point that I'm trying to make is that when you are studying a certain topic (say, Biology versus Chemistry) some topics are just more appealing to us than others. If we allow our kids to just read what they like, then they are not learning the discipline of attending to their lesser preferences.

"I would try to establish some kind of 'rule' that meets both your requirements for minimum accepted texts for school requirements as well as allowing some freedom in pleasure reading. These, in our home, are two different reading worlds! Pleasure reading, in our home, does not have to be on the history topic (although many times it is) and it occurs after the assigned school texts have been completed (just like any recreational activity occurs after school work is done). You would then just need to determine what you feel is adequate for required school readings."

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