Before I’ve even started homeschooling, I’ve completely changed my thinking about the best way to move forward in teaching literacy skills to my daughters. Somehow I think I’m going to learn as much or more through homeschooling as the littles. I knew we would start working on letter recognition this year, and in formulating my curriculum plan for age three, I realized that would include learning letter sounds. I figured we would start with A and work our way through to Z, and I thought we’d start with uppercase letters and move onto lowercase letters later. I wasn’t so sure how to go about teaching letter sounds, so I started doing some online research. What I’ve found out is that there are a number of strategies used to teach a child to read, and sorting out what is best for your child is not only complicated, but also controversial. Who would have thought that teaching children to read could be the source of so many strong opinions and disagreements? This is what I’ve discovered:
Phonics or Whole Word Approach?
The two most popular methods of teaching reading are phonics and the whole word or whole language approach, also called look and say or sight reading. Phonics is learning letter sounds and phonetic rules that are used to sound out or decode a word. The whole word method is often taught in conjunction with pictures; children relate the look of a sight word to a picture that gives an indication of the word’s meaning. Proponents say it is better than phonics for reading comprehension; opponents say that it doesn’t give children the skills they need to read new, unfamiliar words as they come across them. The whole word approach makes sense to me for words that break the phonetic rules but not as the primary way to teach reading. There are some experts who would strongly agree with me and others who would strongly disagree. Since at the moment I’m not planning to use the whole word approach as our primary method of reading instruction, I won’t go into it any further here but if you want to find out more I found The Reading Wars an interesting review of the subject.
Phonics With Standard Letters or SRA DISTAR?
So I’ve made my first decision, we are going to begin with phonics. I thought it would be pretty straightforward from there but within the phonics school of thought is another divide. There is a book called Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons that has been at the top of my Amazon wish list for a while now. It gets great reviews, is targeted at preschoolers, and uses a system called SRA DISTAR. It is a scripted phonics program that, by all accounts, is easy to follow and tells you exactly how to teach reading to your child. I thought great, reading covered.
Then I read that children who are taught with DISTAR may have trouble with spelling later on because DISTAR uses an altered orthographic code, which is a fancy way of saying that the letters look different (for example there is a different symbol for a long e sound and a short e sound). I haven’t been able to find a study that supports this, I have just seen a number of comments from parents who have used this method and complain that their children, now years older, are struggling with spelling and they believe it is due to the altered orthographic code. In these same forums other parents, who have also used this program, state that their children spell just fine.
I have never tried the program so I can’t give any insight from personal experience, but to my mind it makes sense to start children off recognizing the letters they are currently seeing and will continue to see. That thought, along with the fact that I don’t have the book and can’t get a copy before I want to start working on letters with Boo, has led me to disregard it at this time with the option to come back to it if what we start with doesn’t work out well. One review of this program that also discusses the whole word method can be found at Yahoo Voices.
Uppercase or Lowercase First?
Teaching lowercase letters before uppercase letters seems to be widely recommended because the vast majority of letters children come across in any given day will be lowercase letters. The children’s books we read to them alone prove this point. If children are taught to recognize lowercase letters before uppercase letters, they will have more opportunities to practice what they are learning and be rewarded for their efforts more regularly. This makes absolute sense to me and so we will start our letter work with lowercase letters, but I have to wonder why this didn’t occur to me sooner and why most play letters I have come across are uppercase. Luckily this is something that a teacher friend of mine recommended quite a while ago, so Boo is getting a set of wooden lowercase stringing beads from MomMom and PopPop for her birthday next week. We will be ready to go in May!
Letter Names and/or Letter Sounds?
There is a school of thought that children should not be taught the names of letters until they learn the sounds the letters make. If the purpose of learning letters is to have a child be able to open up a book and start reading, this makes a lot of sense. If a child learns the letter names before, or along with, letter sounds, it is one more piece of information that they need to process, and filter out, before they start reading. If a child looks at a letter and only associates the sound it makes with that letter, it lends itself to the natural progression of sounding out words. I like this idea but fear that it will be difficult in practice. Boo has recently become very interested in letters and asks about them often. My immediate reaction when she asks “what letter is this?” is to tell her the letter’s name. I think it will be difficult for me to make the switch to telling her only the sound it makes, and it’s not just me she is hearing letter names from. She has a toy that says the letter name of each letter she pushes, and the phonics learning websites that I am planning to utilize, and will share with you in just a moment, also teach the letter name with the letter sound. This one we are going to have to figure out as we go. I like the idea but, in practice, we may still be learning letter names and sounds together.
What Order to Introduce Letters?
Teaching letters in their sequential order from A to Z has also come under fire. There are again many opinions; some say children should learn the letters most relevant to them first (the letters of their name and of people and items that are important to them), others feel that it is important to introduce simple sounds before complex sounds, and still others believe letters should be taught in order of the frequency with which they occur in writing (from most frequent to least frequent). I’m not going to get too hung up on this except for the fact that I am not going to teach A to Z in that order. We’ll do whatever ends up making the most sense with our reading program as we move forward.
My Revised Plan
So, where does this leave me? I’ve now rethought just about everything I was planning to do and come up with a whole new plan. We are about to start with letters. At the moment Boo recognizes a handful of letters, mostly those in her name. She can tell me the letter name and, with a couple of them, the sound they make. We are about to really focus on recognizing lowercase letters and their sounds. I’m going to try to teach her the sounds without teaching her the letter names. My plan is to wait until she is pretty confident with recognizing her lowercase letters and able to make their sounds before introducing uppercase letters and letter names, however, I realize that this may not work for us and we may be introducing letter names along with letter sounds. Once she starts blending letter sounds and sounding out words, we will introduce sight words that break the phonetic rules as we come upon them. As with everything related to homeschooling, I reserve the right to throw out all the research I’ve done and start over if where we start doesn’t seem to be moving us towards the end we desire.
Some resources I’ve discovered that I believe will be a huge help to us along the way:
- Phonic Talk: A site developed by teachers that explains phonics and how to begin phonic instruction.
- Progressive Phonics: A free, all in one, phonics program with downloadable books and corresponding handwriting and activity worksheets. This program starts with the alphabet and works up to advanced phonics. In addition to teaching phonics, it also teaches essential sight words that break phonetic rules.
- Starfall: A site that offers free phonics games in four levels starting with letter recognition and letter sounds and moving up to short stories.
Keep an eye out for our weekly curriculum once we start homeschooling in May and begin turning these ideas into lesson plans. I would also love to hear your thoughts if you have used any of these methods. What worked and what didn’t?