Thoughts on ‘teaching’ reading (and why I don’t do it)

May 12, 2015 @ 3:51 pm | Filed under: , , ,
reading comics at the piano

Reading a Bird and Squirrel book by James Burks

I chimed in on a discussion on my local homeschooling list about one mom’s concerns that her son had stalled on the learning-to-read process. As usual I found I had a lot to say, so I’m scooping it here (and expanding a bit) in case it’s of interest to others. 

I’ll second what E. said: Six is really very young and at this point (and every point, really), the VERY BEST thing you can do is to read aloud a great deal. There are lots of studies to back up what many of us have been discovering and advocating for years about the immense and rather extraordinary benefits of reading aloud.

Some tricks we have used

• We always turn on the captions when our children watch TV. And it’s amazing how much reading they can pick up from scrolling through the DVR. Huck could distinguish between “Little Bear” and “Little Bill” at age three—his first sight words.

Video games! or apps, etc. My kids have all picked up a lot of reading just from encountering the repeated text instructions and captioning that is a part of many games.

Comics and graphic novels. Great reinforcement of decoding skills and incentive to read. Plus, you know, FUN. My 3rd child learned to read from Tintin Comics. Her older sisters read them and she pored over the pictures until she began to pick up words. (I read them to her whenever she asked but that stage didn’t last long–she just loved to explore them them on her own!)  (I’ve written more about this here.)

Word games and puns. We are a wordy, wordy family. Dinner-table conversation will often involve why a thing is called what it’s called–what the root word is, where it came from. Someone will hop up to look up a word origin. And scarcely a day passes without some terrible, groan-inducing pun trotting around the house. When I teach kids’ writing and lit classes (I’m teaching three different groups of kids at present), I begin every class by soliciting contributions to our ‘Word Hoard’—asking the kids to look out for interesting words during the week to add to our collection. They really get into the spirit of the game and we have amassed some splendid word piles over the weeks. The boys in my Friday afternoon class have turned it into a competition of sorts, unfurling mile-long words to impress their classmates. I’ve learned a lot of obscure medical terms in the past month, let me tell you.

Riddles, jokes, joke books!

I am not a fan of 100 Easy Lessons because of so many similar stories of kids getting turned off to reading, or stressed/intimidated/bored–all feelings I don’t want kids to associate with reading.

Books of facts are great for young kids–early reader science stuff, etc. Again, lots of pictures to draw them in & help with decoding.

My primary advice is to not try to “teach” a child to read.

The process can be more organic, less structured. Help them along the way you helped and encouraged them to learn to talk. Read together, allowing lots of conversation and lingering and interruptions to hyperfocus on some little piece of a picture.* Chat about street signs, store names, food labels (kids will pick those up as sight words very quickly and naturally). Text is all over our world, not just in books, and reading doesn’t have to be a Capital R academic exercise. People naturally want to find things out, and reading becomes a means of doing that–so sooner or later, every child will have an interest that drives literacy. What you can do is support that interest. Feed it! Rustle up some intriguing-looking books on the topic, preferably ones with a lot of art.

(Here I come back to video games: one of my girls got so interested in a certain game that she wanted to look up guides for it online, and HER reading took a huge leap forward as she began to devour information about this game. My role was to help her safely find resources on the internet, print out useful pages, provide supplies for assembling a binder (her idea)…so you can see there are many ways for a parent to be involved in the process, guiding, facilitating, without it looking like formal reading instruction–an activity that is so stressful for many children. Lots of so-called ‘reluctant readers’ will inhale anything you give them that’s about their favorite video game. Let them hunt for cheat sites. Who cares if they don’t figure out a game level on their own? They are learning crucial research skills–how to frame questions and find answers, and how to apply that information to a practical task. Hurrah for game cheats!)

Current example: Huck is obsessed with Rose’s Snap Circuits set. This morning I stood in the living room for the longest time, watching him—his back was to me—deeply absorbed in assembling one of the projects in the guidebook. He has worked his way through the entire project book with minimal help, following the picture instructions but also puzzling out chunks of text. Sometimes he asks for help with a mouthful word like “capacitor”—no self-consciousness, no sense that he is young to be expecting to be able to read a word like that. He can’t figure it out, he asks for help. But poring over this book, casually encountering these giant words that tell him things he wants to know, has catapulted his reading skills forward in a way no teacher, no matter how good, how patient, could reproduce. If I made him sit down to a reading curriculum, I can guarantee he would be restless and fretful within minutes. But he’ll spend the whole afternoon immersed in building projects out of this book, interacting with the pictures and text, following complex directions—and consider it ‘playing.’ As in, “Can I play with your Snap Circuits again today?” he’ll beg his big sister.



*Let me elaborate on what I said above about “allowing lots of conversation and lingering and interruptions to hyperfocus on some little piece of a picture.” A lot of adults have difficulty tolerating interruptions during a readaloud. There’s a whole big conversation to be had about how much background activity to allow — like, Legos keep little hands busy but can be very noisy. There are ways to work around that (spread out Legos on the floor before reading, since the noisiest part is the digging through the bin–things like that). But what I want to focus on right now are the interruptions that come when a child is looking at the book with you and starts talking over the narrative–pointing at things in the art, or otherwise being chatty about the book instead of listening to the story. This activity may actually be an indication of a big leap forward in skill acquisition–but we adults don’t always see it that way!

Here’s an example — when Rose was five or six, I remember reading her My Father’s Dragon. She was right at the point of emergent literacy, beginning to recognize words like street signs and store names as I mentioned above. We were about halfway through this short novel as a read-aloud when she started pointing out Elmer’s name on every page. And “the dragon” and “the cat” — words repeated often in the story. But mainly it was the word “Elmer” (the main character). It got to where I couldn’t get through a page, because she kept pointing at the name all over the place. And I had a moment of being irritated and wanting to hush her–now now, let’s listen to the story. But it hit me in a flash that what we were doing together — what SHE was experiencing in this moment — had changed. It had started out “listening to a story.” Now it was READING. She had learned a sight word and was putting this new skill to use, with numerous opportunities to “practice” it on every page. No curriculum in the world could top this skill practice, because it was completely voluntary and completely absorbing her. It was HER activity, not one imposed upon her from the outside.

So, in that hour snuggled beside her on her bed, I let go of the whole listen-to-this-story concept. I kept on reading to her, page after page, but that was merely a background activity providing the vehicle for her discovery. “Elmer…Elmer…the dragon…” — little finger pointing, skipping around the page. We finished the book that way, with Rose only half paying attention to the words I was reading. When I got to the end, she said it was the best book ever and asked me to start it over. The second time through, she listened raptly to the narrative. 🙂 Her brain had finished its self-assigned task. By the time I finished the book for the second time (a week or two later), she was reading very well on her own.

So that’s what I mean about stepping back to reassess an activity and your objectives….if a child is focusing on some part of the story that isn’t your voice reading the words, there is probably a very good reason. A wonderful thing about homeschooling is we have the luxury of time and space to allow this process to unfold at the child’s pace–there is no pressure to ‘get through’ a certain amount of material by a set date.

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19 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Amy says:

    Love this! My bottom four learned to read with Leap Frog Letter Factory (and to a lesser extent Talking Words Factory) and me reading aloud to them often. It was spurred along, like you said, with books and items THEY were interested in – Minecraft, Harry Potter. My oldest is another story, but moderate dyslexia and eye problems held her back for a long time. Trying to teach her to read at the “normal” ages was a recipe for frustration for both of us although I kept trying. Once she got a few months of vision therapy under her belt, her desire for “story” fed her passion to know what all those black marks on the page were actually saying.

    Can I just say how much I love this line: “But it hit me in a flash that what we were doing together — what SHE was experiencing in this moment — had changed.” I need this in a huge sign in our living room, to remind me this is about them and the connections they are making, not about finishing a page or a book.

  2. Melissa Wiley says:

    Another thought: I veer away from things that combine LEARNING TO READ with LEARNING TO WRITE. Two totally different skill sets requiring different muscles and mental processes. It would be like trying to learn to drive a stick shift in a country where you can’t read the road signs.

  3. Lisa says:

    Thank you so much for this post, Lissa! This is such an incredibly beautiful and practical way of looking at the learning process – and one that so many parents miss. I cringe when I see many of the books for sale at homeschool conferences and teachers’ supply stores (that are being gobbled up by well-meaning parents). Reading, like so much other life-learning, is not as complicated as we often try to make it. Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts with others here on your blog. I hope thousands will read this article!

  4. sarah says:

    I loved this. I am very much a whole reading advocate, as opposed to phonics which I deplore. Sometimes I wonder if the greatest barrier to children learning to read is their parents’ or teachers’ anxiety on the subject.

    I also agree with you that writing should be treated as separate from reading. I myself come from a Waldorfy perspective with that, although to be honest my view is mostly informed by experience – writing is more like art, and can be taught beautifully by approaching it as a practice of art. I really like the idea of children being able to express themselves with drawing, painting, writing, singing, dancing – which is why I resisted the advice to get children typing as soon as possible. (Typing is very different from writing, imo.)

    Off now to share your post, your heartwarm wisdom.

  5. monica says:

    Im so glad you wrote about this because I have always been intrigued when you say you dont teach your kids to read. It is good to hear how that really happens. And even more interesting that it has worked for ALL your kids.

    My kids have learned so differently, one picking up reading just how you described. The teaching part on my end went by so quickly. My other had significant hurdles that we eventually found were more to do with memory issues than decoding. So I would add to your activities, lots of games that strengthen memory. Puzzles, asking questions about landmarks on the way to a familiar place, card games, etc. For us, that was a key component that no one really addresses. Because the sounding out phase is very short, it is really just a bridge to the point when we can memorize the word. And when you are a fully fluent reader, you are relying much more on your bank of memorized words.

  6. Mama Squirrel says:

    You’re right about that particular moment when reading is just kicking in. With our youngest, there were a few classic early-reader books (Frog and Toad, one of the Arthur-the-chimp-not-the-aardvark books) that she suddenly wanted to hear several times in a row, and it wasn’t for the story, it was because she was watching the words. And sure enough, that launched her: she went back and read the Arthur-the-chimp story all by herself.

    Now I will say that, when she got to about the third grade, we had to go back and rediscover some phonics, using All About Spelling. But at the time she first learned to read (at about four and a half), it wasn’t phonics that she was interested in, it was just reading.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Great idea on the CCs. I had turned them on for myself then got to wondering…

  8. Louise says:

    Love this! Just the encouragement I needed as I am consciously making the decision to back off teaching my kindergartener to read. My instincts were telling me it was a good move, but there was still a large, panicked part of me thinking “No, but if she doesn’t learn to read RIGHT NOW I will have failed!” So thank you, very much, for this!

  9. Ellie says:

    Lissa, this is wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to write out your thoughts and experiences. I don’t ‘teach’ reading or use phonics programs. For each of my three, reading came orgnically, from the environment in which they were immersed … It was a different journey for each of them (naturally enough), and so lovely to witness.

  10. Penny says:

    Standing ovation. When you share your experiences it truly is wisdom that you share.

  11. Isabella says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post! It also came at the perfect time for me. My daughter just turned 6 yrs old, and we are working on reading, by reading. My oldest, 17 yrs, learned by me reading tons of books, and him playing Jump Start Learning cds. The middle, learned later yet still no formal reading.

  12. Isabella says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post! It also came at the perfect time for me. My daughter just turned 6 yrs old, and we are working on reading, by reading. My oldest, 17 yrs, learned by me reading tons of books, and him playing Jump Start Learning cds. The middle, learned later yet still no formal reading.

    I’d love to here what you have to say about teaching writing.

  13. maria says:

    Yes! That! Exactly! Thank you!

  14. Leslie in VA says:

    LOVED this! You often eloquently write what is swirling around in my head! Yay for Tintin! That is how my oldest (now 20) taught himself to read.

  15. Jen Robinson says:

    Great stuff. Melissa. I especially appreciated the part about focusing on what your daughter was experiencing as you were reading the story. Just last night I was reading my daughter a Paddington picture book. She suddenly started saying “mrrrr, mrrr.” I was like: “what on earth?”. But she was trying to sound out “Mr.”. You never know what will catch the eye of a kid who is on the cusp of reading.

    Also, you inspired me to actually dig out our copy of My Father’s Dragon, which we haven’t read yet.

  16. Melissa Wiley says:

    Jen R — My Father’s Dragon is probably my favorite first novel/chapter book series (it’s sort of in between–a short novel or long chapter book) to read aloud around age four, when a kid is ready for some longer stories. Short chapters, lots of illustrations, perfectly captivating narrative. What’s better than helping out a baby dragon?

    I say “my,” but Scott’s been the one to do the honors with most of our kids. Somewhere along the line that series became a Daddy read-aloud (along with By the Great Horn Spoon, because he kills at Praiseworthy; The Lord of the Rings, because I lack the fortitude; and all of my own books, because no way can I do that). 😉


    Mama Squirrel — yes! re using some phonics resources later for spelling. I see the processes of acquiring reading skills and spelling skills (and handwriting, which I talked about already but can’t remember whether that was here or on Facebook–I’ve got two threads of discussion going at once) as quite separate. Some kids seem comfortable grasping all three at once, or a combination, but for a lot of kids, being expected to tackle these very different skill sets all at once is beyond daunting. Rilla is using a spelling workbook these days. She likes it, and she’s less intuitive about spelling than her four older siblings, so a little structured study has been helpful. (A fascinating contrast to observe has been how uninhibited she is about writing at this age compared to her sisters–they could tell when they’d spelled a word wrong and it embarrassed them. Rilla doesn’t care, she just barrels ahead and consequently writes a LOT.)

  17. Meredith says:

    Thank you Lissa, needed to read this today 😉 I’m saving this to re-read when my 10 year old and last new reader says he thinks reading is boring, sigh….xxoo Mere

  18. Alysa says:

    Yes! Awesome! I plan to use this to help explain my (similar) philosophy. 😀

    Also shout-out for Bird and Squirrel!

  19. Melisa says:

    Thank you for this post! My 7 year old daughter has apraxia of speech and learning to read has not been easy for her. After a year of using a reading curriculum that was recommended because of her speech, I decided to quit using it and start reading to her every day instead. She was getting frustrated by the reading lessons & I just wanted her to love reading instead of hate it. She loves reading time with me now & wherever we go, we always have a chapter book with us now. She’s even started reading some on her own & starting to show more interest in writing. She struggles with fine motor skills too. She’s excited about reading again and I keep reminding myself to put her needs first & quit worrying about “when” she will be reading independently.