Monday, 23 July 2012

Homeschooling Hints Part Three - Ready To Read

Because it forms the foundation for all learning, I am writing a separate post on the teaching of reading.  Being able to read (and consequently, to write) is such a fundamental element of the whole process of learning that without this key skill, your children will be unable to progress in many areas of their education - or that progress will be severely restricted, and the experience of home education will be less enjoyable - both for them and for you.  I know first hand (or almost) how widely the inability to read can influence a person's understanding and experience of the world around them.  Until our children were sround 5 years of age, and I was teaching them to read, my husband could not read.  In fact he has dyslexia, a recognised learning disability which specifically affects the way the brain processes the written word.  But this was not helped by the fact that he was not ever taught to read as a child.  His home education was wonderful in many ways, but becuase of the dyslexia, he did not want to learn to read and therefore was not encouraged to do so.  Not until our children came along, anyway!  Now he reads with pleasure and it is wonderful to see how many opportunities have arisen for him as a result.  He can enjoy reading the Bible for private study.  He can learn new hymns at Church quickly and easily.  He reads the newspaper, fiction books, the internet, shop signs, instruction manuals, maps, food packaging ... the list is endless, and from his experience as a non-reader in a world full of words, we have both become convinced of the vital importance of teaching reading.  Without this basic skill, a child cannot excel in any area of their learning.

Much of teaching reading comes without you realising it - certainly in the early stages, when you sit together as a family and share in reading Scripture, or a story book together.  When our children were very small - in fact, too tiny to really appreciate a book for its own worth, I would still read to them.  As they got bigger, a story at bedtime was part of their daily routine, but we had lots of other reading opportunities besides!  If you read regularly with your children when they are small, you will find that they soon begin to recognise the flow of the words and their association with the pictures on the pages.  They may notice if you miss out a word (because you're hurrying to get the story finished so you can get the tea finished before Papa comes home from work!) and they will learn to "read" by reciting a well-known story and turning the pages at the correct time.  None of this of course is really reading but it is all building the foundation of readiness to read properly, which in my experience comes somewhere between 4 1/2 and 5 1/2.  At this point, we were ready to start homeschooling more formally.

The first stage in teaching my children to read was to familiarise them with the alphabet and the letter sounds.  It's easy to make your children aware of letters - they are everywhere we look.  Just glance around the room you are sitting in now - there may be books, cards, papers, packaging, letters, signs.  Go out anywhere and the world is full of letters!  We taught our children to recognise the alphabet and to know the letter sounds by using a set of simple matching cards, like two-piece jigsaws.  These cards were reversible.  On one side of half the pieces were the letters of the alphabet in lower case, and on the corresponding piece on that side, a picture of a simple object that began with the same letter.  Turn the pieces over, and you had the same pictures, and this time, the whole word.  So for example you might have a and a picture of an apple and on the other side, the actual word apple.  It's important to point out at this stage that it is much easier for children to learn their letters if, to begin with, you use the phonetic sounds - "a" for apple, rather than "a" for aeroplane or acorn.  Equally, use the lower case letters (except for the first letter of their name).  It makes it much harder for them to read if you mix lower case and upper case and since most words have more lower case letters than upper case, they will learn to recognise the letters more quickly and consistently if you only use one case.  I found that teaching capitals came quite naturally, using this technique.

Along with using the matching game, we also had early writing books where the letters could be traced.  To begin with, one letter (and sound) per page but then quickly moving on to two or three letters, and different words.  Don't rush this phase.  If your child is struggling with the whole concept of the alphabet and the single letters, go back to just reading aloud.  You can trace the words you read with your finger as you read them, and encourage your child to try doing this.  They'll pick up the concept of the writing meaning certain sounds, and it will become easier for them to translate this into individual letters a little bit later.

Once your child is readily beginning to recognise letters, and can perhaps make dashes on a page that are starting to look like words (often drawings of recognisable images such as animals or people come before writing) you can begin to think about teaching them reading from proper books.  A lot of anxiety goes into choosing which books to teach your child to read from - and which technique to use.  There are many different reading schemes, and many different ways to learn to read.  As I have mentioned before, Papa Bear and I were homeschooling in England at a time when the internet was almost unheard of still, and access to materials that were specifically for homeschooling families - and even more so, for Christian homeschooling families - were extremely hard to come by.  We had little to go on - most of our family chose not to homeschool, and those that did, such as Papa Bear's own mother, used teaching methods that we preferred not to adopt.  So we had little choice at the time but to seek the advice from the "experts" - schoolteachers!  We visited several schools in our area, and were able to discuss different reading schemes with the staff there.  A couple of schools we thought used a scheme that seemed to be very clear and sensible, and had few books in it that would be unsuitable for our needs.  So we decided to use this scheme at home - the Oxford Reading Tree.  The scheme has a series of staged books, beginning with pre-readers and going right up to approximately reading age 8, that focus on key concepts in the process of learning to read.  Each stage of the scheme has a set of books which the child works through one by one, before moving on to the next stage once they have learned and absorbed the concepts in the previous books.  They are inexpensive to buy, and since we only needed one set at a time as our children were so close in age, it was not a great outlay to buy these, and we were able to sell them or pass them on to other family when we were done with them.  Now these books are not specifically Christian, though some of them do teach Christian values without deliberately referring to any particular faith.  There were some that made reference to concepts that we didn't choose for our children to read at that season of their lives, so we omitted them, but in general, we were very happy with our choice - and so was Papa Bear, who also learned to read using these books.

I used a couple of different techniques to assist my children as they began to read.  There is no point in trying to get a child to read aloud by themselves until they are quite familiar with the concept of the written word, and with the idea that each letter of a word makes a sound.  Before this stage, they will not be able to make the necessary inferences, and will simply become frustrated and discouraged.  Just leave it awhile if your child seems not to be ready.  In my experience, girls are ready somewhat earlier than boys, and are in general more enthusiastic readers once they can read alone, but Cubby enjoyed being read to much more than Little Bear - and was happy to sit and listen to a story being read aloud for much longer than his sister.  Regardless of age, I used a similar approach with both children.  To start with, we would have the book together, and I would read it aloud to them (or a few pages).  We would then go back to the first page.  I would maybe say the first word, tracing each letter with my finger.  Then I would let the child take a turn, tracing the letters as before.  If they were hesitant, I would say "what letter does the word start with?" to get them to break the word down into separate sounds.  I might cover the rest of the word (say it was "cat") and just get them to sound the first letter, then the first two letters, and then the last letter - "c-a-t, what does that spell?" and so on.  Yes, it was laborious, but yes, it worked!   Once you get beyond the phonics, and onto sounds like "th" and "ch" and "gh", you can use the same technique, but you will need to leave two letters uncovered (for example, the "th" in "that") or the child won't be able to sound the word phonetically.  At this level, don't do more than a couple of pages at a time - or certainly, not more than half an hour of reading.  You don't want to overdo it else they will lose their concentration, and the lesson will be counterproductive. 

You can also start teaching your child to write simultaneously - and in fact The Oxford Reading Tree scheme offers materials for teaching writing as well as reading (there also use to be a TV show and comic as well, though I am not sure if these still exist).  We found that this all-encompassing method meant that the concept of the written word was blossoming in our children's minds and that the two basic skills developed side by side.  I would back up the reading with using writing materials which focused on the same words that we were reading that day - if we'd read cat, hat and mat in the book, we'd also be writing it that day, and drawing pictures too.  It is much easier to ground these concepts in your children's minds if they are not isolated from each other.  There are so many ways to make reading and writing fun too - whenever we went out, we'd look for words that we recognised, and play word games - looking at car number plates, or playing games where we made words rhyme, or tried to find opposites.  "I spy" is a great game for beginner readers - and one that you can play anywhere, with no equipment needed!

Before I finish this post, I must just add one more thing.  Although it is tempting to compare your child's progress in reading with that of their siblings (or classmates, if you are not homeschooling), please try not to.  Some children seem to really stall at the early stages of reading.  They either just aren't interested, or they aren't ready, or they cannot concentrate for long enough - or perhaps, like Papa Bear, they have a specific problem with being able to read which will need investigating and diagnosing by an expert.  Don't be discouraged if you have a late reader.  After all, Papa Bear was an adult when he learned to read - and he enjoys it just as much as I do, now!

If you do want to find out how well your child is doing, and how much progress they are making, then this simple reading test will help you to determine your child's reading age - it is an old, but simple and accurate diagnostic test, that I used (and I'll be honest, without looking them up, I still am not entirely sure what all those words mean!).  You can download it here.

Next time, we'll be looking at more formal schooling - and how you can keep your child's interest as their inquisitive minds grow and they start to want to know more than maybe you could ever imagine - or perhaps even know yourself!