Teaching Reading to a Preschooler

by Pat Goltz

The best time to teach a child to read is when he is learning to talk. It is when he is learning to talk that he is most sensitive to the structure of words. The method I am about to describe can be used with a child under a year of age. It will require that he progress more slowly, but the baby won't mind.

There is only one way to teach reading. It is commonly called "phonics". There are those who will disagree with me simply because children can learn to read in spite of other methods of teaching. This then makes those methods seem workable. But the other methods, which can be classified as "look and guess", in spite of the variations on the details, or the fact that sometimes people put a token bit of phonics into the program after the children have been thoroughly confused, are all basically alike. They force the child to memorize a great many pieces of information. We are talking about forcing the child to memorize tens of thousands of pieces of information, with no mnemonic aids to help him. He has to do this feat without any kinds of valuable hints. With phonics, the number of pieces of information he has to learn is under 100. It simply makes no sense to teach a child to read a phonetic language as if it were pictographic. It makes no sense to teach a child to read English or another language written in an alphabet or syllabary as if it were Chinese. Some people use the fact that English is not totally phonetic as an excuse to deny their children the most important help they can give them. Do not make this mistake. The truth is, English is at least 85% phonetic, which is to say that 85% of English follows some rules or the other. Even words that are not totally phonetic are partially phonetic. One of the worst beginning words for phonetic rules is the word "one". In spite of its problems, the "n" in that word behaves as it should. The truth is, if a child learns ALL of the phonetic rules, English will actually be 95% phonetic!

The reason most children learn to read in spite of the method is because they intuit phonics. They may not be consciously aware of what they are doing. But the point is that if we teach them by another method, we are requiring them to reinvent the wheel. This is not reasonable, nor is it necessary. And there is always the chance that a given child will not figure it out. If he does not, he will be illiterate. You should be aware that the "look and guess" method was actually designed to keep children illiterate! There are two reasons why this was considered desirable by those responsible for pushing it off on the American education system. The first was that John Dewey and his cohorts wanted the population to be illiterate because they believed in socialism, and they did not believe they could sell socialism to a literate population. They realized that when people can read "dangerous" ideas, they will not be willing slaves. The second reason was that it slowed the process of learning to read down so that it would take longer. This was good for the increased employment of teachers! If it took a child twelve years to get an education instead of four, then three times as many teachers would be employed for the same number of children. Since most people learned to read on the high school level in four years, when phonics was universally taught, we can see the difference it made.

The old McGuffey Readers used phonics. Once a person took a sixth grade McGuffey reader and removed the covers and title page, and showed it to a college English professor. The English professor looked through the book and offered the opinion that it was a college literature text! This is how much the new reading methods cost our children!

They speak of the "linguistic" approach to teaching reading. This method really appears to be a mixture of phonics and "look and guess". It would be just as confusing as any other program that did not teach solely with phonics. One other method has been tried, which is called the ITA or Initial Teaching Alphabet. In this method, linguistic symbols were used, and all words were spelled totally phonetically. The only problem with this method is that it made lousy spellers, and children had great difficulty switching from these special books to normal English print. It is largely out of use today.

In particular, the only way to teach a preschooler to read is "phonics" because that is how he is learning to talk. The fact that he will not be conscious of phonics once he learns to read well is beside the point. We break down many tasks when we teach them, but once they are learned, they become an integrated whole. Reading is no different. Most people who learned with phonics are not consciously aware of the structures of words once they read well. But there are some people who are quite aware. I am among them. I do not know if it is because I perceive words phonetically but very rapidly and always have, or if it is also because I have been learning to read a great many foreign languages. I will say this: I do not think it would be possible for me to learn foreign languages with the facility I do if I had not been phonics-taught. I have talked to other people, and when they can remember how they learned to read, I find it to be nearly universally true that the phonics-taught ones can learn a foreign language easily, while the "look and guess" taught people really have to struggle, if in fact they can learn a foreign language at all!

But the most important reason for teaching phonics is not because it is the best way to teach reading. The most important reason is because it teaches the child that the universe is an orderly place, that follows rules; that it is not arbitrary; and that it is worthwhile to try to learn the rules or figure them out. Let me stress that point. When you teach phonics, you are teaching the basis, the intellectual foundation, for science, logic, and mathematics. Absent this kind of instruction, your child will never learn the thinking methods that these disciplines require. You are also teaching your child to distinguish between truth and lies, between true religion and false religion. People usually don't understand how very fundamental the development of thinking skills really is!

Having said all of this, it is now time to describe a method for teaching a toddler to read. You will need certain materials. One very useful thing to start with is a set of red letters. They must be red because red holds the attention of the very young child better. Once he has become accustomed to the idea of reading, and knows a good bit, he can switch to the normal black. The letters must also be large. The young child cannot see the smaller ones clearly yet, or if he can, he does not pay attention to them. The reason most toddlers do not learn to read is because the print they see is too small. Teachers' stores sell sets of large red felt letters which are used on flannelboard.

Once the child has learned some things on his way to reading, you will need books with large print. If you have a computer with printer, you can produce these books yourself. If you do not have access to these things, then you will have to look for such books wherever books are sold, or at the library. Eventually, I hope to issue a set of books which will have sufficiently large print, yet contains some good information. It is important to make as much useful information available to young children as possible. The best books I have seen with large print, with good information, are the Step Up books.

While you are in the process of acquiring these things, there are other things you should be doing. You should be teaching your child as much vocabulary as possible. A good many readers which are designed for phonics teaching are not suitable for very young children because there is too much vocabulary that the young child does not yet know. So spend a lot of time teaching your child vocabulary. Point out the names of things wherever you go with the child. Let him watch educational television. Use plenty of vocabulary with him from the time he is born, and do not "dumb down" your speech.

The very first book I used to teach my children to read was called "The Tent". It was a good book for teaching phonics. The only problem was, none of my children knew what a tent was. They could read it anyway, but I had to explain or show them what a tent was. But that really isn't a problem, and if someone uses that as an excuse not to teach phonics because the words are unfamiliar, don't listen!

Once you get to the point of actually starting reading instruction, for the very young child, you use the large red letters. You will teach them in a special order, and with a particular pronunciation. The principle that the child needs and deserves maximum reward for his efforts to learn at maximum efficiency applies here. For this reason, we teach them in a different order from alphabetical order. You will use what we call a "frequency table". This was first developed to help in deciphering codes. It is a list of letters with the most commonly used one first, followed by the next most commonly used one, and so forth, until, when the end of the list is reached, the least commonly used letters are listed. You can use one of two frequency tables. The first is as follows:

e t a o n r i s h

The second is as follows:

e t a o n s h i r d l u

Either list is perfectly fine. Once these letters are taught, you simply teach the others are you run across them. By the time the child knows this much, learning the rest will be easy.

Notice that each list contains both vowels and consonants. You will teach the vowels differently from the consonants. I will explain how each is taught. You begin with the consonants. You will teach at first only one sound for each consonant. The consonant "t" is what is called a "voiceless" consonant, in that you do not use your voice when you pronounce it. When you pronounce it for the child, you will not use your voice, either. You will make as pure a whispered "t" sound as you can. You do not say the name of the letter; you say its sound. There is a very important reason for doing this. A child will have an intellectual hurdle to jump when he first starts to put words together. If he must discard extra sounds when doing this, the hurdle will be very difficult to jump, maybe impossible for some children for quite some time. For this reason, I don't like a child who does not yet read to watch Sesame Street, because they teach the names of the letters, not the sounds. There are only four consonants in the lists I gave you that involve the voice: "d", "n", "l", and "r". Be sure and whisper the others to your child while you are teaching them. These letters are whispered even when you are speaking out loud.

Because children must form visual pictures of how words actually look in print, you will use lower case letters for his first reading lessons. Use capitals only when appropriate.

The vowels we will teach first by teaching only the "short" sound. For each vowel, the "short" sound is as follows: "a" is the sound it makes in the word "can". "E" is the sound it makes in the word "net". "I" is the sound it makes in the word "bit". "O" is the sound it makes in the word "on". And "u" is the sound it makes in the word "fun". The other two letters which act sometimes as vowels are "w" and "y". We will get to those later.

Begin by teaching the letter "t". Show the child the letter and pronounce its sound. Repeat this as often as necessary to get him to know what the sound is. Then have him pick out all the "t's" in the letter set, pronouncing the sound of each as he finds them. For the next couple of days, or however long it takes, encourage him to point to and pronounce the sound of every "t" he sees in his environment. Repeat this exercise daily. A few short sessions a day are a good idea. You will lengthen his attention span as you go. Always start just short of when he wants to stop. Leave him hungry for more learning and more attention. You can get attention spans of between 45 minutes and an hour and a half in very young children doing this. To begin with, his attention span may be less than five minutes. If it is that short, go with it; stop him a little early. Gradually, he will be eager for longer and longer periods of time.

Glenn Doman, for all of the problems with his learning method, did have one very valuable idea. He said that learning occurs best when you pay attention to frequency, intensity, and duration. This means, do it frequently, do it intensely, and keep the duration short. This is a good formula for the child at first; you can lower the frequency and the intensity as the child grows in learning ability, and increase the duration.

When you teach the letter "t", you will use what Montessori called the "Three Period Lesson". There are three parts to this approach. In the first part, you show the child what you want to teach, and explain it. In other words, you show the "t" and you make its sound. In the second part, you point out a letter and have him make the sound, or you let him point out the letter and you make the sound. In the third part, the child finds the letter himself and makes its sound.

Once your child knows the letter "t" thoroughly, then you will introduce the "e". At first, teach only the "e". Use the same method as the one I have already explained. When the child knows the letter thoroughly, you will go to another version of the "Three Period Lesson". In this phase, you have the child point out both the "e's" and the "t's" in the letter set. You can go through books looking for all the "e's" and "t's". You can hand him one of each, and ask him to tell you which one is the "e", and which one is the "t". Do this for a few days until he knows them both thoroughly.

As you introduce additional letters, you will discover that he learns them more quickly. Before he has learned five of them or so, he will be able to learn a new one daily. You must be the judge of when he knows something well enough to go on.

Once you have enough letters learned, begin to make words out of them. Lay them out as a word, and then sound them out in sequence. You will spend a lot of time doing it for the very first word you make. As you do it, start saying the sounds slowly, but gradually increase your speed until you are at nearly the speed of speech. Have him sound out the word in the same way, starting slowly, and increasing the speed. The first good words are the ones that follow the pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant.

When you first begin to do this, the child will probably have no trouble hearing the vowel and the final consonant together. He will have more difficulty making the jump from the first consonant to the vowel. This is because in English when we pronounce a vowel by itself, we put what is known as a "glottal stop" at the beginning of the sound we make. The glottal stop occurs when the back of the mouth, or the glottis, closes down at the beginning of the sound. In order to get the idea further, try pronouncing the vowel with an "h" in front of it: "heh". You will see from this that there is more than one way to begin a vowel sound by itself. Some languages do it with the "h" instead of the glottal stop. In order for the child to hear the entire word you are trying to teach him, he will have to learn to remove the glottal stop and substitute the first consonant for it. As you pronounce the word faster, take the glottal stop out.

This point in time is a most difficult one for the child. He will get the idea that learning to read is an impossible task. He may want to quit. Encourage him as strongly as you can, with love. Explain that there are these hurdles in every thing he will ever do in life, and he must learn how to jump such hurdles. Nothing worth doing is ever easy! He will probably feel very discouraged for several days. Be persistent. Do not let him get away with slacking off. Tell him that in a couple of days, he will be well rewarded for his effort. Everything I have taught my children has had such hurdles. Sometimes it takes a couple of weeks to get over the hurdle. The reward of getting over the hurdle is so great that it will motivate the child a great deal once he gets over it. He will feel really triumphant. This feeling is well worth fighting for. So be persistent. You will not harm him by insisting he struggle with it. The human being was built to thrive on struggle. Your child will thrive on it. If you do not ever require him to struggle, you have missed one of the most important aspects of growing up as a human being. The more he struggles with things, the more he will gain. You must be sensitive to make sure the struggle does not get to be overwhelming. Only you can tell when that point is reached.

One other thing you should be aware of is how people learn. People will have spurts of learning. In between, it will seem like they are learning nothing. In reality, learning is going on, but people are unaware of it. This is why the spurts are possible. If a person knows that we learn this way, he is not nearly as likely to get discouraged by the plateaus.

Along those lines, I will explain something that J. McV. Hunt calls "The Problem of the Match". According to this idea, if what you give the child is too easy, he will turn away from it in boredom. This is the mistake you make when you do not require your child to struggle. If what you give the child is too difficult, he will turn away from it out of frustration. Even though you will require your child to struggle in spite of his discouragement, you do not want to push him into frustration. Only you will be able to sense when that point is reached. Maximum learning takes place when the material you give the child is just right for him. It is a challenge, but it is not impossibly difficult.

Having said that, it is time to get back to teaching reading.

Romalda Spalding developed a method for teaching reading in first grade. Her book is called "The Writing Road to Reading". It is a very good book, but it suffers from a couple of problems. I would use it as a reference work, rather than following her method to the letter. The first problem is that it requires a child to write the sounds from the beginning. Many children who are ready to learn to read do not yet have the physical coordination to write the sounds. It is a mistake to hold a child back for this reason. The second problem is that the book withholds rewards almost indefinitely. In my opinion, the child must have the reward of actually being able to read real words from almost the beginning.

It is a good idea for a child to write a sound in the sense that the more senses he uses to learn something, the better it will stick. For this reason, writing the sound, which uses the "kinesthetic" sense, or the sense of motion, helps to cement in the learning. Even though a young child lacks the coordination to do this, there is a way you can do it anyway. I will explain how you can do this. The red letters are quite suitable for this purpose, although the Montessori sandpaper letters are better, if you can afford them, or make them. This is because they are much larger, and because they are rougher, and provide more feeling. You can make a set of sandpaper letter by cutting letters out of moderate grit sandpaper and pasting them on boards. Make them four to five inches high. Regardless of whether you use these or the red letters, the method of teaching is the same.

Show the child how to hold his index and middle fingers together, straight. (A string player would speak of using the first and second fingers, while a keyboard player would speak of using the second and third fingers). The two fingers are held together, and are not bent. They are held out straight. The rest of the fingers are allowed to curl naturally. Once the child knows how to make this shape with his hand, show him that he is to trace the letter with these two fingers together. There is an important anatomical reason for using the two fingers together, rather than the index finger alone.

The letter is traced in the same way you would write it. Start at the beginning of the first stroke you would make, and make that stroke. Then the second stroke, and so on. Most children will enjoy stroking the letters. Make sure the child always strokes the letter in proper order. Do not allow him to practice unsupervised until you are sure he will always stroke it correctly.

When the child has learned some words, and knows how to hear a word that you have made with the red letters, encourage him to make up his own words. Watch him, and make sure he spells them correctly.

At this point, if you wish, you can paint the vowels blue. This is helpful for him to see the difference, and to understand the different concept. Do not paint the "w" or the "y". "W" and "y" sometimes act as vowels alone, sometimes as consonants, and sometimes as part of a combination that has a vowel sound.

When the child is ready for his first book, let him go through it to begin with and find all the "t's" in the entire book. Next time, let him find all the "t's" and "e's". Repeat the same sequence when you first taught the letters. Each time, add one letter, so that he is finding all the examples of three letters, and four letters, and so on. Teach him as much as you can, but not too much per session. As soon as he has done enough letters to complete a word that is in the book, have him slow down and sound out that word until he figures it out. Then go on. When you encounter a sound he has not had, explain it. Soon you will find some sounds that require two letters to make. Explain that when these two letters occur together, sometimes they make this new sound, and they certainly do here. Go ahead and introduce any rules you need to in order to read the book. Once the book is read, make a small mark at the beginning of it, such as writing the child's initial in the upper right corner of the first page. This will be seen as a reward for having completed the book. The sense of accomplishment will spur the child on to greater heights.

Some children have difficulty learning to read words they already know, as "sight" words. They will insist on sounding them out fifty times. In this way, they will lose the thread of the story they are reading. If this is a problem, and you sense that your child needs to move on from this point, you can pay special attention to this problem by getting a book which has a large number of the most common words. You can have the child go through the book naming all the "the's" and all the "and's", and so forth. Teach them the same way you have taught the individual letters. This will not confuse the child because he has already sounded them out a large number of times. He must become aware of the words as a whole at some point to become a good reader. I have never had a problem with this once I have done this with such a child.

Some people will tell you that you should not teach your child phonics because the child will not comprehend well. This is actually nonsense, but it needs to be addressed. To begin with, comprehension is tested by means of reading comprehension tests that are designed for testing comprehension. These tests are not a good idea, because they often require children to regurgitate things that simply do not catch their attention for whatever reason. Once your child has been reading for awhile, you can give him a simple comprehension test. Ask him to tell you the story. The fact that he will be able to recount it in great detail should sufficiently reassure you. Each of us remembers different things when we read. It is not a fair test of comprehension to require him to remember what was not important to him. The comprehension test suffers from another problem as well. That is the fact that the reading selections were chosen to appeal to everyone. This means that most of them do not appeal to the individual child at all! And this is one of the reasons why the child may do poorly. Comprehension tests also require other skills that have nothing to do with comprehension. The child may not have these skills, yet comprehend quite well. Comprehension tests are designed for children who have been subjected to some very specific ways of doing things in the schools. If the child's educational program is different from that of the schools, he may not have those additional skills. The other problem with making a fuss over the idea that comprehension is lacking in the phonics-taught child is that the "look and guess" encourages children to guess a word from the context. If the child sees the word "horse" but reads the word "pony", it is said he has good comprehension. This is really not what this demonstrates at all. What it demonstrates is that the child is not learning to read accurately. He is suffering already from a handicap that will plague him the rest of his life. Finally, children should not even be tested for comprehension for several years, because the mechanics of learning to read are sufficient. The Montessori principle of "isolation of difficulty" applies here. According to this principle, it is most efficient to teach a person if you teach only one concept at a time. The child will begin to comprehend when he has developed enough habits so that it is not too great a mental task for him. Only he will know when that is. It will happen without any bother. So ignore those people who fuss about lack of comprehension in phonics-taught children. They are raising what we call in logic, a "red herring".

If the child you are teaching to read is older, you may skip the work with the red letters and go directly to books, or keep the part with the red letters short. I actually never used them with my own children. My children are excellent readers.

One difficulty you may encounter if your child has a learning disability is that he may be unable to learn new vocabulary from his reading. He may have to have lessons in dividing words into syllables in order to read longer words. You can learn how a particular word is divided from any good dictionary. The general rules are as follows: if the word has two consonants side by side, but they are not together to make a special sound, the division is between them. If the vowel is long, the syllable may end right after the vowel. If the vowel is short, the syllable must end in a consonant. If there are three or more consonants together, usually two or more of them are used to make a special sound. You divide between those letters and the other one. There are many exceptions to those rules, but those are the basic rules.

For the child who cannot learn new vocabulary from his reading, you must continue to provide opportunities for learning vocabulary from other sources. Concentrate on teaching him vocabulary yourself, and encourage him to watch a lot of educational television. Take him many places and expose him to many things, where he can learn specialized vocabulary. Have him keep lists of words he does not know. Teach him how to use a dictionary. Just the act of writing down the words will help him learn them. It will also help him learn how to spell them, and to be aware of all of the letters in the words, which will help in pronunciation and reading.

If your child is "severely retarded", and maybe cannot even speak, you can still teach him to read. You may have to increase the intensity of the sessions. The way to do this is to paint your red letters with red dayglo paint. Use them in a darkened room with one light shining through a green filter. This will make the letters really stand out. Dayglo paint will convert the green light to red, and the child will see the letters as red. I do not know of a good source for a filter, but I used to use the one that came on my husband's old oscilloscope. They have not made oscilloscope filters like that for a number of years. I wish I knew where to tell you to get such an item. You are just going to have to do some digging. If I find a good source, I will place a link on this page.

You may have to find new ways to tell how your "severely retarded" child is learning.

One final note: the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A phonics-trained child is a much better speller than a "look and guess" trained child. A given child may not spell as well as another, but for that child, his best potential in spelling will be reached if he learns phonics. He may not learn to spell well for several years, and you may despair. Don't worry about it; when he is ready, it will come, and he will be a good speller. Do not expect perfection, but expect him to spell most words correctly. We will get into spelling later. I just want you to notice one thing: if you personally are a good speller, you can observe the degree to which the words are spelled correctly in this essay. These words are just as I typed them. I do not use a spelling checker. Since this web site is self-published, no one proofread it but me. I proofread professionally from time to time. Although I spent some effort on learning to spell, it was not difficult for me to learn at all. Some children struggled with it, but I didn't. At the time I first wrote this essay, I read twelve languages. I can spell accurately in all of them. Phonics is definitely infinitely superior.

Since you are your child's parent, your child will probably learn no matter what method you use to teach him. Some parents do quite well teaching their children "look and guess". Some parents want to wait for their children to learn "on their own". Some children will do this. Some parents want to boast about how bright their children are, by saying that they taught themselves how to read. The truth is, someone must show him something. It may only be reading the same book to the child, over and over again ad nauseum. The child may seek this for the purpose of trying to figure out reading, because the parent isn't letting him in on the secret. (Some children do it for other reasons.) The repetition of the book, with someone pointing to each word as it is read, may result in a child developing visual recognition of some words, but it is not really very helpful, and can be very damaging in a child who is not a visual learner. If you do not tell your child the secret of learning to read, he may force himself to reinvent the wheel because he wants to read. Some homeschooling parents "teach" their children to read by showing lack of discipline, and allowing children to memorize words by reading the same book over and over. These children eventually learn to read just because their parents pay attention to them. But the parent is doing such a child no service at all. Children ache for the discipline of systematic teaching methods, and for the discipline of the rules. Please, for the sake of your child, teach him phonics.

My thanks to Wizzle for some of the background material.