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Thursday, July 25, 2013

What We Tried for Reading

One of the fundamental concepts in my somewhat unconventional views on education is that if you can give a kid the ability to read, to love reading, and access to reading materials, you've done about 75% of the work of educating because about 75% of everything worth knowing can be found in a book. That said, teaching a child to read is probably the first stumbling block any home educator will encounter. You can drill; you can bribe; you can read to them, play educational games, let them watch educational videos, but until a kid feels ready, you can't really force a child to get the idea behind phonics. It's kind of like potty training or sleeping through the night. There are tricks and methods, but what really counts is whether or not your kid feels ready.

For Coryn, in spite of various promptings, things didn't click until recently (she's now five and a half), even though I started teaching her basic phonics before her fourth birthday. I'm not sure if our recent success is because of the latest in a string of writing programs we've tried or if she is simply ready (She had protested that she didn't want to read because she always wanted me to read TO her, so she may have been resistant to it at an emotional as well as a developmental level). Here is a tour of the different things we have used and my opinion on each of them.

Our first attempt came when we were in Japan and I found the Bob Books, a set of early readers I remember from my mother teaching my younger siblings (I do not believe that she used them on me, but I couldn't tell you exactly what she did use for me. It's been awhile).

Bob Books used to come with a full curriculum and I am sure that is still available somewhere, but we never tried it. The books, however, are a reasonably priced set of first readers. It is very hard to find books that don't involve a lot of sight words, magic e words, or other words that a child cannot grasp  phonetically. I do recommend these books, but I found them too early on in the process and though I swear I purchased a set shortly after, I haven't been able to find them which is weird and frustrating. 



A friend recommended Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and I have seen other people raving about it. Coryn hated it. It is incredibly structured and clinical. You are supposed to stick with the script and read exactly what is on the page, and my own nature bucked against that. It was also really boring, really repetitive, and it took forever to get to any real reading. Maybe if your child is brand new to phonics and does very well with structure, but that is neither my teaching style or Coryn's learning style. We still have it sitting in a pile of books somewhere. I should probably sell it.


For something different, I tried the Rock and Learn: Phonics video next. This video is cute, catchy, and surprisingly comprehensive in the way it introduces kids to long and short vowel sounds. Coryn, however, is not apparently an auditory learner and it didn't seem to make any difference in her long term learning. It is also hard to tell if she is listening to the actual words or just the tune. It is a cool supplemental tool, but  hardly enough to teach reading on its own.

Alpha-phonics was next. It is highly recommended by a lot of blogs and it does have several advantages. Unlike 100 Easy Lessons it fairly quickly gets into words and even sentences. It is very simple and it is hard to get distracted (Coryn is easily distracted by things like pictures, the way certain letters in a font look, or whatever her little sister happens to be doing at the moment). For the first several lessons it worked like a charm. However, as it got on further into the book and the lists of words became longer, Coryn started to get frustrated. To put it simply, this book is really boring. The long lists of phonics drills are probably good for retention, but they did not suit Coryn's temperament at all, and she would start moaning when I got the book out.

Finally someone recommended Hooked on Phonics.

I was skeptical of this product because I remember growing up seeing commercials for it and I had it in my head that it was an "As Seen on TV" rip off I'd have to pay four easy payments  of 19.99 plus shipping and handling or some nonsense like that. Actually, considering what you are getting, it is what I consider to be reasonably priced. You can get everything you need for kindergarten on Amazon for around $50. This includes dvds, workbooks, and readers. For each lesson your child will watch a short dvd introducing the letter sounds of the day which you follow up with a similar lesson in the workbook and then a story using the words that you learned that day. At the end of each three lesson unit there is a reader. It also introduces sight words.

Why I think this has worked so well for Coryn is that it isn't flashy and distracting (Coryn finds odd things distracting), the dvds are simply animated, not at all gimmicky, but it also quickly introduces the kids to reading not a list of words but a story! 

At the end of the first lesson she was excited! Something clicked and she asked to do a second lesson. She powered through that and then requested a third. I told her no, I was afraid she wouldn't be able to concentrate through another, we should take a break. She said, "Okay, I'll just read a story then." 

At that point, she flipped ahead three lessons and somehow read a story that she hadn't even learned the words yet (with a little help on one or two words). The next time we talked to Grandma on Skype she read her three or four stories. 

She still has some weaknesses in the reading department. Coryn has her mother's love for short cuts and likes to guess rather than sound out words, but we are definitely getting there. She has started asking to read the "words she knows" when we are doing story time, and that list of words grows every day. 

So while all of these programs/curriculum have their uses, strengths, and weaknesses, our best results were definitely with Hooked on Phonics.

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