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Learning to Read:
A three-part article excerpted from
the Home School Source Book, Third Edition

by Jean and Donn Reed

From Donn Reed: How Children Learn to Read

There's an old story, which you've probably heard, about a little boy who scribbled laboriously on a piece of paper and proudly told his mother, "Look, I'm writing."

"How nice," said his mother. "What does it say?"

"I don't know," the boy replied. "I haven't learned to read yet."

Like many apocryphal stories, this one may have some basis in fact, but most of us learn to read before we learn to write.

Ideally - except in modern schools that try to teach how to read without offering reading material of any substance, and how to write without asking that the writing be about anything of substance - the two processes soon overlap, each one contributing to the other. Spelling, principal parts of speech, and basic grammar are all learned simultaneously. The reading will be about subjects that interest the kids, and they will write about things or events that interest them. Printing is also learned at the same time, as well as the extension of meanings by the use of suffixes and prefixes, by different tenses, etc.

We never taught our children to read.

When they were very young, we read to them. When they were three months old, they gurgled happily as we read nursery rhymes, poetry, and even captions of “first interest“ animal books. At six months, they smiled and pointed at interesting shapes and colors. When they were a year old, we read books with them, discussing the pictures and answering millions of questions. We often asked each other, "Where is the truck?" "Can you put your finger on the nose?" "Which flower is red?" and similar questions. The kids weren't reading words yet, but even picture books with no words involved verbal communication and a growing vocabulary, including concepts of space, size, color, action, and direction.

Between eighteen months and two years, each of them spent many hours each day with books, not yet recognizing many words, but studying the pictures. Despite the kids' early interest in books, we never pushed reading. We read to them every day, but they also chose to look at books on their own every day. It was unimportant to us if they learned to read at the age of two or six or ten. When we were reading to them we made a point of moving our finger along under the words we were reading. It wasn't long before the questions were about the letters and words as often as about the pictures. The kids were fascinated by the idea that the story was not only in the pictures, and were eager to decode the words. They asked us to identify specific words, especially nouns with which they were familiar (cow, horse, car, tree) and verbs, especially of movement (run, jump, fall). They'd point at a word (sometimes at random, sometimes deliberately) and ask "Cow?" If by chance, the “choice” was correct, the child felt such pride and delight that the word might never be forgotten. When the random choice was incorrect, we moved the pointing finger to the right word, saying, "Here's "cow." If the child then returned to the first choice, wanting to know what it was, then we'd tell him; otherwise, we ignored it.

Their own curiosity about the pictures and the accompanying words we read to them taught them to read. They also saw us (whenever we had a chance) reading for our own pleasure.

Frequent positive reinforcement and absolute avoidance of negative corrections encouraged the kids, and they learned rapidly. None of them ever said, "I can't get it. It's too hard," because we never asked them to "get" anything. There was never any pressure to do something they hadn't yet learned to do.

The girls could identify and read several words before they knew the sounds of individual letters. We never had a definite plan of “how to teach reading,” except to be sure it was always fun and interesting, so there didn't seem much point in interrupting their reading to teach them how to read.

From Jean Reed: A Lesson in Patience

Derek learned in a different way. He had the same introduction to books, saw us and the girls reading, and asked all of us to read to him. He had a love affair with books, and it drove him (and us) nearly crazy for a couple of years. At age two he wished for a horse. At ages three and four he yearned for a horse and someone to read to him. After that he wanted a horse and he wanted to read. He would ask what a word was, but couldn't remember it a day later or even later that day. He frequently ad-libbed stories from books, some almost word for word. Sometimes he made up his own stories to go with the pictures. When he realized that the letters had individual sounds he learned the alphabet and most of the sounds, but he still couldn't read on his own.

Derek's desire to read was not lacking, but something was. It made us wonder and sometimes worry. We didn't understand why, although he yearned to read, he couldn't do it. His frustration grew, even though we reassured him that he would learn. We had his eyes checked, even though we had never seen him squint at a book or the TV. He was given glasses, which he proudly wore. He went to get a book, almost tripping on the way, and sat down to read. He looked at the letters on the page and scrunched up his eyes and face so he could see better. The glasses were obviously wrong or not the answer at all. We had his eyes rechecked by another eye specialist who advised us to throw the glasses out, so we did.

No one really understands exactly what happens when the ability to decode the written word occurs. It's still a mystery. We do know that a certain amount of brain development must take place first, just as the muscles and nervous system must develop before a child crawls or walks. Studies have shown that linguistic and mathematical skills come easily at different times to different children.

All Derek really needed was time. When he was eight, "it" finally happened. After he made the first breakthrough on his own he was an insatiable reader, and within six months was reading way beyond his grade level. Before he was able to read he would have been considered "slow" or worse, in a public school setting. I shudder to think what that would have done to this otherwise bright and happy child who went on to became a natural speed-reader with very high comprehension.

From Donn Reed: More Observations on Reading

It was interesting to watch phonics and grammar grow naturally with the kids' learning to write.

We let the kids lead the way. Once the partial similarity of COW to CAR was noticed and questioned, it was very natural for us to discuss the alphabet and the different sounds of letters. Being able to "sound out" words phonetically is important, but it's just as important to be able to read entire words and even whole phrases without having to dissect them.

The conventional "sounding out" of "baby" is buh-ay-buh-ee. Once the child can point to the letters in turn and make these sounds, we are supposed to say, "Very good! Now say the sounds faster; run them together." We are supposed to demonstrate the method, slowly and ponderously saying, "BUHay-buhEE" over and over, until the child finally hears - or guesses - the word "baby." "Now you do it faster," we say, with the reminder "Sound out each letter, then run the sounds together - and you have the word!"

It doesn't really work that way. For most beginning readers, it still comes out as buh-ay-buh-ee, but speeded up - "buhaybuhee." The sounds trip over each other, but are not "run together." The trick is to condense four syllables into two - but then it's no longer a strictly phonetic approach; it's sight reading of syllables. The transition from four separate letter sounds to two syllables is less a matter of logic than of intuition. The conclusion may be accepted, but there is no logical transition to be understood.

Later, when we began using school readers, we made the mistake of also using the tests for "comprehension and retention" that invariably followed each story. We still hadn't learned to reject the methods of the "experts." Luckily, we soon realized that our kids' lessening interest in reading was the direct result of having to answer dumb questions about their reading, but it took us longer than it should have. We should have known better without even trying it.


Jean and Donn Reed homeschooled four children who are now grown. Donn wrote “The Home School Source Book“, one of the first books of its kind, a huge assortment of resources, with helpful and thought-provoking commentaries about homeschooling, based on his family's experiences. Donn, a beloved figure in homeschooling, died in 1995, after a ten year bout with cancer. Jean has revised and greatly expanded The Home School Source Book to over 460 pages, and continues the catalog business, Brook Farm Books: Jean@brookfarmbooks.com . The Home School Source Book, is available in stores and from Brook Farm Books for $29.95.


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