Teaching My Baby To Read

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Why multisensory learning is awesomesauce


In the past two weeks, Jenna has made mind-blowing progress in her RUN, BUG, RUN! reader. I need to buy more star stickers!


Most of these stories are at a Guided Reading level of A or B, but a few of them, like “Get the Moth, Meg” and “The Sad Hog,” are at level C or perhaps D.

I apologize for sounding like I’ve drunk the All About Learning Kool-aid, (full disclosure: I am an affiliate), but committing to our All About Spelling materials twenty minutes a day has really made a difference.

As a former K-4 teacher, I’m still scratching my head about what’s going on. I’ve taught Jenna phonics since she was two years old. We’ve done multisensory lessons up the wazoo. (For a list of everything I’ve tried, click here.) All of my methods worked with Jenna…up to a point. Then she got glasses, which made a big difference.

Now, my daughter is presenting me with the opportunity of becoming a better teacher.

With my son Bruce, I could teach him a spelling pattern like “th,” “sh,” or “ch” and he could generalize that out to basically every word in existence. We could practice with 10 words, and he would be able to read 100.

With Jenna, I’ve discovered I need to explicitly teach all 10o words. Not only that, but it makes a big difference how I teach the words.


Flashcards are the least effective way for Jenna to learn new words.


Multisensory activities are a lot better.


Dictation helps too. She has exceptionally strong auditory skills, and can almost always sound out words properly–even though her handwriting is the subject of another post. In this picture, we are using raised lined paper and that helps a bit.

Too many words doesn’t help. Jenna does better when she can learn words one at a time. Then, if you present her with text where she knows almost all the words, she will be successful.


By the time Jenna has spelled out a word with tiles, and then written it down on paper, she does fine with the flash card version. When she encounters this word in text, she can sound it out.


Another thing that is really helping is the reading focus cards. I’m not sure if reduces eye-strain, improves tracking or what. But for Jenna, they were really worth purchasing and a lot better than the homemade versions I had used with her previously.

Reading windows make Bob Books pop.

My homemade reading windows didn’t have colored film, plus the scalloped edges were probably distracting. For Jenna, they didn’t work very well, although I’ve had them work beautifully for other students.

As a mom, I have 900 kid commitments I’m responsible for right now. As a writer I have a book coming out next year and a sequel following. As a newspaper columnist, I have a deadline every week. So unfortunately, tinkering with my blog is low on the list of my priorities.

Ideally however, I should go back through all my old posts and tag them as “visual,” “auditory,” or “kinesthetic.” I would also go through my main list of ideas and organize them differently. I think Jenna would have had more success earlier if I could have pinpointed her best-practices-learning-path. “If your child is a visual learner, start here.” “If your child is an auditory learner, this page is for you.” etc.

In the meantime, here’s a very cool visual from All About Learning.


Spelling Can Be Easy When It's Multisensory

Every PTA in America should screen this film

Last night my husband and I watched The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia a documentary that digs deep into dyslexia. What is dyslexia? Does it go away? Are there advantages to having a dyslexic brain? How can teachers and parents help?

Unfortunately, like many teachers, I received very little training in how to help dyslexic children as part of my credentialing process. My first real encounter with dyslexia was when a beautiful third grader named Maricella grabbed my wrist and asked me to hold the flashcard steady because the words were moving. “Holy crap,” I remember thinking. “I have no idea what to do.”

Ever since that moment I’ve read everything I could about dyslexia, even now when I’m not longer a teacher. Many of the methods used to help dyslexic children are good ideas that can be used for all students. Be patient. Figure out what you are actually testing–reading speed or thinking? Teach kids how to take notes in a way that makes sense to each individual brain. Use technology to accentuate learning. Most importantly, empower kids to “own” their education.

What I loved about The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia is that it is inspiring. Big names like Charles Schwab and Sir Richard Branson share how the gifts of dyslexia have helped them in life. At the same time, all of the cast is upfront about the challenges they have had to overcome.

The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia is a movie all teachers should watch. Since 1 in 5 people have dyslexia, parents should absolutely see this film too.

It all comes back to good teaching. There are a million ways to learn and the move paths to success we offer children, the faster they will succeed.

Find a way to make words pop.

Find a way to make words pop.

Divide and conquer.

Divide and conquer.

Building words you can't sound out.

Build words you can’t sound out.

Use pictures and graphic organizers.

Use pictures and graphic organizers.

Find fun ways to isolate words.

Find fun ways to isolate words.

Hands on math whenever possible.

Do hands on math whenever possible.

Try to understand a child's state of mind and how that effects behavior.

Try to understand a child’s state of mind and how that effects behavior.

Find ways to learn to spell besides copying words down endlessly.

Find ways to learn to spell besides copying words down endlessly.

Bob Books with cookies.

Bob Books with cookies.

Encourage creativity.

Encourage creativity.

Learn from audio books.

Learn from audio books.

Seek out new tech like  the Bookboard library.

Seek out new tech like the Bookboard library.

Recognize that there are so many ways to learn besides reading.

Recognize that there are so many ways to learn besides reading.

Utilize special paper for dysgraphia.

Utilize special paper for dysgraphia.

Use math manipulatives.

Use math manipulatives.

An abacus is your friend!

An abacus is your friend!

Advocate for all learners.

Advocate for all learners.

Dream big!

Dream big!


Guest Post: I Taught My Baby to Read

I am so excited to share this guest post from Mrs. Warde of Sceleratus Classical Academy! Mrs. Warde is a wife, mother of three, and homeschooler. She’s also my co-pinner for our STORY OF THE WORLD board on Pinterest. 

Early Bird at 2 years, 10 months, building words.

Early Bird at 2 years, 10 months, building words.

A few years ago I taught my oldest child, then 4 years old, to read. Apparently my younger son was paying attention.  At 2 years 4 months old he surprised me with correctly identifying the name and sound of every letter.

I did not know  what to do with that until I thankfully stumbled across Teaching My Baby to Read. I looked at all Jen had written and decided to get the LeapFrog Word Builder Toy. It was a big hit with both my boys. I let my 2 year old play with it as much or as little as he wanted.

Sadly, Leap Frog no longer makes this toy, but you can still find it used on Amazon and Ebay.

Sadly, Leap Frog no longer makes this toy, but you can still find it used on Amazon and Ebay.

My two-year-old played with the toy for five months and then one day he said “I spelled the word ‘bed!’ B-buh, e-eh, d-duh, spells bed!” I looked at the toy and sure enough he had spelled the word “bed” on the level that tells you what you spelled. I praised him up and down and all through that day and the next he kept repeating how to spell bed and name the letters and sound they made. On the third day he said “I spelled the word ‘red’!” And the toy was off.

A week and a half later he read 40 CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) word flash cards that I showed him. I let him start playing MoreStarfall.com on his own. Some things he wanted help with, some he did not. He watched his big brother play, too.

By his 3rd birthday he could read almost any CVC word he came across. The ones he had difficulty with were the ones he did not hear in real life a lot (seriously, who says the word “sat” very much?) He also started memorizing some sight words, all on his own.

Next, based on recommendations from Teaching My Baby to Read I got the LeapFrog: Talking Words Factory video. By the time it arrived in the mail it was mostly review for him, but at the end it introduced the concept of consonant blends.

Most of the Leap Frog videos are "edutainment". These two actually work!

Most of the Leap Frog videos are “edutainment”. These two actually work!

I admit, I panicked. Typical three year olds are not “supposed” to be  reading at a first grade level! I contacted Jen since this was partially her fault and she was very helpful. 🙂 I found a group of parents at the  Well Trained Mind Forum, Accelerated Learner’s Board who had been there, done that and they were a huge help, too.

It’s been two years and some  days I’m used to it, sometimes I’m not. I’m thankful I’m homeschooling.  He’s working alongside his brother doing 2nd grade work (except in  math,) reading at an even higher level, but he wouldn’t be starting  kindergarten until the fall if I were to put him in public school. And I am very thankful for the advice I found on Jen’s blog that helped me  help my early learner.

Want to find out more about Mrs. Warde’s homeschooling adventures? Head on over to Sceleratus Classical Academy

Taking our library from drab to fab!

Our chapter book set-up.

Our current chapter book set-up.

Over the years I’ve written several posts  about how parents can think like teachers and set up their home library to promote Guided Reading.

Books organized in boxes make them less overwhelming for young readers.

Books organized in boxes make them less overwhelming for young readers.

You don’t need a lot of money to do this. Shoeboxes would work fine. I use the drawer-organizer boxes from IKEA. They’re floppy, but that’s okay.

It’s been an evolution. Three years ago, that same spot looked like this:

Three years ago.

Three years ago.

From two years ago.

A small improvement two years ago.

Unfortunately our library was getting out of control. We simply had too many books!

So over Winter Break, we bought three shelves from IKEA. Here’s the result:


Picture books are now upstairs in the new and improved reading nook.

A $20 net from IKEA makes a big splash!

A $20 net from IKEA makes a big splash!

Inside the reading nest. The tub of popcorn serves as a table.

Inside the reading nest. The tub of popcorn serves as a table.

When I think about what I’d like to spend money on in my home, bookshelves aren’t top of the list. That’s why it’s taken so long to get here. But I want my kids to know they come from a family that celebrates reading.

Someday our playroom will turn into a library. I’ll have a snack cabinet in there, plus a big table for high-school projects. The reading nook will get a larger chair. The picture books will be packed away.

Right now though, we have room to grow and a quiet place to read. The only hitch is getting the toys put away!

What’s in the pumpkin?

What's in the pumpkin? Read to find out!

What’s in the pumpkin? Read to find out!

Reading requires stamina. I get reminded of that over and over again every time my daughter Jenna(4) reads a  Bob Book.

Jenna knows her letters, she knows her sounds, and she can sound out words. But her first time reading any new Bob Book is extremely laborious. Pages 1-2 are great. Then by page 5 she’s rolling around on the couch.

Some teachers would take the “Hold off! She’s not developmentally ready!” approach. My opinion is that 5-10 minutes a day of phonics isn’t going to hurt a four-year-old.

I also know that the second and third time Jenna reads a Bob Book (the next day, and the day after that), she breezes through it.  So I don’t think this is about developmental readiness as much as about developing stamina.

Day one of introducing a new book, I’ve got to bring my A-game.


Building words is a good start.


Incentives can work too.

What your seeing up above is what’s in the pumpkin! I went to Target and bought ten items from the dollar spot.

What's in the pumpkin? Read to find out!

Now, every time Jenna finishes a new book from Bob Books Set 2-Advancing Beginners, she gets to pick a new pumpkin surprise.

Amazingly, her reading stamina has improved over night. 😉

Yes, it’s important to use positive reinforcements with caution. Eventually I want Jenna to read because she loves reading, not because she wants a junky prize from China!

But right now, I want to her practice, practice, practice. I know from experience that by the time Jenna can get through Bob Books Set 3- Word Families, she’ll think reading is a lot of fun.

Reading Window Wands

Reading windows make Bob Books pop.

Reading windows make Bob Books pop.

The great slog through Bob Books, Set 1
continues.  Nobody promised these would be fun, right?  I don’t know about you, but I could really give a rip about Muff, Ruff, and the 10 Cut Ups.

But I can handle 5-7 minutes a day of reading Bob Books, and so can my daughter.  Be tough, Muff and Ruff!


A learning tool I introduced to Jenna(4) today was her brand new reading window wand.

This is a classic Kindergarten teacher trick.  Grab a popsicle stick, cut out a piece of paper, use some glitter; whatever.  The most important thing is to make a window with clear masking tape. 

For some reason the “window” is what makes these so exciting to children.

You could also jazz things up further by making a bunch of reading window wands that all looked different.  Then, every morning you could let your child choose which wand to use that day.

Using a reading window wand allows children to isolate words, which helps some brains concentrate better.

In Jenna’s case, she  can concentrate just fine.  In fact, her concentration abilities are working against her decoding skills because Jenna relies a lot on picture cues and sentence patterns to help her read.

Those strengths are going to come in really handy when she’s a second grade reader, but right now I want Jenna to master sounding words out.

Using Incentivites (aka bribes)

At the end of the third box of Bob Books, we are going to the AG store!

At the end of the third box of Bob Books, we are going to the AG store!

Sometimes early readers just need a little push.  No, that doesn’t make you a tiger mom.  I know from experience that this happens with teachers in Kindergarten classrooms too.  Sometimes early readers need a push.

They’ve got the skills.  They know phonics.  They can sound out words.  But it’s still a bit hard.

That’s why it’s helpful to make it worth their while.  The more practice kids get, the easier it will be to read.  The easier it will be to read, the more they will enjoy reading.  The more they enjoy reading, the faster they will develop advanced skills.

Incentives, bribery, whatever.  I don’t care what you want to call it.  But I know it works.

With my son Bruce I offered a new Star Wars book for every 6 Bob Books he read.  But it’s been harder to find an equally attractive book incentive for Jenna(4).  So finally we paged through the American Girl catalogue and looked for something exciting.  Hence our new chart featuring Rebecca Rubin.

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but I used a dot stamper to represent each Bob Book twice.  The chart includes all of the books from sets one, two and three.  So once Jenna has read every Bob Book in sets one, two and three twice, she’ll earn Rebecca. I’m crossing them out as we go along.

Getting through the third set of Bob Books would mean having first grade reading skills.  To me, that’s worth $110!

Whole Language at Home

Have you ever hit a wall with phonics?

Have you ever hit a wall with phonics?

My teacher credentialing program was grounded in Balanced Literacy Instruction.  That means taking the best of Whole Language and Phonics, smashing them together, and teaching kids to read. (If you’re interested in more info about Balanced Literacy Instruction, click here.)

I like Balanced Literacy Instruction because I’m a big believer in flexibility.  Yes, I love phonics.  Yes, my kids have known their letters and sounds since they were two.  But that doesn’t mean that Whole Language doesn’t have some tricks to offer.


One of those ideas from the Whole Language world is to label everything (and I mean everything!) in your classroom.


So I was thinking, why not try this at home?


My daughter Jenna is 4 years old now and can read Bob Books #1-3 on her own independently.  But by book #4, she’s bored. 

I don’t push her.  Jenna will tell me when she’s ready to read.


But in the meantime, I can be as sneaky as I want.  She might come home from a Grandma day and find the whole house labeled for her!

Even the steamer on our wood stove gets a label.

Even the steamer on our wood stove gets a label.

So come on baby girl!  I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve that might pique your interest in becoming an independent reader.  It’s a long way to Kindergarten and I’ve got a whole bunch of fun things planned.

When are Kids Ready to Learn?

Every child learns at a different rate and that’s okay.

But here’s the problem… I think that some parents and teachers get so caught up in accommodating developmental readiness, that they miss out on the opportunity to teach important academic concepts to young children.

I believe that children as young as 18 months are capable of learning Kindergarten level skills.

That’s the whole point of my blog!

Sound boxes

Bean activities.

The trick is to teach things like letters, sounds and phonics, through highly engaging, play-based activities.  A few key videos like Leap Frog’s Letter Factory can help too.

Still, developmental readiness is a real thing.

I have followed the same course of instruction for both Bruce and Jenna, starting at 18 months old.  (Check out my Where to Start Page for more info.)  But they both are reaching different milestones at different ages.

Letters and Sounds

  • Bruce 18 months
  • Jenna 22 months

Sounding out CVC words

  • Bruce 2.5 y
  • Jenna 3 y

Bob Books Set 1 (first few books)

  • Bruce 4 y
  • Jenna 3.5 y

Bob Books Set 1 (the whole box)

  • Bruce 4.5 y
  • Jenna ?

Bob Books Sets 2-5

  • Bruce 4.5-5 y
  • Jenna ?

Magic Tree House Books

  • Bruce 5.5 y
  • Jenna ?

When you lay it out like that, it is easy to see the ebb and flow of learning.  Sometimes learning happens quickly, sometimes it takes more time, but it doesn’t mean that the time I spend with my children teaching them new things isn’t meaningful.

So I hope parents remember two things:

  • Kids are ready to learn when they are ready.

  • Kids might be ready to learn as soon as you are ready to teach them.

Text to Self Connections

One of the ways teachers encourage reading comprehension in Balanced Literacy classrooms, is by teaching kids to make “Text to Self”, “Text to Text”, and “Text to World” connections.   Another educator-phrase for this is “Activating prior knowledge.”  The idea is that if kids come into a text already knowing something about it, then they will be able to understand the content better.   You can encourage these types of connections at home when you are doing read aloud at bedtime. “Hmmm, this part reminds me of_______”  etc.

Here’s an example of a “Text to Self” connection that my two year old daughter Jenna made yesterday.  She is 30 months year old:

We were reading Bumpy Tractor and got to the line “Though bumping’s what I love to do, I can be very gentle, too”.  Completely unprompted, Jenna said “I can be gentle. I’m gentle when I hold kitty cats.  I held the orange kitty cat in my lap very gently.”  She was referring to when she played with her cousin’s new litter of kittens.  Whether or Jenna did indeed hold those cats gently is up for debate!

The Three Types of Reading

Teachers know that there are three different types of reading: Independent Reading, Guided Reading, and Read Aloud.

Knowing the difference, helps teachers choose appropriate books for children that will continue to stretch their abilities and interests.  Teachers also know that it is important for children to be engaged in the three different types of reading every day.  This is contrary to the message popular culture keeps promoting “Read to your child!”

Reading to your child is of course essential, but that’s just hitting upon one type of reading.

Independent Reading, is when a child can sit down by himself and read a book. 

For Jenna, this means sitting down by herself, paging through books, and looking at pictures.  For Bruce, it means staying up until 9:30 because he’s insisting on finishing Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger.

Guided Reading is when you and your child are both engaged in reading a book together, and sharing your thinking and opinions as you go along.

Guided Reading may involve reading silently inside your head, or reading aloud.  When Bruce and I were reading the Little House on the Prairie series last summer, I’d often have him read the left hand pages, and I would read the right.  We’d talk about the story as it went along.  Jenna can’t really do Guided Reading yet, but she’s beginning to a little bit when I ask her to point out letters or pictures she can name in the books we read together.

Read Aloud is when the adult reads the book to the child. 

This is what most parents do very well.  Right now my husband is reading The Hobbit to Bruce, and we read dozens of picture books to Jenna each day.

When choosing books for your child you should remember Goldilocks and the Three Bears:

Read Aloud books should be too hard for your child to read on their own.  Independent Reading books should be too soft (meaning easy).  Guided Reading books should be just right.

Phonics, Whole Language, and Balanced Literacy Instruction

Okay, here’s the skinny on reading theory that I learned during my credentialing process. 

Of course, this information is ten? years old, so there might be some brand new wonderful idea colleges are promoting now, for teaching kids to read.  Educators are really big on new buzzwords and magic cure-all ideas.

Phonics is when you concentrate on teaching children the sounds each letter makes, as well as each possible letter combination. 

An emergent reading who was strictly taught using phonics would try to sound out every word phonetically, even words like “the”, which don’t follow phonetic rules.  (Hence they are sometimes called outlaw words.)  If you went to school before 1990, you probably were taught to read with a phonics based approach.

Whole Language focuses on surrounding children with language rich environments, predictable books, patterned songs, and taking children’s own stories and writing them in mini books for them to read. 

Whole Language took the educational world by storm in the early 1990s.  In a Whole Language classroom, everything is heavily labeled.  If you see a chair, it is labeled chair.  The teacher’s desk says desk, and so on.  The idea is that if the environment was rich enough, kids would just absorb learning how to read.  They would look at a word like the, and know it by sight.  (Hence it was called a sight word.)

The Whole Language method can work, if it is done effectively by a competent teacher who knows what she is doing.  I had the privilege of working with a wonderful K/1 team member at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center, who considered herself a Whole Language teacher and was a fantastic educator.

That being said, the Whole Language method was an absolute disaster when it hit California schools in the 1990s.

Test scores plummeted and parents were really p-d off.  Just when California decided to scrap the whole deal, Washington State adopted Whole Language only to see their test scores fall soon thereafter.

  • Children in classes with new teachers fared the worst, because newer teachers were more likely to follow the Whole Language curriculum exactly.  Veteran teachers, often said “What the heck?”, saved their old phonics materials, and taught phonics on the sly.
  • My own sister entered Kindergarten in the 1990s beginning to read, and left her Whole Language Kindergarten having forgotten everything she had known just nine months before.

The fix to all of this mess?  It’s called Balanced Literacy Instruction

The idea is to take the best from Phonics, the best from Whole Language, smash them together and teach children how to read.  You keep the print rich environment, the patterned books and songs, the Morning Messages, and the write your own mini books from Whole Language.  But then you throw in a huge amount of systematic phonics instruction, and call it “Working with Words”.

Here are some other things you might see in a Balanced Literacy Instruction classroom:

  • Systematic Phonics Instruction
  • Morning Meetings
  • Guided Reading
  • Sustained Silent Reading (or Drop Everything and Read)
  • Writers Workshop
  • Centers
  • Direct Spelling Instruction
  • Word-games and activities

Now you are in the know!  Won’t you sound smart at your kid’s next open house?

Glenn Doman and Magical Thinking

(Don’t buy this!)

When Bruce was one and a half I came across Glenn Doman’s How to Teach Your Baby to Read in a used bookstore.  I bought it, and quickly read it cover to cover.  His idea that you could use giant flashcards to teach small babies to read had me hooked, and I was eager to see if this method worked.

I made the flashcards and gave it a good three months, about when Bruce was 18-21 months.  At the same time, I was also teaching him his ABCs and sounds using the videos “ABCs and Such” and some good old fashioned play-time with ABC blocks.  Maybe this messed up the Glenn Doman Gentle Revolution method, so it didn’t work.  I don’t know.  Doman does NOT want you to teach children their letters or sounds.  He just wants you to concentrate on flashcards, and reading books to children.

After a while, I honestly gave up on the flashcards.  It just didn’t seem to be working.  But boy did I want it to!  So when Jenna was born, I shelled out the $70 to buy the “Teach Your Baby to Read” video, also from Glenn Doman.  That was a waste of money, because it was basically a lecture of Glenn Doman’s daughter telling you the exact same things as was in the book.  What bugged me was that they never showed any evidence.  They said that there were babies who could read, but they never showed them.

So, did the Gentle Revolution method work for Bruce?  No, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a strong reader by age four.   A combination of phonics and whole language instruction were what did it.

That being said, I still think that Glenn Doman has some interesting ideas and theories, the main being that there is a window of opportunity in young children when it is much easier to teach them how to read or learn a language, than it will be in later life.  This is the same theory Maria Montessori promoted, and boy and I a believer.  But I sure do wish I had saved my money on Glenn Doman propaganda.  I didn’t even tell you about the money I spent on those darn “Teach Your Baby Math” flashcards!