30 December 1999


How Ilana Learned to Read

by David P. Stern



    When our daughter Ilana was two, my wife and I decided as an experiment to teach her to read. She did very well, and the experiment continued with her two brothers, Oren and Allon. We sometimes joked, "with three we publish" and some ten years later this article was written, though it never appeared in print.

    Twenty-four more years have passed: Ilana earned a master's degree in Meteorology, was married and together with her husband is currently sailing their "Windom," somewhere on the great ocean. Her brothers are software engineers, specializing in the linkage and networking of computers. Some of the books mentioned here are probably out of print, but the ideas and principles described seem as valid as they were thirty years ago.

    Introduction

    All our three children learned to read by the time they entered kindergarten. Their attitudes, learning abilities and personalities differed, but all three learned to read by the methods described here, willingly and enjoying the process.

        First, a basic definition: learning to read does not mean here learning the alphabet, one's own name or selected words, or even being able to recite a familiar book or two. It means developing the ability to freely read an easy unprepared text and to recognize basic words, pronouncing them correctly wherever they are encountered.

        Next the reason why. My wife and I started teaching our daughter Ilana--our oldest child--because we felt that reading was a desirable skill, and also because we had noticed that Ilana was often visibly bored and we hoped that books might ease her boredom. One major goal was to give books a head start over the influence of television, and we were also aware, perhaps too much, of other parents whose older children had "reading problems."

        And yes, we were intrigued by the idea. We thought it would be an interesting experiment and a good way for parent and child to interact. Beyond this, perhaps, was parental vanity, trying to boost one's children to realize their full potential.

        What about the risks? Did any exist? We never encountered any real pitfalls, but certain matters had to be kept in mind.

        First--and I am not sure this rates as a "risk"--there exists the possibility that the child would not cooperate, would show no interest. This did not happen with any of our children, though we know friends who have tried to teach their children to read by a variety of ways and were quickly stopped by disinterest. Perhaps the method made the difference. Our children liked their reading sessions, for they seemed like a game played with a parent, with the parent's whole attention directed to them. This alone seemed to be a great incentive, so much that children sometimes demanded a lesson, and lessons often ended when the parent tired of teaching, not the child of learning.

        In all reading sessions we tried to maintain a close mental rapport and in particular to head off failure. If the child got stuck on a difficult word and lapsed into an embarrassed silence, we would quickly supply the word without comment and encourage him or her to keep going as if nothing had happened. The important thing was to always make reading a successful achievement.

        A more serious risk was that the child might become too bookish, too dependent on parents for initiative, and that reading would displace social and physical activity. To a moderate degree our daughter did become book oriented (by age 11 she was an avid reader), but on the other hand she was much less tempted by television than other children of her age.

        The social aspects are not as serious as one might guess, since in the years between 2 to 4 contact with other children plays a limited role. Of course, even then interaction with other children always took precedence over a learning session with a parent. In later years social interactions became much more important, but all our children had mastered reading by that time.

    To be sure, what is called here a "method" is just a mixed bag of ideas, tricks and aids, many of which we suspect are not new. They are presented here not as a rigid curriculum but as a collection of resources to be used by parents and teachers as the occasion demands.

        Finally, learning to write is a different story altogether, requiring dexterity and a firm grip. These develop much more slowly: our children only began writing between ages 4 and 5, and even then their writing skills developed rather slowly.

Reading Readiness

        Before a child is ready to learn to read, he or she must be able to talk freely in sentences and must command a fairly large vocabulary. Our daughter was an early talker and by age 3 she was already reading easy books. Her youngest brother started talking about one year behind his sister's schedule, and his reading schedule was also shifted by about one year, while the other brother's timetable was somewhere in between, both in talking and in reading.

        In all cases, the first steps towards reading were aimed towards building a larger vocabulary, by identifying pictures on flash cards and in scrapbooks. None of these contained any written words, at least in the beginning.

        We used cheap small scrapbooks (8.5" by 12") purchased in a variety store. In them we pasted pictures and photographs (both black and white and in color), cut from magazines and catalogs, of items with which the children were familiar and whose names they could pronounce, mostly one-syllable words. In particular, "housekeeping" magazines and old mail order catalogs were useful, and the children were involved in the preparation of scrapbooks by being invited to come and "help" as the pictures were clipped and pasted. The "game" played with the scrapbooks then consisted of sitting together, leafing through the pages, pointing out items and having the child name them aloud. Sometimes several different items could be identified in the same picture, for instance, parts of the body. Some of the objects actually used:

pot chair girl babies book
phone baby daddy cat sun
cup salad shoe truck block
boy table light teddy bed
brush toothbrush window blanket rug
letter boat house train TV
cheese picture tent typewriter apple
crib cup-cups money kiss knife
fork spoon cats cookie melon
towel clock dog hot dog lion
rice wrench strawberry potato mommy
rug bread egg bench hammer
boys flag pin dogs

    "Daddy" and "mommy," by the way, meant a man or a woman shown with children. Items were often repeated in the same book, illustrated by different pictures, and plural objects were named as such ("boys"). Our children were allowed to play with the books by themselves, and although tears had to be patched up occasionally, the books remained quite usable and were passed from older children to younger ones. In fact, older children liked to play "teacher" to younger ones, sit with them and go through the pictures.

    Incidentally, when a scrapbook is not available, the same game can also be played with an illustrated mail-order catalog, although the parent should carefully select only common objects with simple names.

    As the children grew older (and in fact had already begun reading) we set up one specific scrapbook to help them learn to count, pasting in it pictures in which several countable items appeared together. The child would then count them out loud, while touching the pictures of the counted objects. Some of the pictures used:

One baby three chairs
two boys two girls
three keys five cookies
four cups three cups
five cans three boys
six flowers three glasses
seven children seven coats
(All the items in the left column were pasted in ascending order on two facing pages)

    We also dedicated some pages in our scrapbooks to teaching color, pasting only blue items on one page, only red ones on another, etc. On these pages the children were asked to append a color to each name--"red shoe," "blue car" and so forth.

    Flash cards were produced by drawing with felt markers on index cards and were used in an "identification game" similar to the one played with the scrapbooks. They were kept bundled together by a rubber band and the children were occasionally allowed to play with them alone, provided they actually used them, rather than scattered them on the floor. The children often "helped" us prepare the cards, which again gave them a sense of participation. While they were watching, they enjoyed guessing what a new picture was going to be and suggesting new pictures to be drawn.

    The pictures on the flash cards were rather crude compared to those in the scrapbooks, but the children did not mind, and the cards held several advantages. First, for some words we wanted to teach no suitable ready-made pictures could be found for the scrapbook, whereas hand-drawn cards had no such limitation. Secondly, flash cards could be "personalized" to include items and toys familiar to the child. Finally, we used cards to teach "two" by including cards with two identical objects, of the same sort as were earlier shown singly on other cards. Thus Ilana learned to identify "two pin" "two house" "two car" etc., even before she learned the proper conjugation of plurals. We tried to push our luck by trying to teach "three" the same way, but this did not work until very much later.

Some of the words on flash cards were:

car book hammer tap door
cup fire pencil bench ear
bear teeth brush ear hat
house phone flag fork mouth
tree flower tricycle bottle bird
swing truck cake cat plate
spoon comb lid stairs TV
ball button dog broom bike

    Note that most words had only one syllable and were easy to pronounce ("tap" meant water faucet). Parts of the body were outlined by colored marker on a pencil sketch showing the entire body or face.

First Letters

    Should young children be taught to spell out letters or rather, to recognize whole words? We generally preferred to teach letters and sounds, although with Allon, the youngest, we experimented for a while with the other approach. It did not work--Allon would guess wildly, often pronouncing a word which shared nothing with the given one except some conspicuous letter. Sight reading seems to come naturally to all readers after some experience, but it does not seem to be a good way to start with the very young.

    Teaching the alphabet began with flash cards containing single letters, included in the deck of picture cards. Only a few letters were introduced at a time and we took care to separate the teaching of the letters M-N, B-P and D-T, since the similarity of their sounds tended to confuse the children. The letters were interchangably referred to by their conventional names and by their sounds--"em" being also "mmm," "ess" also "sss", and so on. The vowel "a" was sounded as in "car," "e" as in "wet" and "i" as in "big."

    Most of our effort in teaching the alphabet was with Ilana. By the time her brothers entered this stage, the educational program "Sesame Street" was appearing on public television and they seemed to learn most of their letters from it. Play blocks with letters were also used in identification games, and we sometimes improvised such games using crayons and scraps of writing paper.

    The children first learned to recognize all letters as capitals. After this was accomplished flash cards with lower-case letters (called "small" letters whereas capitals were "big") were added a few at a time. The card which carried a "small F" on it had also a little "big F" in a lower corner, so that the child could see the connection if he or she did not guess the letter at once. Later we would cover the corner letter with a thumb as the card was shown, and only slide the thumb away if the child had a problem. In general, learning lower case letters proved to be less difficult than was anticipated.

    When our boys learned their letters we added the "newspaper game." Taking an old newspaper, we would use a color crayon to circle letters which the child would then read out loud.

    The newspaper game had some useful features. It exposed the child to the many shapes, sizes and variations of letters, especially on the advertising pages, and it had an element of unpredictability. Sometimes the children were allowed to choose, circle and read their own letters. Another such "game" consisted of identifying letters on license plates of parked cars, although this was more useful in learning numbers rather than letters.

    In all such games whenever the child became fidgety, giggled or let attention wander, we abruptly stopped. We felt that the study of reading should always remain a game, and we learned to read the signs that the child no longer cared to play. After stopping we usually went on to do something else by ourselves, to let the child understand that the parent's attention was meant to be the reward for joining in a reading session. We did not want to create the impression that it could be transferred to participation in "ordinary" games, even games in which the parents would have participated under normal circumstances.

First Words

Ilana first learned to combine letters into syllables "MA" and "DA" which then formed "MAMA" and "DADA." Children sometimes pronounced them "mommy" and "daddy," which was allowed to stand.

    Perhaps even earlier came the word "STOP," read from traffic signs and sounded out whenever such signs were encountered while the children were riding with us in the car ("ess, tee, oh, pee -- STOP"). Other early words were GO, DOG, CAT, BED and, of course, the child's own name. We picked up easy words as they were encountered--NO from "no parking" signs, IN from stores, BABY SOAP from soap wrappers, MILK from cartons and later such phrases as NO DOGS IN STORE.

    Flash cards of these words were prepared and were used in identification games. Words were often grouped together in "families" (as "Sesame Street" called them for a while) of rhyming or similar-sounding words. The first such "family" contained GO, SO and NO (DO and TO came much later, to avoid confusion over pronunciation). Other such groups included:

WET, LET, SET, GET
HOT, LOT, NOT, POT
SAY, WAY (and later, AWAY), DAY, PLAY
ALL, WALL, FALL, BALL, CALL, SMALL, TALL
    (these familiar from Dr. Seuss' "Hop on Pop")
IT, SIT. HIT
US, BUS
AT, CAT, FAT, HAT, THAT
RUN, FUN, SUN
BOOK, GOOD, COOK (later COOKBOOK), MOON, SPOON
    (again, DOOR and FLOOR were postponed because of
    pronunciation, as were words containing the soft "c")
RED, BED
CAR, FAR, STAR
HOW, NOW
UP, CUP
AND, HAND
HOUSE, MOUSE
BOY, TOY (also: BOY, BOX)


    The "newspaper game" at this stage consisted of searching for known short words (including connecting words) in newspaper headlines or ads, circling them and having the children read them out loud. Headlines were particularly useful because first letters in them are often capitalized, giving a child who cannot yet tell left from right a clue about which side the word begins on. For a fairly long time the children were uncertain in identifying the "beginning" of words: one persistent source of ambiguity was ON which becomes NO not only when reversed but also (in capitals) when viewed upside down. Even when Allon was four and a half years old and already reading fairly freely, he would still occasionally write his name in mirror-image letters from right to left!

    Flash cards were extensively used in teaching words. Some were handwritten with felt markers, others contained words clipped from newspapers and stuck to the card with transparent tape. When we started teaching nouns, we used a set of cards in which each word was repeated twice. The first time it appeared the card would also have a small "cheater" picture in the lower right corner--BUS, CAR, HAT, CAT, MAN etc.--to give the child a clue (it could be covered by the parent's thumb). Later in the deck the same word would appear again, but without the clue.

    To help Oren, the older boy, recognize STOP and GO, we taped these words to the underside of a shelf in his changing table. Whenever he would lie on his back for a diaper change he would discover these words squarely in his field of view and would usually recite them even without prompting.

    The stage of learning to read words takes many months and cannot be rushed. It overlaps stages described later: even when a child was already combining words and reading easy texts, new words were still being learned from newspapers and flash cards. For convenience all details of this stage are here collected together, but in fact they evolved slowly--for instance, a child usually did not learn more than one new "family" of words per week.

    In general, if one feels that the child is not keeping up with the pace or is not enjoying it, that is the time to slow down and repeat known material, in which the child is bound to achieve success. And yes, any parent trying out these methods should feel free to experiment and innovate, using new ideas and additional material, and bringing in specific subjects which are especially familiar or interesting to the child.

Counting

    While our children were learning to read they were also gradually introduced to numbers. As described earlier, the notion of "two" was acquired from flash cards, and one scrapbook was dedicated to the teaching of counting.

    In general, counting was practiced whenever an opportunity arose--counting stairs as one went up or down them, counting cups on the breakfast table, children in a book, television receivers in an advertisement, hearts or diamonds on a playing card, and so on. Allon later learned to count into the hundreds with the help of a hand-held electronic calculator, in which each push on an appropriate button advanced the displayed number by one.

    The numerals were introduced by flash cards which also carried an appropriate number of objects for counting--balls, flowers, houses, hands, children (as stick figures), cups, hats and so forth. Numerals were also identified on play blocks, on clock faces and by circling them in newspapers as part of the "newspaper game." Later on newspapers also helped the children recognize larger numbers, first in the teens and then gradually increasing the limit. "Sesame Street" helped as well, and the children learned to count down from 10 by watching rocket launches on TV and later by "counting down" to the switching-off of bedroom lights as part of their going-to-bed routine.

    Once the children had learned to count and to recognize numbers, they gradually mastered elementary arithmetic. This subject does not properly belong here, but one "learning game" in this area will be mentioned, because the children liked it very much. This was played at a rather advanced age, when the children were already reading fairly well and had some experience with simple addition.

    The game was called "supermarket" and the "merchandise" was drawn with felt markers on index cards, each card carrying a picture and a price. Several cards were provided for each item and the basic inventory ran as follows:

Strawberry 1 Banana 6
Potato 2 Grapes 7 a bunch
Apple 3 Watermelon 8 a slice
Green Pepper 4 Avocado 9
Orange 5 Blueberries 10 a box

    The cards were arranged in an orderly array on a table and the children then "entered the store," rang a bell for attention and "bought" from the display: the rule was that every customer bought exactly two items and had to name the combined price. To help with the addition, an abacus (counting frame) was sometimes provided by the "store." The game aspect was mainly in the associated small talk, in which the "seller" praised the merchandise, asked the "buyer" what he or she intended to do with it, and received answers. Later a line of baked goods was also provided:

Doughnut 5 Bread, one loaf 25
Cupcake 10 Pumpernickel 30
Slice of cake 15 Cake 35
Pie 20
Still later eggs, soap and other merchandise were added, carrying higher prices.

Combining Words

As soon as any child learned to read a few words, he or she wanted to use them. It greatly added to the fun of learning when words were combined into sentences or even fragmentary phrases.

    Because the initial vocabulary is so limited, very few prepared texts are satisfactory at this stage. Instead we found it best to produce the reading material by ourselves, drawing it on sheets and cards with a felt marker, in letters about 3/4" high. Some early phrases were (written here in capitals, though regular writing was used):


BOY GO IN BOX
    (we ignored grammar at this level)
BOY GO OUT OF BOX
IS THE POT HOT? NO,THE POT IS NOT HOT.
IS THE HAT RED?
I GET A RED BALL. MY BALL IS RED.

Phrases were also read in newspapers, and if they contained a hard word, we would supply it ourselves when its turn came.

    From here our children advanced to large sheets, each of which carried a few sentences or a short "story." We were lucky to obtain for this a stack of posters printed on heavy white paper (originally 22" by 16", but cut in half for easier handling), one side covered with print but the other still usable. We wrote down "stories" using felt markers, illustrating them with vignettes and using several colors in the illustrations, though only black letters in the text. The texts themselves were often taken from the children's own experiences and are reproduced below. The sheets were quite durable and in spite of extensive handling we still have them--bent, soiled but usable.

    Most sheets were produced for Oren at a rate of about two per week, starting two months before his third birthday. The children were again actively involved by watching the preparation of the material and in a few cases the picture on the sheet was outlined by pencil and the child was allowed to color it in. Below are the sheets, starting from the simplest ones; * marks a picture. The sheets from Oren (5 years younger than Ilana) are placed approximately where they would belong in the sequence.

(1)

This is a boy. (*)
This is Oren.
This is a baby. (*)
He is Allon.
This is a girl. (*)
She is Ilana.
She is a good girl.
Ilana and Oren play all day.

In producing similar sheets for your own children, try to imitate rather than copy, for each child's interests, playmates, toys and familiar situations are bound to differ.

(2)

Sh -- Shoe (*) -- She (*) -- Ship (*)
This is a ship (*)
Girl (*)
On the ship is a girl
She is good.
She is a good girl

(3)

This pot is not hot.
It is fun to run in the sun. (*)
That cat (*) is fat.
This hat is his.
My car (*) can go far.

(4)

I like to sit in a swing. (*)
Daddy can put me in the swing.
Now I go
up
    down
up
    and down all day.

(5)

This is my toy car. (*)
Block (*). This is one of my blocks.
I can sit (*) on my block.
Here is a wall (*) of blocks.
Now the blocks are a house.
My toy car is in the house.

(6)

This is a fish.
Oren can get the fish.
He has a ring (*) on a string. (*)
Oren can get the ring on the tail of the fish.(*)
And now the fish is up!


    The last text was based on a toy Oren received from his grandparents, and illustrates reading material adapted to what the child is familiar with. Note that except for "girl" and "wall", the pronunciation of vowels is consistent. As long as words with vowels pronounced differently were introduced slowly, one by one, they created no problems.

    In the texts below the illustrations are no longer marked. The underlined words were written in a box in the top right corner and were read first--these were either new words, or words with which the child earlier had problems, and reading them prepared the way for their appearance in the text. And by the way, the "coffee" in sheet (8) was actually milk laced with a little coffee.

(7)

Oren is going to sing sing
    for Ilana. song
The song is "On the good
    ship Lollipop."
Now he sings "Looby Loo."
It is a fun song.
Fun for Oren and Ilana.
(8)
Oren gets up. you
He gets out of his bed. your
Now he is going to Ilana. coffee
"Get up Ilana" says Oren.
"Get out of your bed and
    get your cup of coffee."

The next two sheets had the secondary purpose of countering possible fear of insects.

    They contained pictures of a woman or a man, and of the appropriate insect, with legs that could be counted.

(9)

What is that? (*) what?
That is a lady. bug
Mommy is a lady. Mommy
What is this? (*) Lady
It is a lady-bug.
It is not a lady.
It is a bug. We like lady-bugs.
(10)
This is a daddy. (*) with
He is a man. leg
This is a daddy-long-legs TD>legs
He is not a daddy
He is a bug. (*)
He has 8 long legs.
He is a good bug. We like him.

The following sheet was illustrated by a sequence of four pictures, in the last of which the bigger brother is handing a ball to the smaller one:

(11)

I like our baby Allon.
Now he is going for the ball.
Now he falls down.
Allon falls down a lot.
Now he gets up.
Here, Allon, here is your ball. Do you like it?
(12)
Rain, rain, go away want
Come again another day rain
Little Oren wants to play come
Rain, Rain, go away! another

    The last sheet stressed the "ai" sound (the child will get the idea even if it is not pointed out), and pictured a boy with red boots, standing in the rain. The next one is built around the family of words with the "and" sound:

(13)

This is a sand box. and
I stand in the sand and play sand
I put my hand in the sand hand
    and dig down. stand
How far can you dig in the very
sand? Not very far.
It falls down on my hand.
(14)
This is a tap. tap
I open the tap to get water open
The water is going into my cup close
Now I close the tap. into
I drink the water. It is so good! water

    The following sheet introduces the silent "e" through the "ake" family of sound-alikes. These words were earlier introduced by means of flash cards.

(15)

Mommy is going to make a cake.
She will put together all the things that
go into a cake.
The cake will bake in the oven.
Mommy will take it out
and Oren will eat it.

The next sheet uses "like" (already met in (11)), another instance of the silent "e." Pictures of all food items mentioned are drawn in appropriate locations:

(16)

I like my dinner.
I get good yellow corn.
I eat a red tomato.
Here is good green Jello.
I drink cold apple juice.
I also eat my meat. It is good.

(17)
On a hot day mommy will take me pool
    to the pool. many
Many boys and girls are at the pool have
and we play in the water.
We have lots of fun playing.
We have balls and rings
and toy boats that go on the water.

    Note that as the children progress, vowel sounds may change: the "a" sounds in "and", "are" and "water" are all different. As long as such variations are introduced gradually, and the words first appear on flash cards, they cause no problems.

(18)

It is time for Oren to go to sleep. tooth
But first he has to brush his teeth. teeth
Daddy takes the toothbrush.
Oren puts on it toothpaste.
Daddy cleans Oren's teeth.
Now Oren can go to bed with clean teeth.

    The next two sheets were based on personal experiences, and were illustrated accordingly. In one I took Oren to a nearby farm in a child's seat on my bike; in the other the children went trick-or-treating on Haloween, with Ilana wearing a huge "happy face" made of yellow fabric on a wire frame, and both children carrying pumpkin-shaped baskets. Bold-face words (here and on later sheets) are in red. It should not be hard to find equivalent experiences for other children. The sheets also introduce more examples of the silent "e" in "ride", "bike" and "face":

(19)

I like to ride on a bike with Daddy.
I sit in the back.
Daddy rides to the farm.
I see cows. They say Moo!
I see sheep eating the grass.
It is fun to go for a ride.
We have fun.
(20)
On Haloween I went Pumpkin
with Daddy and Ilana. Happy Face
Ilana had a big Happy Face
Here is a house with a big pumpkin.
I run there and say Trick or Treat !
I get candy and put it in my pumpkin.

    The following sheets were prepared for Allon, after he had read through about half of Oren's sheets (he later read the rest as well). Like the others, all were illustrated.

(21)

It is a very hot day.
The sun is very hot.
We drink a lot of cold water.
We put ice in the water to make it cold.
I do not like hot days.
(22)
We have a new car.
Mommy drives it. It is red.
It has seat belts.
If you sit in it and do not put the
seat belt on, the car goes BUZZZ
It is telling you to put on a seat belt.
(23)
In the forest are many trees.
Once daddy cut a tree.
With a saw he cuts out a bit of
    wood on one side.
Then he makes a cut
    on the other side,
And when the tree falls, he calls Timber !
We then cut the tree for firewood.
(24)
If our grass is tall daddy cuts it.
He has a machine that cuts grass.
We call it a lawn mower.
He puts the cut grass
    in a garbage can
    and we help him.

The next one--from the 4th of July--introduces "night", "bright" and "light":

(25)

One night we saw
fireworks by the lake.
They have a bright light
in red, green and yellow.
The go: BOOM ! BANG !
Oren and Allon like to see fireworks.
(26)
Allon and Oren have a bunk bed.
Oren is on top.
He has a ladder to go up.
Allon has a bed under Oren's bed.
Under Allon's bed is a trundle bed.
At night we pull it out.

The following used a double-sized sheet, and the name of each color is written in that color:

(27)

In the garden we have green beans
and green cucumbers.
They are good to eat.
We also have green tomatoes.
They are not good to eat until they are red.
Only bunny rabbits can eat all green things!

    When Allon, the younger boy, was learning to read, an interesting thing happened. Ilana at the time was ten years old and she decided to play teacher to her brother. First she read with him through the prepared text sheets, but later she began producing her own, illustrating them with drawings. One example:

I like to sit on a block.
I sit on my block all day.
The block is hard.
I sit on my hard block.
I like to sit on my block
    if it is hard.

First Books

    At some point, when the children were about halfway through their reading sheets, they were introduced to books. After so many years, I am not sure how many of the ones we used remain in print: probably not one of Allon's favorites, "You May Go to the Moon" by Ira Freeman, which stated "no one has been there yet." In any case, only a small part of the available literature could be sampled.

The books found most useful for the beginning were:

    Hop on Pop (Dr. Seuss)
    Go Dog, Go (Eastman)
    The Big Red Bus (Kessler)
    Ten Apples up on Top (Theo Le Sieg, aka Dr. Seuss)

    All children started with "Hop on Pop" which consists of short independent segments and is intended for beginning readers. By the time they reached the middle, they started on "Go, Dog, Go" which was harder but not as disconnected. We purchased these books, because the children spent considerable time with them.

    Another book well liked at this level (and long afterwards) was "The Best Word Book Ever" by Richard Scarry, which saw so much use that its binding had to be reglued twice. Many other elementary texts exist at this level, e.g. "Inside, Outside, Upside Down" (Bernstain), and they were quite useful, though rather short. Because the children quickly finished them, these books were borrowed from the public library rather than purchased.

At the next level some books were bought but many came from the public library. Examples:

    The Bicycle Lesson (Bernstain)
    The Big Honey Hunt (Bernstain)
    Do Baby Bears sit in Chairs? (Kessler)
    Little Bear's Visit (and other "Little Bear" books, by Minarik)
    Chester (and other easy books by Syd Hoff)
    Snow (Eastman)

These were followed by a variety of easy books--by Richard Scarry, "Beginner Books" from Random House and "I can Read" books from Harper.

    As for the well-known books by Dr. Seuss: they seem quite tempting, but tend to be too sophisticated for very young readers (some exceptions are "Hop on Pop" and "Green Eggs and Ham"). They are deservedly popular among older children who seek more spice in their elementary reading than school texts provide, and at an older age our children enjoyed them, too, especially their verbal creativity, their rhymes and puns. To four-year olds, however, they are a bit puzzling and difficult.

    By the way, when Ilana was three years old a neighbor, a school principal, presented her with an old school primer. She did quite well with it but did not find it as exciting as her other reading.

    In all that time we never read any book aloud to our children. Later we wondered whether, had we done so, they might have balked at reading new texts and might instead have pressed an adult to do the reading for them. One of the rules of the reading game was that the children always took an active part. We made clear to them that we were happy to sit with them and help them read their books, but they would have to do the reading by themselves.

Conclusion

    From this point on the children tended to read more and more on their own, and our role as parents consisted mainly of keeping them supplied with reading material on a suitable level. When the children said they wanted to "read to" us, we gave them the attention and sat down to listen; but more and more, they read independently. The public library serving our area greatly helped in this. It allowed children to register as borrowers as soon as they could sign their names on a card, and our children felt quite important when that happened, some time during their sixth year.

How did early reading affect their development?

    In nursery school no reading was expected, and although books were available, our children usually found other occupations. They never bragged about their reading skill and most other children seemed unaware of it. One exception was Audrey, Ilana's best friend in nursery school, to whom Ilana used to read from books. Audrey apparently got the notion that everyone could read except herself. One day, when Ilana was home sick, she thrust a book into the hands of another girl and told her: "Read to me!"

    In elementary school much depended on the particular teacher to whom Ilana was assigned. Most teachers--after the initial weeks during which they became acquainted with their classes--assigned her to do independent reading: she did not end up marking time in boredom, as some friends had predicted. She still had to spend a considerable effort on her handwriting, singing, art and social activities.

    She did best when challenged by her teachers. In second grade she was encouraged to write long compositions and did very well, while in third grade less was demanded and less was achieved. She stayed consistently near the top of her class.

    If there is one point which deserves to be repeated to anyone intending to teach the very young to read, it is: take your time. An adult can easily read this summary in less than half an hour, but the program it describes takes at least a year and a half to carry out. The best way to teach reading to young children is unobtrusively, without it becoming a major activity: gaps of several weeks in the study do not seem to hamper ultimate progress. This article contains many ideas you might want to try out, but it is best to ration them and try them out slowly, one at a time; and it is also best to be creative and invent new material, custom-made to the young pupil. With patience and persistence, we hope, you will succeed, and we wish you as much satisfaction as we ourselves derived.

Postscript

    Ilana's reading experiment began thirty-four years ago, and now all our children are independent adults. Each has a different temperament and personality, each has different interests and inclinations. Has early reading made any difference in their lives?

    They all read, to varying degrees, and more important, none watches much TV. Ilana loves the outdoors--sailing, biking, scuba, hiking, climbing sheer cliffs--but she is also an accomplished writer, with an easy, flowing style. She has contributed to printed publications and also to documents on the internet, where she is quite active. Oren loves puzzles (right now he's into cryptic crosswords), is a formidable bridge player and also pretty good at juggling; he married a children's librarian. Allon, the vegetarian, runs the light and sound system for amateur theatres and for science-fiction conventions, and loves to tinker with computer hardware and software.

    None of the three turned out bookish, yet each appreciates the written word. Whenever we all meet in our house, we often play word games ("Boggle" is the favorite), and my wife and I frequently end up with the bottom score. Did early reading have anything to do with this? We like to think that it did, and that by enriching the lives of our children it helped them become who they are.



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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 30 December 1999