Reflections on Teaching my boys to Read

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.

Jolly Phonics

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.

Reading Schemes

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.
Tricky bits.

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.

Final thoughts

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!

At least they’re reading. . .

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My boys actually love to read. They both read for pleasure and talk enthusiastically about their favourite authors. I’m very grateful for this. So I probably shouldn’t moan, but . . . some of the stuff they read is abysmal.
They own a lot of books, of course. They read lots of fact books and lots of novels. They have Roald Dahl, Michael Morpuergo, C. S. Lewis and Dick King Smith: all perfectly reasonable. I have managed to get Eldest to try a few of my old favourites: The Prisoner of Zenda, Around the World in Eighty Days and Treasure Island.
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But, other people buy them books too. So they have some Enid Blyton, some Cressida Creswell, even a few TV tie-ins.
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Some of the nonfiction they’re given is a little strange too!
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But, the really worrying stuff starts once  we go to the library.
I won’t allow them to take books from the adult or the ‘teenage’ sections (you have to leave something to look forward to). So I hadn’t expected quite the problems we’ve had.
Why on earth are there so many disgusting books around for children?
I took the boys to the library today and this is one of the books that Middly chose:
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Really? Did the world ever need a book called Fleabag Monkeyface?
I have two concerns about books like this.
Firstly, there’s the teaching potential. Are these books going to teach my boys crude language or bad behaviour?
Alright, to be fair, my boys know a lot about bad language already. That isn’t my biggest concern. Though, I think it is a concern for most parents!
Secondly, there’s the normalising effect. Seeing one another behave badly makes bad behaviour seem ‘normal’, which encourages similar behaviour. What if reading rude words and unpleasant behaviour makes that seem normal and encourages more of that?
We don’t need any encouragement to behave rudely in this house.
I am very aware of an attitude towards children – and, it seems to me, especially towards boys – that it doesn’t matter what they read ‘as long as they’re reading’. Personally, I cannot agree. There are only so many hours of reading, why encourage anyone, however young, to waste those hours on reading rubbish?
It does take an effort to read some books. I want the boys to be willing to make an effort for good writing.
I think it’s insulting and patronising to suggest that boys need to be tempted into reading by copious mention of bodily fluids. Boys are perfectly capable of enjoying adventure stories and making up their own gags about poo. As a grownup and a mummy, I feel it is my role to tut at the dramatic burping, not to join in. Eldest likes to giggle whenever he reads ‘but’ (because it sounds like ‘butt’), which is up to him. I don’t want a book to join in. If the grownups refuse to be grownups, where is the space for the boys to be boys?
I will admit that I’m a bit of a book snob. I’m not proud of it, and I don’t want to pass this trait on to the boys, which is why I let him take it out.
All my mum had to worry about was Enid Blyton and whether the books that I chose were ‘challenging’ enough. Bah!
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English, especially poetry.

There’s a lot to cover with English! We use workbooks and sheets I make to look at grammar. We have made our own parts of speech cards, and we play about with those. Both boys happen to be pretty good at spelling, so we don’t do much actual work there, but we play Scrabble and another game called Top Word.
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For comprehension I picked up a game called ‘Bookworm: a game of reading and remembering’. One person reads an extract from a book and asks a question about the extract to the person on their left. If that person gets the answer right, they move forward a square, otherwise the next person gets a go. If nobody can answer the question then the questioner gets to move forward.

We write lots of letters, and are lucky enough to have family members who reply. This really helps the boys to believe that their writing has a purpose!

As well as these bitty things, I have done a project on poetry.
We focussed on ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’. First we read ‘The Jellicle Cats’ and made our own Jellicle cats from saltdough and acrylic paint.
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Next I made copies of ‘Macavity the Mystery Cat’ with words missing. The boys took it in turns to think of words to fill in the gaps. Then I told them which words T. S. Eliot had used and we talked about why Eliot had chosen those words instead of others.
For our final task, we read ‘Mr Mistopheles’. The boys wrote down their favourite words from the poem.
Then they brainstormed their own words about a cat.
Next they went through all the words and ideas they had (their own and those inspired by Eliot) and underlined three. They wrote two lines of a poem, using those three underlined words.
We repeated the underlining and line writing process until each boy had a poem.
Then I wrote out their poems and cut them up so that the lines were all separate. We moved the slips of paper around, trying out different orders for the lines.
Then we looked for unnecessary repetition and changed some words.
Then we sat back and admired our poems!
At the moment, I have a simple format that I use to help the children reflect on their work. They write: ‘what was good about my work’. Then I write: ‘what Mummy thinks is good about my work’. They write: ‘what I think I could do better next time’. Then I write: ‘what Mummy thinks I could do next time’. As they start to get more thoughtful and incisive in their responses, I am hoping to introduce an element of criticising one another’s work. But, right now, I think that would be rather unhelpful!