All three of my boys are independent readers now, so I thought it might be interesting to reflect on my experience of teaching them to read (before I forget it all completely!).
When – and how – we began.
Our Eldest son came to us at five, Middly at three, and Youngest (our birth child) at zero. So, we began teaching our children to read at very different ages.
We began with the older two by reading to them. We did this a lot. We read at bedtime and at several points during the day, every day.
Middly had a couple of favourite books; he loved We’re going on a Bear Hunt, and The Monkey with a Bright Blue Bottom, so much that I can still receit them by heart. However, I have never been keen on re-reading the same books endlessly. So, as well as buying lots of books, we visited the library each week and took piles of books home.
When Eldest began to read with us, it was clear that he was unfamiliar with not common fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Many modern children’s books take a sideways angle on these common themes, which can be bemusing to a child who has never heard the originals. We made an effort to read fairy tales to all our boys, but Eldest still forgets the stories, and occasionally misses references to them. When his class spent a term looking at fairy tales, he really struggled to keep up.
When Eldest began to read for himself, the lack of nursery rhymes became more frustrating. He didn’t know what would come after “Twinkle twinkle little”, so he couldn’t enjoy easily reading books of nursery rhymes. Many workbooks for young children presume a knowledge of nursery rhymes, which made extra work for Eldest.
More importantly, his lack of exposure to rhymes meant that he had to learn which words rhymed. Being able to recognise rhyming words really helps with learning to read. Eldest couldn’t read ‘cat’ and then see that ‘mat’ would end the same. Again, he had more work to do.
Middly was younger and when he began to read, we noticed that he understood rhyming easily. If we sounded out “sun”, for example, he could easily work out that “fun” and “run” would end the same.
I also noticed that Middly would sometimes presume the ending of sentences (and do so correctly frequently enough to make the guesses worthwhile). At the close of speech marks, he expected to see ‘said’. This gave Middly much quicker successes, which made him very confident.
Youngest, however, found reading the easiest. We read to him from the very beginning. He sat in on his older brothers’ bedtime stories. As a result, Youngest was familiar with books long before he began to read. He could predict sentences, rhyme schemes, and even plots. If he saw a goat heading for a bridge, he would guess that it would meet a troll. He was often able to guess correctly, which made his reading fluent far earlier than the others.
I think hearing nursery rhymes, songs, and simple stories from day one definitely helped give Youngest the best foundation for learning to read.
When we first started to teach our Eldest to read we expected to send him to primary school in year one. So, I checked the school’s website, intending to use the same scheme as them. I hoped that would make it as easy as possible for Eldest to slot into class.
The school used Jolly Phonics, so I had a look. I was pretty impressed. I bought their photocopiable resources, CD, and activity books. I followed their scheme of introducing a phoneme every day. It was pretty spectacular. Eldest picked up reading within a couple of months.
Middly followed along with Eldest – though I gave him only the photocopied sheets, with minimal writing, and kept the activity books exclusively for Eldest – and was pretty much on a level with him. We sang along to the songs in the car.
When Youngest turned three and a half, we picked up the Jolly Phonics set again. It was quite fun to listen to the songs again. This time around, I was also home educating two bigger boys, and I spent far less time with Youngest. It took us about twice as long to get through the course! But, it was equally effective. I bought a new set of activity books, and they were much brighter than the ones Eldest used. I was really impressed and Youngest enjoyed them.
Other stuff we’ve enjoyed.
Bath letters are awesome! We bought a set for the big boys, and another set for Youngest. We used them to practice blending, reading and spelling. The boys love putting messages up for us during bath time. For all three boys, cheeky words on the side of the bath have been some of their very first attempts at independent spelling.
Bath letters are wonderful and definitely my favourite resource for teaching reading. They’re also very cheap and available from loads of places.
Lacing letters have proven less popular. The children can find it confusing to work out how to thread the letters, and accidentally spell words backwards. It’s also fiddly to change a letter in the middle of a word.
We did buy Cookie Letters Toy for Youngest. He played with it a few times, but none of the games really engaged his interest much.
Making letters out of playdough and biscuit dough, drawing letters in sand and rice, were also briefly entertaining, but not big hits. There are lots of other things that the boys would rather make out of playdough.
When Middly was learning to read, I had a letter tracing app on my iPhone, which he played a few times. When Youngest was learning to read there were thousands of electronic games available! Many of Youngest’s friends are keen on Reading Eggs, but it didn’t appeal to Youngest at all.
We were very lucky with the big boys, as we lived near a fantastic library which had numerous entire sets of reading schemes. That made it easy to find lots of books at the right level.
I do think that having books at the right level available helps. If books are too easy, the boys are quickly bored. If the books are too hard, they lose confidence and baulk at reading at all.
We moved, however, and our new library was no use for Youngest. It had a very limited selection of books and didn’t keep them in order. So, I ended up having to buy reading schemes for him. I bought a few sets so that he had plenty to read at each reading level.
Our favorites have been Oxford Reading Tree. We loved the Songbirds set, and got a set of activity books and a card game to match. Youngest quite liked Biff, Chip and Kipper, and the Fairy tales set, and the poetry books were surprisingly good fun.
But, our absolute favourite has been Project X. Youngest loves these exciting stories and is eager to keep reading! There are some cliffhangers at the end of books, though. And there’s even a big cliff hanger at the end of the first set of books. I was very glad that I had the next set ready to go. Youngest was very worried about Seven!
We tried Big Cat Readers, which Youngest didn’t enjoy much. I also bought a Marvel reading set and a Paw Patrol reading set. Youngest loves superheroes and Paw Patrol. But, the books themselves weren’t very exciting. They spent a lot of time describing Youngest’s favourite characters, not giving him new information. It’s hard to convince anyone that it’s worth making the effort to read something you already know.
All of the boys went through a patch of not really wanting to read. I went with a little and often approach. Sometimes breaking a page down into little bits. But, I stuck to a basic rule of reading every day, regardless of how busy we were, or anything else. Sometimes we alternated pages (I read one, the child read one, and so on); sometimes we even alternated words. We always read. I find it easier to have clear rules; once I have made one exception, it’s much harder to refuse to make another.
Eldest also struggled with blending for a while. I read Handbook of Reading Interventions. They described a game called Talking like a Robot. Instead of trying to teach Eldest to push sounds together to make words, we played a game where he split words up into individual sounds. For example, I showed him the word boat and explained that a robot would say “b-oa-t”. I said lots of words in robot language, and Eldest had a go at saying words in robot language too. Once he was able to break words down into sounds, he was also able to push sounds together to make words.
Teaching the boys to read has a lot of fun. I have lived watching them go from recognising a few letters to fluently reading books. It’s given them, and me, an enormous sense of achievement. I am a little sorry to be leaving this stage behind. But, I am sure that there are plenty more wonderful things for us to learn together!