Thoughts on How to Teach Reading to my Kids

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?

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About Jody Tilbury

16 Responses to “Thoughts on How to Teach Reading to my Kids”

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  1. Ssssh says:

    If you do want the teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons…

    https://www.4shared.com/office/Vd3NSQWF/Teach_Your_Child_to_Read_in_10.html

  2. Cat Garner says:

    It’s recommended in uk letters and sounds document that you start with sounds s,a,t then i,p,n as you can form many 3 letter words from these letters. Check out my website for the link to it as it’s now been archived and is difficult to find.

    • Ssssh says:

      Wow, those 6 letters DO have a lot of words in them! I’m up to 53 and still finding more!

  3. Jody Tilbury says:

    Thanks so much for the info and especially for the book!

  4. Becky says:

    I am teaching my littles to read right now. We did the same as you- worked on letters, their sounds, and then slowly started to put them together. Have you ever been on starfall.com? We just started reading the BOB Books, which are pretty cheap little books but the kids LOVE being able to say they read the whole book. If you’d me to send you some I can:).

  5. Becky says:

    sorry *if you’d like*

  6. Jody Tilbury says:

    Yes – we are loving starfall and I’ve heard about the BOB books so will have to try them out. Thanks so much for the offer to send some but I think we have quite a way to go before we’ll be ready for them.

  7. Anne says:

    So, a couple other thoughts… 100 easy lessons is a great book and I’ve used it with all 3 of my children. It incorporates a lot of teaching methods that make it much easier for children who struggle with reading to learn. My children actually do not struggle (my daughters have both had a 5th grade reading level in 2nd grade. My son is 4, almost 5, and is already on lesson 25. A lot of phonics methods depend on rhyming to teach reading, but if a child doesn’t get rhyme, this is very difficult (my first daughter didn’t get rhyme until after she could read). I have not seen any difficulty for my kids transitioning out of the way words are written in the Distar method. I do follow up by using Phonics Pathways afterwards for more practice with blends and multisyllabic words. I have my children practice reading 2 pages a day until we finish that book. My oldest daughter is a very good speller and my second daughter is learning. I find that the key to spelling has more to do with how their brains work than using the “right” reading method. The more children read, the more they see different words and the better they are usually able to spell. Whole Language has been shown in many studies to be ineffective and my worst spellers in middle school were the ones who had learned to read by whole language. But, that’s just my two cents 😉

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Thank you for your two cents Anne! I appreciate it. We did actually try 100 Easy Lessons and I loved it but my daughter wasn’t very into it. We are now using Progressive Phonics which we are both enjoying but I think starting with 100 Easy Lessons has helped us a lot. I will definitely take a look at Phonics Pathways.

  8. You are a very thoughtful and thorough parent and homeschooler! I’m new to your website and just looked over your efforts to teach literacy to your preschooler, but have a few thoughts I’ll share. I work for a nonprofit center for teacher development (literacy) in Houston, Texas. We teach preschool and kinder teachers that the uppercase letters are easier to teach first because there is less chance for reversal, but this is very minor, and whatever you choose will probably be fine. We feel that teaching children the structure of the language they are trying to learn is very important, therefore phonemic awareness and phonics are important. However, your child is young and you live in a circumstance to develop the very most important thing that will help your child become a proficient reader – world knowledge (all the plants and animals!) – take advantage of it even if it takes precedence over the mechanical skills of reading like letter identification and letter sounds.

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment Barbara – I really appreciate it and I completely agree with world knowledge being so important as well as taking advantage of surroundings.

  9. A. Cab says:

    You should look at SWR. Spell to Write and Read. It is true phonics
    based and teaches decododing words to spell
    THEN read. The program is so solid in its breakdown
    of our language thate exceptions to the 70 phonograms
    are rare. It is not the easiest to dive into. 101 Easy Lessons is easier but
    I began to loose respect for 101 after seeing the SWR approach.
    Watch some lessons taught on you-tube. Check it out. A mom
    who cares as much as you do, enough to blog, may value
    this really serious breakdown of English.

  10. Katie says:

    Thank you for this post! I was looking over your awesome curriculum plan, and I wondered why you were starting with the lowercase letters. I love how you summed up your reasoning for planning this way with the information and theory to back it up. You are right that most of the toys/games/magnets have the uppercase letters, so I guess I need to start looking for more lowercase and making my own stuff. I’m excited to try this with my son in the next few weeks as all his friends are going to preschool and he’s stuck with me for now! Thanks again for your very helpful and informative information and blog posts.

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Thank you for commenting Katie – I’m so glad you found this helpful. Wishing you and your son all the very best with your homeschool!

  11. Pat says:

    I was doing a google search for the Distar reading program which was taught to my girls in school (they are now 27 and 30) and a link to your site popped up. I have pulled out some of my daughters’ old Distar books to introduce to my granddaughter and wanted to see if there were any negatives attached to the program. You mention spelling was one of the complaints about the program. Both of my daughters are great spellers which I attribute to their early reading skills. I thought the orthographic text was useful with early reading because it allowed for better success when sounding out words. They both transitioned seamlessly to “real” books.

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment Pat. I’ve heard a lot of wonderful reviews of Distar and mainly the spelling issue as a negative so it’s great to hear that wasn’t your experience. I’ve tried 100 Easy Lessons with both my girls now and it hasn’t been a great fit for my oldest but it seems to be working well for my youngest. I guess, as with everything, it is a good fit for some and not for others.