Since I am a college literacy professor, I think people expect my kids to be reading by the time they walk. Fact is – teaching reading is hard. And, since I teach other people how to teach reading all day, sometimes my own children’s reading instruction gets put on the back burner.
For a few months we had been working with Buddy to manipulate words. On the fridge he could take cat and make it into hat, but he didn’t use any patterns to recognize words in other contexts. He’d rely on the first letter to guess or give a painful segmentation of a word (fuuuuuuh -uuuuuuuuh -nuh) that he could not blend back into a whole word.
For a lot of kids “phonics instruction” does not make sense. My child who solves puzzles and does math well above his developmental level, could not make sense of the phonetic code.
So I stopped pushing. He knew his letters. He knew all the corresponding sounds to the letters. He could manipulate sounds and rhyme…but he could not use his knowledge of phonics to read a word.
Instead, I tried helping him see words as a whole.
We chose 5 words to begin our instruction.
Five words was the magic number because five is manageable for most kids. It is enough words to give variety, but not so many words that it becomes overwhelming. We chose a combination of words from the Dolch word list as well as words we use every day in our speech and writing.
We read the words repeatedly.
Repetition is a an important ingredient in this recipe for success. To learn something new, children usually need repeated exposures to retain the new information. We wrote each new word on a flash card and flipped through them. On the back of each flashcard is a picture clue so that Buddy can quiz and “self-check” himself.
We wrote the words repeatedly.
We use sight word mini books to help us reinforce new sight words. These books provide opportunities for children to write and use their new words in isolation and in context (besides at $11 for 100 books, how can you beat that!).
We used the words in context with other words we learned to read and write our own meaningful sentences.
We bought Buddy a Primary Marble Notebook, which provides an area to write and another area to draw on each page. Love these! We arranged words we knew in different ways and practiced touching each card as we read them aloud. Then, we wrote our sentence in our book and illustrated it.
Here Buddy drew the ropes course that he enjoys so much at camp to illustrate his understanding of the sentence “We play at camp.” To make this picture better, Buddy should show “we” by illustrating more than one person in his drawing.
We searched for the words in our world.
As we learned more words, we looked for them in the books we read throughout the day, in environmental print around us (cereal boxes, signage). Buddy felt empowered as he recognized his new words in a variety of contexts.
Each time he demonstrated he knew the word well, we added another word to our collection.
To demonstrate he knew a word, Buddy needed to (1) recognize it on several different occasions over a span of time, (2) recognize it in more than one context (i.e., not just on the flashcard), and (3) read it with automaticity – within one second (a delay meant he did not know the word well enough to move on). When he “proved” he knew a word we added a new word to our instruction.
We stamped words we knew and added them to a “recipe box”.
When Buddy demonstrated he knew a word, we stamped the card and added it to an old recipe box which houses flashcards for all the words he knows. He brings the box to bed to “practice” the words he has mastered alongside his new words.
The repetition of practicing already mastered words serves two purposes: (1) it continues to build strong connections between the word and its graphical representation and (2) it allows him to feel successful and motivates him to learn more. My child is competitive and he wants “more” words in his box, but if he only works with the words he has not mastered yet, he becomes frustrated and doubtful in his ability to succeed.
After 2 days of this method, Buddy has collected nearly 50 words. Words he knows. Words he reads in contexts outside of “reading time.” For Buddy, a phonics-only reading approach did not make sense to him because he was not connecting how the sounds in words were related to the meaning of the word. Buddy searches for the meaning in words – and decoding just didn’t click for him when it was stripped of meaning.
I am not devaluing the importance of phonics in learning to read. It is important that kids understand letter-sound correspondences and can manipulate sounds – as this will be particularly essential for decoding unfamiliar words and spelling.
Buddy uses these skills well when spelling. Using letter-sound correspondences, he will spell unfamiliar words effectively, but using those same sounds to break apart written words is more difficult for him. This post suggests an alternative way to enhance your child’s at home reading instruction with research-based strategies for building a larger sight word vocabulary, but is not a comprehensive program to suggest the only way to teach your kid to read. See the related posts below for more ideas for teaching preschoolers to read and write.