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Helping Your Homeschooler Learn to Read

Kids reading on a sofaBeware Experts' Advice
If there is one area that causes concern for even the most experienced parent, it's helping our kids learn to read. And with good reason: We are told reading is an area best left to the experts, who advise us about what age our children should begin, what method to use, and how long it should take. We're told tests and reports are vital to the learning process. The trouble is, most of this advice is simply not true.

The Right Age to Read
By kindergarten, most schooled children are working their way through "reading readiness" programs and are expected to know and understand basic concepts of reading. But is this really the best age to start reading?

It's not, according to Louise Bates Ames, director of research at the Gesell Institute of Child Development and author of more than 15 books on childhood development and behavior. In A Developmental Approach to Reading Problems, Ames states that "a delay in reading instruction would be a preventative measure in avoiding nearly all reading failure." This view is shared by Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore, considered by many to be the grandparents of the modern homeschool movement. In Better Late Than Early and School Can Wait, the Moores present well-researched arguments that children aren't physiologically ready for formal reading activities until the age of 8 or 10. Waiting helps children develop maturity and logic skills and prevents frustration and discouragement.

A Combination of Methods
Another misconception that confuses all parents, not just homeschoolers, is that one teaching method should be used. For years controversy flared in the schools about "whole language" vs. "phonics." Results from whole language programs fell short of expectations. Straight phonics is more effective, but involves books and worksheets many kids find boring. Smart parents are discovering that incorporating both methods based on their child's individual learning style works best.

Tests and Reports
Finally, there's the idea that reading tests and written book reports are a necessary part of the reading process. In Teach Your Own, John Holt tells the story of two fellow teachers who decided to "stop asking the children questions about their reading, stop grading them, stop tracking them, and just let them read." Holt notes, "The students very soon read much better, even those who had been very poor readers." Reading becomes a chore when your child knows that as soon as he completes the passage (or page or book) he will be drilled and tested and scored. The joy of being swept away in the pages of a book is lost.

What You Can Do

  • Read to your children every day. The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease is a classic. Trelease explains how reading aloud stimulates your child's imagination and leads to the desire to read independently.

  • Take time to read yourself. A child learns by watching his parents. If your child sees you making reading a regular part of your life, chances are he will do the same. If you sit in front of the TV for hours, don't be surprised when your child wants to do it, too.

  • Don't start the learning process too early and don't push if they aren't ready. There should be no tears or reluctance. Allowed to learn at their own pace, homeschooled children often don't begin to read until 8 or 9 years old. Mary Griffith, author of The Homeschooling Handbook, says that late reading (even as late as 12) is not much of a handicap to homeschoolers. "Because schools rely so heavily on text-based instruction, we tend to forget there are other ways to acquire knowledge" Griffith writes. "The late reader frequently blossoms suddenly into a capable and independent reader and the late-reading homeschooler remains an eager and interested learner."

    Where Do I Begin?
    For those who want a direct, step-by-step approach on how to teach your child to read, Reading Reflex: The Foolproof Phono-Graphix Method for Teaching Your Child to Read, by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness, is one of the best reading books on the market today. Another highly recommended book is Let's Read, A Linguistic Approach by Leonard Bloomfield and Clarence Barnhart.

    But don't feel you have to follow a reading manual to be successful. Reading is a process that unfolds slowly in some children, quickly in others. What worked for your friend's child might be wrong for your son or daughter. The trick is to discover what method is best for your child. Here are some ideas to get you started.

    Follow These Steps
    One: Sounding Out
    Learning the alphabet, and the sounds each letter represents, is the foundation of reading. The next step is for your child to learn simple words that can be mastered easily. I wrote the names of items in our house on index cards, then pinned or taped the card to that object. It became a game to name all the objects. When these words were memorized, the cards were removed and made into silly sentences. (The chair sat on the cat.) Because we're on the road a lot, my girls' first reading words were the names of gas stations (Shell was an easy starter), then stores, then road signs. As we drove, we'd work on word-sounds in silly rhymes and variations of alphabet games.

    Phonics workbooks are helpful at this point, but don't overdo it. Along with studying the letter sounds and blends, we made flashcards of reading words that my daughter stumbled on and reviewed them frequently. I'm not a fan of flashcards and used them with a light hand, but she didn't mind and they were really effective.

    Two: Finding Great Beginner Books
    Two wonderful books for your beginning readers are: Ready...Set...Read! and the sequel Ready...Set...Read And Laugh! by Joanna Cole and Stephanie Calmenson. These colorfully illustrated collections feature authors Arnold Lobel (Frog and Toad), Peggy Parish (Amelia Bedelia), Marice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), and Robert Lewis Stevenson (A Sea-Side Poem), just to name a few. These books are responsible for carrying my daughters from the conceptual stage of reading to the "I got it!" stage.

    Be sure to provide a variety of easy-to-read books on whatever subject your child shows an interest. Soccer? Space Travel? Animals? Clouds? Make sure your child learns that books are a source of pleasure and knowledge. When my girls were learning to read, we had wicker baskets in every room filled with age-appropriate books from the library. Putting the books back in the baskets each night was a small price to pay as I watched their reading skills grow. Not sure what books are best? Great Books for Girls

  • and Great Books for Boys by Kathy Odean make choosing books a snap.

    Three: Chapter Books and Magazines
    Once my daughters could handle the easy readers, they were now ready for chapter books. A librarian suggested The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner as a good starter series. My daughter loved these books about four resourceful children and their adventures. Another good chapter book series is The Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne. The American Girl series (different authors) provides an exciting introduction to history. And who could resist the Nate the Great books by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, great mystery books about a boy detective and his dog Sludge.

    Magazines can be a good source of reading material. My daughter eagerly awaited the monthly arrival of Highlights, Ladybug, National Geographic World, and, from the National Wildlife Federation, Ranger Rick ( Your Big Backyard is the version for younger kids). She felt very grown up getting her own magazines and we'd read each one as soon as it arrived. I chose these particular magazines because they contain no advertisements, and are exceptionally well-written (especially Ladybug, ages two to six, and later Spider, ages six to nine).

    Additional Resources
    Don't forget that your computer is a great resource for encouraging your young readers. FamilyEducation.com has games, printouts and teaching tools to help spark your kids' interest in reading. You might want to look at Reading and Writing Skill-Builders.

    Problems?
    Suppose you've waited until your child is older and read to her daily, but she's still not reading. What then? For those homeschoolers who suspect there may be serious reading or comprehension problems, I recommend a consultation with a reading specialist. Homeschooling families are often able to have their child tested for free through the public-school system. One friend found her child's reading specialist listed in the phone book. Your child will be tested and you'll receive recommendations on how to correct any problems. Also visit our resource page, When Reading is Rough.

    What a privilege it is to share the mysterious code of reading with your child. Making reading a joyful experience now will create a love of reading that will last a lifetime.

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