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How I Accidentally Taught My Kids To Read

How I Accidentally Taught My Kids To Read

I was sitting with my oldest one day a few years ago and randomly grabbed some flashcards out of a bin that was near us on the floor. Quite nonchalantly I said, “Let’s see if we can read some of these.”

Sight-word Flashcards

Red. Car. Cat. Yes. No.
Pretty standard stuff. I wasn’t surprised.

Like. The. Away. Why. Must.
I’m raising my eyebrows at this point.

Funny. Said. New. Pretty. Yellow.
He read 80% of the entire stack.

How had this happened? We’d done very little “official homeschooling” at this point and these flashcards hadn’t seen the light of day in forever. To be quite honest, I’m still not even sure where they came from.

A few days later, my sister-in-law (who just happens to teach high school English) was over. “I hear Max has been working on his sight words, “ she says and proceeds to ask him to point out the words he knew from one of his space books. Space. Astronaut. Planet. Earth. Mars. Rocket.

She looked me square in the eyes and said, “Those aren’t sight words.”

How I ended up with a seven-year-old who reads reference books for fun (not lying-pretty sure we racked up some library fines for the ‘S’ volume when he became very convinced he wanted a pet snake*) and a five-year-old who isn’t far behind, is mind-boggling and I must admit, a complete accident. I never hung any cute Letter of the Day posters on our “school room” wall. We did not use any conventional reading programs. Bob Books, All About Reading and Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons never made appearances in our home. In fact, my oldest objected FIERCELY each time I placed Explode the Code workbook pages in front of him. Yet somehow, I ended up with a five-year-old that recognized the word “andesite” in a geology book. Actually, I can give all credit for that to his older brother (“Max, what does that say?) and Minecraft.

Minecraft Andesite

After being asked for recommendations on how to teach a kiddo to read, I thought back to our days as pre-readers and jotted down the things that we did that seem to have led us down the path to unintentional literacy.

Create your own sight words. Sight words are described as words that new readers typically won’t be able to use general phonics rules in order decode them. These words are designed to be committed to memory. When you think about it, no matter how you decode it, after you’ve read a word a few times, it becomes a sight word. Using your child’s interests as a guide, select a few words that he or she would be excited to read and work on committing those to memory. I first recall doing this for Max when he was going through his firefighter stage. We would read books about the subject and I would point them out on the page. Soon, Max was able to pick out the word ‘fire’ quite easily on his own. Taking things a step further, while reading a story, leave familiar words out and have your child point to and say the word for you. This is a quick and easy way for kids to feel successful as new readers.

Use what they know (and a lot of compound words). With an established bank of sight words it is easy to expand upon what your young reader already knows. For example, take a “base” word (in this case ‘fire’) and use it in as many different combinations as possible. Fire chief, firefighter, fire truck, fire station, fire safety. Point out to your reader that the only difference between ‘fire truck’ and ‘fire station’ is what comes after the word ‘fire.’ From there you can easily branch off endlessly.

Fire station>>space station>>police station>>police car>>race car>>sports car.

Fire truck>>dump truck>>trash truck>>trash can.

Keep finding ways to connect old words to new words until you’ve essentially built a network of words that help to convey many different rules of pronunciation without the standard “d is for dog” stuff. Eventually, learners will begin to understand the relationship between how words sound and what they look like. Give them a little encouragement (and a lot of patience) and they will slowly become more confident in their ability to sound words out. They won’t always be correct, but with guidance and practice, the “rules” will begin to solidify for them.

Letter Tiles

Use letter tiles/cards as a manipulative. Have a Scrabble board sitting in your game closet? Steal the letter tiles and use them as a fun visual aid for discussing rhyming words. The movable tiles are great for showing how simply changing one letter can alter a word. I have a few bags of pre-sorted letters that the boys can grab at random to “play” with. You can also randomly select a few tiles, line them up and see what new “words” you can make up. This is one of Isaac’s favorite reading activities. Something about saying things like “Whhnnxrctlpi” makes him laugh hysterically! This silly activity is great for teaching letter sounds without really trying. Bananagram and Apples to Apples tiles work really well for this too!

Read, read, read. Read EVERYTHING to your kids. Street signs, recipes, cereal boxes. The more they see and hear, the more sense it will make to. Auditory processing alone (audiobooks in the car are amazing!) will increase vocabulary and help to develop contextual association. “Hey, I heard them say airplane in that audio book. Now I’m looking at a book about airplanes and from what I know about how letters work, I bet you that says airplane.” Reading to your child can also demonstrate the idea that reading is a way to collect knowledge and what kid doesn’t want to gather as much information as possible. Kids are curious, nosy, little creatures.

I always have a stack of books on my nightstand!

I always have a stack of books on my nightstand!

Read for your own pleasure in your child’s presence. When reading is seen as being beneficial and pleasurable rather than as a task to mark off the school/homework to-do list, you’ll have much more success in engaging them.

These aren't earth-shattering ideas-many parents and teachers do all of these things as a supplement to “formal” lessons. I believe the key to success is patience. Thankfully, my boys don’t NEED to read. There are no standardized tests to prepare for (or any tests really). No written instructions on worksheets that must be completed independently while a teacher zig-zags through the classroom from student to student. No benchmark skill-sets to be assessed. They are learning, have learned really, to read on their own terms, at their own pace, deciphering the inexplicable rules of the English language in their own way and because this is the way they learned, I truly believe that they will see reading as a way to receive and process information (for work, research or pleasure) and appreciate it more. Remember that the goal in this whole education/homeschooling/parenting journey is to inspire a love of learning in our little ones, even if it is by accident.

Unschooled Boys Reading

The greatest gift is a passion for reading.

~Elizabeth Hardwick

* A quick informational trip to the exotic pet store where the saleslady told him he had a 100% chance of being bitten at some point changed his mind.

Bonus: Our favorite apps!
Montessori Crosswords, Starfall, Duolingo.
Remember, not all screen time is “bad” screen time! (Read why I think so here!)


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This article appears in the latest issue of Secular Homeschooler Magazine. Download your copy here!

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