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). She recommends an effective combination of sight-words and phonics that I used with my own son, and am currently using with my second. I am creating ebooks that explain the different stages of reading/writing and how simple Charlotte Mason’s methods can be. I am so impressed with how effective and simple her methods are, and that they can be adapted to fit the needs, preferences, and personality of each child. As a bonus, the only materials you need throughout the years are good books, paper, and pencils.
HOW TO TEACH DURING THE “EARLY YEARS”
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, and they should not be coerced or bribed to start. 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.
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, transfering 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.
SHAPES AND FORMS
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.
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. 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.
DRAW LETTERS 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. As with writing in the air, your child should say the sound of the letter when they write it the first few times. 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.
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.
In the Downloads section you can download a workbook I created for my four year old son as he learns the sounds of the upper-case letters and the correct way to write them. I also wanted open-ended drawing activities to help his writing skills. You can teach your child just fine using the method I describe above, no workbook necessary. I just wanted something simple, beautiful, and functional for him to use while I help my older son with his studies, and I decided to share it with you all in case you don’t want to spend time creating your own.
Once your child has finished this stage and is eager for more, I recommend advancing to Italics Handwriting by Penny Gardner, and supplementing handwriting lessons with Creative Form Drawing. I have seen a big improvement–and enjoyment–in my son’s handwriting by including form drawing as part of his handwriting lessons. He uses the form drawing lessons to decorate the pages of his copywork book.
You should use the same lesson structure as outlined at the beginning of this workbook to learn the sounds and form of the lower-case letters. As your child learns a lower-case letter, make sure you match the lower-case to the upper-case letter. To practice these skills, you can play matching/memory games with lower- and upper-case letters.