Friday, September 29, 2006

How I Increase My Children's Literacy After Teaching Phonics Is Finished

A common question after parents finish teaching their children to read with a phonics program is, “Now what?”.

I used an intensive, systematic phonics method to teach my children to read and I am a firm believer that it is a great way to teach reading. I used the Alpha Phonics program.

But the question is, what do we do after that?

This is where some parents get confused. After speaking to many homeschoolers I have heard three methods about what happens AFTER a curriculum was used to teach reading.

Method One
The child loves to read and initiates their own reading and reads a lot. Some parents get angry that their children read so much as they would prefer they were playing or doing other kid-like activities. These children often progress right to chapter books without complaint. Many are reading way above grade level very quickly. These are true bookworms. I don’t understand why but some parents actually complain about this situation (to me it would be a dream come true).

Method Two
Some parents want children to love to read and they want them to initiate their own reading. These parents refuse to make/force their children to read for practice, fearing it will take the fun out of reading. Yes, they did teach them to read, but they feel their ‘coercion’ ends there. All parents I’ve spoken to with this situation claim their children do read good books on their own. Most of these parents also can be quite judgmental about anyone who uses Method Three. The children are either reading above grade level and find reading easy or they don’t read much but the parent states they are not worried at all (I’d be worried).

Method Three
This is what I did and what some other homeschooling parents do. This method is used when children CAN read but choose NOT to read if left to their own devices. These parents (me included) want their children to continue to practice to read in order to not forget the various phonetic rules. We want our children to read more to get more fluent reading, that is, to read faster and better over time. We want them to be able to progress to reading huge font to smaller and smaller font. We want them to read something other than a board book or a simple picture book. We want them to be able to read a book without an illustration on the page. We want their vocabulary to increase. We want them to be able to sound out a word they’ve never seen before. We want them to read good books not just junk. We want them to start on an easy level and progress up through higher levels of reading ability. And when they read aloud we want it to sound normal, the way a person would talk, with proper pauses after commas and with the proper enunciation for the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. And of course we want them to comprehend and retain what they have read. We hope they are not tortured by this experience but if they feel they are tortured we parents console ourselves knowing that we are fulfilling our legal obligation to instruct our children in reading and also that the so called torture is only 20-30-40 minutes of their day (not too much to endure). (Actually if we make good book choices the children stop complaining of the mandated reading and they actually enjoy themselves and stop complaining.)

Since our children are not doing Method One or Method Two on their own, we resort to making reading practice a lesson in our home school. For my children this meant a mandate of reading a certain number of minutes per day of the books of my selection.

The general method is that I select good quality books in certain reading levels and place them in a big basket or on a special shelf. The child is allowed to select their reading material from those books only. As the unread books lessen in number, obviously their choices dwindle. The books we use, we own, most are from library sales, and others are borrowed form the library. When the child is reading very fluently in that level of easy reader, I move them up to the next level.

Here is the progression:
Level 1 readers
Level 2 readers
Level 3 readers
Level 4 readers (they may make it through one or two in that time period)
Picture books with easy text (as many as can be read in that time period)
Picture books with longish-text (as many as can be read in that time period)
Easy chapter books (i.e. Magic Tree House series)
Chapter books for age range 9-12 (publisher’s estimation)

For each child after they finished their phonics program, for year one they began reading 20 minutes per day of the easy readers, level one. This was for the first year following them finishing their phonics program.

Year two increased to 30 minutes

Year three increased to 40-45 minutes.

Each of my children learned to read at different ages. I began teaching them to read based on their reading readiness combined with my estimation of when they were ready. Each of my children was different in how quickly they grasped the phonics reading instruction. Each progressed in their reading ability afterward in a different manner also. I am convinced that every child is different. So this is why I can’t tell you that my method is to do X in Kindergarten or X in First Grade. For your homeschool, I advise that you tailor the lessons and plans to your child’s ability combined with an awareness of what the public schools teach and to try to at least keep your child at grade level. I never recommend that a parent intentionally do things to keep their child’s performance below grade level, I don’t see the point in that and it could be argued that this actually harms the child or hinders them, so I just don’t get it when I see parents intentionally not moving their children forward with intellectual pursuits in their home schools.

My older son wanted no part in learning to read. Well that is not entirely true. He asked to read and said he wanted to read but then when it came down to learning he rebelled and begged not to do it. He also was unable to grasp the concepts easily. I repeatedly shelved the phonics program and tried it again later. He finally only did it at my instance as at that point I feared that I was not fulfilling my legal obligation to homeschool him if I did not spent 5-10 minutes per day teaching him phonics (which to me was not a lot but with the one teacher to one student teaching ratio a lot can be done in that time period). The serious phonics instruction began at the end of Kindergarten (age 5.5) and after a summer break we resumed in first grade and he finished the program in February of that first grade year. So this “lessons to teach reading after phonics” began in the second half of first grade.

My younger son began to teach himself to read at age 3.5. For his fourth birthday a homeschooling family gave him one of the Leap Frog videos “Letter Factory” and that set him to reading immediately. When we began our homeschooling lessons in September he was aged 4 years and 3 months and I started him on Alpha Phonics. The concepts came very easily and he loved it. He would beg to do the lessons for 30-45 minutes at a clip. I was shocked. Once he learned a sound and letter combination it was memorized. He finished that program in less than four months and so this next phase of learning to read by practicing reading began for him in the first half of his official pre-K-4 year. To be honest I suspected he’d be my last baby and I was in no rush at all for him to mature prematurely or to be precocious. But he is what he is and I can’t stop him from learning!

Despite what other homeschoolers have told me, I do not feel that mandating that my children read for a certain number of minutes per day for practice is torture. I feel that reading practice five times a week (Monday-Friday) is not a lot to ask. In their non-lesson times they are allowed to read whatever they want. I do limit books which I feel are complete and total trash or that are bad influences, morally corrupt or age inappropriate.

I love books!
Books are a huge part of my life and they make me happy. I love to read about books, to learn about what books are available. I love to browse the stacks in libraries and bookstores. I love to book hunt in used book shops and at library sales. I love to talk about books with other book lovers. I love to read books and think about the ideas in them, to enjoy and savor them. I like to write book reviews to share my opinions about books. I love to chat with others or write blog posts about books that I have read. I love to figure out what the great books are and then to find them to have in our home library. I like to think about homeschooling plans and method and approaches to educating my children, to think about what materials and books to use and then to find them, buy them, and then to finally use them.

At present our family library numbers over 5400. I prefer to own books rather than to borrow them from libraries. Some of the books we love are out of print and must be sought out from used book sellers. I also am annoyed when I want a certain book and it is not available at my library, or if we don’t finish it by the due date, or if I goof up and must pay a late fine. I’d rather pay pennies for a used book then resell it or donate it to charity when we are done with it.

As to easy readers being silly or dumb, they are what they are. Their purpose is to practice reading at the ability level of the reader. I don’t expect easy readers to be stellar literature. The best I could do was match the content to my children’s interests. My older son preferred nonfiction topics to fiction topics. You may not find a ton of easy readers to match your child’s interests. Don’t worry about it, they are quick reads that serve a purpose. Have your child read them and be done with them.

I educate myself about what books are on what reading level. I plan and organize my books such that I am able to put my hands on the books that I need to access to give them to my children for their reading practice. I always have to be at least one step ahead of my older son in order to get books lined up for him to read in the near future. For example if he is flying through the level 2 readers I then get together the level 3 readers, etc.

To find out about the levels of books I read book list books and websites. I read the publisher’s information about the books such as is listed on Amazon. To find information especially about out of print books I chat with other homeschoolers on a book chat list. I ask friends who have older children what good books are available in print or out of print for a certain reading level. For example I may ask, “Once they are done with Magic Tree House, what books are good next?”. I find out what the content of the books are. I am not happy with the content of some of the most popular easy chapter books for children and I won’t allow my children to read many that school kids are encouraged to read (Captain Underpants and Junie B. Jones come to mind immediately.)

It is my goal that my children are reading on or above grade level. Therefore I don’t spread out or prolong what they are reading at a certain level. For example if they fly through level 4 readers I don’t keep making them read level 4 readers because the publisher says it is for their grade level, I move them up to the next level. Basically I go at their pace but make sure that they are at least not falling behind on their reading ability, when compared to their peers in public school.

With my older son I also did use some old textbook readers which I bought at library sales. My son read books from the 1910s-1970s which are leveled. It is very convenient to use those ‘limited language’ or ‘controlled language’ readers. My younger son refused to read these textbook readers and since he was already above grade level I saw no reason to force him to read them against his will. I myself enjoy the antique illustrations and the wholesomeness of the stories. I may have been a school teacher in a past life, using these readers. I have a hard time letting go of them even though we aren’t using them. There is something about them that makes me want to keep them and to collect them. I am speaking of the Dick and Jane readers and those type of antique reader textbooks.

Fiction or Non-Fiction?
For now pretty much all of the reading material I give to my children to read for practice is fiction. Soon I think I will switch to incorporate nonfiction materials such as the Childhood of Famous Americans series of biographies.

Assessing Reading Ability
I use the Blumenfeld Oral Reading Assessment Test by Samuel Blumenfeld to test my children’s reading ability. You can read about and order the program from the author’s website (presently it is not sold on Amazon.com or I'd link you to that).

I tested my children in June 2006 and I was shocked to see how their reading ability has improved since 12 months prior. I was very surprised to see they were both reading above grade level. I won’t share the result here as it may be perceived as bragging. But suffice it to say it told me that what I am doing is right and best.

Also since the spring of 2006 my children have greatly increased the reading that they initiate on their own. They are reading all the time, during the day, while in the car, while at relative’s houses, while in waiting rooms, and before bed. At this point I can’t stop them from reading.

So to the people who warned me that if I forced my children to read for practice----you were wrong---they do not hate reading, they DO read on their own. I allow them freedom to choose what they read, whether it be mail order catalogs, children’s magazines, Calvin and Hobbes comics, Far Side comics, chapter books, picture books, nonfiction Eyewitness books or whatever. I do limit their access to morally corrupt or pure trash reading. I know the comics border on twaddle but there are much worse things out there.

Over the hump
I am overjoyed and a little bit in disbelief that at this point I have successfully taught two children to read all by myself, that they have progressed after that to be able to read numerous grade levels above their grades. I am ecstatic that the move to lots of pleasure reading has taken place. I have succeeded in developing two bookworms which was my heart’s desire.

I feel the key to knowledge is reading. I feel that books and reading opens many doors of opportunity to people of all ages.

I think my children are on the right path.

Coming soon….
I will write about how public schools have changed their reading instruction to NOT model what I have done with my children and will give some real life examples. I feel that without systematic practice and without a constant challenging and moving forward to progress to more and more difficult reading material can lead children to the road of reading problems in grades 2, 3, 4 and maybe even older.

My favorite book list books for living books are:







This is a great book about building a home library.



My favorite site about teaching reading with the phonics method is Don Potter’s site.


This post is my entry to win a camera in the "Share Your Favorite Lesson Plan" Contest sponsored by Sprittibee and Academic Superstore.


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