Childhood:  The User’s Manual



Chapter Seven:  Reading


David Elkind wrote several books (Miseducation:  Preschoolers at Risk; and The Hurried Child) and mostly I agree with him.  He argues that parents should not get invested in their children becoming academically advanced superkids, and shouldn’t start forcing them into activities designed to “teach” them at an incredibly early age. 

Let kids be kids.  They don’t have to be taking t-ball or ballet or karate and three.  They don’t need to be in academically rigorous pre-schools.  There is plenty of time for all that.  In all the “play” activities in the last chapter there was an educational purpose, but it is far less important than the act of playing.  Developing a healthy, happy, centered, relaxed kid through tons of play is far more important than teaching them specific skills before age five. 

At the same time, I think that teaching your kid to read early, if (and only if) the kid wants to learn, has a number of advantages.  One is that it opens up the world to the kid.  When the kid can read signs on shops, he feels more comfortable in the world, just as you do if you visit a foreign country where you know the language a little, versus visiting a country where the signs are all in Arabic.  (There might be other reasons right now for nervousness in a country where the signs were all in Arabic, I confess.)

Also, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy about reading.  In the early grades of school, learning how to read is a major task.  A kid who walks in with some reading skills has a lower stress time in the first few grades of school and is better able to concentrate on all the other skills of beginning to deal with groups.

So if your kid wants to learn to read, it is helpful to be prepared to teach her, provided that the act of teaching is fun for both of you.

I grew up in a bookstore in Terre Haute, Indiana, so I have a strong bias in favor of sitting around the house by a warm fire reading my book and drinking cocoa, and that is a behavior I have modeled quite frequently for the last 45 years, to the detriment of my figure.  At three, Andrew constantly wanted to be read to, and so for me, teaching him to read was an act of self-preservation:  I couldn’t get time to read my book until his skills were enough developed to read his.   At the same time, learning to read had to be as much fun for him as being read to, and so I had to be creative about games and activities that would advance his skills.

The most useful resource I found in my quest was a wonderful book by Peggy Kaye called Games for Reading.    Most of the games are designed for older elementary school kids who are struggling with reading skills.  I used a few of them outright and others I adapted for younger children, and then I also made up some games of my own.  I really recommend the book, which is still in print, since different kids will respond to different games.

There are two basic approaches to teaching a kid to read, and the problem with primary education over the last hundred years is that educators keep whip-sawing between one or the other, whereas the best approach (which will occur naturally in your living room if you talk to your kid) is to use both of them.   The “look-say” or “whole language” method is that you expose the kid to a whole lot of words (by reading simple stories with him, by pointing out words on signs, by showing them words written out on cards) and he eventually learns a lot of words and begins to put them together.   The “phonics” approach is that you teach the kid the sounds of the sounds of the letters and how to decode a word by pronouncing its sounds, and eventually she learns to sound out an unfamiliar word and recognize it as a familiar concept.   “Wa” “ter” becomes “water” just as it did with Helen Keller, and the kid can be pretty excited by successfully figuring that out.

We switched back and forth between the two approaches, mostly just incorporating the concepts in our daily life, and spending some money on relevant toys and lots and lots of money on preschool and “early reading” books.  There are companies that sell educational supplies for nursery schools.   “Lakeshore” is a good one.  They have web sites.

The first thing we did, long before Andrew could even talk, is to keep up a running narrative about simple signs we passed, encouraging him to look at the words.   “Look Andrew,” I’d say as they drove off to pre-school, “there is the Milk sign.  See, it says M-I-L-K, which spells milk, and there is a picture of a cow, because cows give Milk.”   This little speech, repeated daily, worked, and at the age of 18 months, Andrew nearly caused his father to wreck the car, because we drove past the sign (which simply had a picture of a cow and the word “MILK”) and Andrew said brightly to his father, “Look Daddy, MILK.”   Peter called me, a little hesitantly, and said, “Do you say MILK every day when you pass the picture of the cow?”  Sure enough—and Andrew never forgot the word.

The next step in teaching him how to read was to buy magnetic alphabet letters for the refrigerator and various other kinds of puffy alphabet letters for his toy box, and alphabet books for his book shelf (particularly weird and interesting alphabet books with silly pictures).   Once I recovered from the painful consequences of Andrew learning how to make a capital “A” (all over the sofas) we proceeded with the rest of the letters.  But we didn’t sit down and have “lessons.”  The books were just in with the other books.  The toys were in with the other toys.  We played, and one of the games we played was spelling out words.  We read, and one of the things we read were his various alphabet books.  He particularly liked an alphabet book of insects and beetles.  We bought all the materials when he was two, and before he was three, without any of us having “worked” at it in any way whatsoever, he knew most of his letters.

Not all kids are interested.  I learned to read the same way Andrew did (having figured out, since my parents owned a bookshop, that I would have a lot more fun in the store if I could read the books).  But my husband had all the educational books and toys around, and a mom with a masters in child development, and yet he didn’t get interested in reading until he was in school.   If the kid isn’t interested, just play with something else.  The world won’t end if the kid doesn’t learn to read till first grade.

Fortunately for me, since I thought the whole thing was fun, Andrew did too.

The next skill to teach them is about matching—and there are all sorts of games for little kids where a picture on a card is “matched” to a picture on a board.  “Go fish” is also a matching game.  Matching is related to reading because it teaches the kid that two identical pictures always have the same name—which is the same concept as the concept that “milk” on the cow sign and “milk” written on the page both mean Milk!

After we had spent countless hours playing with the boxes of letters, I introduced a game of spelling things out and playing with the sounds.   We’d spell out simple words like “milk” or “dad” or “pot” and test each other on the sounds.  Then we’d try to find things we could spell, and then put the magnetic letters up on the refrigerator.  Phonics lessons just got introduced when we wanted to spell something more complicated.  (Long vowel sounds got introduced when Andrew wanted to spell out “poop” and “pee.”)

Once he had learned some words from signs, knew most of the letters, and knew some of the sounds, I introduced three games.   One is taken directly from Kaye’s “Games for Reading;”  (though I may have changed it a bit) and another one an adaptation loosely based on one of her concepts.  (Go buy the book.  It’s a swell book.)

The first game is called “Word Bingo” and it requires a little preparation, which is quite easy on the computer.   First you make a grid of 25 squares, and you type a simple word in the center of each square.   (Make the grid on the computer, because you will be playing this over and over again, periodically replacing the words with new words.  The Microsoft word “table” function works fine for this.)   Print out two copies of the grid for each “player”.   (Start by playing alone with your spouse and kid—but ultimately the other kids in the play group or preschool will like this game too.)  One grid is the “bingo card” for each kid.  The other grid gets cut up into individual cards with the word on it.  Everybody has a complete set of all words in the deck. 

The first time you play, you shuffle the cards face down (with each player keeping his own deck) and then you take turns drawing a card, reading the word, and putting the card face down on the identical spot on the grid.   The first time it doesn’t matter if the kid doesn’t know the word—you help him sound it out and then he finds the matching word by looking for the spot with the same set of letters.

Because Andrew absolutely loved this game, we played it every evening for weeks, and sure enough, pretty soon he knew all 25 words.   Then I changed the grid and kept about half the words and added some new ones.   We had various grids, some with easy words, some with hard words.  When he learned a new concept, like “silent e” we would have a grid with all silent e words. 

The concept of learning, matching, memorizing words is a “whole language” strategy—but the way we got to the learning was to sound the words out and have special grids for particular phonics concepts, which is a “phonics” strategy.   But the main point was that Andrew thought it was fun because it was a way he could get the whole, undivided attention of both parents at the same time.   And without knowing it, he learned to read.

The next step was to introduce him to the concept that he could read a book all by himself.   I chose Seuss’s Hop on Pop, though my own first book was The Cat in the Hat, also by Seuss.  For weeks before we tackled Hop on Pop, I encouraged Andrew to find words he knew in the picture books we read together.  We had all sorts of helpful books from the picture book section of the bookstore, but I always found books that had the picture and also the word, so that we could identify the picture and look at the word.  By the time we got to Hop on Pop, he knew quite a few of the words in the book, and was very proud that he could read a whole book, “all by self.”

At this point, Andrew suddenly got bored with “word bingo” so I introduced three other games, and he liked two of them. 

His favorite game was called “word quest”  which I adapted considerably from an initial concept of Kaye’s.   I created little “nests” all over the house.  In each nest was a plastic fighting guy (preferably a scary looking monster).  Each nest also had a little bit of satin or a scarf, shaped into the form of a nest.  Each nest also had a plastic jewel (or a necklace out of my jewel box—something to be “treasure.”  The last and biggest nest had a better treasure, which included some candy.   Each nest also had a WORD on a slip of paper, and many of them were new words that Andrew didn’t already know from word bingo.   There were twelve nests.

Part of this game was preparing Andrew for the concept of frustration.  Learning to read is actually pretty frustrating because you have to keep learning new words and you have to learn all these tricky new skills of sounding things out.  So I warned Andrew that the first time he played the game, he wouldn’t win the “big treasure”—that it would take several tries and not to be upset by the fact that he would probably not make it on the first try. 

So first I gave him a list of the twelve words and told him that he needed to learn them.  We read them together, sounding them out, until he was familiar with them.   I told him he would have to get the first eleven right in order to win the right to go on to the “big boss” which was in the twelfth nest.  Then we got his own favorite plastic fighting guy and went to the first nest.  He took the slip of paper and read the word aloud.  If he got it correctly, then his plastic fighting guy could fight and defeat the plastic monster in the nest, and he could collect the treasure.  If he missed the word, then we put the word and the treasure back, and went on to the next nest. 

At the end of the first eleven nests, he had missed a few.  He was sad, but I comforted him and told him that he was doing just fine.  I put new treasure (but the same words) back into the nest, and we studied the words he had missed and played again.  After a few tries, he got all the words right, collected all the treasure, fought the “big boss” and got the candy.

We played the same game with the same words until he knew them cold, and then we substituted new words.  

Every single one of Andrew’s friends wanted to play this game, so for about a year I had to make nests for every play date, with different levels of word for their different reading levels.  I got a kick out of the fact that sometimes four preschoolers would be over at my house absolutely begging me to stop what I was doing and teach them to read.

As they got more fluent, I also introduced a treasure hunt game.  In this, there were also nests with treasure, but in each nest the slip of paper was a clue that led to the next nest.  I’d start out by handing Andrew a slip that said “under living room table.”  He knew “under” and “table” and would sound out living room, go under the table, and find the next nest with the treasure.  That nest would contain a slip that said “in bath tub” and then he’d figure that one out. 

When he had this much fluency in knowing words, he decided that he’d like to play school.  So I got a set of McGuffey’s readers (used in small schools all over the country in the 19th century) and went through the primer with him, giving him a gold star for each page.  I also got from Lakeshore a set of very early reading primers, and I made a few of my own, composed entirely of words Andrew already knew, so that he could be successful.  The “playing school” game didn’t work as well as the others because Andrew was too squirmy, but we played it when he was interested.

After he knew quite a lot of words, I noticed that he was having trouble telling the difference between “p” “b” “q” and “d”.   So we talked about those four letters and how tricky it was to tell them apart.  Then I took a game straight from Peggy Kaye and we labeled everything in the house that began with any of those letters.  We got tape and made signs and spent the evening putting signs on things.  Our friend Diane was visiting and was very good natured when Andrew pinned “diane” on her.   Peter had two signs:  “peter” and “daddy.”   But we had signs for the “bookcase,” the “quilt,” the “potatoes,”  my “purse,” and the “bar.”   Andrew never had trouble with those four letters again after that evening, and he had a whole lot of fun.

In general, I am very good about holding limits on buying toys and treats when with a preschooler in a store.  But one exception (which Andrew discovered early on) is that I am putty in his hands if I am in a bookstore alone with Andrew.  Peter really prefers that we take him along.  When I grew up, books were a free good, like air.  I could have any book that I wanted, and Andrew looks upon bookstores exactly the same way.  So we went to bookstores and as his reading skills increased, so did his library.  We graduated from easy readers to chapter books, and in time we could all three sit by the fire reading and drinking our cocoa together.

Reading early opened Andrew’s world.  If he got interested in the stars at night, I would buy him a book about them the next week.  Usborne has a fabulous set of books about how the natural world works, so Andrew got an early grounding in science too.  We told him stories of the Greek myths and got him books about the Greek gods and heroes, and he loved them.   As we introduced him to computer games for kids, we graduated him to the next game as soon as he could read all the words in his current games. 

But in teaching him reading, we still tried to keep in mind Elkind’s advice about not hurrying the kid.  If he didn’t enjoy a game, we dropped it.  We let him choose how to expand his world, and simply made the materials available and provided the parental support.  When he got to kindergarten he was far ahead of his grade in reading, because that interested him.  But he was not particularly ahead in Math (though we had similar games for math learning, and played kid monopoly with him, and made math materials available too.)  He simply was less interested.  

Teaching your preschool kid is tremendously rewarding, provided that you view it from the standpoint of the kid’s ego, not your own.  You are not a better or worse parent depending on whether your kid learns to read at age four.  Offer the materials, offer the time, and let your preschool kid exercise choice.  Learning competence, decision making skills, and self-confidence is far more important for the preschool kid than whether or not he learns the difference between “fat” and “fate” or “bet” and “beet.”  It will all come in good time.