Monday, October 14, 2013

{The Three R's in Our Homeschool}: Reading

I've been planning to do a post on what we do for Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic for a while now. I think the thought of writing about all of it at once was giving me writer's block, so the obvious solution is to break it up into a series.

I realize that SA is still young at five years old to start lessons according to Charlotte Mason's method, but each child is unique, and SA is clearly ready and eager to learn. Our lessons are short (5 minutes for reading, 15 for math, and 10 for writing) and interspersed with times of indoor and outdoor free play. JJ (3) usually joins us for our lessons, though I'm not sure how much he gets from them. For that matter, MM (1) is usually close by, too, often on my back in the baby carrier so he can't get ahold of the pencil crayons or the Cuisenaire rods. (Everything goes in his mouth, unfortunately!)

When I first read in When Children Love to Learn about Charlotte Mason's method for teaching reading, I wasn't very impressed. It was presented as mainly a look-say or whole word method. My understanding about these kinds of methods in general has always been that they have failed. Many children do learn to read in our school systems using these methods, but too many also get left behind. It has always been my impression that the students who learn to read well using look-say methods are the ones that actually figure out the phonics for themselves. Those who do not learn to read using look-say are often given remedial phonics instruction. I have always been a firm believer in phonics. My own experience learning to read has only solidified this belief. My siblings and I all learned to read with a pure phonics approach and promptly turned into voracious readers. We spell well, too. So why would I even consider Miss Mason's approach?

SA has known his letters and their sounds for quite some time now. He also knows how to sound out short vowel words. I know that sounds like good progress for a five-year-old. The problem was that he was not interested. He didn't care about reading at all. He would willingly read a few words in the stories I was reading to him and JJ, but that didn't translate into any excitement. If I broke out our phonics book, it held his interest for a maximum of two minutes. (I never pushed him to continue longer than he was interested because I didn't want him to associate reading with frustration.)

Then one day my mother-in-law showed me my husband's notebook from his learning-to-read days. She had taught him and another little boy using phonics and sight words. She made sentences that were relevant and interesting to them (about their pets or their home life, for example). I went out and bought a blank notebook. We practiced reading "word families" (cat, hat, rat, sat, etc.) as I wrote them out, and then I would write an interesting sentence for him to read (S has a cat. The cat is Mango.). His interest was finally holding for about five minutes.

About that time, I came across this post on one of my favourite Charlotte Mason blogs. It made me curious enough to skip ahead and read the section on reading lessons in Volume 1 of the Charlotte Mason Original Homeschooling Series. I found a more complex method of reading instruction than I expected. Yes, it emphasizes sight reading, but it does not neglect phonics. The thing that really jumped out at me was that she did everything she could to make learning to read a process full of interest and joy for the child. This is what was lacking in our reading lessons. While I still wasn't convinced about the emphasis on sight words, I decided that I at least had to try her method out as an experiment.

So how does Charlotte Mason recommend you teach reading?

First, teach the ABCs and their sounds (the sounds are more important). It doesn't really matter if you start when your child is very young and go slowly, or if you start when they are older and learn more quickly. Make it a game, part of their play as soon as they show an interest. No pressure, no showing off.

Second, teach how to sound out short-vowel, three-letter words. This process is just as relaxed and playful as learning the letter sounds. Use word families with the same endings, and change the beginning sounds. Always use real words, not meaningless syllables.

Third, when sounding out short-vowel words is "so easy that it is no longer interesting", move on to words with long vowels and consonant combinations like -ng and th.

All of this is pre-reading, according to Charlotte Mason. It lays the ground-work so that "words are no longer unfamiliar, perplexing objects, when the child meets with them in a line of print." (V.1, p.203) So, while her reading method is very much a look-say method (as we will see), it is yet grounded in phonics.

Here is where it gets interesting.

At the same time as you are working on phonics, begin having sight-reading lessons. Using a poem or a short piece of prose that is interesting for the child, teach him to recognise each word in it individually at sight. Miss Mason had some fun, game-like methods for this, and I advise you to read them for yourself in her Volume 1, Home Education, p. 212-219. When the child can read the words in any combination, put them together into the poem or passage you took them from and give him the delight of being able to read it on his own.

Once you have begun these sight-reading lessons, you can base your "word building" phonics lessons on the words learned by sight. For example, if you learned the word "tree" by sight, the next day you can try different beginning sounds and make the words "bee," "free," and "see".

Once you get into the rhythm of this, a child should be able to learn 10-12 new words each day.

As I mentioned, I decided to try this as an experiment. We began with a book called "Chicka Chicka ABC." Now I know Charlotte Mason discourages "twaddle" even at this level, but this has a very catchy rhythm and SA loves it. We started with the first two lines:
A told B, and B told C,
I'll meet you at the top of the coconut tree.

He learned to read the entire book by sight within a week. What's more, he was reading with expression. Before CM, I would have assumed this was pure memorization and not valuable when it came to learning to read. But the fact is, because we paid attention to each word, he now reads those words easily wherever he sees them. We followed that with the gingerbread man's rhyme:
Run! Run! Fast as you can!
You can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man! etc.
On alternate days we built new words with the words run, fast, and can.

It's working! He is interested in his reading lessons now. I feel a bit like I'm flying by the seat of my pants as I make up a lesson every day, but so far rhymes and short prose passages have suggested themselves from the reading aloud we do.

I am still sceptical of Charlotte Mason's faith in sight reading in general, but the truth is that adding sight reading alongside our phonics lessons has solved our problem. Reading is interesting and fun now. We haven't achieved the rate of ten words per day yet, but we are making progress, and I know how I need to go on. It is working for this child.

If anyone is struggling with boredom or frustration in reading lessons, it will be worthwhile to read for yourself what Charlotte Mason has to say on the subject. As for me, I have a few more children to teach reading to and gain more experience in what works and what does not. For now, I have one more reason to trust Miss Mason and her methods.


  1. Have you try the "teaching your child to read in 100 easy lesson" method, is it pretty much learning to read with phonics but the lesson plan is all made up for you. From talking to the homeschool group over here, lots of parents are using it, most of them with success but it is not for every child or parent ( I do have the book and used it a bit, works fine for us) I also use the "Bob Books" that are simple book that early readers can read all by themselves and sometime being able to read a book from cover to cover is just what is needed to give them the "I love to read bug" :-)

    1. Yes, I have Bob Books. We like them a lot! I haven't looked at the 100 Easy Lessons book, but I have Phonics Pathways, which is another straightforward phonics program.

  2. You are so right to trust Charlotte Mason's insight in these matters. She understood children and her goal was to teach them, not to promote a method, philosophy, or product like so many do. Excellent article.