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Books, Books, Books!!

Reading is the most important academic skill children can acquire. Once children are readers, they can learn anything - no limits!

Learning how to read is not as hard as you think.

Let your child learn to read. I like to brag that I didn't teach my children to read. They taught themselves. Given the right environment and opportunity, children naturally use their own learning styles to become readers – and - they read quite well!

You see, reading is wonderful and enjoyable. Reading is only hard and boring when there's nothing good to read or when it's turned into a chore. I've never met an adult that enjoys snuggling up with a good list of sight words. Like us, children prefer to read things that are interesting, both fiction and non-fiction. Interesting equals learning. Allowing children to listen to and peruse books of their choosing ensures continued interest.

Reading is simply our language in print. Learning to read can be just as easy as learning to talk. When your child was learning to talk he may have said something like, “I runned real fast!” Did you give him bad marks for the mistake? Not likely. Instead, you probably thought is was cute! You may have chuckled and said something like, “Did you run fast?” Without even thinking about it, you were teaching him how to speak correctly.

Learning to read can be just as natural and easy as learning to speak. The only difference is children do not see the printed language as frequently as they hear the spoken language. This is why reading to your child is so vitally important.

The reading environment

A big part of learning to read is the environment. I can recall that the first word one of my sons read aloud was “HOT” on a piece of machinery. Words are – and should be – all around.

Learning to read is enhanced by the environment of the reader. It's important to have lots of books around. Children should have many different kinds of books to choose from. You never know where your child's interest may wander. Get both library books and books at used book sales. Don't be afraid to have bookcases in your living room, family room, dining room, and/or bedrooms.

For many years, one of the hallmarks of a homeschooler is the plethora of books in the home. Homeschool moms tend to be bibliophiles. Not only do we have multiple full bookshelves in our homes, but we also tend to have books strewn around the home.

Strewing is a great tactic. Books OFF their shelves and laying around on the coffee table, on beds, and even in the kitchen are all opportunities for a child to pick up a book. Books are to be read, not dusted. If the books are all kept all in one place – the schoolroom – there are less opportunities for a child to casually open a book and read. Don't be afraid to leave them laying around!

Children learn through example.

It's important to set the right example for your children. If you want your children to watch more TV, then you should watch more TV. If you want your children to read more, you need to read more. You need to create an environment where interacting with the printed language happens all the time.

Our children learn by mimicking us. There was a time when I had two potato peelers. One worked by scraping away from yourself, the other worked by pulling the scraper toward yourself. One time, as I was peeling potatoes, my young son was intrigued with the process and wanted to participate. I gave him the peeler that you operate by scraping away from yourself. But seeing me scrape toward myself, he imitated my motions. Unfortunately, his peeler did not work that way and he got frustrated. So we traded peelers. Now I was peeling away from myself and he copied, again, without success. Lacking the learning experience he was looking for, he gave up.

So consider what examples you're setting for your children. If you want your children to be avid readers, then turn off the TV, set down your phone, and pick up a book. Read in front of your children, read to your children, and read with your children.

“Teaching” Reading

Truth is, there is no one way to teach a child to read and reading does not need to be a sequential series of assignments. It can be a joyful experience shared with those we care about the most. Very basically, there are three steps to helping a child learn to read:

1. Read to your child.

I once heard a public school teacher brag that she has 20 minutes of classroom reading time a day. I was shocked. Perhaps this is an accomplishment for a large classroom of children, but I think it's very sad that all the children in that room – and countless other classrooms like it – get only 20 minutes or less of reading time each day.

As a homeschooler, you do not need to limit the reading. Read to them every day, and read a lot. Have lots of reading books on hand for scheduled and spontaneous reading. It is never too early to start reading to your children and they're never too old to be read to. For each of my children, I started one-on-one reading time with them when they turned one. Other mothers start reading to their children at younger ages – even before they're born. In a reading home, there is no set time when you stop reading to your children. I read to my children for many years past when they started reading on their own – right into their teen years!

When choosing books to read, remember that just because your child is not yet reading, it does not mean she wants to listen to early reader books. She can enjoy many different types of stories. Picture books increase interest in the stories, but you can also read stories that don't have pictures, including chapter books. Both you and you child should choose the books. Perhaps take turns choosing them – even if he only wants the same story over and over. Children learn through repetition and your child's natural desire to hear the same book – again and again – is his way of enjoying the learning process.

Don't be afraid to read above your child's level. There is nothing wrong with children learning difficult words right along with easy words. Reading more complex literature to your child allows her to become familiar with the sounds and cadence these books – long before they would be exposed to these things in a traditional curriculum.

Reading to your children is always important, even when they are not seeing the words being read. Allowing your child to play with Legos or do crafts while you read to her can increase the experience. Some children listen better when the are busy. When a child does activities while listening to stories, it can even help him remember the story for longer. My 4th-grade teacher read to us every day. She let us color while she read. Many years later, when looking at the things I colored, I was reminded of the parts of the stories that I listened to while coloring.

Of course, while reading is vitally important for a student, perhaps the best part of reading to your child is the closeness that you engender with your child. Relationships are strengthened as you experience the stories together.

2. Read with your child.

When reading to your child, be sure to include some books that are at or just above your child's reading level. When you do, instead of pointing to the pictures in the books, point to the words. Don't be afraid to explain some words or sounds that may be confusing for someone who is learning to read.

When you feel your child is ready, invite him to start to read some of the words. You don't have to start with the small, boring words. An enjoyable way to start is with rhyming books. Point to the words as you read, but pause at the last word of a rhyming phrase. While pointing to it, allow your child to guess what the rhyming word is. It's like a game!

Some books are intentionally written for an adult and child to read together. My favorite first reading book is Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. The child can read the larger printed words while the parent reads the smaller words.

Bit by bit, your child will want to read more and more on his own. Let him take the lead. Let him read as much as he wants. Let him stop reading when he is satisfied.

Remember that a beginning reader is still learning a lot. You still need to continue to model reading for him. You can read for longer periods of time than a beginning reader can. You will need to continue to read to him to keep exposing him to the printed language.

3. Listen to your child read.

Before long, your child will want to read on her own, at least some of the time. It happens at different ages for all children. Some children want to read before they are even capable of doing it. That's OK. Let them pretend to read to you, even if she makes up a whole new story. This is showing an interest in and a relationship with books. It is also a wonderful imagination exercise.

As your child starts to read bit-by-bit, don't turn the experience into a heavy learning opportunity. Correct her reading when she wants your help. Also be prepared to pick up the slack when she doesn't want to struggle any more and she wants you to finish reading the book to her.

Remember that these three steps for learning to read do not need to be done in this order. It's really more of a mash-up of all three, moving from one to the next and back again as interest and need dictates. Of course, I recommend you continue to read to your children as long as possible. Those times are so magical and they don't last forever. Cherish every minute of your time reading together!

What about phonics?

I find that learning the phonetics of words within the context of sentences and paragraphs is more useful than learning just one sound at a time. Doing a worksheet that focuses on just one sound provides repetition, which is a necessary part of learning. But without a frame of reference, the repetition is less effective. Repetition comes naturally when you are reading a lot – as you should be. If you want repetition of similar sounds together, choose books that use repetition, but in the context of a story.

Here are a some examples of books that are written with similar sounds together:

By Dr. Seuss:

  • Hop on Pop

  • One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

  • Fox in Socks

  • Oh Say Can You Say?

  • There's a Wocket in My Pocket

By Scholastic:

  • Star Wars: Phonics Boxed Set

  • LEGO DC Super Heroes: Phonics Boxed Set

Why no textbooks?

While textbooks may effectively “cover” a subject, they are poor at helping a child care about a subject and want to know about it. Textbooks only give small pre-digested bits of the subject. This information is unpalatable and soon forgotten by the students.

Simply put, textbooks are boring.

When I was in high school, I did not have a lot of required reading, but I took a literature class. The class provided me with a textbook which contained excerpts of several major works of literature.

One of those works was Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The excerpt was the scene where Pip first met Miss Havisham. The scene is very odd and kinda creepy. After reading that, I decided that this was not a book I would ever read.

Many years later, I got over my pride and decided that it's time I read this work that's considered to be such a classic. I braced for the worst. To my delight, the story was not about a creepy, mentally ill woman, but about a boy who got an opportunity to turn a difficult life into one of ease. The story brought up many good discussions between my husband and myself. I found the work to be interesting and intelligent. Thank goodness I gave it another shot!

Textbooks are for the ease of teachers. They are a great tool to use for a classroom full of students with one teacher. It's the best way to keep all the kids on the same page – literally. But one size of learning has never fit all.

Many homeschoolers and innovative schools are not using textbooks. There are so many more powerful learning tools that educators can use once they make the brave decision to leave textbooks behind.

In a setting with only a handful of students – such as homeschooling – we do not need to confine ourselves to the tactics they use in school. We can give them so much more. Instead offering small, bland, portions of a subject, we can offer them a smorgasbord of real learning. We can give them the real thing, and lots of it.

This is one of the places where books come in. Children can read the real book, not a watered-down interpretation of it. We can let them see the real piece of art, not just a 2-D photo in a book. We can take them to visit real nature and observe a bird's behavior first hand. These are the things the children will find interesting. Interesting equals learning. They will take ownership of the learning and seek out more information on their own. They will remember it longer, and they can provide their own interpretation and opinion of the subject.

Real books – not textbooks – are powerful learning tools!

Knowing how to read vs. being a reader

I once stayed a few days in a home where getting good grades in school was top priority. The two teen daughters were required to diligently do their homework every night & they lost privileges if their grades slipped. So they did well in school. But they are not what I would call readers.

Being in their home for a week, I got to see every part of their home. They had only one book case in the house. It was in the basement, in a closet-sized craft room. This told me that books are not treasures in the home and reading (outside of homework assignments) is not a priority.

For many of us homeschoolers, regardless of whether or not our children know how to read, we don't consider our children to be "readers" until they actually start to pick up books on their own and to read for enjoyment. Some children become readers early, some start late -- and that's OK. They read. Homeschooled children tend to read more than kids who go to school. Better than knowing how to read, they are readers. Better than getting good grades, they have the power to learn anything.

If your child is not yet a reader by homeschoolers' definition, don't worry! It's never too late. Given the right circumstances, he will read. To help spark your child's interest in reading, be sure to pick up books on subjects that your child has interests in. Your library is your friend. Be aware that not all children enjoy stories. Some children prefer non-fiction. You might find yourself getting books on sharks, bugs, or dinosaurs. The important thing is that they have the opportunity to become readers.

The best age to become a reader

Outside a traditional classroom – in the real world – there is no set time at which a child becomes a reader. No amount of “teaching” can turn a student into a reader by the homeschool definition. Being in the homeschool community, I have known children who are readers at the age of four and others who do not become readers until their teen years. But when it happens, it's magic. There's no stopping them!

I have known many children who suddenly become readers right in the middle of a chapter book. It happens when Mom is finished reading, but the child wants to know what happens next. Sometimes surreptitiously, this child will sneak and keep reading on his own.

These are children who completely skipped the early readers. My theory is they were just waiting for stories that were interesting enough to make the effort worthwhile. For other children, their first books were complex gaming manuals or even college books. The key is them reading what is meaningful to them.

I have a friend whose daughter finally became a reader at age 14. My friend did everything right - lots of books around, read to her every day - but this girl had a harder time picking up the skill. But that's OK, because by now this girl has read more books than most "schooled" kids her age have read if they started reading at age five. As a matter of fact, if this girl had been in school, she would have been labeled a poor reader, and possibly never would have become a true reader.

Regardless of me not formally teaching my children to read, my children became readers as early as four and as late as ten, but ALL of them are proficient readers, choosing to tackle the most difficult texts. Even my dyslexic son was found reading Steinbeck - because he wanted to.

This is what a reader is. Unafraid, unabashed, free and energetic readers!!!

I hope you and your family will all become true readers. Enjoy the journey. Be a reader!

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