Category Archives: home school

Teaching a Child to Read

Learning to read is in no way an easy experience. In order to read at even the most basic level requires mastery of syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics at a minimum. These are skills that we expect a child normally under the age of 8 to show some proficiency at.

This post will explain a process for teaching reading to small children that worked. Of course, there is no claim here that this is the way but it does provide an example. When I began this experience I had been an educator for years at higher grades but had never actually taught anybody how to read. My training and experience have mostly been in improving reading comprehension skills.

The Process

The process I stumble upon goes as follows

  1. Letter recognition
  2. Letter sound production
  3. Word family phonics
  4. Sight words
  5. Reading stories with support from steps 3 & 4

Each step builds on the steps before it

Letter Recognition

The first step in this process was to have the child recognize the letters of the alphabet. This was done through the use of flashcards. In many ways, this was the easiest step. I thought it would take a year for a 4-year-old to learn this but it only took 3-4 months

Letter recognition relates to morphology as letters are in many ways morphemes that cannot be further divided. At this point, the learning experience is simply memory only with no application

Letter Sound Production

Once the alphabet was memorized, I exposed the student to the sounds of the letters. The student then had to reproduce the sound in addition to recognizing what letter it was.

This was much tougher. The student would either forget what letter it was or forget the sound or both. There was a lot of frustration. However, after several more months, we were ready to move on.

Letter sound production is an example of phonology or the understanding of the sounds letters make. This is a crucial step in learning to read.

Word Family Phonics

At this stage, we combine several letters and “sound” them out to produce words. Often, the words used had the same ending or morpheme such as “-ap”, “-at”, “-ad”. etc. and only the first letter would change. This helps the student to recognize patterns quickly at least in theory.

There was also an introduction to vowels and other common morphemes. Looking back I consider this a mistake as it seemed to be confusing for the student. In addition, although phonics are valuable in learning to sound out words I found them to lack context and read “cap”, “tap”, and “map” outside the setting of some story was boring for the student.

Sight Words

Sight words are words that are so common in English that they need to be memorized. Often they cannot be sounded out because they violate the rules of phonology but this is not always the case.

There are two common systems of sight words and these are Dolch and Fry respectively. In terms of which is better, it doesn’t really matter. I used Fry’s and again I think the lack of context was a problem as I was asking the student to learn words that lack an immediate application.

Reading Stories

After about a year of preparatory training, we finally began reading stories. The stories were little short stories appropriate for kindergarteners. At first, it was difficult but the student began to improve rapdily. It was much easier (usually) to get them to cooperate as well.

Conclusion 

The most important point is perhaps not the most obvious one. despite my inexperience and mistakes in pedagogy, the student still learned to read. In many ways, the student learned to read in spite of me. This should be reassuring for many teachers. Even bad teaching can get good results if the aspects of planning, discipline, and commitment to success are there. Students seem to grow as long as they have some guidance.

I would say the most important thing in terms of teaching reading is to actually make them read. Reading provides context and motivation as the student can see what they cannot do. Studying all of the theoretical aspects of reading such as phonics and letters are only beneficial when the child knows they need to know this.

Therefore, if you are provided with an opportunity to teach a child to read start with stories and as the struggle teach only what they are struggling with. For example, if they are having a hard time with long “o” sound, reinforcing that with supplemental theoretical work will make sense for the child. As such, children learn best by doing rather than talking about what they will do.

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Homeschooling Bilingual Children

A colleague of mine has kids that are half Thai and half African (like Tiger Woods). In the home, both Thai and English are spoken frequently. A major problem with bilingual children is that one of the languages is never truly mastered. This is called semilingualism. The problem was not with the kids learning Thai because their mother was Thai. Instead, my colleague was worried about his kids developing broken poorly understood Pidgin English.

About 8 years ago there was another family whose children were half Thai and half American and they had faced the same problem. However, they overreacted and never spoke Thai in their home in order to make sure their children learned English. This led to the kids knowing only English even though they were half-Thai and lived in Thailand. My friend did not want to make this mistake.

What He Did

I suggested to my friend that he needed to set some sort of schedule in which time was set aside in the home for the use of both languages. Below is the schedule that he developed.

  • Monday – Friday from waking up until 2 pm Thai language
  • Monday-Friday 2 pm to bedtime English language
  • Weekends-English only
  • Exceptions-Home school curriculum is in English with the exception of Thai language

This has worked relatively well. The children are exposed to both languages each day for several hours at a time. Generally, the rule is when dad is home English is used.

To further support the acquisition of English I encouraged my friend to never speak any Thai to his children. This has stunted his development in the language but it’s more important that they learn than him.

For the oldest daughter who is home schooled, Dan and his wife taught her to read and write in Thai and English at the same time. Many language experts would disagree with this and suggest that it is better to learn one language first and to transfer those skills to learning a second language. I see their point but my friend wanted his daughter to have native fluency in both languages to the point that if she is having a dream both languages could be used without a problem so to speak.

Challenges

With bilingual children, all language goals are delayed. This is because the child has to acquire double the vocabulary of a monolingual child. My friend’s daughter didn’t really talk until she was three. However, by five things start to move at a normal pace with some “problems”

  • Word order is sometimes wrong. ie my friend’s daughter will use Thai syntax in English and vice versa.
  • Mixing of the two languages at times (code-switching)

Most kids grow out of this.

Conclusion

Raising bilingual children requires finding a balance between the two languages in the home. I have provided one example but I would like to know how you have dealt with this with your children.

Struggles with Early Childhood Education

I had a friend (Dan) share his experience with me of home schooling his oldest daughter (Jina) and the challenges he faced as he tried to start her education too early in his opinion. He began homeschooling his oldest daughter when she was about four years of age. His goals for the 1st year was simply for his daughter

  • to learn to count to 10
  • to recognize the letters of the alphabet

That was all he wanted for the first year of instruction. Dan friend knew Jina was young, perhaps too young, so he did not want to push it. He just wanted to develop a rhythm of learning and instruction in the family along with the two goals above. In addition, his family was one of only two families who home school their kids in his community and he wanted to make sure his daughter was always on par academically with the other children in the neighborhood as a witness to the benefits of homeschooling.

Yet, a strange thing happened. Both academic goals were achieved in less than four months. Now Jina was getting bored with school already. This meant that Dan now had to raise the level of complexity with more goals

  • recognize numbers
  • Know the sounds of all the letters of the alphabet

By the end of the first year (age 5 now), without any pressure, and by going at her own pace my friend’s daughter could read simple words, count objects, recognize numbers, do simple addition, subtraction, and had the rudiments of telling time. However, near the end of the first year of learning some strange things began to happen.

  • One day Jina would complete a task with no problems but the next day she could not seem to remember the slightest way how to do it. She seemed to inadvertently lose motivation for no reason.
  • Some concepts (telling time) never stuck no matter how many times it was taught and review.
  • She was inconsistent in her ability to recognize words and seemed to lack any ability to generalize concepts (transfer) to other settings. For example, realizing that ‘cap’, ‘snap’, ‘lap’, all end with the -ap ending.

When she turned five, Dan and his wife formally started Jina in an official home school curriculum rather than the ad-hoc stuff they did for the first year. Jina now had the ability to do 1st-grade work thanks to her parents prior teaching. Old struggles subsided and new ones appeared. Unlike the ad-hoc curriculum, the formal home school curriculum had weekly lesson plans and Dan was determined to stick to the “schedule.”

Why the Struggle

Dan still wondered what the problem was. Jina was progressing but it was a chore and I couldn’t understand why. Isn’t it good to start kids in school early? That’s when he asked me.

I explained to him some of the basics of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This is not just any theory. Piaget’s ideas are taught to almost all undergrad education majors on the planet.

Piaget proposes that there are four stages of cognitive development

  1. Sensorimotor (0-2 years)-Learning only through senses
  2. Preoperational (2-7)-Symbolic thinking and pretend play
  3. Concrete Operational (7-11)-Ideas applied to literally objects, understand time and quantity.
  4. Formal Operations (12-adult)-Abstract thinking, logic, transfer possible.

Dan was teaching his daughter all of these abstract ideas (counting, reading, telling time, etc) when she was at a preoperational level cognitively.

Reading is a highly abstract experience. Letters on a page have a sound attached to them and these letters can be combined to make words etc.? This is astounding for a child and their minds will struggle with this if they are not ready. Numbers on a page represent an actual amount in the real world? This is another astounding breakthrough for a young child. Dan was teaching his daughter to tell time when she had no idea what time was! He was frustrated when she could not transfer knowledge to new settings when this is normally not possible until they are 11 years or older.

If a child is not developmentally ready for these complex ideas they will struggle with school. If Piaget’s theory is correct (and not everyone agrees), formal schooling should not begin until age 7 for most children. What is meant by formal schooling is the study of math and reading. They should begin learning math and reading at 7. However, traditionally, students have been studying these subjects for several years by the age of 7.

This is not a totally radical idea. Many parents are delaying the enrollment of their child in kindergarten by a year in order to allow them to develop more. The term for this is redshirting

What He Did

By the time I had spoken with Dan Jina was six years old and already in second grade. She was doing better but now Dan and his wife worried about burnout.  He did not want to stop her studies completely because stopping now would mean having to fight with her to begin again. I suggested that they decided to slow down the instruction. Now they complete a weekly lesson plan over two weeks instead of one. This helps to minimize the damage that has taken place while still maintaining a structure of learning in the home. Unfortunately, Jina is learning multiplications when she should be learning to count.

Conclusion

I can say that there is evidence that early education is not best for children. If Piaget is correct a child under 7 is not ready for rigorous study and should be allowed more hands on experiences rather than abstract ones. Of course, there are exceptions but generally, you can start too early but it is difficult to start too late. If a child starts too early they will be in a constant state of struggling. All children are different but I think that parents should be aware that waiting is an option when it comes to formal instruction and one benefit of home schooling is the ability to have authority over your child’s education.