How I Taught My Kids to Read

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Continuing the series, FishMama’s Picks for Homeschooling, today I’m sharing how I taught my kids to read.How I Taught My Kids to Read

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One of the things I was reminded of this past year in our Extreme Homeschool Makeover was that the basics are good. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the basics. In fact, they are the building blocks to learning — and to the love of learning.

If a child knows and feels comfortable reading, writing, and doing basic math, he has what he needs to explore the world.

While I don’t expect my children to learn completely on their own, I want them to be able to explore their interests and preferences without waiting for me or a tutor to take them there.

Since FishPapa and I are such bookworms, it was imperative that our kids learn to read — and hopefully love it — as soon as possible.

No, none of my kids were reading at two. But, they were familiar with books, the act of reading, the connection of words to thoughts and little scribbles on paper, and thus far, all have taken off with reading around age seven.

In this homeschooling gig thus far, four kids have learned to read with a fifth well on her way.

How I taught my kids to read

I’ve been relieved that all four of my boys love books and stories. I don’t have any secrets. In some ways, I think I lucked out. Two of the boys practically taught themselves to read.

But, over the years, through MUCH trial and error, I’ve patched together a system that seems to work for us. It literally is a conglomeration of several different reading programs.

(Your mileage may vary.)

Reading Resources

We started out our reading journey using Phonics Pathways by Dolores G. Hiskes, per the recommendation in The Well-Trained Mind. This is a very straightforward reading primer that gives the parent a script to read and sounds and words for the child to practice. I’ve used this book with all of my kids as they were learning to read.

Ours is a well-worn and tattered copy. I’m hoping it will last two more years, and I will thereby avoid having to purchase another copy.

While the book is designed to be a stand-alone text, I found that my oldest got really confused  distinguishing between long and short vowels. Upon a friend’s suggestion we added the phonogram cards into our reading program in conjunction with Phonics Pathways. Within just a few months he was able to read far above grade level.

What are the phonogram cards? In the 1950s Romalda Spalding identified 70 phonograms (letters and letter combinations representing sounds) and used them in teaching reading. A number of modern reading curriculums still use the same phonograms in teaching reading.

At one point I invested in Spell to Write and Read, one such program based on the phonogram system. It’s an extremely complex program of drilling the phonograms and teaching children to read and write by learning to spell first. Friends have had tremendous success with this program. However, since I don’t read directions, it was just a little too complex for me to do properly.

And there’s the added complexity that reading, writing, and spelling don’t all gel in a kid’s mind at the same time. Some kids can read like college professors before they’re able to make the pencil do what they want. Others are expert calligraphers before the words on paper make much sense.

So, I took something out of the Spell to Write and Read program and tweaked it. Instead of following the program, I’ve had my kids memorize the sounds with me, using the flashcards.

Basically, learning the phonograms is learning all the possible sounds a letter or group of letters can make. Then when the child comes to an unfamiliar word, he remembers the different phonograms, sounding them out as he reads and experience (or you) helps him latch onto the right sound.

It’s like looking at all the puzzle pieces before putting them together.

Lastly, once the child can read simple three-letter words, we start real-life practice with some simple readers. I’ve bought several sets of Phonics Practice Readers by Modern Curriculum Press. These are goofy little stories written in the 70s, but are still in print today. My kids don’t mind and it gives them easy practice.

Since these are phonics based readers, your child won’t come across too many foreign, “sight” words. I like this since they can successfully read a book on their own and build confidence in real life.

My weird method in a nutshell

  1. Learn the sounds of the phonograms yourself so that you can explain to your child the different sounds a letter or group of letter makes.
  2. Begin to drill the phonogram cards with your child, starting with the vowels and then the single letter phonograms. As she masters those, add a few cards in every week or so. There is a vague numbering system on the back of the cards, and a more complete list in Spell to Write and Read, page 221. It’s not a big deal if you don’t do them in a special order. Just try to do the easy ones first so your kid can build confidence. Spend a few minutes every day flipping through the cards. Play games with them to mix up the activity. Talk about them when you see words throughout daily life.
  3. While you are still practicing the phonograms, start working through Phonics Pathways. The book starts with only short vowel sounds. I remind my kids that the vowels make several sounds, but we focus on the short vowel sounds .
  4. Once a child can read three-letter words, start daily practice reading a real book, like the Phonics Practice Readers by Modern Curriculum Press.

Mine is certainly not the only way to teach reading. I’m sure there are many, many better ways.

But, this has worked for my kids and me. I feel honored by the privilege of being their first teacher.

Other parents have had great success with Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons as well as The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading, but this weird hodge-podge way of learning has worked for us.

What has helped YOUR child learn to read?

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. If you make a purchase through any book links up there, I do receive a small percentage of the sale.

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  1. I can’t open your links. And I really want to. The only ones that worked was the teacher phonics book and the easy reader books.

  2. After the Phonics Practice Readers where do your kids go? My first taught herself to read, and the seond had worked her way throught the first set of Short Vowel books but I don’t know what to do next.


    1. They are usually able to read beginning books with help, usually dictated by their interests.

  3. My son was raised in a area were the phonic approach to reading was considered the only ‘right way” so ever time he went to the doctor or any were else that knew he was homeschooled , he was ask what is the sound of the letter b ? Unfortunately after trying everything to teach him phonics including hooked on phonics he “could not read” but I learned a few things through observing his attempts. 1. He could read and understand sight words 2. A sight word approach would not be except-able in the community i was in. 3. He had a problem turning letters and words back words. So as he was entering the 3 rd grade I took him to a eye specialist that tested for dyslexiaand he was diagnosed as having dyslexia, dysphasia and a sever tracking disorder.I was told he would probley never learn to read. I ask they put that in a report and give me a copy..I gave a copy a copy to his doctor and any one else who mattered and stop the question by saying he was dyslexic when they started in and the backed off.. With the pressure to have him meet some standard set by the community off of him we both relaxed, and I throw away the phonics materials and came to him one day and said today you are going to read. this was stated as a fact not allowing him any other options. I set down that day and opened my bible to Mathew chapter 1 and ask my son the first word he tried very hard to sound it out of course without success so I told him the word and made him repeat the word, I then told him to point to ———- ( the word) and ask him again what the word was during all this I made no reference to phonics, I repeated this for every word in Mathew chapter 1. and ended the lesson. The next day the same was done for Mathew chapter 2, I continued this every school day and within 30 days he was reading at least half the words on his own and not long after moved on to easy chapter books ! I learned through this that I knew all along what he needed to learn how to read I just needed the confidence to stand up for his needs. If you are reading this please do not follow the crowd do whats best for your child.

  4. This post works to timely for me today Jess! I (We!) just finished Teach your Child How to Read in 100 Easy Lessons! This is my second child to go through the book, and we finished up a double last lesson just yesterday! I even announced on FB that I now have two readers (out of 4 🙂 to all my friends 🙂 I was so nervous when I started teaching my oldest, but the summer before kindergarten with her – someone suggested the book to me and I was so excited. All the explanations about what to say, and going through the entire book was so easy for us – at a max of 25 minutes a day, depending on the day and lesson (most days were under 20). I was excited when my second kiddo came to me holding out a book, asking if I could teach her to read 🙂 She was a bit younger than her older sister was, but she wanted to play big(ger) girl games but needed to know how to read. She has done so well. The one thing that I love about the 100 Easy Lessons books, is the phonics and how my girls are able to sound out a word out loud and spell it (as well as the English language allows you to do that ;). I was taught “site words” in school, and I have struggled for 25 years with my spelling – basically because I didn’t know how to correctly sound out the sounds. Teaching them, has also allowed me to teach myself and understand English rules, sounds of words etc to make it easy for me to work on my own reading/spelling skills 🙂

    I really liked the book 100 Lessons for the advantage that it is just one book. My middle, who just completed her book will now start going through choosing her own books and reading aloud every day to build her confidence in her skills. My oldest finally hit a magic moment, about a month ago – where the reading bug seemed to bite her. She had been rarely picking up chapter books or reading anything beyond a picture book, though she was at the end of third grade. I wanted her to enjoy reading, not view it as just “part of school.” But struggled with how to encourage it. I kept tossing book after book her way though, hoping something would someday catch. Yeah for her – I finally found one that sparked her love of reading 🙂 she may have known how to read for 3 yrs, but that didn’t mean she chose it. Now, she’s choosing it every day.

  5. Two books that I have found helpful are Games for Reading by Peggy Kaye and Words Their Way by Donald R. Bear, et al. They both provide fun ways to help develop phonemic awareness, and Words Their Way goes into great detail on the process of language acquisition from prereading through adult-level fluency. It also includes assessment techniques to determine where a child is on the literacy continuum.

  6. I used “How to read in 100 easy lessons” with 2 of my children. It worked really well for us. I think it helped that we always read together tons as a family, and the kids would spend time looking at books before they could even read.
    I now find it funny that my 6 1/2 year old will tell people he doesn’t know how to read. He does, but he can’t read big chapter books like his 12 year old brother. He’s always comparing himself, trying to keep up.

  7. I am curious about teaching pronuciation of words. I hear every day now children AND adults saying words in ways that we were not taught. Such as “pitcher”when the word is actually picture (with the c being heard). And now I understand the “authorities” are discontinuing cursive writing. Wondering your take on each. thank you

    1. Regarding pronunciation…. I’ve found that reading aloud together where they can see the words written out AND hear your pronunciation is key. My 10yo reads A LOT. But, he doesn’t know how to say all the words out loud. Thankfully, he uses them in conversation so I can correct him.

      As for handwriting, I’ve read that it’s really important for brain development. I think folks forget that when they say it’s not “useful” any longer now that we have computers.

      I’ve “made” each kid learn cursive (to know how to read and write it) but I don’t require them to use it. Not sure if that’s good or bad.

  8. I bookmarked this one! My oldest is 3.5 years old & I’m anxious to teach him to read because we love reading together so much. It is a great reminder that I don’t have to have him reading chapter books by age 4. I can relax a little, read up on how best to teach him, and wait for him to be ready. Thanks for the post!

    1. Yes, you can definitely relax. Loving stories and words is more important than how early they can read. In my mind.

  9. I do have a question though, my 9 year old still occasionally writes her d’s and b’s backwards. Is this normal or should I be concerned?

    1. I think I read that that’s considered normal until about 10. Phonics Pathways has a bookmark or something with the word “bed” written in large letters to look like a real bed. The sounds of that word can help them remember which is which.

  10. I do not homeschool, but have always read to and with my daughters. Now our 6 year old is reading beginner books and has just earned her own library card. I think encouragement and consistency are key. Also, keep reading to them even after they can read and have them read aloud also. Our 9 year old daughter comes into the 6 year old’s room for storytime, as do our 3 cats.

  11. We started with the Leapfrog DVDs before he was two. When he was three, we played with letters and one day he just put them together into words. We used the BOB books and the Now I’m Reading books (love those) for good Phonics practice, and learned sight words as we encountered them. I was definitely learning along with him! At 5 he now reads at about a third grade level so I guess we figured it out. I may need something more structured to help me focus on the right skills with my second son. We’ll see.

  12. Yay! The post I have been waiting for! Thanks so much for sharing your “weird” method. I’m just starting on my homeschool journey, but I imagine I will have some “weird” methods as well. I have been using the Ordinary Parent’s Guide and the Bob books (thank you Costco) for a few months and they’re both working well for us. Starfall has been a very valuable resource for us as well – gotta love those catchy little tunes! (The silent E at the end of the word, end of the word, end of the word…)
    Hearing my daughter read has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I’ve blinked back a tear or two listening to her work through a tough word.
    I appreciate this blog so much, Jessica. Our choice to live a little differently here in Scottsdale, AZ (What the what?!? Debt free!?! Homeschool!?!) is sometimes a little lonely, but you definitely inspire me to persevere in my choices. Thanks for that.

  13. Thank you for sharing this. My son is reading some on his own and is now learning the more complicated phonograms and letter combinations and sounds. I have him read to me daily as I do not want him to lose his progress over the summer. I just was not sure how to help him move forward. I will use some of your tips for that!

  14. Thanks for sharing this! My 6 (closer to 7 now) year old son hasn’t been interested in learning to read, despite his love for books and being read to. I’m planning to focus attention on the learning process thru the summer and see if he gets it. I think he already does (like you said with your boys that just seemed to get it) and is playing mind games with us, but maybe that’s a bit on the paranoid side, lol!

    1. My youngest boy just turned 8. A year ago he claimed he couldn’t read. But, once we started school in August, I realized he had all the skills, just wasn’t sure how to put them together on his own. Within a few months he was reading chapter books on his own.

      The same thing happened when he got some Magic Treehouse books for his birthday. He assumed they were too hard so he didn’t try. We read one page together, his reading and my pointing. And he was convinced.

  15. I love all that you wrote about! I would definitely add that at about 1st or 2nd grade, adding in a set of flashcards of high frequency words. Words that cannot necessarily be sounded out (Thank you English language) but when memorized, help make a difference in a child’s fluidity.

  16. Commented before on TWT post, and since then have also read the “The Read Aloud Handbook.” With my 11 month old we are having fun doing read alouds. I close the door to her bedroom and spread out some toys for her to play with. I read aloud for about 10 minutes from a children’s bible or a book I can finish in about ten minutes. She plays and checks in on me every now again. It still feels ‘odd’ to me to be reading aloud, but I must admit I enjoy it for myself. There are also some really great apps that read to the child and highlight words across the page to help them track. I used to love reading and then fell out of the habit in late high school/college. It’s been fun to jump back in! 🙂

    1. How fun! It may not seem like you’re doing anything or that she’s getting it, but you are teaching her. A book rich home is great!

  17. What is the book in the first photo called, with Gloria and Frances? I can remember these from when I was a kid and have been trying to figure out what they were.

    1. That is one of my very favorite books, Bread and Jam for Frances. I read the Frances books as a kid and now we read them together. Love it!

      1. Hooray!! Thank you so much. I’ve been trying to figure it out for a few months. You just made my day 🙂

      2. I bought “Bread and Jam…” based on your recommendation and my children love it, as do I! Such a cute story I never had the pleasure of knowing as a child! My daughter has already asked for another book in the series!!!! Thank you so much!!!!!

        1. Fun! Best Friends is good, as is A Bargain. Love them both. I need to buy our own copies of those.

  18. Starfall seemed to do the trick for us… Starfall and the original Leapfrog dvds (“The A says Ah, the A says Ah”). Also apparently my habit of running my finger under the words I’m saying may have contributed.

    1. Starfall is a great one! My 8yo was really upset earlier this year when his younger sister started correcting him on his sounds because she had learned them on Starfall. It was hilarious.

      Thanks for making that point!