December 5, 2010

What Else We've Been Doing: Reading

I'm sure it comes as no surprise, considering I don't think children should attend school until they are 8, that I am adamantly opposed to teaching children to read in kindergarten.

Especially boys.


Here's why. Most boys are not ready to learn how to read as early as girls are. Their brains usually focus more on physical things and less on abstract/academic things during the early years. By early, I mean until age 8.

As a teacher I saw firsthand what happens to students who fail to read at the ridiculously young ages that we try to teach them. They give up. They tune out. They hate school. And most importantly, they think they are stupid.

Let's review a very important child development fact: anything you teach a child before said child turns 8 is pretty much a permanent fixture in the child's brain and almost impossible to change their mind about. That was confusing. In essence, before 8, a child believes everything you teach him/tell him and it is almost impossible to convince the child that the information is wrong later. So if a child thinks he is loved before age 8, he always will. If a child thinks he is smart before age 8, he always will. If a child thinks he is NOT SMART before age 8, he always will.

Eight is a magic number in child development.

So what happens to the child in kindergarten, the grade in which reading is currently being taught in most elementary schools, who is not ready to learn to read? You guessed it. The child assumes he is dumb and believes it the rest of his life.

I am opposed to teaching children, especially boys, to read before they are seven or show many different signs that they are ready.

But, you say, won't the later learners be behind?? No. Research shows that early and late readers generally reach the same reading competency by age 11. Meaning, it all evens out before they hit middle school years/adolescence.

So, you say, explain the picture below.


How embarrassing. Caught *gulp* teaching my five year old son to read.

My only explanation/defense is this: sometimes my children don't care about all my education expertise and INSIST that I teach them what they want to know.

In other words--Cowen was showing a lot of signs of reading readiness.

For example, if I asked him to spell a word like "hat" he could do it by sounding out the different letters in the word.

He knows all his sounds and letters.

He knows how to tell when a word starts and stops.

He understands that a period marks the end of a sentence/idea.

He turns six in March and has been begging me to teach him to read for two years now. He wants to read Ranger's Apprentice. And every other book with cover art that includes a knight/sword/hobbit/horse/or cowboy.

He's desperate to be able to do what Miriam does.

There was no need to wait any longer. He was ready. We're proceeding slowly and cautiously--ready to slow down even more if any signs of trouble pop up. For now, he's progressing rapidly and loving it.

There are several methods/programs out there for teaching reading. Most are junky. Most are overpriced. Most introduce too many words too quickly.

I taught Miriam how to read using a white board. When she knew her sounds, I wrote "at" on the white board and showed her how to combine the two sounds. Then I added different letters on the front of "at" to make "cat," "hat," "sat," "mat," "fat," etc. When she was reading those words confidently I would write a silly sentence like "Miriam sat on the cat." I would read her the sentence, she would giggle, and then I would have her circle the words she could read.

Then we moved on to "it" and all the words that end with "it."

Etc., etc., etc.

Until she was comfortable with the concept of sounding out.

Then I moved her into the following program called Little Books: Set One.

When you first see this series you will think it is plain and possibly non-academic because it is all black and white pictures. Trust me, the color of the pictures matters not. In fact, every once in awhile I would copy a picture for my daughter to color to keep her interest level high.

These books are fantastic. They introduce new words and new word families and new sounds very slowly so a child always feels success. That is very important.

I used the whole first set with Miriam and half of the second set. By then she was ready to move into early readers at the library so we discontinued using them.

Cowen spends ten minutes with me every day on reading because he insisted. That's plenty for a wiggly boy child. He started with the white board until he was comfortable spelling lots of easy sound-out words. (Oddly, Cowen could spell words long before he could read them. Boy brains are weird--I'm just saying.) Recently, I let him get out the first Mat the Rat book (what my kids call the Little Book books). Cowen was THRILLED. Learning to read is a big thing at our house--a privilege of sorts.

He's currently passed off the first three books and is still practicing with Level One: Book 4 and Level One: Book 5. He's still loving it. He's still feeling very successful.


If you have a baby, the best thing you can do to raise a reader is to read yourself. That's even more important than reading to your child. If you lack time, like myself, I tell my children about different books I love. As I walk by my bookshelf I'll casually pull a book out and skim through it and mutter to myself, "I love this part." My children will beg to know more.

There are a whole bunch of preliteracy strategies and they work. The more you make your child want to learn to read, the better reader the child will be.

Other preliteracy strategies include ordering a monthly magazine for your child so the excitement of getting mail transfers to reading the mail. I recommend the National Wildlife Federation magazines. We started with Animal Baby, moved on to Your Big Backyard, and now adore Ranger Rick. There are a lot of good options.

Reading a story so many times that your child can recite it is also a good strategy. Then have your child "read" the book to any person willing to listen. Heap praise on the child for his "great reading!"

There are others. My basic point--be very, very careful with reading. Preliteracy is key. Absolutely essential. Then, don't start teaching reading until you know your child is ready. Set them up to succeed. Always praise, praise, praise when it comes to reading. And if you have a boy that is not reading as early as you think he should--relax. Most boys will be ready to read by age 7, but some not until they are 8. It will be fine.

Hope some of this info was useful.

I also recommend reading: Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences by Leonard Sax.

And The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon by David Elkind. This one is a little dated, but it still provides excellent food for thought.

Happy reading!


  1. we were the same way...i was just happy to teach him all the sounds and sight recognition...and then he had to go and start sounding out everything he we formalized it a bit and made sure he was learning sight words along with the phonics book. anyhoo, watching little boys homeschool is a hoot - lots of jumping, lots of time spent trying to corral his energy to focus for a few minutes at a time.

  2. Amen to all of the above!

  3. So I just read The Female Brain by some doctor lady. And it was fascinating section on the effects of high estrogen levels the first year of life. So next time we talk remind me to share what I learned. Also an interesting bit about women who didn't have a healthy early mother relationship that has helped me get some perspective on some of my current flaws. Love you and miss you and think you should come play in California.