In 1978 I started teaching my oldest to read. This is by no means a recommendation, but only the story of a small part of our homeschooling journey. When Nathaniel was just an infant, I read the book How to Teach Your Baby to Read by Glenn Doman. This book teaches a pure form of the “look-say” or “whole language” method for reading. Back in the 1950’s, I was taught to read with the Dick and Jane “look-say” sight readers, so I recognized Doman’s method as the way I had been taught to read. Since I didn’t know any better, I latched onto this method.
Following the book’s instructions, I began teaching Nathaniel when he turned two. As the book directed, I made up large flash cards with vocabulary words printed on them: mommy, daddy, house, school, and I drilled Nathaniel several times each day. Yes, he learned to “read” those words on the flash cards, but I found that if I skipped a day’s instruction, then he forgot all the words, so I had to begin all over again. My sister suggested that I teach him the alphabet first. I simply parroted the instructions of Mr. Doman, “Oh, no, teaching the alphabet would just confuse him.”
I think I lasted about three months with this method. It was an exercise in futility not unlike pouring water into a bucket full of holes. As long as I spent large and precious amounts of time each day drilling him with the flash cards, he continued to “read” them back to me. But if I failed to keep filling his bucket by drilling him with the cards, then his level of reading ability would keep dropping as his vocabulary would be draining out the holes.
At about this time, I heard a radio talk show program on the subject of teaching reading by a method they called “intensive phonics.” The guest that day was Benita Rubicam, then president of what was called the Reading Reform Foundation, and she talked about something called the Orton-Gillingham Approach. What she said made sense, and she immediately converted me. I read everything which that organization had to offer, and I began my search for the best phonics program to use with my children.
The Writing Road to Reading: Spalding Method for Teaching Speech, Spelling, Writing, and Reading was what I finally decided to use. At that time, it was considered to be the best phonics curriculum, except that it was not at all set up to be homeschool user-friendly. None of the helps and teacher’s manuals were available back then.
Here are some criteria you could consider when choosing a phonics curriculum:
Method. Despite what some persons want us to believe, English is a phonetic language. The problem with English is that it has the largest vocabulary, manifold larger than any other language which has ever existed. As a consequence, English has incorporated spellings from many different languages. Therefore, the way a particular word spells its sound may also display some of its history. This is the great cultural treasure of the English language.
Phonics is the only method which fits English. Do not be fooled by the fake phonics programs which are based upon “look-say” sight reading, but which sprinkle in some incidental phonics as “auditory-clues.” Phonics teaches the sounds of each letter or letter combination and builds up a full system of pronunciation. (Yes, there are some quaint little exceptions, and they are taught also.)
Usability. If you are unfamiliar with the English phonetic system, then make sure that the curriculum which you choose has plenty of teacher’s helps. Back in the seventies and eighties, when we used The Writing Road to Reading, the parent was expected to take a course at a college in order to learn how to use it. Today, numerous helps have been added. We recommend using a phonics curriculum which is easy to understand and use.
At what age should I begin teaching reading? A few children will learn to read at age four, while a few may be fully ten years old before they can confidently read a basic reader. Most children, however, will learn to read sometime between the ages of five and eight. The age at which a child learns to read is no indicator of how intelligent he is or how well he will do in academics later on. Our own children learned to read somewhere between age five and nine. We suggest beginning phonics at age five. If, after a reasonable amount of time, you find that your child is not retaining any of the instruction, even though he is putting forth an effort, then you may want to put the curriculum aside and wait a few months before trying it again.
What materials should I use? There are many good phonics reading programs. Some families will try one, find it does not work, try another, find it does not work, try another, find it does not work, try another, and at last it works. So in their mind this last one is the best one, when in reality, the child was finally old enough, developed to the point of true readiness to read.
The phonics curriculum I can recommend to you today is All About Reading. It meets the criteria of method (it’s based on Orton-Gillingham) and usability (it’s a lightly scripted, open-and-go program). This program doesn’t require long periods of study and you don’t have to develop your own lesson plans. Everything is laid out for you, step by step.
All About Reading is the curriculum my daughter Johannah is using with my grandchildren, and I get to help!