About learning to read, and write.

Having children of my own has taught me a few new lessons about language acquisition, reading and writing. It has taught me that my way of language acquisition as a child was very instinctual. I pretty much went about it on my own for the most of it – as a child, nobody read to me nor asked me about the books I read. None of my parents encouraged me to read. In short, nobody had shown any interest at all in the fact that I loved reading. I was simply a very driven reader. I just started picking up books and reading nonstop from about age 6 and the rest was history. I’ve always taught people in some way or other. I worked as a private tutor for a few years when I was in Singapore, tutoring Maths and English mainly.  And now I am a homeschooler. One of my lifelong pet subjects is figuring out how to teach effectively.

My eldest, who is now 11, seemed at first to be a complete opposite of me. She always said she “hated” reading, although she would have no problem picking up a book or a leaflet or some other text to read if she felt it was of interest to her.  In hindsight, I realise I might have put her off reading when I used the Siegfried Engelmann book on her when she was 5, though I never pushed it. In fact it was apparent pretty early on that it wasn’t going to work with her. I gave up after 4 lessons. She hated it. Later on, she would acquire the ability to read in school when she was about 6 years old. It was a happy event for me. I looked forward to sharing my love of books with her, only to find out that actually she wasn’t that keen on reading at all. In fact, she hated it. She hated English lessons in school with a passion. She’d come home every day telling me how boring school was.  In a way I felt relieved I wasn’t the one responsible for teaching her English at the time, but I felt there must be some way in which I could help her in this. Reading extensively and widely is a prerequisite to acquiring a good standard of English, and English forms the basis of everything else we study in school. But it was just a worry at the back of my head. At the forefront, I was more concerned with other matters that come with attending school, like whether she was enjoying it, whether she was getting along with friends, etc.

Despite all that, she writes really well. We’ve been unschooling for a year or so, and reading wasn’t something she’d choose to do during say, 80% of her free time.  When I started the Ambleside curriculum with my kids recently, I noticed her range of English vocabulary and her reading comprehension ability was well below the standard required to understand the texts recommended for her year group. But I don’t blame her. At 11, she’s supposed to be doing Grade 5 I believe, but I had a look at some of the reading material for the curriculum and realised there was no way my 11 year old can handle that. In fact I doubt many 11 year olds out there can. I believe right now, she is probably at the Grade 2 level in terms of the standard of literature recommended by the curriculum. Some of the Grade 1 literature in fact, wouldn’t be too easy for her either, and a lot of the reading material in Ambleside is very advanced. For example, they recommend reading the original Shakespeare plays (and acting them out) at Grade 5. In state schools, Shakespeare originals would be used only in high school. Ambleside recommends Plutarch for Grade 5. Now I challenge anyone to read Plutarch (a sample of which can be found here) and say that an average Grade 5 public school kid can handle that. In fact an average high schooler probably wouldn’t find it an easy read either.

I love the richness of the text in the Ambleside material, so I don’t want to give up on it. Getting used to the complexity of language can only be good in the long run, because you would develop powers of comprehension and analysis that you wouldn’t usually acquire easily if you only just stuck to contemporary reading material from the bookshops. This is what I’ve found out for myself after I did Philosophy in Uni. Going through the course really helped sharpen my reading comprehension skills and decoding ability when encountering rich texts.

Since the texts for Grade 5 (and even some of the Grade 3 and 4) are quite tricky for her, I’ve decided to use Ambleside’s Grade 1 to 3 material instead, to practice narration. I find narration to be a pretty good method of enhancing a child’s reading comprehension. When a child narrates a story back, they have to be able to comprehend the gist of the story and relate it in their own words. The act of narration involves summarising and composition as well. It’s surprisingly effective for improving a child’s language skills, especially in terms of comprehension.

Apart from that, I also use Galore Park’s “So You Really Want To Learn English Book 1” for her. I was pretty impressed with the standard of their “Latin Prep” books, which she already uses for Latin. The English book didn’t disappoint either. Galore Park is a brand of British textbooks geared toward the private school market in UK. It produces material that aims to prepare students for the 11 year old and 13 year old entrance exams into some of the country’s most academically-selective schools. It also produces material that prepares students for the GCSE exams to be taken around 16 years of age. But the material is pretty effective, and of a higher calibre than say, the usual brands of revision books found in British bookstores. I had my reservations at first about whether the material in the Galore Park books would be too dry or too difficult for my daughter, who had been out of the school system for a few years (and had never even attended private or prep schools) , but the books have proven to be well-liked. She actually looks forward to doing them and I find the material engaging, informative and well-structured. They are also sufficiently challenging so it really does stimulate her mind.

My 7 year old daughter started reading at 4.5 years old because she asked me to teach her. I used the Siegfried Engelmann book to teach reading. It is indeed, one of the most effective teaching tools when it comes to reading instruction, but it is dry as bones. I did that book with her until about halfway through, and stopped. Partly because she was groaning and complaining every time I took the book out for a lesson, and partly because by then, she was able to read even stuff they haven’t yet covered in the book. I was fine with stopping the book midway. It had already done what it was supposed to do, which was to teach my daughter to read!

Ever since we started Ambleside about a month ago, she has shown a great interest in the reading material. I use Grade 1 for her, and she has been managing alright, although it is clear there are so many new words to her in the reading material. When I read to her, she can always narrate back pretty competently, showing me she did get the gist of the story, although she does not fully understand a lot of the new words she encounters in these rich old texts. Charlotte Mason’s idea was to expose kids to rich vocabulary through these texts, not to make each reading session into an extensive vocab lesson. I get that. That was how I acquired my knowledge of English. Through reading lots and lots of books since I was in Kindy, but I would never check the dictionaries for the meanings of unknown words. I just notice the words, and kind of guessed their meanings from context, and if I couldn’t guess the meaning, I would only ask an adult IF comprehension of the unknown word was absolutely crucial in aiding my continued enjoyment of the story. And this is exactly what my 7 year old does. I see her doing this too, so I think she’s fine. I might want to teach her how to use the dictionary one of these days though. But for now, narration and copywork are sufficient for her in terms of English “lessons”.

And lastly, we’ve come to my 5 year old son. He is a bit of a challenge, which is good and keeps me on my toes. It also forces me to re-examine different approaches to learning and to be more creative with how I teach. He is a ball of energy at home, and not really into sitting still. The ability to read (or not) just did not bother him. I tried the Siegfried Engelmann book on him at 4.5 years old. He was not interested. I put the book away and decided he just needs to have fun with words, so I bought a Reading Eggs subscription that he could play on whenever he liked, and I downloaded the Eggy Words and Eggy Alphabet apps onto my tablet for him to play with. I did try teaching him some sight words, but he was not getting it. I realised that in order for someone to even start trying to learn to read, they need to be able to recognise the letters of the alphabet first. At that point, he was not recognising any of the alphabets, even though he was being told that this is an “R”, this is an “A”, quite regularly, because he’d ask. It  seemed that to him, a written alphabet was just a squiggle that could stand for any alphabet you say it is. What he needed to do was to understand that these different little squiggles – these alphabets – each squiggle is special and means a specific thing.

I wasn’t going to start off making him learn all the letters of the alphabet, knowing he wouldn’t have the patience nor perseverance to learn them. Anything he learns has to be relevant to him, to whet his interest. So first thing I did was start him on learning to recognise the written form of his name. And eventually, when he mastered that, I started him on learning to write his name. And then after he became competent in that, I started getting him to play Eggy Alphabet daily, to sort of get a fun intro about all the letters of the alphabet (with some in-app on-screen finger-writing practice thrown in the mix). And after a couple of weeks, he was recognising at least half of all the alphabets. He’s a really inquisitive boy. Sometimes he’d point to a written word or sign and ask us to read it to him. We sounded it out to him. I made it a point in fact, to let him know that the first alphabet of the word was such-and-such sound, and then sounded out the whole word for him. Then the penny started to drop. He was saying things to me out of the blue like “Mummy, I know C is for cat, ‘cos C sounds like this : ‘CUUHH!’ And ‘Cat’ starts with a ‘CUUHH’ sound!'”

Last week, I tried out the Siegfried Engelmann book on him again. This was the second time I tried it on him, the first time being about a year ago where I gave up because I realised it wasn’t going to work at the time. But this time, he took to it. He could do the lessons, and he was enjoying it. I bought a mini whiteboard, eraser and dry-wipe markers, and got him to practise his writing on the whiteboard, because at the end of each lesson in the book was a writing practice. He used to be pretty weak in pen control, but his standard of writing has improved using the whiteboard and the daily practice. I haven’t even gotten him to the stage of writing on lined paper, as I think at this stage, he’s probably not very ready for that. I print out pre-handwriting practice worksheets for him to do, which he enjoys, to strengthen his ability to write with a pencil.  I get him to do colouring worksheets, as well as cutting skills worksheets (all free to download online) to practice his fine motor skills. I supplement his learning to read with the Letterland book and the Letterland flashcards (which really are handy at helping him remember how to sound out an alphabet). They have all been very useful and very entertaining for my son.

I use Ambleside’s Kindergarten reading material for him. Well, we already have Winnie The Pooh stories at home. Given to us by a friend a long time ago but we never got round to reading it. Ever since I started reading it regularly to my son (because it’s an Ambleside recommended book), it’s been a hit around here. Even my 7 year old daughter often listens in, or asks to join in when I read it to my son.

I realise that I’ve been using primarily phonics-based methods to teach my kids to read so far. It works for us. I tried sight-words and it wasn’t that successful for reading instruction here, although I find that sight words are great once a child has learnt how to sound out words using phonics methods. The phonics method does not work on it’s own that well. For us, it has been a combination of phonics and sight words, that has taught them to read. I believe when I was young, I wasn’t taught to read using the phonics method. It was probably by sight words, because I know that when I came across these phonics reading materials that I’d bought for my kids, it was all pretty new stuff to me. I had to actually learn the pronunciations of the sounds of the alphabets so that when it came to teaching my kids, I would be teaching correctly. So no, I really don’t think I was ever taught to read the phonics way. The process of learning to read is truly mysterious. I have no idea how I figured out how to read without phonics instruction, but I managed to do so, as did countless other people. Yet if you asked me whether I prefer phonics or sightwords reading instruction, I will always tell you it’s phonics, as I’ve had the most success with that method on my children.

I am seeing an improvement every week, and I’m really proud of my kids. I’m so glad they are homeschooled, especially my boy, because if he attended school, the pressure on him to learn to read and write would be HUGE, and I don’t want my little boy to be put off studying at such a young age.

Suffice to say, I’ve learnt a lot over the years about teaching children to learn to read and write. Each child is different – different aptitudes, interests, abilities – and it is important to take all those into consideration. Also,  I used to be pretty anti-structure when it comes to education, but due to my recent foray into Ambleside and the significant improvements I’ve seen in my children, I see now that structure is actually also beneficial for my kids.


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3 thoughts on “About learning to read, and write.

  1. I really like this post- I love your thoughtfulness about the different ways of learning and teaching and how you’re willing to do what works best for your family rather than strictly following a certain way. We don’t use Ambleside, but I am familiar with Charlotte Mason ideas and I agree that exposing kids to more “difficult” literature is a good thing. I still read aloud a lot to my kids and I typically use that time to read something that is a bit more challenging for them.

  2. Hi, just wondered if you’d ever taken a look at “Teach your child to read in 100 Easy Lessons” or “The Reading Lesson” (which I used with my 5-year old). ? These are American but I think you could work with them. I found The Reading Lesson was motivating because kids begin reading simple stories on their own quickly. And the lessons are short:)

    • Hi Melissa, sorry for the late reply. I only just noticed your response now. I did use the 100 Easy Lessons book on my children. I referred to the book as the “Siegfried Engelmann book” in my post. It’s a very effective reading instruction book imo, just that it can be dry to some (my son is the only child of mine who finds most of the stories in the book interesting). My eldest didn’t get on with it, but I have since realised it might have been because I started her on it before she had shown any interest in wanting to learn to read. With my other two, I waited until they showed a keen interest to learn to read, and they all finished the book by the time they were 5, able to read at an American second grade level.

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