Carrie wrote in with the following question:
"My 3 ½ year old son has been asking me to teach him to read. This is fantastic, of course, and I want to help him. I’ve always been of the opinion that he’ll learn when he learns. I am the anti-thesis of a flashcard parent. I believe children this age should have fun, not be pushed into academics.
But he asked, so I guess that means he might want flashcards. Is there a pre-K reading program you or your readers could recommend? Hooked on Phonics is the only one that comes to mind, but I’m sure there are tons out there."
I asked my mom if she could write a response. She was a reading specialist for years at the lower elementary level (often working with kids who had reading problems), and my brother and I were early readers. She does NOT recommend flashcards, and thinks there's no need whatsoever to spend money on programs. Here's what she sent me (I didn't edit anything, but I typed it in from her longhand, so all typos are mine):
Five Ways To Use Play To Teach Your Child To Read
By Moxie's Mom
My daughter doesn't remember learning to read. As far as she knows, she always could, so the mechanics of it are not obvious in her experience. So how did I do that? Organically! With play.
That is to say, we played with words and letters and rhymes and sounds. (Just like Sesame Street, you say? Or Electric Company? Right!)
Her dad had a collection of ABC books, which helped. But often it was just: "M is for Moxie and Mama and maybe." Or "B is for baby and boys and bla-bla-bla."
Sometimes it was just made-up sing-songs as we walked around the block. "Walk-walk-walk, talk-talk-talk, rock-rock-rock, sock-sock-sock, knock-knock-knock" until you run out and choose another word to rhyme and chant with each step or hop or skip.
An old word-and-letter game goes like this: "Moxie von Boxie, Tea-elligo Foxie! Tea-legged, toe-legged, bow-legged Moxie! Daddy von Baddy tea-elligo Faddy! tea-legged, toe-legged, bow-legged Daddy!"
SING the old alphabet song to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. You gotta know the alphabet--in order. And I know a few adults who hum under their breath when looking up phone numbers--alphabetical order, uh-huh! So sing it to and with her, and in connection with movement when you can--walking, hopping, bouncing a ball to punctuate each letter, jumping rope if your kid is athletic (mine weren't).
Why MOVEMENT? I don't know the whole science, but it just works that way. Incorporating sound (song) and movement helps one learn. Kind of like opening more windows and doors to let the fragrance in.
Now let me digress. You will be amazed at the Power of Cute when your poppet sings her ABC's for others! I once found my friend's 5th grader and his buddies gathered around Moxie, age 2, asking her to sing her ABC's again! When we got home, she had pennies clutched in her little fist. They'd been paying her to sing her ABC's! (Less messy than lemonade stands; give it a thought!)
Buy those PLASTIC LETTERS with magnets on them, and clear a space on your refrigerator or the side of your file cabinet. Just not the stove! Then go for it. Slap a letter up. (Or ask him to put a letter up.) And then say its name to each other. And the sounds the letter makes. (Some have several sounds, true.) And do we know some words that use this letter/this sound? Family names, pet names, street, toys...you get it. Dwell on things that are important to your child.
Did I tell you to read, read, read?! Of course, you've been doing this to your kid from before he talked. (If not, drop this and go read to him now!)
And you've held her and read to her at bedtime. And you've even read the same book eight times in a row, until she can recite it back to you! You blessed, patient parent! She'll read to you when you are old.
You have let them see you reading everything from road signs to cake mix instructions to the daily paper. Have you pointed out the letters on the cereal box--if you have that at hand? Or the bread bag or the flour sack and the canola oil bottle. Messy as it may be to take time with these labels before popping them in the cupboard out of sight, the time taken to search for "my M" is important to your pre-reader.
That reminds me--just as important is the running, yelling and climbing your little ones do whenever you let them. Active play--the large muscle activities--yeah, throwing things, too--are necessary to provide the basis for the small muscle activity of reading. Huh? I said: Let your child work out his whole body before you expect him to sit still and move only his eyes in 1/1000 of an inch intervals. Large muscles develop coordination and make possible the small muscle coordination used in reading. For some reason, boys need more of this large muscle activity in the early years. But don't worry; they catch up and read just as well.
Have you got a couple of letters or even words she recognizes now? Let her cut them out of your magazine and stick them on a paper to keep. (Glue sticks work well for this.) Now she has her own word list--for on the refrigerator, of course. So she can show off every time she breezes by. It could even be her "dictionary" or "glossary," and if you wrote that title on it she would learn a very big word!
Do you have sidewalk chalk? We once had--in crayon--MOXIE IS A PIG AND A HOG inscribed on the piers of our front steps when Little Brother was learning to be literate.
By then Moxie had taken over my manual portable TYPEWRITER. Buy one at a garage sale or Craigslist. Ask, if you don't see one--they probably didn't think anyone would want it. But you do! It is good practice identifying letters, learning to read printed letters--which aren't shaped exactly like the letters we print by hand. And it provides opportunities for creative writing. Yes, it'll maybe drive you a little nuts to have to spell things over and over. But because what's on the paper in the end is meaningful, she will learn quickly to read it back. After awhile, she'll stop asking how to spell "and" and "the" and the cat's name. And there you go: tomorrow you may find out who's a hog and a pig!
Don't think you need to buy new technology to help your kid read. Re-cycle junk mail and newspapers. And remember Jesus wrote in the dirt. What about toothpaste on the inside of the bathtub? Alphabet macaroni? Alphabet soup?
Your attitude counts.The story in our family is that Grandpa came home from his first day at school and wrote HEN on the back wall of the farmhouse. He must have gotten praise for it, not rebuke, as he was a lifelong learner and educator, retiring as Education Professor and Placement Director from the oldest teacher training institution west of the Mississippi.
While you're at it, make your child map literate, too. Map the house, the neighborhood--from home to the park and the store, the backyard with an X where the jar of treasure is buried, the way to school, the road to grandma's or wherever you go for vacation. Use maps, make maps, orient them properly and follow them. Talk about north, south, east and west as well as left and right. The idea is to make your child literate. If she turns out literary, also, fine. She may ask you to write a column some day.