In the late fall of 2009, I began trying in earnest to teach my daughter to read English. After returning to our Kyoto home from a year in the States, we had several months before April when she would start first grade in the local Japanese elementary school and have daily homework. Doing ten or fifteen minutes of reading together everyday would help her get used to the upcoming homework regime and also, hopefully, give her some ability to sound out words and read simple texts.
Although I was the only English-speaker she came into contact with on a daily basis in Japan, I had made a conscious and continuous effort to raise her with oral/aural fluency since she was born (see essay "Bilingual Education (English & Japanese), Part I: The First Years"). In our Kyoto household, she spoke with me in English and with her father in Japanese. When she was four, we relocated to New Orleans for one year for my maternity and early-childcare leave for the birth of her brother. She seamlessly joined a junior kindergarten class in New Orleans for a year, her English abilities on par with those of most of her peers. From the beginning her oral skills were sophisticated enough to entertain her teacher with the British accent she adopted while playing dress-up, but some of her classmates were already reading words, and most of them could read simple words by the end of the year. My daughter showed no interest.
The kindergarten program she attended was a feeder for a well-known elementary school attached to a local university. Virtually all of the students would go on to the best private schools the city had to offer. The kindergarten was very academically oriented, though everything was presented as "play". Each child had twenty minutes a day of guidance with a reading specialist. In small groups of two or three they would go to the reading room and do various activities involving letter recognition or production, phonic activities and the like.
Yet, by the end of the year when it was time to come back to Japan, my daughter still showed no interest in reading. She liked to pretend to "write" and enjoyed the activities the reading specialist had done with her, but she had no interest in reading signs or grocery lists, and when presented with even the simplest book she would always insist that I read it, not wanting to volunteer even a single word.
Her point became clear. Fearing that the books she so loved would become the symbol of a torturous activity, I backed off and let the situation languish for almost a year.
Hints from the Research
But of course, I couldn't really. While I did manage to leave her alone, I set about researching early childhood reading methodology education, and I found out some very interesting information, not the least of which is that - according to a growing number of authorities- the predominant early reading education methodology in the United States for the past hundred years or so has been a big mistake. Some researchers differ and call it a tragic failure, but whatever the terms, the dire need for improvement seems unambiguous (McGuinness). Proponents of these ideas cite high numbers of students in upper grades of U.S. public schools with very low-level or non-existent reading skills.
Since I have no experience in early childhood education aside from my own children and because I am not a reading specialist, I can hardly pass authority on the accuracy of such claims. However, statistics that compare the reading ability of students in the U.S. with the ability of those in other countries are hard to ignore. One point of critics was that texts must be engaging. Students could not be expected to become enthralled by a work artificially built around extremely limited sets of words (as in the infamous Dick and Jane series: "See Dick run! Run, Dick, run!". Beginning readers also could not be expected to simply absorb reading vocabulary by osmosis through repeated readings of the same text (McGuinness). The basic rules of phonetics - or "sounding out" words - needed to be presented and practiced in a systematic way, along with their many exceptions. With more insight into the situation, I began to search for an appropriate learning text for us to use.
In searching for texts and materials to use with my daughter in learning to read, I ended up building a small library of everything from "I Can Read" books and Dr. Seuss classics to Cuisenaire rods and flash cards to ABC workbooks and the popular "Explode the Code" series. A lot of these materials are based on solid research and probably work very well for many children and their parents or teachers. Yet, whether it was my lack of organization and time, or her lack of interest, or our both being at a different starting point than the target users of the materials should be, nothing seemed to work.
That is not to say we didn't have fun trying! Some of the materials we really enjoyed, through not always the way they were intended to be used. Yet the impending deadline of her entering first grade when school would require that she have time to learn to read Japanese began to loom large. The pressure to make progress intensified.
With that pressure foremost in my mind, a previously neglected title popped out at me from among the books I had amassed. A thick and large tome with an unimpressive black and white sketch on the cover and scant illustrations yielding space to phonetic symbols inside, it had seemed too dry and boring to reach for previously. Yet now the title seemed to offer a ray of hope: Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons (Engelmann, Haddox and Bruner). If that were actually possible, that would be five lessons a week - weekends or busy days off - for twenty weeks. With just five months to go until first grade, the timing seemed perfect.
Engelmann's text has pages and pages of advice for parents, from the finer points of phonetic symbols and pronunciation to suggestions for the timing of lessons and motivation. Lessons begin by associating a letter symbol with its consonant sound, for example, pointing to "s" and having the child repeat and later independently produce the "sss" sound. Vowels and then blended sounds ("ch", "th", etc.) are introduced gradually. Engelmann trains children to recognize words from letter sounds by having them recognize a new word or phrase from a pair of independent words uttered slowly: the parent says, "ice", pauses and then says "cream", and the child learns to put them together into "ice cream". Words are introduced from previously learned sounds after about a week, and within a fortnight readers are enjoying illustrations with a one-sentence caption.
While continuing to introduce new sounds and words and review previous ones, each lesson from around Lesson 20 concludes with a short story that uses vocabulary from that lesson. For each story there is an illustration that is hidden and then revealed at the end, like a small present. Children first read a story through without interruption and then read it again while answering comprehension questions every few sentences. At the end of the second reading, the illustration is revealed and further comprehension questions focus on other reading skills, requiring the child to draw associations between the illustration and the story, consider the story in the context of their own world, or make connections between the story and themselves. These skills are all essential for reading fluency, but are sometimes considered too difficult for beginning readers. In fact, Engelmann's method of introducing such questions into conversations about the text with the beginning reader make the stories much more engaging, and I found our daughter (and myself!) looking forward to those questions at the end, when we would talk with each other about the story. Anticipation of the revealing of the illustration and discussion of the questions both became motivating factors in reading the story.
Of course, reading does not happen magically overnight, and my daughter made plenty of mistakes, just as any new reader does. The most common was the reversal of "b" and "d", a mistake I can remember making myself as a beginning writer. Vowels also can be a challenge, as sounds like short "o" as in "octopus" and short "u" as in "umbrella" are distinct but confusing when associated out of context with symbols that previously had different names. (Unlike Japanese, the names for letters in English are different from their pronunciation; the letter "u" is called by a name that is a homonym of "you", but when sounding out words, a new reader who knows her alphabet must now recall that the sound the letter makes is "uh") She also made the common mistake of having her eagerness to read a passage overtake her ability to sound out a word, and while guessing meaning is an important part of reading, she would make the common beginner's mistake of guessing from an initial consonant sound before she sounded the word out completely. I, in turn, made the mistake of correcting her too early at times, which would lead to mutual frustration, but usually only when one or both of us was too hungry or tired to be studying anyway. I like to think that overall we did a good job of realizing when things were not productive and agreeing that we could continue another time when that happened.
Although Engelmann is firm on some points, the overall nuance of the directions is one of flexibility, and the author urges parents to do what makes sense for their family. For example, although twenty minutes per lesson is suggested, we ended up doing two sessions of less than ten minutes each per day because of a two-year-old who would not leave us alone for more than ten minutes at a time. Sometimes we drove to a destination early and did reading in the car. Sometimes we slipped in ten minutes during an after school snack, or before or after bath time. Although some places and times were more conducive to concentration than others, our flexibility is what allowed us to continue working regularly long-term.
Motivation to Continue
As with anything new, the novelty of the lessons automatically made them fun at the beginning, but as the repetitious nature of the exercises and the lack of interesting material wore on, when there were no or very few words to make from the sounds being learned, some days were a bit of a struggle. Engelmann seems to anticipate this, and brings in simple but interesting stories as soon as possible. Beyond lesson thirteen, every lesson has a "story" (albeit one sentence at first) with a simple illustration. Even for the most basic text - often only a few short sentences, there are meaningful questions about the content of the story for the reader to answer, creating more interest on the reader's part as well as allowing parents to check for comprehension.
In addition, each lesson is divided into tasks with various purposes, each one taking only a couple of minutes to complete. Readers can feel themselves moving through each lesson and get a sense of accomplishment even as they work through a single lesson. For us this was very important as our environment and schedule left both parent and child prone to many distractions!
However, even with these built-in motivators, after a couple of months motivation began to wane. At that point I began to pick up the slack with the usual child-manipulators that I normally avoid: stickers, small treats, and a toy trophy when we got to Lesson Sixty.
However, by this time she had mastered enough words that the easiest of early reading books were within her grasp, as long as I followed protocol and read them to her several times before encouraging her to read them to me. Soon she realized that she could read to her little brother, too, and that two-year-old liability turned into one of our greatest assets for her reading motivation.
Engelmann, Siegfried et al. Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Lessons. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
McGuinness, Diane. Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading. Boston: The MIT Press, 2004.