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Learning to Read

by Sue Smith Heavenrich

This article offers a joyful, balanced approach to early literacy.

I am sure my children learned to read by osmosis. I certainly didn't teach them. It wasn't for lack of materials, understand. I had phonics books and some anthologies accompanied by thick spiral bound teacher's guides detailing ways to incorporate literature into science, math, and social studies. What I didn't have was time enough to cram reading lessons into a day already crowded with play and exploration. Every evening after reading aloud I'd look over the reading curriculum materials, promising myself I'd get to them "next week". That was four years ago I have yet to complete a lesson. In the meantime my children have learned to read. Total immersion in real-life-everyday-experiences and an environment rich in literature has taught them to make sense of the printed language.

Children Need Books

Children learn to read in much the same way they learn to speak, by being exposed to the language; in this case print. Having books around the house, and reading them aloud is the best way to get your children started in reading. In a neighboring school district almost 25% of the children begin school with no exposure to books in their homes. For them, print is as exotic as vine ripened tomatoes in January.

Reading and writing need to be an integral part of daily family communication. In our house there are notes on the fridge, shopping lists, and various check-lists taped to the wall. In addition to books, we read family letters aloud, and encourage our children write letters to friends.

Reading aloud is important

There are three things parents should do to give their children an early start on the path of literacy: read aloud, read aloud, read aloud. Try to set aside at least one traditional time each day for reading aloud - it could be the most important 15 or 20 minutes of your whole day. Children learn about reading by being read to. Not only do they learn to appreciate a diversity of stories, but they learn about the language, how words are used, rhythm, sound.

Bedtime is our traditional storytime, though in the winter we often spend half an hour before breakfast reading aloud. I'm not sure whether it's interest in the books, or just the reluctance to get out of a warm bed and light the fire. We also attend storytelling performances and puppet shows which, while not strictly "reading aloud," fill the same role.

Combine Phonics And Whole Language

Sooner or later someone will ask, "Do you use phonics or a whole language approach?" Educators still seem to be divided into two camps when it comes to teaching children how to read. There are those who feel that traditional phonics is the way to go: teach the alphabet letters and sounds, then put them together to learn words. The opposing camp emphasizes learning to read through the context of literature. Separately, neither approach gives a young reader the best background. You need both. Together.

Children need to learn that written letters stand for and 'make' spoken sounds, and that the order of the written letters matches the order of the spoken sounds. Kept in this perspective, phonics is a good and useful tool. But there's more to reading than letter-sound correlation. Take the letter "c" as found in "city", "cat", and "science". One of the problems with using phonics as the primary method of teaching reading is the fact that no single sound in our language is represented by only one letter, and no letter represents only a single sound. There are hundreds of phonics rules, and many exceptions. If you knew all the rules and applied them you might pronounce a word correctly perhaps 25% of the time.

Children need a chance to explore relationships between sounds, letters, and letter patterns. This is why writing needs to become an integral part of learning how to read. Not the writing of spelling lists and perfect penmanship, but the writing of getting an idea down, and putting letters together in a way to make the sounds you need. Invented spelling. Writing for meaning.

Children also need to get a feeling for the language and how it fits together. They need to read books by real authors, not dumbed down abridged versions printed in textbook anthologies.

The Gift Of Time

Many children are not ready to read at the age of 6 or 7, or even 9 or 10. However, most research shows that even late readers "catch up" to their peers rather quickly. Still, we worry. If our child has not showed any interest in reading we wonder if he'll remain illiterate for the rest of his life. Or perhaps you're homeschooling a child who learned to read in school, but he'd rather scrub toilets than open a book.

"There are many things parents can do to encourage reluctant readers," says Carol Cedarholm, a Reading Recovery teacher in Ithaca, New York. "Most important is to begin with what your child can do and work from there. Go to libraries and hunt for books. Look at the printed text. For beginning readers you want books in which pictures convey the message, and where printed words have clear sound/symbol relationships. Books like Go Dog Go and Hop on Pop."

But kids need more than books around their home. They need to see parents reading too. You can't impress a child with the importance of reading if you spend your leisure time in front of the tube.

What do you do with a child who can read but won't? "Read aloud, read together, and do some interactive writing," suggests Carol. "Invite your child to help write grocery lists, add to letters to friends, and read with you. And remember: read yourself."

The Reading-Writing Connection

No matter who you talk to about reading, after awhile one thing becomes clear. Reading and writing are part of the same process. In teaching children to read, we teach them that there is a connection between what is printed and the spoken word. In writing, we reinforce that.

Just as some parents worry about whether their children will ever learn to read, I used to fret that I'd be taking dictation from my kids when they were in college. They simply don't write.

Often children are not ready to write because their fine motor skills are not fully developed. Playing with Lego© bricks, cutting & gluing, stringing buttons, playing with clay, painting and drawing are all things that can help develop these motor skills. One reading teacher used to put soapy water on the kitchen counter and give her young child a paint brush to "paint the counter".

I go to great lengths to encourage my children to write. "If you want me to buy marshmallows, you have to write it on the shopping list." No luck.

Then a friend suggested a marvelous idea . "Write a book with him," she said. For over a year Coulter and I co-authored a book. Coulter wrote a paragraph or so, then put the notebook on my desk. Next day I'd add my installment to the story and return it to him. Eventually he wrote more, and we began having "editorial meetings" to discuss the plot and characters.

There are other, more practical ways to work writing into your day. Last December I was busy scrubbing the evidence of fudge-making from the kitchen counters when Toby rushed into the kitchen in a panic. "I forgot to buy Coulter a Christmas present! We have to go shopping!"

"Write a note on the fridge," I said, trying to wipe the chocolate off the counter.

He got a blue sticky note and a favorite pencil, then laid belly down on the kitchen floor. "How do you spell shopping?"

"Say the word. Listen to it," I say. "How does it start?"


"What comes next?"

Toby says a long a-h-h-h sound. "An 'a' or an 'o'." Eventually he spells shopping as "s-h-a-pin-g". But in the context of the note it makes sense. And Toby has discovered that he can communicate important messages through print.

Reading On Their Own

All the reading experts I talked to agreed that once children are reading on their own, you should keep on reading aloud to them. Their level of understanding is at least two years beyond their reading ability. By reading more sophisticated literature aloud you introduce them to new concepts and broaden their vocabulary. Have them read aloud to you as well. I'll often ask one of my children to read to me as I'm cooking dinner, and they love to read jokes as we drive.

We talk about books. And authors. We critique books we've read, sometimes mark passages to share aloud. We'll discuss a favorite author's style, comparing him to another author. Or we might "compare and contrast" a few books written by a single author.

Clearly, my children are reading, and enjoying it. But I still feel guilty. Shouldn't I be teaching them something?

©1997, Sue Smith Heavenrich

This article first appeared in Home Education Magazine (March-April, 1997) and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2, page 11

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