It’s Not Magic: Teaching a Child to Read

There's a tried-and-true formula for learning literacy from a young age
It’s Not Magic: Teaching a Child to Read
Reading bestows the gift of self-learning. (First Glimpse Photography/Shutterstock)
Jeff Minick
It’s Tuesday, a warm summer evening in Virginia, and CC, as she spells it, is giving me a guided tour of her library. On the bookcase in the den are the two books she’s currently reading, Maud Hart Lovelace’s “Betsy-Tacy and Tib” and “Happy Little Family” by Rebecca Caudill. “This one’s about five children and their mother and father,” she says, then reads aloud the blurb on the back cover, gliding effortlessly over words like imagination, arrowheads, and rattlesnake.
She then leads me downstairs to another shelf, a collection of stories for slightly older readers, including several from that publisher of fine literature for young people, Bethlehem Books. We next enter a guest bedroom, where one shelf of the bookcase is devoted to the series “Childhood of Famous Americans,” fictionalized biographies that comprised my own favorite reading long ago in elementary school. They’re some of CC’s favorites, too. “I like them because they’re true,” she says, “and they teach me a lot of stuff that I don’t know and I can learn the history of America. The first one I read was Abigail Adams. She’s really fun to learn about.” When I wonder aloud how many of these biographies she owns—she’s read them all—she says “Let me count them,” and tallied up 20 titles with her index finger.
CC is 6 years old—“Next year I’ll be in second grade,” she tells me—and homeschooled. “My mom started teaching me how to read when I was four.”

Thoughts From Mom

“We used 'Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons,'” says CC’s mother, Becca, a pleasant, energetic mother of four. “20 minutes a day was all it took. Near the end, the lessons got longer, so we divided those in half.” She pauses a moment, then adds that they supplemented these lessons with some of the “Explode the Code” workbooks, which “are very easy for kids to self-direct.” Even before CC had finished “100 Easy Lessons,” Becca tells me, she was making her way through easy readers, like the “Frog and Toad” books.

When asked if CC ever reads aloud, Becca nods. “She reads to me from her history and religion books to practice her enunciation.” Then she adds an afterthought, “And either Sam or I read to the girls. Right now we’re doing ‘Island of the Blue Dolphins.’”

At some point in our conversation, Becca remarks, “We don’t watch television very much.” It goes without saying that the girls aren’t playing games on Mom’s phone or computer.

Though Becca’s last comment was random, it caps off the formula for creating a reader. Sharing books and stories read aloud with children, finding and using a reading program that works for them, spending a few minutes every day putting that program into action, and limiting access to TV and electronic devices: that’s the winning ticket for literacy.

Added Benefits

When I ask CC what she likes about reading, she tells me it’s fun, then says, “It’s something my hands can do and something I can do when I’m bored.” Her remark about her hands was entirely new to me, an attribute of reading I’d never before heard mentioned and the meaning of which I’m still turning over in my mind. Her comment about turning to books when bored, however, deserves some attention.

Once CC became a reader, not only did an endless garden of flowers blossom before her, but that new talent proved a help to her busy parents. She doesn’t need constant entertainment or attention; she finds it instead in books. While her mother is helping her 4-year-old sister with schoolwork, CC reads to herself. Moreover, she sometimes reads to her sister or her 2-year-old brother, freeing Mom up to deal with household chores and pay attention to the needs of the youngest, an infant girl.

Of course, reading also bestows the gift of self-learning. Of the “Childhood of Famous American” books, CC volunteers that she doesn’t remember everything she’s learned from them, but their names—Abigail Adams, Robert E. Lee, Betsy Ross, and the rest—are now deposited in her memory bank. Slowly, as with all education, more facts and impressions about these figures from history will accrue.

Getting Started

Like many others, Becca uses the time-tested “100 Easy Lessons.” The homeschool mail-order company my wife and I once operated, Saints and Scholars, featured that book as well as other similar guides, ones we had used with our own children or that were recommended by other parents. Search online for “reading and phonics curriculum,” and you’ll find an abundance of choices and customer reviews.

Unless a child is afflicted with a reading disability like dyslexia, parents, grandparents, and guardians possess the ability to teach reading or help their youngsters with their reading lessons from school. The tools are there, and the effort, time, and cost are negligible, but the reward is a gift given for for a lifetime.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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