Over the last 30 months or so, I’ve taken my youngest daughter from unable to recognize all her letters to maxing out a phonics and high frequency word recognition test, and sliding into a reading comprehension test at a “grade level equivalent” of 12.8. (This does not mean that my daughter can read at the 12th grade level, although I was pleased yesterday, when she waded through a tedious essay on Margaret Thatcher and her economic policies.)
My daughter’s accomplishments are even more impressive given that she has a complex, chronic health condition that gives her a mild to moderate hearing impairment, as well as being a member of the neurodiverse squad. Oh, and she’s spent most of her schooling years in the middle of a global pandemic.
But this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. Her elder sister also took about 30 months to go from being a non-reader to a fluent reader. How did I do this? Well, I didn’t do it all by myself. Instead, I bought the best curriculum I could find, and used it diligently.
In the first half of kindergarten, to build letter recognition and phonemic awareness, I shelled out the money for this:
Once she’d conquered all visually recognizing letters and auditorily recognizing their initial sounds, mid-January of her kindergarten year, I moved her to:
I skipped the handwriting component (yes, you can teach handwriting and reading separately), and we focused on letter sounds and blending. We took a week here and there, but mostly she spent the next nine months working every day. Her hearing issues meant that she had to “guess and check” for every vowel sound. Then she had to memorize how to make a sound with her mouth that she couldn’t reliably distinguish with her ears. It was agonizing for both of us. She’d cry and then I’d cry, and then she’d cry again. I spent weeks making exaggerated facial motions for “a” as in apple and “o” as in octopus.
Then, she had to figure out how that sound blended with consonants. “-ar” as in car, “-ed” as in bed, “-it” as in sit, “-op” as in lop, “-un” as in bun. Every single combination required explicit instruction, because she couldn’t hear them in the normal course of conversation. (Yes, she had a significant speech delay, with less than two dozen words at age 2.) She was guessing, checking, and memorizing all over again.
In June of that year, she opened the book to licks, nod, nut, hits, him, he, she, the, and that, took one look at the page, and burst into tears. The middle sounds in nod and nut were indistinguishable to her—she simply can’t hear them. Later that summer, we spent a good 20 minutes reviewing over and oval, because they sound identical to her.
What she does have is a good memory, so she quickly became adept at memorizing how to pronounce whole words. She would have aced easy readers, so we didn’t use them. Instead, at the suggestion of some lovely folks on Edu-Twitter, I began using an index card with a notch cut out of the corner, and a typoscope made from construction paper, so that only part of a word was shown at a time. I made her sound it out, instead of guessing from the initial letters, or sometimes the first and last letters. I was not her favorite person in those days.
But, along about lesson 75, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons assumes that students have cracked the alphabetic code, and because she hadn’t, the frustration level quickly became more than she could bear. I dropped Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons for two of my old favorites:
- The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading
- Phonics Pathways: Clear Steps to Easy Reading and Perfect Spelling
For the next 18 months, albeit with a six-week break in the summer of 2021, she worked her way from Lesson 27: Words with the short-A Vowel Sound to Lesson 230: Exercise Your Reading Muscles (Reading Multi-syllable Words). Every single digraph and trigraph required explicit instruction and reinforcement because no, she could not just hear str and know that it was s, t, and r. We worked from /K/ = C-, K-, -CK to S = /z/, /zh/, /sh/ and /F/ = ph, gh; /K/ = ch. I wore out countless index cards forcing her to verbalize every single blend on every single word. She couldn’t “sound it out” because she couldn’t hear it. Instead, she had to memorize how to make the sounds for everything.
All that work paid off this winter, when I did her annual assessment through LetsGoLearn’s DORA test and discovered that she’d gone as far as I could take her. I’m going to reinforce this spring with MCP Level C, but from here on out, her reading will depend on her background knowledge. That is a post for another day.