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Teaching Reading One Step at a Time

by Diane Ryckman


    Teaching your child to read can seem like an overwhelming task.  There are so many methods and programs to choose from, each claiming to be the best one for your child.  However, every child is unique so what works for one child may not work for another.  The best way to determine what you should do with your child is to become familiar with what is involved in learning to read, figure out how your child learns best, and then find a program or method that suits you both.


Beginning Reading Instruction – phonics, sight word, or a bit of both?

    Phonics instruction is teaching the parts that make up a word (letter sounds), then teaching how to make words from the parts – that m-o-m says “mmmooommm – mom.”  Part to whole instruction. 

    Sight word instruction is simply teaching whole words – helping your child recognize that the word Dad says “Dad.”

    A bit of both involves teaching the letter sounds then teaching whole words and helping your child recognize the whole words by the letters that they contain – that “Dad” starts with the “d” sound.

    Our son Andrew has Down syndrome.  When he was younger, I was determined to teach him to read phonetically, just as I had my other children.  After all, sight reading is just not the way homeschoolers teach their children to read!  When he was learning to speak, Andrew learned the sounds of the letters through the Love and Learning videos.  He was beginning to learn phonics, just as I knew he could!  However, when we tried to go beyond phonics – to blend the sounds into words – we hit a dead end.  It just wouldn’t click.  Where to go from here?  He was keen to learn, he was interested in books and words, he wanted to read.  So we resorted to teaching him sight words. 

Now that Andrew is 7 he is starting to catch on to phonics (and I’m starting to catch on to how to teach him!), but in the mean time, by learning to read sight words Andrew has learned what reading is all about.  This has given him a good foundation for phonics instruction.  Teaching reading in this order is beneficial not only for children with Down syndrome, but probably would be helpful for many children struggling with learning to read.          


Three Keys to Teaching

There are three keys to teaching that can be applied in many situations in order to simplify the learning process for your child.  The three keys are:

1.      Repetition – teach the same concept over and over again.

2.      Errorless learning – teach new concepts by guiding your child
through each step correctly, not allowing him to fail. Use the
same language with each lesson and repeat the process until your child learns the concept, following the same steps, in the same order, using the same words.

3.      Simplify – try to avoid extras that make it harder for your child to focus on the concept you are teaching.


Teaching the Alphabet

Though some say it is not necessary to teach the alphabet sounds in order to begin teaching sight reading, knowing the letters has helped Andrew to identify the sight words that he reads.  A knowledge of the letter sounds is also the first step in phonics instruction.

You can use the “keys to teaching” in making your own alphabet picture book for your child.  Put a letter, both lower and upper case, on one page, and a familiar corresponding picture, labeled, on the next.  Do this for each letter of the alphabet.  Read this book at least once every day, not expecting any response from your child, but just providing lots of input.  Read it the same way each time. With the letter page say, “A says ah, ah, ah” (short vowel sound). With the picture page say slowly and clearly, “a - ple, apple”, the first time breaking the word into syllables, the second time speaking normally. Do this daily for as long as necessary until your child begins recognizing the letter sounds and “reading” them with you.


Other Ideas for Teaching the Alphabet           

- From Sandy in B.C.

“There is a company called the School Zone Publishing Company out of Grand Haven, MI, who sell alphabet flash cards.  They are colorful, have both upper and lower case letters, and are inexpensive. Each set of cards comes with a parent card that tells you how to use the letters in various games. On one side of each card is the letter, which I show first.  I pronounce the letter sound and then turn over the card to show the picture. For example, for lower case r, I say “r says rrrrrr in racoon.”  I try to do this every day for as long as I have my son’s attention.  I also use alphabet books and videos. They just reinforce what I do with the cards and they are fun, too!” 

- From Maureen in N. Dakota

“To get going on phonics, I have been using an idea from Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready. You make letter puppets out of popsicle sticks and harder stock paper. The letter is on one side (upper and lower case) and a picture with the word written beneath it is on the other. In using these puppets, I have started laying them out and telling my daughter to find the sound (not the letter name), such as “k” for the letter “c”. When she finds the correct puppet I reinforce the sound as the beginning of the picture on the other side.”

            The Love and Learning video series also applies these same “keys to teaching,” and makes for an effortless way of teaching the alphabet sounds and some sight words.  Each video set includes audio tapes, and little booklets with simple black and white printing and pictures, which reinforce what the video teaches.


Sight Word Instruction

            These “keys to teaching” can also be applied to sight word instruction.

The first sight words we taught Andrew were names of family members, and animals he was familiar with. I made little booklets out of strips of paper (about 2 inches wide) stapled together with one word printed on each strip.  We’d sit together and “read” these books over and over. Andrew loved it, and it wasn’t long before he was reading these booklets himself.

An alternative to booklets is flashcards.  Again, using words that are familiar to your child, show your child the word and read it, “This says dog.”  Don’t expect your child to repeat the word, but go on to the next word.  Begin with 5 words, and over the next few days increase the number as long as your child’s interest holds.  As your child becomes familiar with the words, he will begin to say them with you.  Words he knows could then be reviewed at another time of the day.

Another method of teaching sight words is using the matching, identifying, naming technique described in Teaching Reading to Children with DS by Patricia Oelwein (Woodbine House Publishing).  This book is a great resource that walks you step by step through a simple part-sight, part-phonics reading program.   Although written with Down syndrome in mind, the basic method would work well for children with other challenges as well.  This is how it works:

1.   Matching: make up two flash cards of each word you are going to work on. Introduce each word, “This says, sister,” and lay the flash card out in front of your child. Give him 1-4 new words, and include some review words. Once each word is laid out, take the second set of flashcards and say, “This says, sister. Can you find sister?” In this way, your child is becoming familiar with the word by looking carefully at it in order to find its match.

2.      Identifying: After playing the matching game a few times, leave all the cards on the table and ask your child, “Give me sister”, etc. until all the cards are picked up. This is a little more difficult, and if he can’t do it accurately go back to matching some more, today if he’s still interested or tomorrow if his attention span is wavering. Once he’s successful with identifying the words go on to,

3.      Naming: which is simply showing your child the card, and having him read the word on it.

I’ve made up simple books on the computer, then taught Andrew the words contained in the books using this method so he has something he can read completely.


Another Sight Word Resource

- From Debbie in Oregon

“Michael is learning to read using the Reading Milestones readers which Sharon Hensley offers in her AVCS Books catalog. It’s a sight reading
program initially made for hearing impaired children, and it is working very well for us right now.”  


Beginning Phonics Instruction

By teaching your child the alphabet sounds and to sight read simple books you give your child a good head start on phonics instruction.  He will also know about reading from left to right and about periods meaning “stop.”  Now he can concentrate more specifically on one thing – learning to read phonetically.

The reading program I’m using with Andrew is Learning Language Arts through Literature – The Blue Book.  I chose it because I’d heard it was very hands on, and so far I’m very happy with it.  As we work our way through the program I am adapting it to what works best for Andrew.  Again, I’ve fount that the same three “keys to teaching” can be applied to phonics instruction. 

Begin by choosing only a few letters and printing them out on individual cards, then build the number of letters you work with as your child is able.  If you have a set of phonetic readers, use these to guide you in what letters to use when. We started with the letters a, n, r, and t. Here’s how we’re doing it:

1.      Model how to sound out a word by slowly joining the sounds together as you point to each letter card “rrrrrraaaaaaaattttttttt.”  Repeat modeling slowly until your child reads the word with you, then say the word quickly and have your child repeat the word with you, “rat.”  Write the word down on a flash card so your child can see what it looks like, too.  When your child becomes familiar with the modeled words, have him go on to,

2.      Identifying the sounds.  Choose a word card, then read the word slowly as your child picks out the letter cards that make up the word and places each letter in order, forming the word. At first you may have to do this hand over hand (an errorless learning technique) to help him get it right.  Give him the word card to see if he did it right (but make sure it is right before you have him check!).

3.      Naming the word is the most difficult skill.  In order to help your child catch on to sounding out words, only use words he knows well and will recognize easily.  Choose a word card, and silently point to the letter cards that spell  the word as your child first the sounds (you may have to do this a few times), then have him blend the sounds to name the word.


Another Phonics Program

 - From Gabrielle in Oregon

I use Reading Reflex as my method of teaching reading. It is at many
book stores, and is by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness, founders of
Read America. I like it because my daughter can learn a couple of letters by sounding them out, and then in a fun way learn to discriminate the sounds and finally put them together so they make sense in a word then sight read the word.


Our Greatest Resource

           Still feeling overwhelmed at the thought of teaching your child to read?  No matter how many methods or programs we look at, the greatest resource for individualized help and direction will always be the LORD.  As we go to Him in prayer, asking Him for wisdom, He will show us how we can best help our children in every area of their education and upbringing, one step at a time.