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Realistic Charlotte Mason: Reading With Ease

by Catherine Levison

Recently, I met with a young woman who had just taught her young son to write his name. Naturally, she was very proud of how quickly he had learned to do this and of his constant demonstration of his new skill. She had thought it would be difficult for him but when she observed him writing his name all the time and on literally everything he could find, her thoughts took a turn.

She became concerned about his potential. This successful endeavor caused her to wonder what else he could learn. As she brought her situation to me, she appeared to be worried. There were so many things he could be learning, it overwhelmed her.
I suggested she teach him to read. Her mind appeared to be centered on finding the best preschool to accomplish this. I told her that I had taught all five of my children to read myself. I explained that this was really very easy and they had learned how within minutes. It appeared that I had her full attention so I offered to teach her how to do this –and then I did. Because it only took me a few minutes to explain to her how this could be done, I decided to write this issue’s article on reading. First I will explain how to teach a young child who does not yet know how and then I will elaborate on reading for the older children and the college-aged child. I recommend that if you and your children are well past this stage you skip the next section and rejoin us for the older children’s segment.

Teaching Young Children to Read
You are reading right now. That indicates that you know how to read but can you recall how it was that you learned to read? Many of us cannot remember. It is fairly common to find people who taught themselves to read unaided but many of us learned in a classroom with a teacher writing words on the board. Then we would be asked to refer to the words in front of us in the form of a worksheet or perhaps a little book. For some, the decoding of symbols on the page came easily and for some, it did not. I can only imagine the frustration a child could experience if the majority of the group quickly grasped the concept while s/he sat there mystified as to how they were doing it.

My advice is to not have a book anywhere near you and the child when you sit down the first time. The exception would be the self-taught but they would be reading already without your intervention. What you do need to have are some loose letters. Think of those plastic letters with magnets that are used on refrigerators. In fact those work just fine. Or buy some crepe rubber ones, or cut some letters from paper. You could knit a set from yarn if you have the time. The point is that the letters are moveable and it will not matter much whether you use capital letters or lower case ones. Although, if given the choice -- use capital letters.

Choose a time when your child is teachable. If she has missed a nap, is sick or distracted, wait for another opportunity. Perhaps you could talk it up a bit. In other words tell him a special time is coming. A time to sit with Mom or Dad and have some fun. Now, simply hold up the letter “a” and tell him it is an “a” that is its name. It makes the sound aaaa like apple. Set it on floor in front of the two of you. Pick up the letter “t” and tell her this is a “t” and it makes the sound “teh” like table. Set that on the floor and tell the child the word she is looking at is the word “at.” Use “at” in a sentence or two.

If for any reason s/he appears distracted or begins to throw things about the room, stop for the day. However, if s/he is simply looking at the two letters on the floor and accepts the fact that this is indeed the word “at” -- then proceed. Grab a “p” or “c” and place that in front of the “at.” You are way ahead of me aren’t you? Tell him the “c” is called a “c” and it makes the sound cccc as you lay it down. Be very phonetic and over-pronounce your words, but then begin to blend them together until “cat” is coming out of your mouth with ease.

The next steps are the same. Use s, m, p, r, f, and any others to make the first three letter, short vowel sound words your child will read. This first session will probably end in success and last about ten to fifteen minutes. The next day (or skip a day on purpose and proceed on an every-other-day basis) allow about the same amount of time.

emember, keep the situation as distraction-free as possible. Ask the child to show you what s/he learned the last time and have him make the little words on the floor while you watch. Hopefully, cat, sat, pat, etc. will appear before your eyes. If all is going well and you are favorably impressed that s/he is catching on quickly, then lay out the word “the” and have her memorize it. Yes, memorize. “The” is a sight word and phonics will not help you. An average child will simply believe you when you tell them this is “the.” While we’re on the topic of sight words, go ahead and teach the word “said.” Again, phonics would tell us that “said” is spelled “sed.” Don’t go into that with the child. Armed with your “at” words and the memorized “said” and “the” you are now able to bring a book to the process.

Many children are thrilled to sit down and read their first little book. Hopefully you have located an easy reader that confines itself to the “at” words. If a few other words come along do not panic -- just tell them the word and have them keep reading. If you have accidentally chosen a book with too many unknown words it will probably not be very fun for your child and this is not the time to cause frustration. So, do not force them to read a book they are not prepared for.

On your next session you are now ready to work with loose letters again and it is time for the letter “o.” Use the same system, giving its name and its sound. Make words on the floor using “o” and teach new consonants as needed. Because the magnetic plastic letters are so very inexpensive you will probably be happier if you had two sets to work with. With two m’s and two d’s you will be able to make the word “DAD” and the word “MOM.” Children seem to like that.

At some point you will get to the day when you proudly hold up the letter “e” and put it at the end of a three letter word. Tell the child “e” is special. It can make the letter “a” say its name. Change “mad” into “made” for instance. Verbally pronounce the word “made” in an overly-exaggerated manner. Draw out the “a” sound as long as you can so that they can hear “a” saying its name. Change “cod” into “code” and “rod” into “rode.” Now you guys are ready to read an easy reader together that has four letter words in it that have silent “e.”

As these sessions advance and the both of you are enjoying yourself, try four letter words that use two vowels together. The word “bead” is one example of this. Teach the child the saying “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking and usually says its name.” The “e” and the “a” are walking together so the “e” is allowed to say its name. If you don’t think fast under pressure then prepare a list of double-vowel words to use before you sit down.

Soon you will be done using the loose letters as the child finds she can read and decode new words from the books themselves. We only used those to make it more of a game. There are children who will freeze in terror at the sight of a book. If your child is one of those, keep using the letters on the floor for as long as necessary. Our family had a large set of rubber letters, so we were able to write sentences on the floor and I did teach diphthongs and blended consonants and vowel sounds using them, but you do not have to go that far. Double-vowel sounds can be taught by writing them on paper just as easily.

“But Catherine”, I hear you saying, “this sounds too easy.” Yes, it is easy and in the same amount of time it took me to explain it, I could have taught one of your children his first reading lesson. Teaching it this way is inexpensive and can be accomplished for under ten dollars. It takes some consistency and regularly setting aside time. Fifteen to twenty minutes, about three times a week, should get results very quickly.

Think of it this way: Little Emily approaches you and speaks of her new desire to learn how to play the piano. You are elated. You find a teacher in your area and the lessons begin. But that is not what you would do if you played piano professionally for many years. No, you would be far more likely to teach little Emily yourself -- at least until you established her dedication to practicing. That would be because you knew how to play the piano proficiently. Reading is no different. You know how to read and you do not need private lessons with a tutor, you do not need to purchase a $200 reading program, complete with a compact disc. If you already own a program like that, then by all means put it to use -- especially if it worked for another child. If you don’t already have one, save your money. Give the nearly-free system described above a chance and if that does not work, then look at other options.

My goal here is to boost your confidence. You may have come to think that learning to read is a very difficult process and you will need outside help from an expert. You may have been told by a company, with a product to sell, that you are an amateur and success depends upon using their product. Chances are that neither of these is true unless your child has special needs; in other words, a learning disability. If that is the case, then of course, you will seek outside help at the earliest opportunity.

Types of Reading
There is reading for enjoyment and there is reading for knowledge and on a very happy day the two collide. You cannot expect to find little Eddie in the living room reading a physics book all on his own because he likes it. Well, if you do then, congratulations, that is a very good problem to have. And do not rely on electro-shock therapy to create a love for reading. Can you picture that? “Hold still Timmy. Quit wiggling, Mommy just has to get these attached to your head. Okay, this will only hurt for a second.” No, that is not the answer.

The way to create the love of reading is to have the most-interesting books ever written and if at first you don’t succeed, keep trying. Get away from the easy readers as soon as possible and put one book after another in front of your child. Either s/he will be a reader and like it with very little effort or will be the “other” kind and need more time. If your child thinks s/he hates to read and you allow that idea to solidify, you will regret it later. Instead, go ahead, wear yourself out going back and forth to the library, because someday the clouds will part, a beam of light will appear and yes, Johnny will say the words you have been longing to hear, “Mommy, I like this book!”

Quickly ascertain what it is about this book he likes. The content? The writing style? The colors? Whatever it is go and get more just like that one. We want to develop the habit of reading as well as the enjoyment of reading. We want the child to find out that he will not die from it. No, it’s fun. But he has to come to that conclusion on his own.

Another thing that will help greatly is reading aloud to any and every child you have. Forget their ages and disregard who likes to read and who does not. Read a lot and from vastly-different kinds of books. Read like your life depends on it. I promise it will come back to you. You will thank yourself later.

The more any child learns to enjoy reading the better. One of many reasons is someday, somewhere, s/he are going to have to read something she does not want to read. It will be boring, it will be tedious. However, he will learn to tolerate those moments and view them as temporary. The child who decides he does not like to read anything at all thinks that way all the time. She is always tolerating. If any person, young or old, likes to read, s/he knows that just as soon as she finishes this poorly-written, boring book she can get back to reading something great.

The Purposes of Reading
This topic is similar to types of reading, but differs in a few ways. One purpose is reading prepares people for writing. The more reading you do, the more likely you are to excel at copying what you have seen, written in the style you have read. For example, let’s say you asked me to write a novel and make it as close to a Jane Austen novel as possible. That would be difficult enough but it would be nearly impossible if I had never read a Jane Austen book. But if I had just read every book she wrote three times in a row I would be better prepared to copy her writing style.

If your child has read many essays written by brilliant people and has come to understand the layout, the style, the approach, well then, you can expect a better result when he tries to write his own essay.
Another purpose for reading is reading for sheer knowledge. Charlotte Mason called this “Read to Know.” It is a skill that comes with practice. It is a matter of buckling down and paying attention. It is training your mind to catch the meaning of a page the very first time you read it. Imagine a textbook and you have an exam early in the morning. You are going to pay attention eventually to the data before you. Either read it over and over again while continually, finding yourself not really reading, or make it happen the first time. This skill is developed in the Charlotte Mason method through the constant use of narration -- but that’s another article.

And that brings us to our last purpose for reading that we will be covering here: College. The majority of my children are at college age right now and I am happy that I came across something Dr. Ruth Beechick wrote a long time ago. To paraphrase her words she said that the better reader a person was the better chances s/he had to be a good student. In my own words, college-level reading and the massive quantities assigned in most classes is no laughing matter. Not only are the professors not shy about doling out huge reading assignments, they expect you to know what you read. They will find out whether you do or you do not. Yes, the fill-in-the-bubble, multiple-choice test is frequently used but so is the essay style of examination. Not having developed the habit of reading will cause sloppy study habits such as misreading and missing the point of the reading and simply not being able to keep up the quantity of reading. People such as this may think they have caught the meaning of the passage in its context but the examination is designed to assure that they have. Then the sad fact that they misunderstood or did not retain the information becomes known.

I asked one of my college age children exactly how many hours a day she spends reading for school and she found it to be a difficult question. She told me it could be all day, meaning if she had the time, she could spend every waking hour that she was not in classes reading -- it could never be too much. I asked her to estimate how much time she actually spent, to which she said, “All of it is, all of the work, it’s all reading.” Perhaps this is due to the types of classes she attends, but I mentally reviewed what I had observed in my older children who went before her and I came up with the same thing. The point? Your children, when or if they go to college will be reading a lot. Perhaps if you prepare them now it will help them later.

I will end with this encouragement. While asking this particular child about her reading habits she told me this. “Mom, if you want to know what I remember about homeschooling the most and what I think helped me to do my best in college I’ll tell you. It’s easy. It was the reading out loud that you did.”
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Catherine Levison currently resides in Seattle. She is the mother of five and began home schooling in the 1980s. Her family enjoyed home education due to creative and effective techniques supplied by Charlotte Mason. Catherine’s work has been designed to give practical advice, while encouraging parents to think for themselves and develop a style that fosters individuality. Her book titles include, A Charlotte Mason Education—A Home Schooling How-To Manual and More Charlotte Mason Education—A Home Schooling How-To Manual. Her latest book is A Literary Education—An Annotated Book List. For more information contact her publisher at championpress.com.