By Lisa Jobe
When our oldest son Brendan was 22 months old, we silently listened in awe as he recited his favorite Thomas books in his crib. Shortly after his second birthday, Brendan would “read” his well-worn Step Into Reading books as we turned the pages, pointing to the correct text and calling out words when we paused.
While those first readings were by rote memorization, Brendan soon discovered that he recognized words in new books and gleefully pointed them out. By his third birthday, he was able to read newly-introduced Step 1 books on his own.
Before he turned 4, his preschool teacher introduced him to Magic Treehouse chapter books.
At 5, he read the entire Harry Potter series; he also tested at nearly-9th grade level on our district’s reading comprehension test.
This past Spring, at 6, he read Lord of the Rings.
Brendan has never been given formal reading instruction. He taught himself to read.
When our youngest son, Ryan, came along, his personality was so different that we had no expectations. As an infant, he was “too busy” for reading time. Yet, by 18 months old, Ryan too wanted to be tucked into bed with his books, and he was soon “reading” to his stuffed animals.
At 2, Ryan became enamored with Baby Tad videos, which were played often while I homeschooled Brendan. When Ryan was 2 ½, I discovered ReadingEggs.com, where he played kindergarten-level phonics games for a few minutes a week while Brendan did his math on another computer. By his third birthday, Ryan could read most of the kindergarten sight words.
Now at 3 years, 5 months, he too can read new books on his own.
It’s suddenly dawning on us that producing two preschool readers is unusual, leading us to reflect on their early reading paths.
Thoughts on early reading seem to fall into two camps. On the one hand, most parenting articles and developmental charts suggest that children aren’t cognitively capable of learning to read before their 5th birthday. Most preschools limit reading instruction to “letters of the week” and their corresponding sounds. Many elementary schools rely so heavily on phonics instruction that children aren’t even introduced to common exceptions like “the” before the second half of kindergarten.
On the other hand, the market is flooding with “teach your baby to read” flashcards, workbooks, and other curriculum for “those parents” (we all know some, right?) who intend to “hothouse” their children to the front of the class.
I like to think that my parental approach falls somewhere in the middle.
While I have been blessed to be a stay-at-home for most of my sons’ lives, Ryan’s “one on one” time is cut very short by the homeschooling/sports/social schedule of his big brother. While those “hothousers” are working with their babies, Ryan is more likely in the gym play center, en route in our daily treks, or spending far too much time with Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Once, and only once, did I attempt to introduce flashcards. Not only did it turn him completely off of our one-on-one time, but it also temporarily decreased his reading interest. Even a toddler recognizes the difference between work and play!
How did my children learn to read so young? Most parents recognize that reading together and demonstrating your own interest in reading are crucial. I also believe it is critical to incorporate reading into children’s play time, not their work time. When my toddler has tv time, his options are Baby Tad, Between the Lions, or some other entertaining (but secretly educational) program. If he earns computer time, he gets to play silly shoot-it-up games (that combine phonics instruction with whole-word sight words) on ReadingEggs.com. While he’s waiting for his brother’s sports practice, he occasionally plays word puzzles with Mommy. Best of all, when he’s not ready to fall asleep, he gets to “stay up as late as he wants” by reading quietly in his bed. We intentionally keep toys out of the bedroom to give books that special place at night.
I also believe it is important to build a child’s confidence as he learns new words. Picture books are integral to children’s libraries, but so are simple phonics books. I highly recommend Step Into Reading Books, which combine simple vocabulary with popular characters. As you repetitively read these books to your children, pause and point out the words. Let them point to and “read” words they recognize, such as the characters’ names. At bedtime, read those books last, then let your child snuggle with them. On their own, they will connect the story they’ve heard with the words they see on each page.
I am abundantly grateful that my sons’ lives have been enriched as early readers. Reading brings them a greater appreciation of their own history, religion, and culture, as well as an understanding of diverse points of view. Books connect children together, as they share common interests like Harry Potter on the playground. Reading helps them in all areas of their academics, from grasping their math instructions to reliving historic adventures and even to learning to read music.
Best of all, families who read together share a special bond. There are few moments more precious than those when we’re cuddled with our little boys, reading and sharing our books.
Lisa is the busy homeschool mom of two little boys, constantly organizing, teaching, or volunteering with some children’s program. She makes use of her former legal career by advocating for the special needs of profoundly gifted children. See more of her work on her personal blog page.