Teaching My Baby To Read

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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.

Find Your Name Game

This activity has the lingering residue of somebody who has read Teach My Baby to Read by Glenn Doman.  I was so much enamored and then disillusioned with the so called “Gentle Revolution” that one of my inspirations for starting this blog was that so I could write the post Glenn Doman and Magical Thinking

The premise of the book, that young children are capable of learning more than we give them credit for, especially when paired with an adult who is providing high quality instruction, is something that I still whole heartedly agree with.  In that sense it was a very didactic book for me to read.  But at least $100 later, I was left with the impression that I was being led on.  “Buy the book and you can do this program for free.  But if you buy the cards it will be even better.  But if you buy the videos it will be even better.  But if you pay thousands of dollars to go to our training it will be even better. ”

I did end up buying the book, cards, and video, but thankfully never spent major moola to see the training.   What really bugged me was that even in the video, they never showed actual babies who could do these things.  They just left you with the impression that if you were to pay to come to Philadelphia, then you would finally see proof that young babies could read, look at dot cards, and do multiplication.

Even now, even after I taught my son Bruce to read at an early age using my own nearly free methods, there is still a part of me that wonders…If I had broken my piggy bank and paid to go to the training in Philadelphia, would I have finally seen proof that this works?  Would they have finally shown me babies who could read dot cards?  I wonder if people who have been deprogramed from a cult ever have lingering questions like this.  I’m sure I sound crazy even writing it.

But back to my new game for Jenna, this one is really easy, fun, and will work for your child eventually, but I can’t tell you an exact age of when.  Every child is developmentally different.  Jenna is 31 months old and it took her about 4 times, over two days, to reach 100% mastery.

The inspiration for this was that my husband reminded me that at age two and a half, my son Bruce was the first child in his coop preschool class to be able to pick out his name-tag off of the table, and other children’s name tags as well.  Was he really reading them yet?  Yes, from a Whole Language perspective, No from a Phonics perspective.  I teach from a Balanced Literacy pedagogy which incorporates multiple methods of teaching children how to read.  So I’m okay with doing some Whole Language activities, because I know that my kids are also getting a ton of Phonics.

For “Find Your Name”, I started out with about six cards, and worked up to twelve.  Jenna’s name was on more than one card, and meaningful names from her family were on the others.  Each time we played, I laid out the cards before her and asked her to hand them to me one at a time.  “Give me the card that says Mom”, “Give me the card that says Jenna”, etc.  If she missed a card two times in a row, then when I asked her a third time I pointed to the correct answer so that I could ensure her success.  This is a similar to how I was trained to deliver A-B-A therapy when I worked with children with Autism in college.  Back then it was called Lovsas Therapy or Discrete Trial Teaching.

After four 5-10 minute sessions Jenna could pick out all the names with 100% mastery.  The Psychology major in me found this really interesting. It was not necessarily easier to do this type of Discrete Trial Teaching with Jenna, a child who does not have Autism, but it worked a lot faster.  I’m wondering if there is someplace I can go next with this type of activity, and my teacher brain is still crunching things out.  Maybe this is how I can teach Jenna the quantity three

It’s the Teacher NOT the Curriculum, that Makes the Difference!

I recently came across a blog called Out in Left Field whose author espouses the polar opposite of all my views on educational theory.  Katharine Beals, PhD, rails against Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivist math in particular. Here are links to my own views on why I love Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivist math

Katherine Beals takes shots at Bill Gates whom she describes as being misguided, misinformed, and possibly having Asperger’s Syndrome.  She also rails against Stanford University professor Keith Devlin, also known as “The Math Guy” on NPR. I haven’t read any of Professor Devlin’s books, but I now want to read all of them!  I’m not so sure about Dr. Beals’s book Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School, but I might try reading it anyway just to fairly consider a point of view so opposite than my own.  (Note: if you have a child on the Autism spectrum, this book would be of a lot more interest to you.  Read the reviews on Amazon, and see why.)

Out in Left Field bugs me for a variety of reasons; she blasts teachers as sometimes being too stupid to teach math, she thinks academics often don’t know what they are talking about, she implies that many mathematicians are cowardly for not speaking up against Reform Math, and she repeatedly professes a belief that rote learning of traditional algorithms is the best way to create mathematical thinkers.  But what really bothers me, is Dr. Beals’s general thesis that Reform Math and Balanced Literacy Instruction are B-A-D- Bad! 

Teaching with a point of view is not bad, not mater which pedagogy you choose.  I could spend the next fifteen minutes telling you why I support the particular education philosophies she hates, but that would be a waste of time.  What I know, is that it’s not the curriculum that helps children learn, it’s the teacher

If you give me a group of well-fed, middle class Kindergarteners from moderately stable homes I will teach them to read.  If you me a Whole Language curriculum.  I will teach them to read!  If you give me a Phonics Based program.  I will teach them to read!  If you give me a Balanced Literacy program.  I will teach them to read!  Magic pedagogy is not creating readers, good teachers are.

Educators have to teach whatever curriculum the school district hands them.  Good teachers deliver the curriculum as instructed, and then use common sense.  They see that little Johnny over there is going to be able to read by seeing a new cereal box in front of his breakfast bowl each morning.  Great!  Let’s make Johnny some patterned books.  Little Suzie over there?  She really needs more phonics.  Bring out the phoneme cards.  The reason I like Balanced Literacy Instruction is that it includes both.  Teachers have to be flexible!

Now, if you give me forty third graders coming back and forth from Mexico, sleeping next to refrigerators, scared by roving pit-bulls on the playground, no working smoke-detector in my classroom, a principal who downloads pornography in the middle of the school office, no support services whatsoever, and then fail to give me my first paycheck, I’ll give you my 110% best but I can’t make any promises.  Even if you give me a phonics based program like Open Court, I might not be able to teach all of those children to read unless you, the community, give me some help.   I’m a teacher not a miracle worker.

When I was teaching math at a Constructivist Charter school and I had kids who said, “I’m going to solve this subtraction problem in the traditional way,” and started to borrow and carry, that was just fine with me.  It wasn’t okay with all of the teachers at my school, but I was fine with certain kids using traditional algorithms when they wanted to.  Kids who have trouble verbalizing, kids who can think faster than they can write, kids who don’t do well in group learning situations… these are students that good teachers make common sense accommodations for. 

Good educators teach in ways that accommodate the differentiated learning style of each student.  Some kids are going to need to be taught algorithms as a life-raft they cling to.  Other kids will become the high-schooler in Academic League who can just look at the question and know the answer.  It is unfair to force any one style of learning on all of your students, but it’s not bad to lead into instruction with pedagogy to provide framework and support.  As far as pedagogy goes, I think Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivism have a lot to offer.

P.S.  Ironically, both Dr.Beals and I love Story of the World.  🙂


Hooked On Phonics

Recently, my friend C. suggested looking into the Hooked on Phonics books, as colorful, more interesting alternatives to the Bob Books.  C suggested buying them on ebay, or else buying then one by one on the Hooked On Phonics website.  I can see how this would be a good way to go, because the complete kits are quite expensive.

I had never looked at Hooked on Phonics before,  but I respect C’s opinion so I decided to look at the website.  I do remember hearing that Hooked on Phonics got its big break during the Whole Language movement in the 1990s, when parents across the country were frustrated with reading instruction in their children’s schools and decided to take matters into their own hands.  For more on the Whole Language controversy, please see my post at:


Mainly out of my own curiosity as an educator, I decided to purchase the Pre K kit for Jenna.  The kit says it is for 3-4 year olds, and Jenna is only 19 months, but it covers content we have already been working on; phonemic awareness, letter identification, and letter sounds.  The total price was about $45 and included two workbooks, two sheets of stickers, two packs of flashcards, six books, and two dvds. It arrived in the mail yesterday.

The official instructions say to have your child alternate between pages in the workbook, flash card games, read aloud books, and corresponding segments of the dvd.  It really does spoon-feed parents how to teach… a three year old.  But obviously I wouldn’t have my toddler sit down and do a workbook page every day.  I’m not even sure if she is right or left handed!  We will however, look at a few workbook pages together, read the books, and play some of the flash card games.  I’ll follow Jenna’s lead in these pursuits, and let her interest guide our instruction.

What I’m really excited about however, are the movies.  They are fun, engaging, and appropriately paced for young children.  And let me tell you, I am so sick of watching “Rusty and Rosy’s Letter Sound Songs”!   These Hooked on Phonics movies are going to be a nice change.  I’m still a believer in “Rusty and Rosy”, but I’m going to alternate days with the Hooked on Phonics videos.

All of these materials are still new to me, so I’m not sure if I would recommend them or not.  At first glance, I think they are overpriced but useful.  I think C’s idea of buying the K, 1st and 2nd grade reading books piecemeal off of Ebay is a very good idea.  If they are anything like the Pre K books, they are probably a lot more engaging than Bob Books.  I’m still a big fan of Bob Books though, and they are a lot cheaper and easier to acquire.