Dear Dr. Linda,
We have a 5-year-old daughter who seems pretty bright. She’ll be going to kindergarten this coming fall and we want her to be in an environment in which she receives the best education possible. We’re afraid that if she goes to public school, she’ll just get lost in the crowd. We can’t afford private school, so we’ve decided to homeschool her. We’ve looked into it and it seems to provide everything we’re looking for. However, learning how to read is critical and we’re not sure how to go about that. There are so many programs out there and each one follows a different methodology. We’d appreciate any advice.
Homeschooling your daughter is quite a commitment. As you said, you’re going to have to do your homework to decide which programs and materials to use as she progresses. Teaching her to read is the first challenge you’ll have and using the right reading program is important.
However, no matter which program you choose, your first task is to create an environment conducive to learning. She needs to feel comfortable and that you’re her ally, not her enemy. Whether learning at home or in a school setting, children have the same needs—they need to perceive that the person teaching them is on their side in general. They need to know that their teacher, even if it’s mom or dad, supports, accepts and respects them whether they succeed or fail at a learning task. If a child, or even an adult, feels their teacher likes them, will always be there to support them, and respects who they are, that student will want to succeed no matter what the program is.
Also, in order for any human to learn, he or she needs to be engaged and stay focused. You can buy the most expensive program out there, but if it doesn’t hold your child’s attention, she will not learn.
Many children pick up reading quickly and easily, some even at three. However, most children learn to read around 6 years old. Some begin at 5 and others at 7. It depends on when they are developmentally ready. Otherwise, it’s like giving steak to a baby who doesn’t have teeth yet. When a child is not developmentally ready to learn to read, trying to force them to will only end up with tears and resistance to even trying, sometimes poisoning their attitude toward learning in general.
Here are some guidelines for choosing a program:
• For years, children were taught to read using “basal readers,” like “Dick and Jane.” These programs were designed to teach skills such as decoding, fluency, comprehension and more. They were grade-leveled and part of a series. Decades ago, they were phased out because many teachers felt they were too rigid and boring. However, many children and teachers loved them because they usually had the same group of characters in all the stories and presented the stories in a systematic, logical sequence.
• The “whole language” approach took over when basal readers were phased out. In the whole language approach, children read from a variety of material. In one textbook they may read a chapter from a chapter book or a poem. For many children, these books are much more engaging. But for children who need practice with phonics, they presented a nightmare.
• Phonics-based programs are key, especially for children who demonstrate difficulty in learning to read. Whether faced with a learning disability or not, we learn to read by connecting symbols to sounds, first the consonants and then the vowel combinations. All beginning readers systematically move from learning alphabet letters to the sounds of consonants and vowels/vowel combinations. The difference in how quickly this happens depends on the child. Some kids seem to connect the sounds almost on the fly, while others don’t.
The best reading programs are those that incorporate all of the above. They are phonics-based, but instead of using endless drilling and worksheets, they’re engaging and fun. But above all, stay relaxed yourself and remember that no matter how fast or slow she learns anything, assurance that you love her no matter what has more to do with her success than anything.