READING + PHONICS
CHARLOTTE MASON was ahead of her time in many of her philosophies and methods, and it shows in her method of teaching children to read. You can read her words for yourself in volume one of her Home Education series (see pages 199-222).
Ms. Mason believed that children should be taught to read using phonics, although her methods may not look like traditional phonics instruction. I discovered that the method she describes in her book is very similar to the Word Study approach to phonics and spelling. I recommend this as the foundation of reading instruction for Form 1 (ages 6-9) students. Thousands of studies on reading instruction and brain development show that phonics instruction is essential (see Additional Reading at the end of this article).
Additionally, research shows that although all children learn to read the same way, each child is unique in how much instruction they require–some children need more explicit instruction, others may simply need some basic instructions to get started, while a small percentage (about 5%) will mostly figure it out on their own.
LETTER RECOGNITION + FORMATION
Make Lessons Child-Led
When teaching during the early years (ages 0-6 years old), all lessons should be child-led. The child should show interest and desire in learning how to read and write. Please do not coerce or bribe your child. Lessons should be driven by a natural desire to learn how to read.
“the children who are persons endowed with minds, clamour to be taught to read and write. We can do it with our children if we like, but it must be at the like cost, the exclusion of the intellectual and imaginative interests and joys proper to children, the devotion of dreary hours every day to these dead pursuits. No, let us be content to be the handmaids of Nature for the first five or six years, remembering that enormous as are the tasks she sets the children, she guides them into the performance of each so that it is done with unfailing delight; for gaiety, delight, mirth belong to her method. If a child chooses to read and write before he is six, let him, but do not make him; and when he does begin, there is no occasion to hurry; let him have a couple of years for the task.” (Mason, Three Educational Idylls, 811)
Reading and writing develops just like other skills: some children start early, others start late. Some children master the skill in a week; for others it could take months, even years! You will most probably see pauses and regressions in their learning. However your child develops reading and writing skills, the key is patience and making your relationship the priority. Stop the lesson before the child’s interest wanes, this is a key to maintaining interest in the long-run. In Charlotte Mason’s opinion, the first six years of life should be a “quiet growing time,” and this program is meant to respect that idea.
You will find that this approach is simple and requires very little materials. I have made many educational purchases through the years and have found that all I really need are these five things:
Reading high-quality books from a young age ignites a passion for reading that no amount of rewards or coercion can replicate. If you want your child to desire the skill of reading, read them good books.
Plain, white printer paper will do. I have included large, lined paper for children to practice letters, but, honestly, they will practice on any paper they get their hands on.
Colored pencils from IKEA are my children’s absolute favorite writing tools. They are large, have rich color, and you can also add water with a paintbrush to make a watercolor effect on the drawings. As a bonus, they are very affordable.
Simple items from around the house will work for manipulatives: sticks from a nature walk, playdough, salt/sand tray, etc. The only manipulative that I am pleased with purchasing is a moveable Montessori alphabet. You could easily replace the moveable alphabet with Bananagram tiles, or create your own alphabet by printing letters on cardstock and laminating them.
A small child-sized chalkboard can be purchased from most craftstores. This is another purchase I recommend because the resistance of the chalk/chalkboard help strengthen hand muscles.
ONE | Develop Fine Motor Skills
Children should be practicing their fine motor skills on a daily basis. Some activities could include: threading wooden beads on a shoelace, transferring water from bowl to bowl with eyedropper, playing with playdough, and using large tweezers/tongs to transfer objects (cotton balls, beans, pasta, etc) from one container to another. It’s important to be aware that boys’ fine motor skills develop later than girls; some boys may not be ready for writing until 7 years old! Using the above activities, as well as building with Legos, will help strengthen those muscles needed for handwriting.
TWO | Draw in Air
Before you child ever sets pencil to paper, they should draw the letters in the air, and make it a point to write them in the correct order as they would on paper. Ask your child to make the letter in the air with their finger while saying the sound of the letter. They could also use a stick or pencil to write in the air, if they prefer that instead of a finger. You can also use other parts of the body to draw in the air, like nose or feet. Drawing in the air helps the brain visualize the direction and shape of the letter first, without being encumbered with underdeveloped fine motor skills. Saying the letter sound also helps strengthen the correlation between sight and sound.
Next, use manipulatives to form the shape of the letter, like sticks or pencils. Another activity you can do is to roll out playdough “snakes” and use them to form the letters.
THREE | Draw on Chalkboard
After the child has visualized the shape of the letter and formed it using manipulatives, the next step is to draw the letter on a chalkboard.
Using the chalkboard as a guide, the child should write the letter so that it covers the whole chalkboard, top to bottom, while saying the sound of the letter. After writing the letter with chalk, erase it using a small sponge (a sponge from the dollar store cut into small squares). Alternatively, you can use a small tray with sand or salt and the child writes the letter in the sand using their finger.
FOUR | Draw on Paper
Each written lesson starts with gray letters for the child to trace over to get a feel for how the letter is formed. The lined paper is to practice previous letters learned by writing the suggested words. The parent should carefully write the word first, so the child can see the letter formation and have an example to follow.
The goal is for children to develop beautiful handwriting, but this takes time as the muscles grow strong. Instead of criticizing or giving suggestions, simple ask your child which letters they think look best. Ask why they think those letters look better than the others and what they are going to work on next lesson. This is a great opportunity for your child to examine their own work and learn how to improve on their own.
FIVE | Letter Recognition
Now that the child knows letters by sight, you can start playing games with letters to help recognition. Children naturally do this while looking at books and seeing writing around the house. You can intentionally do this by using the 3-period lesson introduced by Maria Montessori.
“This is _____.” Point to the letter and say the name and sound it makes. Ask your child to repeat. Do this a couple of times.
“Point to _____.” Ask your child to find the letter L, for example, in a group of moveable letters. If they point to the wrong one simply say “that is __, you’re looking for___”
“What letter is this?” The last, and consequently the most difficult, step is to point to a letter and ask the child to tell you it’s name and sound. If they don’t know just tell them the sound, and have them repeat (i.e. start at step one).
A game that is a favorite with my kids is alphabet bingo. The Peaceful Press has FREE bingo boards here.
When your child has learned upper-case letters, use the same lesson structure to learn lower-case. Match the lower-case to the upper-case letters as you learn them. To practice these skills, you can play matching/memory games. My boys also enjoy playing bingo with a mixture of letters on the boards. For instruction on how to form lower-case letters I recommend Italics Handwriting by Penny Gardner, but don’t start your child writing on lined paper with a pencil until they have mastered writing letters in the air and on a chalkboard. Starting with paper and pencil too early can result in sloppy handwriting, not to mention a distaste for the subject. Let your child use chunky pencils and paper on their own, but don’t it until 6-7 years old when their fine motor skills have developed.
You can supplement handwriting lessons with Creative Form Drawing. I have seen a huge improvement in my son’s letter formation after using form drawing along with handwriting.