Today I want to talk to you about teaching reading to young children. My daughter is in first grade this year, so we’ve had almost a full year of lessons under our belts. Contrary to popular belief, teaching reading early is actually not beneficial to the child or their ability to learn to read. This is pretty counterintuitive for me as I was a kindergarten teacher for three years. (All we spent our year doing was teaching four and five-year-olds how to read!) I was both relieved and delighted when I read in Home Education that Charlotte Mason recommends we don’t begin formal lessons until the child is age six, and that we don’t push reading upon the child. So, that’s just what I did. Read on to see how I taught my six-year-old how to read the Charlotte Mason way.
Teaching Reading the Charlotte Mason Way
A common misconception mothers I’ve seen is that because Mason suggests not to begin formal lessons until the age of six, they don’t feel like they need to do anything before age six. This simply isn’t true. There are ways to help your child learn the habit of attention, and even remember a few letter sounds as a toddler, but it needs to be done gently and in a happy, playful manner. (I did work on drilling letter recognition a bit with my six-year-old, but that’s because I didn’t find Mason’s volumes until she turned three. So, even with my little hiccup in the beginning, I was able to jump right on track with how Mason would teach reading and I haven’t looked back!)
If you’re more of a visual person, or prefer the video mode of information, I filmed this for you! If not, keep on reading! Or read then watch it after to help solidify the new info in your mind 😉
Charlotte Mason’s Method:
So, for the sake of not writing a novel in this blog post, I’m going to give you the quick and easy rundown of the Charlotte Mason method. I love that Mason is passionate about the developmental approach to reading. She focuses on a gentle, “snail’s pace” introduction so as not to overwhelm the child. Her recommendations are written in Home Education on pages 199-221, so if you have that book, go ahead and read through those. I’m going to briefly summarize her methods, and then I’ll share how this looked in our home.
01. The Alphabet
Let’s begin by analyzing what Charlotte Mason herself says about teaching the alphabet:
“Let the child alone, and he will learn the alphabet for himself: but few mothers can resist the pleasure of teaching it; and there is no reason why they should, for this kind of learning is no more than play to the child, and if the alphabet be taught to the little student, his appreciation of both form and sound will be cultivated” (Home Education, p 203).
When she says, ‘let the child alone’ she means, don’t hound him. Don’t drill him with flashcards or teach him every letter name. Instead, Mason mentions keeping a box with wooden letter in his play area. Let the child explore these and discover them a bit each day. If the child asks you, “what is this?” Tell him. Notice how the o looks like you’re making your mouth like an “O”. Let the child learn the characteristics of the alphabet in his own way. This will ensure he remembers them; if he can draw on his own connections. Mason suggests we, “Make big B in the air, and let him name it; then let him make round O, and crooked S, and T for Tommy, and you name the letters as the little finger forms them with unsteady strokes in the air (p 201).
Practical Ideas From Our Home:
The letter box is something I set out next to my toddler’s little play and reading corner in our homeschool space. I got these wooden letters a few years back. (You can purchase them here.) I also love wooden letter puzzles for the playroom. We have this one upstairs. Mason describes how to use the letter box with your toddler, so I won’t repeat it, but you can see below, it doesn’t need to be glamorous.
Sand Tray: (not pictured)
Helping children visualize how a letter is formed and how it looks in their mind is crucial to them learning the sound and name and remembering it! Sand trays are helpful because the child can copy the shape of that letter and form a relationship with it kinesthetically. I have a sand tray (that stays covered when not in use) that we pull out a few times a week for both tracing letters and new words!
When Should You Start?
Before moving on: A quick note about when you should begin all of this. Mason is very clear… Formal lessons shouldn’t begin until the child is age six. However, if the two-year-old sees the wooden letters and takes an interest in them, then start playing with the letters with your child! Just be careful. Mason warns against drilling or making it an unpleasant experience for the child at an early age. She states, “…and there is nothing against it so long as the finding and naming of letters is a game to him. But he must not be urged, required to show off, teased to find letters when his heart is set on other play” (p 202). How easy it is to get carried away. To show Dad, “look what Tommy learned!” But Tommy doesn’t want to perform. We must be okay with this at a young age. I find that with my second child, it’s a lot easier not to push the process. With my first, I wanted the world to see what an Einstein she was. Be careful of this trap.
Another note I want to make is that you should really focus on the sounds that letters make versus their names. B doesn’t make this sound /bee/. It makes this sound: /b/. Teach your child these first. It will help them learn how to phonetically read words in these next steps. Letter names can easily be taught after the fact through song (yep, you guessed it, the alphabet song!)
After learning the alphabet comes the word-making exercises usually consist of word families. Word families are rhyming words that begin and end with different consonants, but usually they have a common middle vowel. We called these CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) words in Kindergarten classes. These are some of the best first words to learn because the child builds his confidence after he realizes the sounds he learned with letters can turn into words that are to be read.
Word-making allows the child to learn short vowel sounds, long vowel sounds, and rules like the “silent e” that are so prevalent in the english language. I shared some of my favorite exercises and games for word-making below.
For these exercises, your child must confidently know allI didn’t start this until my child was at least five. Some will start earlier and some will show interest later. Use your parental intuition, and you’ll have a pretty good idea about whether your child is ready or now.
Practical Ideas From Our Home:
Child’s Book of Words: (first photo below)
This isn’t my idea, but it’s a resource that I’m proud to share we use every day in our home. A child should have their own book of words to record any new word they come across. In the beginning of the year I had my daughter decorate the front of a blank notebook. Each time we would come across a new word we’ve learned in our reading lessons, we would add it to the book. I started by writing the words for my daughter, but she naturally started to desire to write them on her own, and I let her take over. It’s been so fun to watch the book fill up over the past year. We review this book several times a week as part of our daily reading exercises.
Reading games: (not pictured) search and find, invisible switcheroo, sound count
Amy Tuttle’s Discover Reading program is one I touch on below, but she has some wonderful little games that I had started forming on our own, (Letter hunt is one of our tried and true favorites – she calls it ‘search and find’) and then I realized that she wrote about Mason’s favorite games from Home Education and gave parents a concrete way to practice them.
“The child should hunt through two or three pages of good clear type for ‘little,’ ‘star,’ ‘you,’, ‘are,’ each of the words he has learned, until the word he knows looks out upon him like the face of a friend in a crowd of strangers, and he is able to pounce upon it anywhere” (Home Education, p 205).
So search and find is essentially looking for the words in a text or on a page. This helps the child familiarize themselves with the letters/words. Invisible Switcheroo is having your child change the sounds of words to form new words. Sound count is an auditory game that helps your child dissect the sounds they hear in words. There are so many fun games to play to learn word-making, so make up your own or try some of the ones I shared above!
Word-Making Word Families (third photo below)
This is a simple (not exhaustive) exercise of making words with your child, then writing them down for them. We usually record ours in our book of words.
03. Nursery Rhymes
After the child is comfortable with several words and has learned some of the basic rules of the English language, it’s time for them to move onto reading nursery rhymes and prose. This should all be done in a delightful tone. If your child has a favorite nursery rhyme, let them start with that. Mason uses “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” as her example of reading the poems a little at a time and familiarizing himself with both the sight words, and the more uncommon words (such as twinkle).
“At this age, his reading lessons must advance so slowly that he may just as well learn his reading exercises, both prose and poetry, as recitation lessons. Little poems suitable to be learned in this way will suggest themselves at once; but perhaps prose is better, on the whole, as offering more of the words in everyday use of Saxon origin, and of anomalous spelling. Short fables, and graceful simple prose…are very suitable. Even for their earliest lessons, it is unnecessary to put twaddle into the hands of children” (p 205).
This is a key component I’ve noticed in Mason’s way of teaching reading. There’s a reason her method is referred to as teaching reading by sight and sound. She recommends learning the phonetically spelled words, but also the sight words. these are words that are most common in our English language. We can also teach our children beautiful words that add rich flavor to the poetry, rhymes, or prose. I was so struck by this idea.
Practical Ideas We Use in Our Home:
My daughter learned the words “twinkle” and “wonder” this past year much quicker than she learned the word “said”. It not only was a fun word to say, but it delighted her to recognize it.
Karen Andreola uses this example in her book, A Charlotte Mason Companion:
Consider this sentence that may be found in a traditional child’s reader. It has boring, non-descriptive words that must all be decoded: “The big man in a red hat sat on a log at noon soon to eat cool noodles with a spoon.”
Consider this sentence with a more flowery language: “The big man ate red lasagna with a spoon at noon.” Andreola writes, “What a relief to instantly recognize a few sight words in a sentence rather than training to decode every word in one’s path” (p 156).
I love what Mason says about teaching words with more than one syllable: “It is easier for a child to read plum-pudding than to read ‘to, to,’ because ‘plum-pudding’ conveys a far more interesting idea” (p 209). It’s so true. Mason was so good at making sure children could form a personal connection to their learning, and that idea applies to all of her educational philosophy – even teaching reading.
I use the nursery rhyme book by Scott Gustafson (pictured below). It’s one we’ve read through so many times, so my children are fond of it. I try to pick a couple of rhymes my daughter loves and then let her choose which one we do our lesson for. It gives her some ownership over our work.
04. Reading and Beyond
So, now that the child works on learning to read nursery rhymes, this is a good time to introduce well-known, short poems. We studied Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry for two years prior to our formal lessons, so my daughter has several of his poems memorized. I took some of the poems she isn’t as familiar with and dissected them for a reading lesson with her. Amy Tuttle does a wonderful job of outlining this Charlotte Mason style reading lesson plan in her book Discover Reading! Many of the games I talk about above are from her program, so I highly recommend you grab this book if you have a toddler. It truly is one of the most Charlotte Mason-friendly reading programs. For learning a new rhyme or poem, you basically take the poem in 2-4 line increments. Pick out the words. Record them on little cards. Help your child master the words, then practice reading from the line. Have your child play games like “search and find” to find the words in other texts.
Practical Ideas We Use in Our Home:
I started writing a morning message to the girls every day for a few months. It helped my 6-year-old learn common words like “dear” and “how” “are” “you,” and “love.” Each day of the week I would write out the date too. It’s a fun way for them to decode my message and get some practice in. I highly recommend this method if you have a reluctant reader. Also – don’t be afraid to offer help! Teaching doesn’t mean quizzing your kids every day. Repetition is super underrated in teaching.
Practice With Readers:
We use the Beacon and Treadwell readers in addition to the Dash into Learning readers for reading practice.
I also want to briefly recommend A Gentle Feast’s “100 Gentle Lessons in Sight and Sound.” If you want a Charlotte Mason-inspired open-and-go curriculum, this one (and Discover Reading!) have been most helpful and effective in our home. It’s much less prep-work than the Discover Reading program, but incidentally, that makes it much less personalized. I don’t use it exclusively, and prefer to pick and choose out of it as I please. Since I am fairly familiar with teaching kids to read, I have my own methods and games, but if you have no prior knowledge of teaching reading, minimal prep time, and want something Mason-inspired, it may be worth looking into!
Our Weekly Schedule for Teaching Reading the Charlotte Mason Way
Well, this blog post turned into a novel after all. But, alas, anything that involves Charlotte Mason simply cannot be put into few words. I want to briefly share with you our weekly reading block schedule. Remember, I have a Form 1b (first grade) student, so this is age-appropriate for her current reading level.
-We have 5 twenty minute reading blocks each week.
-Four of those are teaching reading, and one block is reserved for our family read-aloud. (This is usually on Wednesdays.)
-Mondays: Review book of words, sound count, morning message
-Tuesdays: Review book of words, nursery rhyme practice
-Wednesdays: family read-aloud
-Thursdays: Review book of words, invisible switcheroo, poem practice
-Fridays: Primer practice
This is a rough schedule that I’ve set out for each day. We repeat and add in/take out as needed depending on my daughter’s progress the previous week. We go completely at her pace too, and so far it has served us well!
Final Thoughts on Teaching Reading the Charlotte Mason Way
After your child is done learning the knitty gritty of reading, it’s time to expand to things like composition and grammar. I believe Charlotte Mason had her students beginning grammar in Form 2, which would be Fourth grade in traditional school years. By this time a child is typically reading very well independently, but keep in mind that every young mind is different. Some will master the art of reading a little bit quicker or at a slower pace than others!
The “deadly weariness of the ordinary lesson” described by Mason in Home Education is how so many of us were taught reading. With dry, monotonous daily labor. Zero expression or love the for the words on the page. It’s how reading is still taught in many schools and homes around the world. But, friends, it doesn’t have to be that way! We are so fortunate to have the wisdom Mason wrote in her volumes. Let’s put them to good use and help our children learn to read with a passion and a genuine delight.
“…Let us recognize that learning to read is too many children hard work, and let us do what he can to make the task easy and inviting” (p 214).
If you have any questions or need me to clarify on a subject, please let me know in the comments! Thank you so much for reading!