A cat and a hat

One morning this week my daughter had just (slowly) read “window” and went in a corner to scribble a row of swirls on the terrace. “I wrote ‘window’”, she announced. “Nice,” I said. “You could write the word CAT if you want.” I wrote C and made room for her to copy it below. She started with a diagonal line. I outlined the curve of the C again and she did a wobbly C of her own. Next the A, which didn’t quite meet at the top. Then a fairly respectable T.

This isn’t the first time she has written letters. Even back in Beirut she was pointing out the Ns or As which emerged unintentionally (I assume) from her scribbles, so a year ago, well before her second birthday. But this was the first time we attempted to line up her letters in a word. Actually I haven’t put much emphasis on her writing her own letters at all as I can see it is hard work whereas reading is only pleasure. It’ll come later, maybe when she is three or four. Or so I thought.

The first word she wrote

The first word she wrote

After lunch and nap time and all sorts of distractions, we were once again on the terrace. I had my laptop. She came asking, “Can we write HAT?” “Sure,” I said, even though it seemed a bit simple for a kid already reading words like rabbit and basket. So I began writing H. “Like over there!” said my daughter. When I looked where she pointed, there was H and A already lined up. She had already started writing HAT. “What’s the last letter that’s missing?” I asked. “T” she said, “like cat.” And she took a new piece of chalk and added the T. And that was that.

Clearly the cat in a hat which sat on the mat deserves some credit here.

Of the “three Rs”, she began reading two and a half months ago, and funnily enough both writing and arithmetic made something of a début this week. More on the numbers another time, but if anyone has any experience with Colour Factor or Cuisenaire Rods feel free to share, as I think it will be my next purchase on Amazon.

Phase 2 of reading for toddlers

Phase 2 words

Phase 2 words

The phonics approach has worked really well so far for my 2-year old. Having a limited, fixed set of sounds is reliable and manageable. But now we have pretty much reached the limits of my initial brief. Until recently we stuck to words which are strictly phonetic using only about 25 sounds (that is, one per letter of the alphabet, minus one as she only knows the hard /k/ sound for both C and K). Stand is about as hard as it gets. She was reading 60 or 70 such words without needing any context or clues. I can hardly even think of any more words that we actually use commonly and which fit these rules, and we are getting a teeny bit bored of peg, frog, plum, hand, etc. It’s time to move on.

I have had to think hard about what groups of words would be most logical to move on to. Over the past three weeks we have been adding the following groups of words. I’ve come up with six categories and three sub-categories.

  • Double letters which don’t affect the sound:
    doll, bell, kiss, egg, fuss, fill, dress, 

    • Also: words ending with CK which phonetically might as well end in KK or CC:
      neck, black, pack, back, 
  • Words ending in Y when it sounds like ‘ee’:
    mummy, funny, happy, nappy, silly, bunny;
  • Words with a vowel+R which gives that lengthening effect, and where the R doesn’t really sound like an R (in my British English):
    car, arm, dark, fork, star, start;
  • Words where the vowels vary slightly from my initial strict phonics rules:
    open, put, full, bag; 

    • Certain diphthongs:
      owl, toy, boy, way; 
    • Words containing the schwa sound:
      basket, lemon, melon;
  • Very short words which are written strangely:
    I, is;
  • Words with ‘sh’:
    fish, shop, shorts, flash, splash, push.

I didn’t follow a specific order as I think they are fairly equal in complexity (save the first which seems easiest). I just let myself be guided by her interests. Some types can be taught as rhyming words which of course adds to the fun. Once you combine all these patterns the vocabulary becomes vast. Making sentences becomes much easier. We’ve also been writing menus (egg and melon, anyone?) and labelling body parts and clothes on life-size drawings of people.

Just now she was talking about un singe with her dad, so I wrote MONKEY on the edge of a drawing. From the other side of the paper she read it upside down in a flash.

We still work our way around confusing words, so the girl in a dress wears socks and sandals instead of shoes, which could easily be confused with shows, but arms can have fingers and elbows since halfway through the word the reader has already guessed the meaning – just as we adults do when reading. Needless to say none of our terrace ladies have tights yet.

Next up will be ‘ch’ for chin, ‘oo’ as in moon, and soon enough we’ll have to include long vowels (e.g. face). But by that time she will be “sight-reading” some words, and even getting context from the sentence, instead of deciphering each word entirely separately.

To bridge the gap between the cat-dog phase and the famed irregularity and randomness of English spelling, we make sure to acknowledge that things are not always written exactly as they are said. She’ll need to grasp that pretty well in order to read even very basic French, anyway. More on that can of worms later.

Aypples and Beenanas

I suppose you could say I was indirectly influenced by Mullarney’s book on the issue of letter sounds versus names. I say indirectly as I remember being taught this way myself by my mum who had read this book, so I am really just repeating my own experience. As with teaching any new skill, you need to make the information clear, simple and bite-sized. It seems to me eminently simpler to teach a child something like the sound ‘huh’ for the letter H, than to teach her the name aitch and then have her learn the sound that it makes as a second stage. Even the vowel names don’t match the sounds they make in easy words (m-a-t, not m-ay-t, and p-i-g, not p-eye-g, for example).

Of course, I could just see it this way because that’s how I learnt myself. In any case, they soon pick up the letter names in addition. In fact just learning the ABC song quickly teaches them the names, and a child who knows the sounds will make the links in no time at all. I’ve tried to avoid the letter names and yet the last time I began writing ‘WET’ on the terrace, my daughter immediately said “double-you…”.

So for the letter C, do you say ‘kuh’ or ‘sss’ as in city? For U, do you choose the ‘u’ of put, of plug or of puke? There are around 44 sounds for just 26 letters (fewer sounds in General American pronunciation). I tried to choose the sounds which are more common, or less confusing. Like Mullarney, I opted for the short vowels and the hard consonant sounds, so ‘kuh’ not ‘sss’ for C, and Y as a consonant not a vowel. There’s plenty of time for learning the multiple sounds associated to various letters. I also plumped for ‘eks’ for X (or rather ‘əks’ since the schwa blends better with other letters) and ‘kwuh’ for Q since I figure the most common usage for X is in the middle or at the end of words and Q is only rarely anything but the ‘qu’ of queen (in English, at least; French will have to wait).

The aim is to keep the building blocks as simple possible. Having learnt the sounds, a child can begin reading phonetically. But only at the right time for that child. I still remember a clear plastic bib we had in Beirut when my Beirut baby was about 22 months old. It had a picture of a cow and the word ‘MOO’. It had seen us through an awful lot of porridge and lasagne, and the last O had a part missing so it looked like a C backwards. If my Beiruti came across it on from the reverse side, with the letters showing through, she would ‘read’ it nonetheless. I would hear her spell out the letters: ‘Cuh, Oh, Muh,’ she would say, followed by a self-assured ‘Moo!’

What’s the rush?

reading phase 1

reading phase 1


It has been six weeks since my Beiruti began sounding out her first words. She is now surprisingly confident with short phonetic words following a simple consonant-vowel-consonant pattern. I have even thrown in a fair few simple four-letter words like FROG and CLAP, as well as plurals, like CATS. She is very methodical in pronouncing one sound after the other and it is just amazing to think that she is actually reading. Within limits of course.

And to be honest I’ve intentionally kept those limits quite strict. I’m thoroughly against overloading kids. I think it’s awful that primary school kids have as much homework as I had at the beginning of secondary school.

Now I know that some people would think it crazy to try to teach a two-year old to read. In truth, I would soon have abandoned the idea had she not taken such a lively interest in her first cardboard cut-out letters aged 13 months. I would simply have written off Mullarney’s experience (and that of many other early readers out there) thinking her kids were a bunch of geniuses with little to do with real people. But her fascination with them spurred me on and the journey from letters to words has been simple, fun and rewarding for both of us.

However, even though I am delighted by her progress, I have no intention of rushing things. We may only do three words one day, and none the next. If we do lots of words, they are interspersed with active play and plenty of interaction.

So far I’ve restricted myself to proposing ONLY words which are phonetically regular, with no diphthongs (e.g. cow) or digraphs (e.g. fish) or other complications. That rules a lot out. Even short words like “no”, “to” or “go” are out. So is “car”, which might work with an American accent but not so well with the unpronounced British R. So is “bag” which for some reason has a longer ‘a’ sound than ‘rag’ in my accent.

Common sense also dictates that I only use everyday words she knows well. We’ve done PAN but not PIN, as those are tucked away in my sewing kit and there won’t be the click of recognition when she reads it. Nor can she easily go and get one to put next to the word, like she does with PEG or PEN.

This does take a lot of self-censoring. If she asks me to write “mummy” I do MUM, and even if we come across a word I know she’ll enjoy which appears simple, like BANANA, I resist the urge to ask her what it says. (None of the As in banana sound like the A in CAT.) I don’t want her to feel reading is difficult, or beyond her. She might manage to work out longer or more irregular words, especially with a bit of context. But even if she might guess them correctly, I don’t want to push her into guessing. I want her to KNOW what she’s doing. (Although this might just be what suits her personality, while other kids would enjoy more guesswork.)

Confidence is vital, which is why I introduced the letters very gradually in the first place. Not only was she at ease with all of them before we started even trying words, she could read all kinds of fonts and would pounce on letters anywhere from the drains under her feet to store bags to graffiti.

Now, though, she’s outgrowing this rather restrictive brief. We’ve pretty much reached the limits of a strict phonics approach and need to throw in some “whole language”. She wants to read words like ‘I’ and ‘he’ and ‘for’ just to keep up with her desire to read stories. She wants phrases, not just words. Soon enough it will be out of my hands and there’ll be no holding her back.

Soon I’ll share an easy reading game we play to make reading active and meaningful (read: fun). It can work for preschoolers as well as toddlers, and it’s been a great success.

Capitals for clarity

I’ve racked my brains and I think the only book I have read in full since my first baby was born (over 2 and 1/2 years ago) is Máire Mullarney’s Anything School Can Do. I have started a few other books but it’s the only one I finished. That’s pretty indicative of how busy life has been, from someone who wouldn’t put a book down while walking to school and back. However, this particular book so fascinated me that soon after finishing it, I started over. I still dip into it on a regular basis as my Beiruti grows up, even though it is neither long nor complicated. In fact, writing this post, I googled the book and came up with a partial script (including some errors), and have not yet been able to close the tab for reading snatches.

I wrote about how this book influenced my choice to introduce letters early on here. It also influenced my choice of which letters to use first, that is, upper case rather than lower case. The two factors go hand in hand as it happens. The thing is, three-dimensional shapes are much more interesting to toddlers for obvious reasons, so they are much more likely to enjoy cut-out letters, for example, than letters penned on paper. However, 3D letters can be twisted and turned – that’s the fun after all – and that can lead to confusion for quite a few lower-case letters. Capitals are, overall, easier to distinguish from one another than lower case. There is still scope for confusion, for example W and M. But you don’t have n vs u, or worse p vs d vs b (and even vs q if you don’t add a ‘swash‘ or extra tail). When I see how often my daughter hesitates between 6 and 9 I am convinced that reducing such confusion is important.

Fridge magnets work particularly well, as apart from the fun of getting them to stick on things and forming words, they also have a clearly established back, so the child learns quickly not to get them backwards at least, though upside down is still an option!

Some would argue that stories are written in lower case, so these are a better choice to start with. While I agree that whole pages of writing are much easier to read in lower case, when it comes to single letters, single words and short sentences, I am drawn to the clarity offered by capitals. Even we adults still write in capital print when clarity is an issue. My feeling is that capitals form a good foundation, a strong starting point. Just as the original Roman letters naturally evolved into cursive lower case, I feel that the same process can work well in literacy as a child moves from the basics to something which flows more with experience.

Once kids have the coordination required to line letters up carefully on a line with tall letters acceptably erect and tails hanging meekly below, lower case will be a more obvious choice, but for now I’m happy to forego the restraints of neat handwriting and let the fridge magnets roam free.

Another choice to be made when it comes to reading is whether to teach letter names or sounds first, which I’ll come to next.