One of my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions was to teach Dan to read that year. He was due to turn 3 in April, knew a bunch of letters, and seemed to have a fair amount of verbal intelligence. It worked. By that Christmas he could read Dr. Seuss. Then we worked him up through a variety of chapter books and got him reading increasingly independently. This year, he got a Kindle (e-reader, not tablet) for his 5th birthday, and its stats show he’s been reading 30-50 hours/month, on top of everything he reads on paper. He enjoys reading books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory under his own power. How did this happen? Phonics, folks. And specifically, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, the one phonics book to rule them all.
(This is a book that is near and dear to my heart, hence I’ve distilled my stock rant about it into this post.)
Dan came to reading with some advantages; his mom has read to him regularly since birth, he sees his parents reading all the time, our house contains something like forty linear feet of books working their osmotic magic, I’d like to think his genetics are favorable, etc. But starting him very early, on this specific phonics program, has been a huge component of his success.
The book takes a pretty regimented, common-sense approach to reading instruction. It assumes the child starts knowing nothing but how to talk, not even the alphabet. It assumes the parent knows how to read, how to make their child sit down and pay attention, and not much else.
With those prerequisites fulfilled, it provides completely scripted phonics lessons. The parents’ lines are in red. Stage directions and the desired learner responses are in black. Material the child will read or interact with is in a larger font.
Did I mention it is completely scripted? The book starts by directing the parent to read the child a paragraph-long prepared speech that starts with “I’m going to teach you how to read.” Then Lesson 1 starts off:
And so on. Thus it requires essentially no lesson planning – it’s worth looking over the lesson in advance, especially for the first few, but no originality or creativity is required.
The book relies on building up skills in little chunks, in the Isaiah-approved “precept upon precept, line upon line” manner, with a great deal of review. First the child learns a few individual sounds. Separately, they learn to repeat words slowly, and how to speed up words after saying or hearing them slowly, e.g. “mmmooommm” vs. “mom.” They separately learn how to string sounds together, e.g. “mmmooommm” not “mmm [pause] ooo [pause] mmm.” They separately learn how to move their finger under letters and say the sounds the letters make as they do. Then all these skills are combined to let them sound out simple words.
The sequencing of concepts has obviously received a lot of thought. There are no capital letters until near the end of the book—after all, this sentence contains only one capital letter. Early in the book, all of the letters are continuant sounds (mmm, sss, rrr, etc.), where the child can hold the sound indefinitely while they think about the next letter. Stop sounds (p, t, k, etc.) are harder to sound out without pausing or introducing extra vowels, so they show up later. The names of the letters are taught as an afterthought, well after the sounds, since the child doesn’t really need to know letter names. You can easily read well without ever knowing the name of the letter “h.”
The book goes to great lengths to avoid generating confusion from special cases. Initially, each vowel has a single pronunciation; an “a” is always soft, as in “apple.” The hard “a” as in “able” is introduced later, initially with a line above it so that it’s clearly distinguished. The early examples avoid words with silent letters. Then silent letters appear, but in miniature to make clear they are silent. Then by the end of the book, the silent letters get bigger and the diacritical marks disappear.
The book says it’s for “bright three-and-a-half-year-olds, average four-and-five-year-olds.” Based on my experience, that is about right. I figured Dan is every bit of “bright,” and I was happy to challenge him, so I periodically tried going through some lessons him, starting perhaps a little before his third birthday. The first two or three times, we could get through six or ten days of lessons, but his attention span was a major challenge, and he struggled with certain concepts, notably stringing together sounds and rhyming. In August, when he was about 3 years and 4 months old, we made another attempt, and that time we ran through the program to completion. Elissa and I each did some of the lessons.
The hardest thing about the “learn to read” program was keeping Dan on task. (Somehow we ended up referring to both the process and book as “learn to read,” as in “I don’t want to do learn to read!”) He’s a pretty active, energetic kid. Sometimes I literally had to hold him down, to keep him from running off or squirming into a position where he couldn’t read. There was a lot of “Sit! Point! Read!” – and this is actually an effective pedagogical technique, relying on short reminders and directions rather than lecturing on misbehavior in a way that distracts from the lesson. When that failed, there was a fair amount of “learn to read” becoming “learn to time out.” We’d normally do a lesson right when I came home from work, and sometimes the nominally 20-minute-long lessons stretched to more like an hour.
But it was clear that Dan could do it, and that he’d be happy once he could, so I was willing to fight the battle of wills and make it happen. After all, a parent ought to be able to outlast a three-year-old. We finished up in early December, and he could read Dr. Seuss with Grandma that Christmas. And he was proud that, as a good reader, he would not end up “living in a box under a bridge in Beaumont,” one regularly reiterated purpose of the whole endeavor.
Our one modification of the program was that we ignored all the writing practice; we didn’t think Dan’s fine motor skills or attention span were going to make that a success. Elissa has since taught him to write.
Obviously finishing the “100 Easy Lessons” wasn’t the end of the effort; we continued to practice reading with him—notably by having him help read scripture stories every night—and encouraged him to read on his own. By sometime around four and a half, he was regularly reading for fun under his own power. Now, I just have to get him new books periodically.
One key technique for maintaining this is starving him of electronic entertainment—he gets to watch some movies and TV, but he absolutely does not get to play games on phones or tablets, ever. If he’s bored, he is pretty much boxed into reading or playing creatively with toys. Or whining, but you can only get sent to time out so many times before that loses its luster for a given afternoon.
The other keys are that he has quiet time in the afternoon, and a firm bedtime at night. For quiet time, which normally runs for a couple hours, he has the option to nap, play quietly (and alone) with non-electronic toys, or read. Whatever adults are home are unavailable to him except in emergencies, often themselves reading or writing. He often chooses to read. If you can hear him laughing maniacally, he’s probably reading “Calvin and Hobbes,” which we’ve had to remind him is humor, not a source of role models. Then at night, we have held his nominal bedtime at 7:00 since he was weaned. He’s old enough that he doesn’t truly need that much sleep, but we let him read his Kindle in bed, and he enjoys it. So the post-bedtime period provides another hour or so of time where he doesn’t have to read, but normally does.
But it all started with Teach Your Child to Read, which I thought was extraordinarily well-done. (I promise, they are not paying me to write this review; it’s just that good.) Unlike many professional teachers, I have no desire to be unique or be creative or encourage creativity or have fun while teaching my kid to read. I want efficiency. Teaching a child to read is fundamentally a rote task, and I just want to get it done! And the child also just wants to get it done! I don’t want to develop my own lessons or find some niche method to use; I want to deliver lessons that have been painstakingly optimized for efficiency, by professionals, across years of testing. As legendary refinery operations manager Kelly McKeehan says, “all we like is finishing!” The book is 100% aligned with this. Indeed, that’s why it’s Direct Instruction—a pedagogical philosophy sympathetic to the idea that the best way to teach students is to directly tell them things!
This has some common-sense appeal. Beyond that, Project Follow Through, one of the largest educational studies ever performed, found that Direct Instruction beats a variety of alternatives—it even helps kids’ self-esteem more than self-esteem-centric methods do. Of course, it has been pretty obvious since at least the fifties that phonics-based methods are optimal, as this book (written 1983) notes in the preface, but here we are. The Amazon reviews are also pretty compelling—as of this writing, 4.5 stars on over 8,000 reviews—and I think that’s actually how I found the book initially.
So go forth and wreak phonics on your unsuspecting three-year-olds! They will thank you in a year or two, and also as grown adults when they don’t have to live in a box under a bridge in Beaumont.
Will is coming up on three-and-a-half, so his turn starts next week.