By Peggy Kaye, Director of Learning, Homer Learn to Read Program for Kids
- Why learning to read might be the most important thing a child under 8 can do
- How children learn to read: the science behind reading
- The Homer Method 14-Day System to jumpstart a child's reading
There is a moment, a precious moment, when a child looks at the squiggles we call letters and realizes that he or she can blend the sounds those letters represent and, without help, read the word. In my work as a reading teacher and tutor, I've been privileged to share this moment with dozens of children and the thrill never diminishes. It signals the first step to becoming a life-long reader with a deep love of books.
When I was a young teacher, I thought that teaching children to read was a specialized task that only a trained professional should attempt. As a result, I told parents, even those eager to help, to hold off. What a mistake!
I know better now. I know that parents can play a crucial role in helping children learn to read -- if they know the way to begin.
Here's something else I know, there is nothing more important for the educational future of a child than learning to read well.
Learning to read fluently before the age of 8 is so important - it is the single most crucial skill for a young child to master.
Here are a few facts that convince me of this truth and, I suspect, will convince you:
- 74% of struggling third-grade readers still struggle in ninth grade, which, in turn, makes it hard to graduate from high school.
- Data from one study suggests that an increase of one reading level at age 7 is associated with a roughly $7,750 increase in income at age 42.
- Early childhood reading level affects success in other subjects, as well. One study found that two-thirds of all children are not proficient readers at the start of fourth grade .
- Sadly, two-thirds of all children are not proficient readers at the start of fourth grade . In other words, all-too-many children are at risk of academic failure because they did not get the instruction and support needed to become fluent readers.
The good news is, you’re doing something now to help your child succeed.
You are investigating ways you can help your child become a strong reader. Many parents wonder if it is good enough to leave teaching to schools and to assume that a young child will learn well enough without parental help. After all, most people, yourself included, perhaps learned to read in school without extra action on the part of families.
But consider this:
A 2003 analysis of more than 25 public opinion surveys by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public opinion research organization, found that 65 percent of teachers say their students would do better in school if their parents were more involved.
The bottom line is: learning to read is extremely important, and children can benefit enormously when parents help.
Before we jump into a step-by-step, 14 day Homer Decoding Method for teaching a child to read, it’s important to step back and understand the science behind how a child learns to read.
How children learn to read: the science behind reading
Third grade is often called the “pivot” year because it marks the moment in a child’s education when he or she moves from learning to read to reading to learn.
Without first mastering the foundational skills of reading, though, children can’t possibly grapple with a textbook chapter on photosynthesis or the cultural history of ancient Rome.
Fortunately, thanks to many accomplished researchers, we know a great deal about how children learn to read. Indeed we have scientifically verifiable information on just how this complicated process occurs.
In my many years of teaching children to read and in my years of researching the subject in order to write books, I’ve come up with points that can help parents understand and support children as they learn to read.
1. Children learn to read best with step-by-step teaching.
Learning to read doesn’t happen overnight or through random exposure to the ABCs.
Children learn to read when they follow a clear, set path.
The path begins with the introduction of a letter sound and its corresponding symbol. It moves slowly and carefully to reading and spelling words using a few targeted sounds a child has mastered or is in the process of mastering. Most children do not automatically grasp the relationship between sounds and letters. They need to be taught, little by little. Children need practice.
While the best kindergarten teachers teach reading in this step-by-step manner, parents also can participate in a child’s learning journey by relying on quality resources.
We built Homer’s step-by-step reading program to make it easy for parents to help new readers. There is science behind our method, but kids see Homer as a fun game!
2. Learning to read does not happen naturally.
Walking and talking are developmental milestones in a child’s life. Learning to read is a milestone, too, but it doesn’t just happen. Written language is a relatively new phenomenon. It is not biologically destined, as walking and talking are. Learning to read and write, therefore, almost always requires direct instruction.
Parents can support their children in learning to read through patient practice, attention to the lettered world around them, and most importantly, by snuggling up with a child and a good book and reading, reading, reading!
3. Children learn best when learning to spell is combined with learning to read.
We are fortunate that our written language is a code. We have a set of letters that represent the 44 sounds in the English language. If you blend the sounds together in the right way, you make words. As we speak, we don't think about this code, but deep exposure to the code is essential for young readers and writers.
There are great advantages to helping children understand and appreciate the reversible nature of the alphabetic code. The process of blending or “gluing” individual sounds together in order to read a word also works in the other direction.
Reverse the process and a child can first hear a word, then “unglue” its individual sounds, match those sounds to a letter, and spell the word. Parents can help their children work with letters in both directions by playing with the concepts of “gluing” and “ungluing” sounds.
Homer’s games and lessons do just that, and our parents tools provide a large selection of worksheets and games to help when screentime is over.
4. Children should arrive in kindergarten knowing the ABCs and the letter sounds.
Almost every child learns early on to sing the ABC song. However, knowing the names of the letters of the alphabet is far less important than knowing the precise sounds those letters represent.
Phonological awareness (the ability to isolate and manipulate individual sounds within words) and phonics (the ability to connect letter sounds to a letter symbols in order to read and spell words) are the true building blocks of literacy.
As you pass a billboard or look at book cover, you might ask your child to name one of the letters. This is a good thing to do, but it is just as important, arguably more important, to ask, "what sound matches the letter?" It is, after all, the sounds not letter names that help a child learn to read.
In a recent study by the former US Assistant Secretary of Education, Susan B. Neuman, Homer was shown to significantly increase children’s awareness of letter sounds and other kindergarten readiness skills.
5. Learning to read requires time for review.
Just as a musician doesn't becomes a virtuoso without hours of study and practice, children don't become a strong readers without practice and review. This doesn't have to be boring. There are lots of easy games parents can play with children that build reading skills. One of the best, and most pleasurable, things parents can do, is to read to children. Read before bed, after lunch, during bus rides, at the laundromat, or while waiting for pizza. It is amazing how many times during the day you can read a book with a child.
6. Even preschool students can build reading comprehension skills.
Childen need to develop more than fluency skills to advance from learning to read to reading to learn. They must also comprehend what they read or hear read to them.
Even very young childen can listen to a sophisticated story, like an Aesop fable, and understand the meaning of the tale. Just as they can listen to a nonfiction account of ocean life and begin to fathom the mysteries of the ocean deep. Most five-year olds can’t read the word camouflage, but they can understand the word when it is used in the context of a science lesson on lions or giraffes.
Exposing youngsters to dynamic literature, factually rich non-fiction texts and the vocabulary this kind of writing includes helps children build an arsenal of knowledge and vocabulary that will serve them well as they progress in school.
7. Fairy tales, folk tales, and nursery rhymes aren’t just for entertainment.
There’s a reason Mother Goose has weathered the years and that the Brothers Grimm tales are still adapted by Walt Disney. These are great stories! In addition, nursery rhymes and fairy tales expose children to important building blocks of literature: rhyme and rhythm, character development, and story progression.
Reading classic literature to children is a joy, but it is also one of the best ways to build a child's a love of reading and increase his or her ability to understand the meaning of stories.
The Homer Decoding Method 14-day System to Jumpstart a Child's Reading
At Homer, we have a unique approach that helps children take their first steps into reading in a smooth and natural progression. We call it the Homer Decoding Method.
With the Homer Decoding Method, children are able to read and spell their first words in a very short amount of time -- typically just two weeks.
How do we do it?
- We introduce one letter at a time.
- We make sure that a child identifies that letter with a sound.
- We make sure the child can hear that sound within a word -- either at the beginning, the ending or the middle of a word.
- As soon as a child knows three sounds, we get him or her to blend sounds into words.
- After blending sounds into words, the child can then isolate individual sounds within words in order to spell.
The beauty of the system is that it takes very little time for a child to both read and spell words.
Even more powerful: children are able to generalize their experiences blending individual sounds into words in order to read and separating individual sounds in words in order to spell. This means that each step in reading is easier than the one before.
We get children to recognize that all words are made up of individual sounds, that if you can unlock the sounds you can spell words and if you lock individual sounds together, you can read words.
Once children internalize this principle, then letter by letter, sound by sound, they can read more and more and more words. Soon they are active readers.
Here is the Homer Decoding Method for jumpstarting your child’s learn-to-read journey:
NOTE: In describing our method, it is important to differentiate a printed letter and its name from the sound that letter represents. To make this clear, I've used uppercase letters when referring to any printed letter or letter name and used lowercase letters in quotes for the sound. When I write B I mean either the uppercase or lowercase letter. When I write "b," I mean the sound "buh."
- Present the letter A in both uppercase and lowercase forms.
- Tell your child that this letter matches the sound "a" that begins the word alligator. It matches the first sound in many other words too: axe, apple, ant, astronaut.
- Have your child make the sound once, twice, three times!
- Review your work on day one: the letter A, matches the first sound in alligator, axe, apple.
- Now challenge your child to do something new. Present three words: bird, ant, cow. Which word begins with the sound "a"? (As you say each word, exaggerate the first sounds a bit.)
- Then, challenge your child with three new words and then three more. Don't worry if your child has trouble at first. Unlocking sounds in words isn't always easy.
- Review yesterday's challenge.
- After two or three rounds, make the challenge a bit harder. Tell your child that the sound "a" can also be in the middle of words, like the word cat. Make sure to exaggerate the "a" in cat.
- Present another example, maybe cap.
- Next, challenge your child to pick which of two words has the "a" sound in the middle: map or mop.
- If your child can meet this challenge easily, then present three words: hop, cut, sat. Three or four rounds of this game are enough for one day.
Practice hearing the "a" sound in the beginning of words and in the middle of words as you did on Day Two and Three.
Practice hearing the sound "a" in words for one more day.
- Time to introduce a new letter - T and its matching sound: “t” as in tap.
- Follow the same structure as you did introducing the letter A.
- Present the T in uppercase and lowercase form.
- Tell your child that the letter matches the “t” sound that begins the word tiger. It matches the first sounds in many other words, too: tickle, team, top, time. And it is at the end of words: hat, pot, fit.
- Have your child make the sound once, twice, three times.
- Begin by practicing the “a” sound.
- Have your child say the sound a few times and then ask him or her to pick which of three words begins with the sound “a.” Play two or three rounds.
- Then ask your child which of three words has “a” as a middle sound. Again play two or three rounds.
- After this review, have your child practice saying the “t” sound and identify which of three words begins with “t.” You might use the words miss, pal, top. After your child selects the right word, play again with three new words. And then again, and again.
- After a quick review identifying the “a” sounds in words, return to learning about the letter T. Tell your child that the sound “t” does come at the beginning of many words, but it also comes at the end of words like hat, pot, fit.
- Present three words: pit, leg, bell and ask your child to pick the one that ends with the “t” sound. Play a few rounds. Then make the game a little harder by including one word without the “t” sound, one that has “t” at the beginning of the word and one that has it at the end: tip, pan, fit. Which one has “t” at the end?
- Play several rounds of this version of the game. Your child is bound to find the task tricky. Don’t be dismayed at his or her mistakes. In fact, it would be very surprising if he or she meets this challenge without errors. Your child’s errors offer you the opportunity to explain that learning without mistakes is impossible! Good learners know that mistakes happen, and they don’t let any mistakes stop or discourage them -- ever!
Practice identifying words with the first and middle sound “a” and words with the first and last sound “t.”
- Begin by reviewing the “a” and “t” sounds but then add a third letter, P, and its matching sound, "p." Write P in uppercase and lowercase form. Tell your child that the letter matches the “p” sound that begins words like pigeon, pancake, pickle. Say the “p” sound several times before asking your child to do likewise.
- Then see if your child can pick which of three words begins with the sound “p”: pig, goat, cow. Offer the same challenge several times.
- Now try something new. Write the lowercase A on one piece of paper, lowercase T on a second sheet and lowercase P on a third.
- Fill a bowl with 10 small treats: 10 raisins or 10 mini-cookies or 10 pistachios.
- You say a word that begins with one of the three letters, tiger for instance. Your child’s job is to decide which of the three letters matches the “t” sound at the start of tiger.
- If your child places a treat on the right letter, he or she gets the treat to eat. If he or she makes the wrong choice, the treat returns to the bowl.
- If your child doesn’t make any errors, you will play 10 rounds of this game. Your child, though, has 15 chances to win as many treats as possible, meaning even if he or she makes five mistakes, the treats will still all be his or hers. If you prefer, you can fill the bowl with 10 paper clips rather than food. Your child wins the game if he or she can collect all ten clips within fifteen rounds.
- Begin by having your child say the sound that matches the letter P. Then explain that although the “p” sound begins words, it can also come at the end of a word like cap, flip, and top.
- Ask your child to choose which of three words ends with the “p” sound. Play a few rounds.
- Then make the game a little harder by including one word without the “p” sound, one that has “p” at the beginning of the word and one that has it at the end: penguin, tiger, chimp. Which one has “p” at the end? Play a few rounds of this version of the game.
- Then take two sheets of paper and write a lowercase P on one sheet and the lowercase T on the other. Play the same game as yesterday only this time your child has to pick which letter ends the word.
Today it’s time for a big change!
Your child now knows three sounds: “a,” “t,” and “p,” which means that he or she is ready to read three words. Here’s how to begin this adventure.
- Take three 3 X 5 cards and write lowercase A on one, lowercase T on the next, and lowercase P on the last.
- Point to each card, one at a time, and have your child say the matching sound.
- Mix the cards and tap again. Mix and tap. Mix and tap.
- Now line the A and T like this:
- Tap to the first letter and say “a.”
- Move quickly onto the next card, tap and say “t.”
- Then tap and say “a” followed by tapping and saying “t,” only this time do it faster.
- Finally slide the “a” and “t” sounds together: aa..tt
Can your child figure out the word? Great. If not, say: ”’a’..' t' -- I just read the word at.”
Give your child a chance to mimic you. Tap A and your child says the sound. Tap T and your child says the sound. Go quicker. Then slide the sounds together.
HOORAY! Your child just used sounds to read the word at!
- Now add a sound. Set the letters up like this:
t a p
- Tap and read the sounds. Then tell your child to tap and read. Then tap and read more quickly.
- Then say: “Time to slide and read!" Let your finger slide across the letters while your child reads. What’s the word? It’s TAP!
- Now place the letters like this:
p a t
and have your child tap and read and then slide and read.
- Let your child practice reading each word -- at, tap, and pat -- three more times.
The "tap and read" exercise followed by the "slide and read" exercise will, no doubt, be hard for your child at first, but he or she will catch on in time.
Coupling "tap and read" with "slide and read" is a very powerful approach and children who master it have a big advantage when sounding out words. Whether the tasks are hard or easy, though, jumbo congratulations are in order.
You might even make a big colorful poster to tape on your fridge:
YOU CAN READ THESE WORDS!
- Begin by engaging in the "tap and read" and "slide and read" activities above with the words at, tap, and pat.
- After one round, though, take your child’s right hand and hold it palm facing up. Have your child close his or her eyes. Then draw lowercase T in the palm and have your child say the sound -- NOT the letter name -- only its sound!
- Next draw lowercase A and have your child say that sound. Finally draw lowercase P and have your child say the sound. What word did you write in your child’s palm? Tap. Do the same thing with the words at and pat.
- When you are done, take nine 3X5 index cards and write lowercase T on three of them, lowercase A on three of them and lowercase P on three of them.
- Say the word at. Tell your child that at has two sounds: “a” and “t.”
- Ask your child to select the letter cards needed to spell at. Offer help if needed.
- Say the sounds again slowly: “a” ... “t.” if your child still has trouble, pull over the A card and ask which letter comes next. When your child succeeds, even if it takes a few tries, shout, “Hooray!" Your child is now reading AND spelling!
- Now ask your child to use the letter cards and spell tap and then pat.
- Next mix the cards up and let your child give you a word to spell, either at, pat or tap. Before you begin, tell your child that you might make a spelling mistake and, if that happens, he or she must scream "WRONG" as loud possible.
- Then mix the cards again, say a word and let your child spell it. Keep taking turns giving each other words to spell. Be sure to make a mistake or two when it is your turn. In my experience, this greatly increases the fun.
- After about 15 minutes tell your child that tomorrow, you’re going to celebrate his or her learning to read and to spell words. This is a great accomplishment and it deserves recognition.
Day Fourteen: Celebration Day!
- Have a party! It might be fun to get balloons, blow them up, and, using a marker, write the words at, tap, and pat on some of them. You might invite a few dolls or stuffed animals to join the fun. Prepare some treats.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you might make cookies and then, using icing tubes, squeeze the letters A, T, and P on top: one lowercase or uppercase letter per cookie. That way, you can spell while you eat. What should you serve as a beverage? TEA, of course! Herbal is surely best.
- Play a game. Write the three words your child can read, one word per card, on twelve 3X5 cards. Turn the cards upside down and spread them around a table or floor. Your child says, “Find tap,” and you turn over one of the cards. If you get the right word, you keep it. If you do not, turn it over and mix up the cards. Now your child tries to pick the word you command. The first player to get five words wins.
- You might feel artistic. If so, super! Get three large sheets of paper. Write the three words in large bubble letters, one word on each sheet. Color in the words using crayons, markers, or stickers. Make them shine. No need to do all these activities, of course. Whatever makes it fun, makes it a celebration, makes it a delight for your child is best.
What can you do on day fifteen?
If you decide this approach to reading and spelling works well for your child, you might want to join the Homer Learn-to-Read Program to continue your child’s progress.
In effect, your child will have learned the reading skills in Level One and half of our Level Two.
If beginning with The Homer Learn-to-Read Program is not the best plan for your child, then continue teaching letters and matching sounds one at a time -- slowly, deliberately, thoroughly. You then add words for your child to tap and read, then slide and read, following the model above. Don’t forget to do some spelling, too. If your next letter is "m", for instance, your child will add am, Pam, map and mat to his or her list of mastered words.
I wish you joyous times as you help your child learn to read!