I have reviewed more phonics and reading programs than I can recall over the years. I have written up reviews of many that I liked and found useful and ignored many others. However, when I actually taught my own children to read, I never used a complete phonics program. I used bits and pieces and ideas from some programs, but we primarily used real books, magnetic letters, and encounters with the real world for developing reading skills.
This might sound totally disorganized to you, but there was an underlying progression as my children first learned some of the letters and their sounds, then started recognizing some words, then mastered more letters and sounds, gradually building up a reading vocabulary from simple words to more complex. While I had a few simple beginning practice readers on hand, the most successful “learn to read” books were my sons’ own favorite books like Green Eggs and Ham.
As I read through Teach a Child to Read with Children’s Books, I felt like I was reading a description of my own experience. One of the most important recommendations in this book is that we read lots and lots of books to our children from the time they are little. Children develop a love of books, and they learn what reading is all about and how it works by watching and interacting with someone who reads to them. This is so foundational that the authors point to a study that tells us that, “Children who entered school with a large bank of vocabulary words they had heard and used consistently scored higher on vocabulary and comprehension tests at ages 9 and 10 than those whose vocabulary was limited” (p. 14). But it’s not just about good test scores. Rather it’s about developing a love for reading.
The authors, Mark Thogmartin and Mary Gallagher, discuss the conflicts between the intensive phonics and whole language camps over how to teach reading, showing that the best approach uses both methods. The authors identify problems at both extremes. Children taught with pure whole language approaches do not usually learn how to decode; everything is learned through sight and context. On the other hand, children taught with some intensive phonics programs, get so bogged down in the rules and minutiae of phonics that they associate the drills and workbooks very negatively with the whole idea of reading.
Instead of either extreme, they propose a combination of both, but one that starts with and continually works from good children’s literature with phonics used when and as is appropriate. The phonics instruction grows from the child’s own curiosity and interaction with words.
Recognizing that word formation and writing reinforce reading skills, the authors present an integrated use of magnetic alphabets, all sorts of beginning writing formats, dictation, copying, story writing, writing letters, and much more.
This is not a step-by-step program, but rather a guide for parents to create their own program. Lest that sound overwhelming, they present very concrete suggestions and steps that you might follow, including a lengthy journal from one homeschooling mother who taught her daughter this way. But the methodology cannot be presented as scheduled lesson plans, because the essence of it requires that we respond to our children’s own developmental timetable and select books that appeal to them.
One parent might find herself working through Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham over and over with her child as I did while another might be focused on Eric Carle’s Do You Want to Be My Friend? Parents will likely have a shelf full of favorite books that a child requests to hear every day, but each child is likely to have his or her own personal favorites that make great jumping off points for beginning reading.
At the back of the book are lengthy lists of children’s literature that might be good choices for different levels. One list recommends read-aloud books that are predictable and use rhymes and patterns—elements that are particularly appealing to preschoolers. Some books on this list, such as Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, might appeal to older children. The read-aloud recommendations also have a separate list for chapter books and short novels that you can continue to read aloud to older children. Other lists are recommendations for books that children might tackle themselves at each of five developmental levels from emergent readers (preK) through about second grade level.
Lest you still think this is a totally disorganized method, record keeping forms are included. Among these are a checklist for tracking “Basic Concepts about Books and Print,” a “Letter Identification Checklist,” “Letter Identification Check Sheet,” (these last two are two different forms) “Lesson Plan/Journal,” “Books Read,” and “Known Words.” While you might use other methods of accountability such as writing “known words” on a large sheet of paper covering the back of a door, these forms might provide parents the security and accountability they need.
I think that Mark Thogmartin and Mary Gallagher’s research and recommendations are so important that I would love to see every parent of preschoolers read this before making a decision about purchasing any other program.