Book Reviews Homeschool

Teaching Ella to Read

September 17, 2015
How my child learned to read

As a big reader myself, it was clearly important to me that my children learned to read well.

But frankly, the idea of teaching my children to read has been kind of terrifying to me. I don’t particularly remember learning how to read, and I’d never taught anyone to read either.

Over the last year and a half, Ella has become an incredibly good reader (I haven’t tested her so I’m not sure what grade level she’s reading on, but I’d guess it’s at least third or fourth) and I’ve had a lot of questions from real-life friends and some blog readers about what we did with her.

Also, I feel like this post needs a giant disclaimer that says, “I don’t think there is anything better about learning to read early! Pushing your child to read before they are ready can be harmful in the long run!”

I absolutely think everyone learns to read at their own pace, and I’m totally on board with schools in Finland where they don’t teach reading until seven and then have the highest test scores in the world (as if test scores are the end-all goal anyway). Nobody gets asked in a job interview when they learned to read and there are no gold stars for learning at four instead of six.

This is just how it happened to work out for Ella. And take this post with the knowledge that Ani knows all of about 8 letters.

I’ve read to Ella since she was a tiny baby – we read every board book we owned about a thousand times and then checked out tons of books from the library over the next couple of years.

When she was about three, I started reading longer chapter books to her (although I think this was maybe a smidge too early. Once she past three and a half, she was way more able to follow along and enjoy the stories, and when she hit four, it was night and day difference).

She also listened to tons of audiobooks; I checked out those packs from the library that have a picture book with a CD that reads the books and we listened to them in the car frequently and then started having her use them at quiet time. When she turned four and we went to Europe, I started checking out chapter books for her to listen to on the iPad through Overdrive.

Around the two year mark, she’d really latched on to a couple of alphabet books and we read them multiple times a day (her favorites were A Zeal of Zebras and Backseat A-B-See), and we also had a big set of alphabet cards that she loved lining up in her bedroom, so she learned the alphabet without me really realizing she’d picked it up.

A few weeks after she turned three, I checked out Phonics Pathways from the library and we began working through it VERY slowly. I really didn’t want to push her or make reading something she wasn’t interested in, so we’d do a page or two once or twice a week.

I loved Phonics Pathways and I highly recommend it. I loved that you didn’t need to know ANYTHING about teaching reading – it walked you through it step by step. There are some little games, but we never did them because I didn’t want to prep them, and she didn’t seem to suffer. So it was literally no work on my part except to sit down and go through the pages.

I know lots of people use Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, but my mom had mentioned to me that she had used four different methods to teach the four of us to read and that was her least favorite, so I never considered using it (plus, another friend I trust had already recommended Phonics Pathways and my library had a copy, so I went that way). Amy from Sunlit Pages did a really thorough comparison of the two, so if you’re wondering about the differences, she can speak to them more knowledgeably because she’s used both.

So for a year, we moved very very slowly through the book and I felt like we didn’t make much progress. But she wasn’t even quite four, so I didn’t feel any pressure. She also much preferred math and would always pick to do several pages of her math book (we use Horizon Math and I’ve done basically no research about math programs but we’ve been happy with it).

Then here comes the part that makes me really feel like I can’t say much about how to teach your child to read.

We moved to Arizona for the summer and literally did not have a single toy (my mom brought the girls each a doll when she came to visit about halfway through). We had a library card and we had her math book and Phonics Pathways.

Once she finished her math book, she suddenly started being more interested in working on reading. And I think we were at just the right age for her, because she started picking it up really quickly after that. She’d ask to do eight or more pages in a day and then she’d bring it in the car and work on it by herself while I drove.

We also checked out a bunch of BOB Books from the library and we’d read some together and then she’d read them to herself during quiet time which gave her a ton of good practice.

When we got to London (still no toys!), we checked out a ton of books and she practiced reading all the time, especially in the mornings if she woke up before seven. We could often hear her reading aloud to Ani through the wall before they’d come into our room in the morning.

By the time we came back to the states in December, she was reading very fluently. We never actually finished Phonics Pathways because she didn’t seem to need it anymore and could sound out pretty much any word she came across that she didn’t already know.

So if you want to get rid of all your toys for four months, your child might get really interested in reading at four years old. But you also might lose your mind in the process when the weather starts to get cold and rainy and there is absolutely nothing to do at your house.

My advice (which is worth exactly what you’re paying for it) is to read to your child like crazy, introduce the alphabet through ABC books or an alphabet puzzle or letter magnets, and when they start to show an interest, start on Phonics Pathways without pushing it, and get some BOB Books to practice with.

If they start to balk, give it a break and come back in a month or two or six. Keep reading picture books together, start reading longer books together if they’re up for it, and make sure reading is something that is fun, not stressful or frustrating.

And I very may well be writing a completely different post about teaching a child to read in a couple of years because I have no idea what will work for Ani.

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  • Reply Brenna September 17, 2015 at 11:51 am

    This came at the perfect time! My 4-year-old has been showing interest in reading – sounding everything out and reading along with us – but I wasn't sure which structured method to start with him. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Reply Kristin @ Going Country September 17, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Interesting. I was also kind of wondering how exactly one teaches a child to read. My strategy has been to pass the buck. That is, my oldest (5.5) just started school so a teacher can teach him. And we chose a private school near our house largely because they DON'T push the reading at an early age, and my oldest son, while a near-brilliant boy in certain ways (bias? no, no, of course not), has this Thing about reading. He's been very resistant to actual instruction on it. If I make up a song to spell out a word, or we play a game trying to come up with words starting with a certain letter or something, that's okay. But learning in any structured way? Nope. No way.

    So. I'm very happy to have another adult take on that chore for me. He does better when performing for other people, anyway.

    It must be incredibly gratifying as a prodigious reader yourself to see your daughter taking to it so naturally. Hooray for Ella! And you, her teacher.

  • Reply Chelsea September 17, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    My oldest was the same. We didn't teach her anything but one day her joy school teacher told us she was reading and we didn't believe her…but then tested her and yep, she was reading (she got up to a 7th grade reading level in 1st grade but hasn't been tested for that since). But my new kindergarten son struggled and struggled with motivation for it. He is an Oct birthday so when he was 5.5 we started teaching him, before kindergarten, and did 100 Easy Lessons…and he just barely decided he can do this and got confidence to try new books. It's still a struggle and I have to force him to do daily reading as one of his chores but at least he knows he can now and we get through it without quite as much complaining whereas my daughter has her nose in a book 24/7. Different strokes for different folks, eh?

  • Reply Bergen September 17, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Loved reading this! Really appreciated hearing your perspective on what worked for you and how you are approaching early learning. 🙂

  • Reply Unknown September 17, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    I also have a daughter (who is now 5) who was an early reader. My biggest "problem" has been finding books for her to read to herself that are engaging and challenging while not being too difficult so that she gets discouraged. She is beyond the "easy readers" section at the library (the ones that are categorized levels 1, 2, 3) but not quite at the stage for chapter books yet (which we still read to her) largely because she prefers to read a book with some pictures. Any advice/suggestions for books bridging the gap between early readers and chapter books? Thanks!

    • Reply heather September 17, 2015 at 7:07 pm

      I had the same problem! The Nancy Clancy Books (an older Fancy Nancy) were perfect. Unfortunately, there are only 3 of them. We also liked Geronimo Stilton. My daughter's now 7 and it's been so fun to see her grow into the chapter books I loved as a kid. Hang in there!

    • Reply Caitlyn September 17, 2015 at 7:32 pm

      Another suggestion would be graphic novels. My nephew ADORES them because although the stories are mature enough for him (i.e. not baby books like those young readers) – they still have lots of pictures. There are really a TON of great ones that are very kid oriented – Zita the Space Girl comes to mind.

  • Reply heather September 17, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    I tried 100 Easy Lessons with both my kids, but neither of them liked it very much. However, both loved sitting on my lap as we did the Learn to Read program on We'd do a lesson together each day and getting electronics time was a huge motivator to work through them.

  • Reply Allison September 17, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    Love this post (and your email to me! sorry hadn't gotten to responding yet, things have been crazy around here lately.) I love how you take such a laid back approach yet making books/reading a priority by just enjoying them. Thanks for tellings us what you did!

  • Reply allie J. September 17, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    Hello! It's (Miss) Allie from the library, mostly just saying hello! As someone who can attest to the fluency of Ella's reading, this was very interesting. Lots of tips I'll keep in mind with my own someday 🙂

  • Reply Carly September 18, 2015 at 5:08 am

    This is very timely for me. My four, almost five, year old has been asking me to teach her to read. We use Reading Reflex more of less, and endless bob books. She could read them over and over. We've only been working on it about a month, but she's progressing pretty quickly. I feel like Reading Reflex really helps me understand how to explain all those tricky "advanced code" sounds (their term) that can be confusing. I'm going to look into the book you used though! My daughter won't be in kindergarten for another year , which I'm sad about. She is bored so much in preschool I'm considering dropping her out. I feel like she'll be bored next year too. I know you only have Ella in the "specials" at her school, but have you considered skipping a grade of you were to put her in full time?

  • Reply Joseph September 19, 2015 at 2:18 am

    Nice. I remember when my oldest child was was 2 1/2 and we were living in a foreign land, few toys, no TV we could understand….one of the best things my wife and I did as parents was subscribe to a children's book club. My son got so excited when the package came with his books. Now, I read those SAME books to my grandsons.

  • Reply Dani and Chandler October 1, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    A neighbor of mine homeschools her kids with Abeka books and was ready to teach her 4 year old to read this summer. She invited a small group of neighborhood children to join. They went for an hour twice a week all summer and in between we read like crazy (mostly bob books) and practiced sight words. I loved your post. I 100% agree that every kid is different. To me with most of the things my kids learn (including potty training or chores or anything else) consistency, example, praise and little to no pressure are keys to ideal learning environments. Thanks for your tips and suggestions and being a couple steps ahead from my kids!

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