I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while because I think this is quite a ‘biggy’ for parents considering home schooling. As a teacher it wasn’t a worry for me but I can understand the feeling – when I wanted to teach Cana to swim I really didn’t feel confident about it. I can swim, I enjoy swimming and we’ve always taken the children regularly, but I just couldn’t think how to get her to actually swim without her armbands on. All teaching is simply breaking down something into small steps but when it came to swimming I didn’t have a clue what those steps would be.
One of the joys of being a teacher is the amount of staff training you go on, which usually involves somebody telling you in an extremely boring way how to be a better teacher – a definite irony. As a result I seldom retain a word of what I’ve heard. One unusually interesting training day I went on as a newly qualified teacher (15 years ago!! Gulp, was it really that long ago?!) the bloke leading it demonstrated how to teach the same thing to a group of different people with differing levels of expertise by teaching us all how to juggle. How cool was that! And I can still juggle too. He just gave us a list of steps to practise and we started at the top and worked down them. Some people whizzed on really quickly while others took ages but it was such a graphic example of how to teach something I’ve never forgotten it.
I enrolled Cana on a week long swimming course and went to watch and what they did was just the same as I’d been doing, getting her to practise widths, but they had a lot of different swimming aids, rather than just arm bands, and gradually reduced the amount of support she was getting. She started with 3 rings on each arm, then two, then one. Then went to a swimming noodle and finally graduated to a hand held float. Result: she can now swim without her armbands.
So my idea was, to make a list of the steps I took when teaching Cana to read. And actually, my daughter is the third person I’ve taught to read because I homeschooled my nephew and niece as well, a number of years ago as they are now 12 and 15, and taught them both to read. Cana is just over 5 and is a very confident reader, well ahead of her age, but that isn’t really the point because it doesn’t matter how long each step takes as long as the end result is the same. You just practise until you’ve mastered each stage before moving onto the next.
Step 1: learning the alphabet with picture prompts. I use picture flash cards with both upper and lower case letters on it. And I make sure that the cards I use depict the letters as I want the child to learn them, not a type face font. The letters to watch for this are ‘a’, ‘f”, ‘g’, ‘k’ and ‘q’. This may seem nit-picking but that’s because we’re used to seeing different ways of writing letters and it’s important to keep it as simple as possible. I teach these cards, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, a few at a time, no more than 6, and little and often. I carry the little box around with us as we go out. It’s actually more interesting for the child if you’re doing it in different places and tricks them into thinking they’re not working. I ONLY TEACH THE PHONIC SOUND, so “ah, buh, cuh” and NOT “ay, bee, see”. When the child knows all 6 I give a small reward (ie. a smartie or a jelly bean) and move on to the next 6. I say 6 because I usually do that in school and that’s how Cana learnt but my son Jude, who is only 3, learnt them just 3 at a time. From time to time you have to run through the one’s they’ve learnt and if they’ve forgotten any add them back into the pile to be learnt.
I used cards for Cana from the Early Learning Centre with fairly standard pictures on (A for, you’ve guessed it, Apple) but Jude is a massive Thomas the Tank Engine fan so I made him some Thomas flash cards with related railway pictures on – I can’t believe I couldn’t find any, big gap in the market there. Cana whizzed through the alphabet but Jude took much longer so we made up some actions for some of his letters as well as another thing to help him remember, this is an idea that Letterland use but I personally think not all children need it and it can even be distracting. I also think it doesn’t matter at all what the action is, it’s just a “hook” to help them.
Step 2: learning the alphabet without pictures: When the child knows the phonic sound for all the letters of the alphabet I go back to the beginning and start all over again but this time with no pictures. I just write the Upper and lower case letters on the back of the picture flashcard so if they’re stuck you can show them the picture to help them so they don’t feel a failure. Cana was very competitive with herself and tried extra hard, Jude just gave up if he couldn’t remember so it helped to be able to say “look at the picture, now do you remember?”
Step 2a: learning the letter sounds: Letter sounds are the technical term for the “ay, bee, see” alphabet we all know. I’ve relegated this to step 2a, a service station junction on the motor way, not a real way to get anywhere, because I’ve missed this step out with Jude. Cana flew through learning the alphabet and quite enjoyed the challenge so when she knew all the phonic sounds we went back to the beginning and learned all the sounds as well. Both children knew some of the letters anyway from singing the alphabet song and just hearing it on telly etc. By the time Jude had learned the alphabet he was pretty sick of alphabet flashcards and I knew he’d be more interested if I just moved him on to the next stage. I will certainly check in a few years to see that he’s picked up all the letter sounds, which I strongly suspect he will, but I really don’t think it’s important at this stage.
Step 3: learning to blend: If you haven’t heard this phrase, teachers call them “cvc’s”. That is, words that have a consonant, then a vowel, then a consonant. For the record the first word I tried both my children on was “cat”. It’s simple and you can draw a picture of it underneath! I use one of those magnetic boards you can write on because they like it and we use our special box again (it’s a Chinese takeaway plastic box if you must know!) and put our 3 or 4 cvc words to be learnt in it. Same thing, they learn them all, get a reward and then get the next lot. Again, Cana loved this and picked it up really quickly, Jude took much longer. I get them to say all 3 letters, then say them again faster until they can hear the word. If they can’t hear it, I say the 3 letters; if they still can’t I say them and stretch the vowel a bit so it’s really obvious (eg. “cuh, ahhhhhhh, tu”). Jude liked it when I made it into a game “see how fast you can say the letters”, because he would say them so slowly there was no way he could hear the word. “Say them like a racing car” worked really well too. When they get to the stage where they can say automatically “du, o, guh – dog” even when a word is unfamiliar then I’d say they were ready to move on.
Step 4: 4 letter words!: Hehe, had to call it that! Of course I just mean words like “snap” or “clip”. Exactly the same principle and if they’re confident with the 3 letter words then this should be straight forward. I don’t use specific word lists for this but just make sure I’m using all the vowels and not missing any of them out accidentally. It is at this point that I usually introduce “sh”, “th” and “ch”. There are lots of blends they need to learn but these 3 are really important and once they know them there’s loads more 4 letter words you can practise: “ship, chat, thin” etc.
Step 5: phonic based books: This is the exciting stage because they really start reading and you can’t believe how clever they are, and how clever you are! There is a school of thought that argues against reading scheme type books because they’re usually pretty uninspiring. I mean it’s pretty hard to be interesting when all the words you use have to be able to be phonically decoded. However, I think it’s obvious that you will be reading other books to your child anyway so they will be well aware of the riches in store for them. What’s important is that they feel successful and feel that they can read. And when they’re stuck you just say “sound it out” and they’ve been practising that for ages so they know what to do. If there’s a lot of sounding out then sometimes they lose the meaning of the sentence so when they’ve finished you re-read “the cat sat on the mat” and comment on it “it looks nice and comfy doesn’t it?” so the child gets the idea that what they’re reading has a meaning. Then move on to the next sentence. When you get to this stage you only need to do it once a day but I still like to carry the reading book round to spice up the routine a bit. Cana learnt to read a lot of her first books sitting in hospital waiting rooms with me as I was expecting my third at that time and had to have thrice weekly scans for a while. I use a set of 12 phonic books called the Jelly and Bean books. There’s a few in the series but I use the 12 which are about a family of pigs. I would say try not to miss a day if you can help it because little and often is the best way to learn and also it sets an expectation for the child. If they know you always do it everyday then they soon stop moaning and just get on with it. Cana didn’t complain often as she seemed to genuinely enjoy it but Jude is the King of Whinge. Even he has learnt that “we always do it”. Actually, with him, he likes routine so I do try and read at a certain stage in the day, usually when I get in from work. We sit down, have a little cuddle and then he gets his book for me. As for the anti-reading scheme people, I’d like them to see my son’s face as he reads “the big pig fell down the hill, bump, bump, BUMP”. It may be boring for me hearing it for the upteenth time but he finds it hilarious!
Step 6: tricky words: I’m sure there’s a technical term for these, maybe something less bulky than “non-phonically plausible words”. The first one they come across is usually ‘the’. Now, there ain’t no easy way to learn these. It’s just something they’ve gotta do. However, by this stage they should be feeling really confident as they can read real books and can sound out loads of words so when they first see one I say “oh yes, this is a tricky one, you can’t sound it out, it’s ‘the'”. If the scheme you use is good then these words should really only be introduced one at a time in the context of the story. I make sure that the child can read the whole book confidently, without help, before moving them on to the next one. I make them point to each word as they read and as Jude finds this hard I sometimes play little games with him like getting him to count all the words on the top line. Cana seemed to grasp what a word was really quickly but Jude has a tendency to memorise the sentences on a page instead of actually decoding the words. This isn’t exactly bad as it’s a technique in a way, and he’s still learning that words always say the same thing every time you read them which is an important developmental stage. As the books are getting longer for him now that is becoming harder and if he gets stuck he needs to know where he is on the page so he can sound a word out. He is at the stage where he can read a few tricky words in the context of the story but couldn’t recognise them outside of that context. It’s time for him to go on to step 7…
Step 7: High Frequency Words: This is another flash card stage but I run this along side the reading book so we read the book then do the flashcards in the plastic box after. To do this I use a list of the first 25 high frequency words. I get my lists from school but you can usually download them. Some of them can be sounded out, like ‘and’, some can’t, like ‘me’. With Cana it was the same drill, 6 at a time, reward when she’s learnt all 6 and a bigger reward when she’d finished the whole 25. Jude is generally less enthusiastic about giving up 5 minutes of train-playing time a day so I’ve made a little chart, a racing track with his first 12 words on it and Roary the Racing Car at the bottom. He has been learning just one word at a time and when I am satisfied that he knows it (by that i mean reading it on the flashcard but also if I write it somewhere else, or point to it in a book, he still recognises it) he gets to colour that bit of track in. So far he has learnt ‘I’, ‘up’, ‘we’ and is working on ‘like’. He loves colouring in his chart at the moment so I’ll go with that until he gets bored and then think of something else. As I said, it doesn’t matter how you complete the steps, or how long it takes you, as long as you master each one before going on to the next.
Step 8: more High Frequency Words: After they know the first 25 then get a list of the first 100 and do the same thing. Cana likes to work towards a bigger reward like a trip to McDonalds. I don’t use these in any particular order but obviously they will be finding some in their reading book so it makes sense to be learning those ones first. If they finish the phonic based books around here, and my pig series only lasts about this long, then I start them on Real Books. But easy ones, easier than the phonic books because they can’t necessarily sound out words they don’t know so have more to remember. But the up side is the stories get more interesting and the pictures usually improve. Cana used to like one called “Beans on toast” which just had “Beans on…” followed by various different sentence endings on each page (beans on wheels, beans on legs, beans on the floor). It told the story of baked beans and was really simple because it had just 3 words on each page (as opposed to the phonic books where she was reading 12 – 15 a page) but had funny, interesting pictures. I also bought the first 25 books of another reading scheme for Cana at this stage, the Oxford Reading Tree, and she began to work through these. Some teacher’s don’t like these books but I have used them in school hundreds of time and have never met a child who doesn’t love them. Even though the characters are improbably named “Biff”, “Chip” and “Kipper”. The illustrations are absolutely brilliant. I mean, the illustrator (Alex Brychta) should get an award for services to children because the words are really simple but the pictures have a whole other side to the story. All children love poring over them and seeing what’s happening and Cana was no exception.
Step 9: spelling: When we’d done the first 100 words then we went back to the first 25 words and Cana started learning to spell them. Ok, so this is less about reading and more about writing but Cana had started to write spontaneously by this point and it made sense to build upon the words we know rather than introduce new ones.
Step 10: Credit where credit’s due: Blimey, ain’t you clever! And isn’t your amazing wonder child. Well that’s what I think when Cana is reading “Wind in the Willows” to herself – only the Ladybird version, she’s only five! We did the first 100 High Frequency Words, then the first 200 and now we’re learning to spell those. And now, sit back and have a cup of tea because from now on Homeschooling is loads easier because you can get them to read the text book!