By Carolyn Forte, Excellence In Education, 34th Annual Convention speaker

The top priority of most beginning homeschooling parents of 5 or 6 year-olds is reading. They look online at a dizzying array of reading programs and start asking for advice from friends and online contacts. Sometimes they go to a homeschool convention and look at the offerings there. Eventually, they pick a program and proceed to try to follow it. If the child learns readily or even makes fairly steady progress, he or she will soon be a reader, on the way to fluency.

Often, however, the child struggles, the parent is worried and frustrated and learning to read becomes an onerous task, a chore to be endured rather than a wonderful adventure of discovery. There are a number of difficulties, seldom mentioned in the promotional literature for reading/phonics programs that can account for the difficulty:

1. The child is not ready.
Before a child can learn to read easily, a certain level of physical maturity is necessary. Before that time, learning to decode words (read phonetically) is much harder and in some cases, impossible. There is even the danger (according to Dr. Jane Healy in Endangered Minds and Samuel Blumenfeld in Crimes of the Educators) of creating inappropriate brain pathways that will impede learning later on. In order to learn to read easily, a child needs a number of well-developed visual skills (tracking, eye-teaming, focusing, etc.), auditory skills (ability to discriminate between similar, yet distinct sounds), and fine motor skills for writing on worksheets. In addition to this, the child needs the ability to integrate all these physical skills for the process of reading. Some children have enough of these skills in place by the time they are 4 or 5, but they are the exception. Many children can be successful by age 6 or 7, but many others will not be physiologically ready to learn to read easily until they are 8-10. If a child isn’t beginning to read easily by age 9, I recommend seeing a developmental optometrist to check visual skills ( Perfect eyesight is not the same as perfect vision. For a more complete explanation of vision see this article by Dr. Karen Chao.

2. The program is too complex.
Learning to decode (sound-out) English is much, much easier and simpler that learning to spell (encode) English. Reading programs that teach the oddities of English in all its twists and turns are of necessity much more complex than programs that teach simple decoding to get the child started reading. Some children are simply not ready for all the complexities of English at age 6. There is nothing wrong with teaching all 70-72 phonograms and their rules-of-use if your child (and you) can understand and use them. But the whole lot may not be a good starting point for every single child. In addition, many programs, wonderful as they may be for some, are just too much for a harried mother with a toddler and an active child who would rather be climbing the nearest tree.

3. The program doesn’t fit your child’s learning style.
Although English must be taught phonetically, there are many and varied ways to meet that goal. Some children thrive on workbooks and others run at the sight of them. If your child is a “runner,” take heart. You can teach your child to read in 10 minutes a day without a single work-page. You will have to teach the spelling (and writing) later when he is more receptive, but you’re homeschooling; you have time. Besides, a happy reader will read more. Most children respond well to games and there are several available that are designed to teach reading and spelling. Creative children may do better with artistic projects designed to teach phonics and adding music helps many children learn to connect the letters to their sounds.

4. The program mixes phonics with sight-reading.
Even some otherwise very good phonics programs mix in some “sight words” with the phonics instruction. This doesn’t seem to harm most kids, especially if the phonics is strong. However, some children, mainly very right-brained, creative children can start sending the words to the wrong side of the brain. Dr. Samuel Orton discovered this problem nearly a century ago, but the “sight words” keep cropping up in otherwise good phonics programs. If you like your program and it contains “sight words,” teach your children to sound them out. All English words can be sounded out if you know all the phonics, the history behind the spelling (the “silent” letters weren’t always silent) and allow for regional dialects. I recently found a program that explicitly teaches parents how to sound out “sight-words.”

Learning to read should be very easy. I can hardly claim to have taught my children to read. Once they knew the code, they were reading on their own with help from me only when they needed it. If reading is hard, it is likely that one or more of the above conditions are present.

Excellence In Education
2640 S. Myrtle Ave. #A7
Monrovia, CA 91016

Carolyn Forte and her husband, Martin will be speaking on the following topics at the 34th Annual CHEA Convention July 13-15, 2017 at the Pasadena Convention Center:

Teaching Reading and Spelling With Phonics
Developing Reading Proficiency
Why History is Your Most Important Study
How to Determine Your Child’s Learning Style
Curriculum Choices, Choices, Choices!