How I (Don’t) Teach My Kids to Read

September 13, 2007 @ 8:46 pm | Filed under:

One of the homeschooling questions I am asked most frequently is “What do you use to teach your kids to read?”

I usually explain that I haven’t yet had to do any formal reading instruction with any of my kids. I have three fluent, eager readers now, and every one of them learned pretty much the same way:

1) (And so very important, it should be numbers 1-50.) Lots and lots and lots of read-alouds from the time they are teeny tiny. Poetry, picture books, novels, magazine articles, fairy tales, biographies, all sorts of very good, high-quality, literary writing. We read and read and read and read.

51) When at some point I notice the child is beginning to recognize her name and other simple, common words, I pull out our trusty Bob Books.

Read-alouds and Bob, that’s how we’ve done it three times in a row.

The Bob Books, if you don’t know them, come in sets of twelve: a dozen small paperback booklings (I just made that up; it means more than a booklet but smaller than a regular book), each focusing on a phonetic sound. Each book in the series builds on the sounds mastered in the one before. But “mastered” makes it sound so formal. We haven’t used them in a formal “now you will learn to read” manner at all. We’ve just read the books together, and it’s like the kids can’t help but start decoding the text. The format makes sense.

Jane was reading at a crazy-early age, but you have to remember that she spent her toddler years in a hospital bed. We read all day long, for weeks and months on end. Couldn’t take her to the playground, not with her low platelet and white cell counts. Couldn’t go much of anywhere. But by golly, we could read. Scott would come home from work to find a stack of picture books as high as the sofa we were curled up on: the evidence of what we’d done that day. Lucky for Jane I had connections in the children’s publishing world…I don’t know how we’d have fed our habit otherwise.

Rose took off at around 4 1/2. Same process: a bajillion read-alouds, and then, in a casual, relaxed manner, the Bob Books. She loved Bob and his pals: that wacky Mac who sometimes sat on Sam for reasons impossible to explain in one-syllable words. And later, the cat and the dog, and that pig! What was her name? Jig? Man, we giggled over that pig.

My mom bought Beanie a whole new set of Bob Books when her turn came around, because Rose had scattered the others. They’re such a nice comfy size for tucking into little purses, you know.

Beanie was, I think, about the same age when she got into Bob: four going on five. She was reading quite well by last summer (whew, just in time for the cross-country trip), so that would have been age 5 1/2.

That really is all I’ve done: read-alouds and Bob. The Bob Books have been the bridge for all three of my girls, an easy, friendly bridge with funny, quaint pictures and silly storylines. They didn’t know they were learning phonics. We didn’t do any writing or spelling or workbooks at all. We just read the Bob Books together. First I read them to the child, then she read them to me.

It’s been so exciting, every time! The thinking behind the concept is that a child builds confidence by being able to read a “real book” all by himself. This has absolutely been the case for my three girls. “Daddy, I read a book all by myself!” Beanie said, I recall, sounding like a commercial. I probably sound like a commercial myself, but I’m being sincere. The amount of text on a page, the number of pages in a book—they were the perfect stepping stones for my kids.

So there you go, that’s my answer. We read, read, read, read: read really good books. Beautifully written books, books you’d think were over their heads. As long as there was good story in those noble words, the kids have gulped them down.

And then, when the time felt right—which is to say, when it felt fun, not stressful to the child in any way, with no sense of expectation to make them feel anxious or pressured—I introduced them to Bob.

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21 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Melissa H says:

    Did you read Angry Chicken’s post yesterday about her daughter suddenly learning to read? It was really sweet. 🙂

  2. Charity says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I have been thinking about how I am going to teach my 4-year-old to read. (My older two were in pre-school and public school for the early ages, unfortunately.)

    We already read to him a lot and I have been thinking lately that I do not want to to formal phonics training. I wanted to use real books to “teach” him.

    I just looked at the Bob books and they look like just what I was looking for.

  3. coffeemamma says:

    We’re on our second set of level one of the Bob Books here, too 😉 My oldest two only needed level one, but my dyslexic boy is working his way through the series- and colouring in the pictures as her goes 😉

  4. Jen says:

    Thanks for the great review. I’ve already bookmarked the website and hope to be working with my little guys when the time is right.


  5. Jeanne says:

    We do it the exact same way — EXCEPT, Bob Books did not “take” with the youngest – at all. He is very artistic/visual, and something about the drawings was like fingernails on chalkboard to him. So, in place of Bob – the old reliable Dr. Seuss turned out to be the bridge from read-alouds to really reading. That was it. He LOVED those drawings and “got” reading from the “phonics” embedded in the text. It was not my intent that Dr. Seuss would be the turning point – there was no “plan” – and in fact, he had stopped wanting to “hear” those books when he was about 4, thinking they were too young for him. But at 8, when he was READY to have his breakthrough, he came across them and re-loved them – and READ them!

  6. patience says:

    Great advice (as always). This is how we did it too – lots of reading, not to teach but simply because we loved it. We didn’t have the Bob books; we did have Dr Seuss but my dd seemed to have a thing against phonics. But just reading together worked its magic anyway. Teaching reading was always the thing that scared me most when I decided I would homeschool, but really it turned out to be the easiest thing of all.

  7. Al says:

    What is up with those little ladies runnin’ off with all the bob books? I can’t find 3, 4, and 5 of set 1 because their off hiding in purses and bookbags, shopping bags, totes…. *girls* lol!

  8. Marie says:

    Wow…I’m amazed. No structured training? My oldest just turned three, and he knows all the letters and the sounds they make, and I’ve been inching towards teaching him how to read, but he doesn’t seem quite ready. I think I’ll relax and get the Bob books and introduce them when he really seems ready.

  9. Kristie says:

    We also love the Bob books. But after going through them (set 1) with three kids (and soon the 4th) I must say that it was only enough of a bridge for one of my 3 readers. The other two needed more: the first needed more phonics, and the other needed lots of practice reading aloud before mom (this is the one who sounded words out at 4, but is just fluent (but still struggling) at 10. Each child is so different. But the Bob books are great.

  10. Monica says:

    Saw the Bob books for sale at Costco tonight!

  11. Melissa Wiley says:

    I meant to add to that post that while our experience has been breezy with the first three kids, I recognize that we weren’t dealing with any learning issues or special needs in those cases. I’m sure it will be a whole different process with Wonderboy! Phonics are tricky when you can’t hear all the sounds…

  12. shaun says:

    Precisely our “method”! Our first reader also was reading so early it was more about finding acceptable chapter books for 3-year-olds, but we did show her Bob Books at some point because someone gave them to us.
    Our 4yo is not on the speed track, but also showing interest and inclination, so DH is getting out the Bob Books for her.
    I know that the “success” of this method is luck/grace, but I’ll take it!

  13. Faith says:

    I did everything Melissa did and my kids didn’t take off with reading until 8 or 9 years old. They have visual tracking issues. So even mild LDs can delay this process. Sometimes kids do need something more intensive to get them started. I teach phonics very lightly but I do teach it. When you have the LDs my kids have spelling is anything but natural and any on point info helps them.

    Also my second child hated the BOB books. They were the equivelent of fingernails on a chalkboard as someone else posted. We used Pathway readers instead. My kids need more help than just the Bob books to get started. It takes them a lot time to globalized their learning so that they can pick up a different book and read. Even if the letters are in a different print, that will throw them off. So we used readers for the first couple of years when they’re still struggling with decoding.

  14. Jeanne says:

    The letters-in-different-print thing (mentioned above by Faith) made me think of a question I always mean to ask. Why DO so many books for beginning readers use typefaces that are inconsistent with the primary script that kids are learning to write? “A”s in particular caused one of my children great confusion, if they weren’t “ball-stick” “A”s. A surprising number of early-years books use funny fonts. Some kids blow right past this seeming not to notice, but I had one child who was often stymied by the serifs or the sansian lack there-of, the curved lower case “T”s or the straight ones, the ball-stick “A”s or the ones that he thought looked like squashed upside down lower case “G”s.

    I know that choosing a typeface takes more into account than the “obvious”.

    (Laughing to myself)I think, in fact, Bob Books are among those that play it “straight” with more basic manuscript and Dr. Seuss (which I just noted we used more successfully with one child) uses the souped up version.

    Lissa, you might be able to enlighten us on this.

    And has anyone else noticed that certain children have more difficulty with certain typefaces than other children might?

  15. Mary Beth P says:

    Thanks for the tip- I’m going to try them. Oredered sets 1&2 ( has free shipping on them- if you place a $25 order)

  16. Rebecca says:

    Melissa, I used the Bob books exactly like you describe. I first knew my young son was reading because he made a silly magnetic poetry poem on the fridge and read it aloud (it was rhyming). I figured it was time to pull out the Bob books, supplemented them with 4 or 5 sessions of word family fun, and he was off to the races, independently reading in no time. My son found the books to be very fun and reassuring… confidence building (for him!).

  17. Maria says:

    I’m so psyched that this is how you do it – because it’s how we did it, too!

  18. Laura says:

    Hi Lissa,
    Sorry, I’ve lost your email address! I’ve got a question about reading aloud to Jack. He LOVES it when we read to him (picture books), but he’s constantly asking questions about the story, pointing out tiny details in the pictures — all really good things and I don’t want to shush him because I want to encourage his interaction with the content… How do you deal with that? Also, I’d love to read “bigger” books to him as you mentioned, stories “beyond” the typical 4-1/2 year-old level… Are there any books in particular that you’d recommend? Please reply to me by email. I hope y’all are well. Lisa said they had a FANTASTIC time with you last month!

    Much love and joy to you,

  19. Sarah says:

    I know I’m late commenting on this, but I wanted to chime it to say we are using the Bob Books with our daughter. We’ve been through the first set once and we’re doing them again and I’m about to order set 2. I was wondering what your kids read after the Bob Books. Did you start listening to them read the Easy Reader type books or did they read some of their own short books. I’m just not sure where to go from here.

  20. Deb says:

    Yes, reading is the best way to teach your child to read oviously. BUT… besides that…
    There are so many games that teach letters & letter sounds.
    The key is to make it fun.
    Kids learn when they do not know they are learning. Find out what interests them and work from there. When my son was 5 he loved race cars and those were the first books he WANTED to read. When my other son was 3 years old he knew how to spell the word train because he loves trains. So, we went from there and now he spells quite a few words related to trains and recognizes them in print.
    Of course it helped that I read him a thousand books about trains. The point is that he know understands that print has meaning and by knowing sounds you can read any word you want.
    My six year old loves the computer so he types out his spelling words and types sentences for them and then he prints them out and illustrates the sentences. Then
    He does this for fun not for homework. But after doing this a few times those words become part of the sight words he can now read.

    Here is the most important thing I can tell you.

    *READING like walking and potty training is developmental. When they are ready they will read.
    My friends daughter could not read at the end of 1st grade and she was concerned. That summer it just clicked for her. Now she is third grade as is in the top of her class in a gifted school. Keep it fun and wait.

  21. Lee says:

    We have been using an online program called . So far, my son is really taking off reading using it. It is alot of fun. Super cute. He is 4 but is doing 1st grade work except for not being able to read, so I really wanted to focus on that for awhile. You can get a free trial of headsprout & there is a money back guarantee. My 2 other kids enjoyed the Bob books & the Now I’m Reading! Level 1 Animal Antics & 2 Amazing Animals. (these are much more appealing than the Bob books)
    Another fun free website is
    My son was not even wanting to try with the books, but BEGS to do headsprout each day.
    Good luck!