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.