One of the most intimidating parts of starting homeschool is the mysterious process of teaching a child to read. In our generation, literacy has been an affair handed over to professional teachers. It’s a process that most of us know little about, aside from our own childhood experience.
So when our five-year-old isn’t reading Fox in Socks the first day of homeschool, the implication is that something went terribly wrong—we didn’t choose the right method or curriculum. We are bad communicators. Homeschool is too hard. Our children are defiant and uninterested. If they don’t learn now, they might never!
While there are a lot of things we can do to create a culture of literacy in our homes, whether reading comes easily to our child is not something we can necessarily control, and neither can they!
What can we do? That is what we’re going to talk about today in The Everything Reading Post. I like to take a more relaxed non-anxious approach to reading and that’s what I want to talk about today. The more options we have, the more we can enjoy this process of discovery along with our children!
The Difference Between Oral and Written Language
Infants learn to speak without any formal instruction; it’s a natural process that does not require a constructive approach. Babies and children learn language through the human interaction of nonverbal gestures, movements, and tonal cues.
Reading is a little bit different. It means knowing how to code and decode written phonetic symbols. It’s a process that for most children will require a constructive approach.
An alphabetic language like English requires comprehension of how written letters and letter patterns connect to words we already know. This is a multi-layer mental process! Reading comes very easily to me, so understanding this concept helped me to gain some perspective on why reading isn’t necessarily a natural process for everyone.
You can approach reading intensively and early with a focus on technical optimization if you want to, and some people recommend doing it that way. I don’t prefer to do that and I’ll expound on why below!
Some children do figure out how to decode by themselves. (You can read about that in Peter Grey’s book How Children Acquire Academic Skills without Formal Instruction). However, most kids need instruction—and as you’ll see as you read on, some will need more than others depending on their processing style.
The Brain-Body Functions Needed For Reading
Learning to read requires brain and body working together. This means specific physical and neurological processes have to be fully developed first! The research shows that most children gain the necessary body-brain abilities to read at around the age of eight, which is why I do not prefer to force reading instruction on young children.
Here are some of the reasons why I like to wait!
Vision: children of six or under are often not able to see well enough to read properly. Requiring a young child to focus on small objects at close range for long periods of time can cause undue strain and even nearsightedness. Some research points to eight as being the optimal age for a child to read printed symbols on a regular basis.
Visual Perception Process: Reading requires many parts of the brain working together instantly and seamlessly. To understand what is being read, a child has to be able to visualize both letter shapes and words. Then they have to retrieve what they already know and integrate it with new information that is coming in.
Hearing: Learning to read depends heavily on auditory skills. In order to read well a child has to be able to distinguish between letter sounds. They also have to be able to hear the entire word and perceive its meaning within a sentence. Have you ever heard a little child misquote song lyrics or common phrases? This is because auditory skills are still in development!
Intersensory Perception: Structured learning requires the integration of all the senses: touch, sight, taste, sound and smell. Early in life, babies learn a great deal through touch. (Everything to the mouth, right?) It isn’t until about the age of eight that a child is able to integrate vision and hearing with touch, an integration that requires countless brain operations. To do school-type skills well, a child needs to have full intersensory perception.
Reason: The ability to reason from cause to effect rises sharply between the ages of seven to eleven. Reaching “the age of reason” is foundational to the academic skills of reading, writing and math.
(This information was summarized from the book Better Late Than Early, by Dr. Raymond Moore. Hard copies are pricey and hard to get ahold of, but it’s available now on Kindle!)
So why is Kindergarten the Normal Reading Age?
Over and over again, the age range of seven to eleven is highlighted as the optimal developmental age for school-type skills. So why does school require that children learn to read so early?
Though some children might be developmentally ready by kindergarten, academic readiness is not what drives the standard age for learning to read. The reason has to do with written language being the dominant learning modality of the traditional classroom. The kind of multi-sensory learning that we can offer at home is not practical for managing and measuring the progress of a large group of students.
If your child doesn’t know how to read, they might have a difficult time engaging in a traditional classroom setting, but it doesn’t need to be a barrier at home!
Having this perspective can really help us release the societal expectations of reading by kindergarten. Educational methods like Montessori, Waldorf and Charlotte Mason encourage individual readiness and multi-sensory learning learning formats. This is one reason why they have been game-changers for so many homeschoolers!
So when should you teach your child to read? My answer is that I would introduce phonics at age six with letter sounds. I use the word introduce because if you need to pause and try again later, you can. The point of the introduction not that you are bound to continue, but to experiment to see if your child is ready.
Processing Styles and Literacy
What about dyslexia? It is very hard to tell if young children have dyslexia or are simply not developmentally ready to read. Signs of dyslexia must persist over time, so it is a waiting game. I know the social pressure to read early is astronomical but please, do not freak out! You are free to give your child time to fully develop before you get too far into the “what ifs.” (It’s easier said than done, I know.) If you are thinking that your child might be dyslexic, here are some common signs.
The important thing to understand is that dyslexia is not a handicap. It is actually a processing style with special giftings, which can sometimes interfere with a person’s perception of written language. I like how Ronald Davis describes dyslexia as “a gift that needs to be unlocked by turning off visual and perceptual disorientation.”
You can think of dyslexic people as big-picture, “global” processors. There is no cure for dyslexia but there there are non traditional methods that dyslexic people can use to learn to read.
1.) The Davis Method: a meanings-based approach using hands-on and big-picture methods.
Some parents might want to get an official diagnosis, while others may prefer to avoid a label. In my opinion, it’s a good idea to hold off panicking and wait until your child is eight so that you can eliminate the question of developmental readiness.
How Do I Teach A Child To Read?
The short answer is, you’ll follow the curriculum. Phonics curriculums will involve worksheets, flashcards and games (and sometimes even puppets!) Professionals have written explicit, step-by-step phonics curriculums for homeschooling families. The biggest challenge is picking one. If the curriculum you picked isn’t working, try another one. This is not failure–it’s tailoring your education to your child!
There is a long-standing debate about whether or not phonics should be taught from “whole to part” or “part to whole.” (Both sides swear their way is superior and claims that the other side is going to ruin the child.)
A “whole to part” or “analytical” method is a more holistic method where a child might learn to read by context clues and recognizing whole words at a time. This is how many children teach themselves to read. We are using an analytical approach when we teach children to recognize “sight words.” The advantage to this way of learning is that it provides meaningful context before giving rules and mechanics.
A “part to whole” or “synthetic” approach goes straight into rules and mechanics first. Synthetic phonics breaks reading up into it’s smaller parts and teaches those parts one by one. Learning individual letter sounds and blending them together is synthetic phonics.
I’m explaining this because I want you to know that most homeschool phonics curriculums are based on a synthetic approach phonics. It is the most common method used, and it works for most children.
Learning phonics is a stage of language arts and it doesn’t go on forever! Most children do not need more instruction once they got the basics. They will begin to code and decode more complex words as they read more. After reading and writing has been mastered, the next step for most families is to begin spelling practice.
We have taken the long runway approach to learning to read at our house. To find out whether my kids are ready, I simply introduce letter sounds and see how they respond.
When my children start to show an interest in reading, I introduce the material, observe their reactions, and then adjust accordingly. If I see signs of distress like tears, defiance, or wild guessing, then I know they are not ready. (By the way, this isn’t an academic philosophy, it’s just what I do!) I adjust by pausing lessons and putting the curriculum away for a while. I keep reading aloud to expose them to advanced vocabulary and sophisticated language patterns. After a few weeks or months, I try the cycle over.
Each of my children have been different. One of my daughters is a global thinker who struggles with memorization and verbal processing. She showed no phonemic awareness at the age of five when I tried to introduce letter sounds. (She displayed this by making wild guesses and looking at me blankly for most of the time.)
She learned to read some time after her seventh birthday because she was highly motivated to read Calvin and Hobbs comic books. As of now, she still writes some numbers backwards. We have never pursued an official diagnosis because I wanted to avoid the burden of a negative label. She’s a fluent reader and a beautiful writer.
My second daughter taught herself to read by observation at age four and was fluent by six. She loves puzzles, math and decoding almost anything. When she wanted to read, she got the Dr. Seuss books down from the shelf and started asking questions as she pieced letter sounds together.
My third daughter who is turning seven this month knows letter sounds and some basic words, but became frustrated during the blending phase and asked to stop lessons. Her main frustration is writing and letter formation, a physiological development which I expect to change in the next six months to a year. She’s motivated to read so she can to keep up with her sisters, but she just isn’t quite ready to take off.
What We Use
So far the only curriculum we have used for phonics has been the Explode the Code Workbooks. I started all of mine at the very beginning (Books A, B & C) and had them do a page or two a day until we reached about Book 3. After that, they were bored. They had enough context and background knowledge to start reading on their own. We also practiced letter sounds with some simple flash cards.
My kids loved Bob Books for early reading practice. For progressing into higher reading, audio books provided my girls with great scaffolding. They memorized the Arnold Lobel audio collection and the Frog and Toad audio collection by ear before picking up the books themselves.
The first chapter books they read were The Ramona Series, which came about after they had listened to the Beverly Cleary Audio Series several times over. You can find my favorite audio book series for young children here.
For all structured learning in the early years we used the Fifteen Minute Rule, which I talk about in The Simple Start Formula!
A Long Perspective
As you teach your child to read, what are you learning about who they are? Are they a global or geometric processor? Do they want to read Calvin and Hobbs or Little House on the Prairie? Do they like the comfort of your presence and support, or do they want to fly on their own?
There is no right or perfect way to learn to read. But there is a precious person who is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of the Creator. Let’s allow that be our guide, rather than an arbitrary cultural standard.
For more help on getting started you can download my free guide The Simple Start Formula here.
I hope this helped to turn on the lights and set your heart at ease on the subject of reading! I’ve compiled all of the links mentioned in this post into a handy list below. If you found this post helpful, I would love for you to tag me and share a link in your Instagram stories! For more updates and homeschool encouragement, sign up for my newsletter The Lounge!
Websites & Links
Curriculum & Materials