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"A good education for every child does not mean the same education for every child.  "

Please use what works for you and your child and ignore the rest.  Every child is different.  If this information does not seem to be a good fit for your particular child, then keep looking and experimenting until you find what works.


This Web Page by Pauline Harding for Art Nurk,
Contents may be copied for personal use if credit is given.  Please ask for permission before any other use.  Do not copy this information onto your own web site without permission..

 Several Key Components of Reading

Experience with Language:  Vocabulary, Grammar, Structure, and Rhythm

From having conversations with others, children learn vocabulary, grammar, and the general rhythm of English.  From listening to stories read aloud, they get even more – the vocabulary and sentence structure is likely to be at a higher level than generally found in day-to-day conversation.

Talk to your kids, even before they can talk back.  Tell babies what you’re doing when you cook, when you sort the socks, when you shop.

Building vocabulary is important – it’s much easier for children to read words that they already know

Children who speak standard English at home are at an advantage when it comes time to read.  Jim Trelease has some good info about why this is true.  If you do not speak standard English at home, all the more reason to read aloud!  (If you speak another language at home, you can also read books in that language!  We’ve ordered second-hand books from overseas as a special treat at Christmas.  Sometimes you can find foreign language books in Borders or in university bookstores.  Ebay is another option.  Or ask relatives in “the old country” to send some.

Interestingly, my kids have enjoyed a few books in a foreign language.  “Petit Ours Braun”, in French, and “Max und Das Auto”, in German, are two of our family favorites.  We speak neither language, but we still benefit from reading the books.  We read the text as best we can, and use the pictures and cognates to help understand the story.  This shows me that kids get so much more than just the words from books.  Poetry is similar – they may not completely understand the poem, but they can still get some meaning and some comfort from the rhythm and the repetition.

General Background Knowledge:  A Foundation for Comprehension

If you do nothing else to build pre-reading skills, give your child a broad array of experiences and knowledge.  The more general knowledge your child has, the better their foundation for literacy.  Try reading the following paragraph I found in a trade magazine.  Chances are you can decode all of the words, and you probably know what they mean, too.  But do you know what the paragraph is about?

The use of performance-based specifications is commonplace for designing curtain walls and other exterior systems, yet the practice has caused some concern – and some noteworthy failures – in high-profile projects.  “Performance specifications often don’t go far enough,” contends Thomas A. Schwartz, a building technology specialist and president of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger in Waltham, Massachusetts.  “The often rely on short-term tests that can’t replicate long-term exposure and don’t verify long-term performance.”  Complicating matters is the wide-spread reliance on large, vertically integrated suppliers of curtain wall who offer everything from system engineering to field erection.  Many of the manufacturers, notably several from Europe…offer to relieve the general contractor of responsibility for the curtain-wall work, raising contractual and warranty questions.  Most experts in envelope design encourage architects to work closely with the specialty contractors, however, to assure a superior design…1 

Without a background in architecture or construction you probably can’t make heads or tails of the above paragraph!!  (I couldn’t!).  If you really worked hard, you might be able to make some assumptions and come up with some idea of what the author is trying to convey, but it isn’t easy!!!

All of the experiences children have help them to understand the stories they hear in books.  For example, if a child has never seen a cow, or been to the country, they will have to make a greater leap to understand a story about a farm.  You can help just by going about your daily life and taking advantage of interesting opportunities – go to the park, the post office, the Laundromat.  Visit friends and family, go to free festivals and other community events.  See the neighbor’s new kittens, or collect caterpillars in the back yard.  Talk to your kids about what you see, listen to their questions. 

Familiarity With Books and How They Work

Reading from left to right, author, title page, illustrator, index, page numbers, etc. 

Decoding Skills:  Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, etc.

This includes phonics, of course, and phonemic awareness, but also pattern recognition skills (really looking at the details of a written word), using picture and context clues, etc. 

A Word About Phonics vs. Whole Language

The debate has been going on forever – which is the One Best Way for a school to teach reading.  When will they realize there is no One Best Way?  Two of my children learned to read with only minimal phonics instruction.  One of them has needed – and enjoyed – more formal, extensive phonics instruction.  Dyslexic kids need considerable formal instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness.

Fortunately, as a one-on-one tutor, this argument doesn’t much matter for you.  Give your younger children a broad foundation for them to build on once they start more formal learning.  Do the activities that are fun for your child.  No one activity is important in itself.  (Except of course reading to the child!)  Use these early years to observe your child’s learning style and their strengths and weaknesses.  As/if you ease into more formal learning, give them more of what they seem to need and what they enjoy.  Use the methods and materials that work for your particular child.  Find the balance that seems to work best. 

Teaching is an iterative process.  Do some activities.  Assess progress -- strengths and needs.  Adjust the plan to build on the strengths and address the needs.  Repeat.

The Aha Moment

When they get it, they get it!  For at least two of my children, I can remember the moment when reading just “clicked”.  All of a sudden the child could read much more fluently, with expression.  This is called “automaticity”.  After reading Overcoming Dyslexia, I’m guessing this is the moment when the child begins to use the back of the brain to read (rather then sounding out each word using the front of the brain).  Whatever it is, it’s magic!  Now of course after this point much practice is still needed, both in learning to read new words and in comprehension.  So from here on out – read, read, read!!!

1From “The Fine Print for Curtain Wall”, by C.C. Sullivan, Architecture, 7/2004.  My brother-in-law explains that a “curtain wall” is a non-load-bearing exterior “skin”, typically attached to a steel support structure.  An example would be the exterior of a “wall of glass”-style building.