Since having to come to a better understanding of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophies and methods over the past three years, I thought I that would attempt to teach my 3rd child, currently 6 years old, how to read using her methods.
Like most subjects in a Charlotte Mason education, at first the task feelings simultaneously overwhelming and simple. Her methods make sense, respect the child, and require investment from the teacher. In a nutshell, this is her method:
- Introduce the letters and the sounds they make
- Slowly begin to make words out of those sounds
- Work in word family groups
- Teach sight words
In many ways, this is similar to many other literacy methods. However, there are a few distinct differences that I have noticed:
- Don’t start the formal process of reading lessons until the child is age 6.
- Keep the lessons short, 10 minutes at max.
- When the student’s attention is waning or frustration has begun to creep in, stop the lesson on a successful note.
- Select a piece of “living” literature as the first story to read.
Feeling equipped having read Miss Mason’s words and having taught two previous students, I dove right in with my son at the beginning of the school year. I chose the story “The Little Red Hen” to be the first piece of literature that he was going to learn how to read and made lists of the sight words, phonetically spelled words, and all the word ending families present in the story. We started slowly. The first weeks were spent only on learning the sounds that each letter (or symbol) made. Then, we gradually began to combine the symbols together to form words. Those first few words were words from the story. We then played with the words to find additional rhyming words with matching word endings. Once he understood that several letters together represented a word, I began to give him sight words that did not follow the rules. I encouraged him take a mental picture of the word and to think of the entire set of letters as a symbol for the object or idea.
Several weeks into our lessons we were ready to learn the first sentence. “The little red hen found a seed.” We were ready for this step since we had been practicing these words for a while. At first I put each word on individual note cards and had him “build a sentence” (in dictation form) using the notecards. Amazingly he was able to complete the task. Then we moved to our book where I asked him to find certain words out of order. Then it was time for him to read the first sentence. Again, he did it! We continued to work this way, alternating days of working with our tactile letters to build and sound out words with days of working slowly through the story sentence by sentence.
Now at the end of our first term, he is able to read 98% of the story “The Little Red Hen” fluently, without pauses, and with expression. He feels quite accomplished with himself and has begun to see some of “his words” in other stories and other printed material. Of course, most of his “reading” is in fact recitation work, as Charlotte Mason said, “ At this stage, his reading lessons must advance so slowly that he may just as well learn his reading exercises, both prose and poetry, as recitation lessons.” (Vol. 1 pg. 204) However, when asked to find certain words on the page or in our pile of note cards, he is able to find the requested card. He is also continuing to learn how to sound out the words for which the reading rules apply. So far, I would call this method a success, with this child.
I find tremendous value in her approach to teaching reading. I appreciate that she understood that the English language is a hard language to learn to read due to all the inconsistencies in spelling. In a way, she embraces that aspect of the English language and capitalizes on the student’s desire to read interesting words and living ideas. With this method, a child’s first story doesn’t have to be about how “A cat and a rat sat on a mat.” Instead, of being bored by his reading, the child feels accomplished by being able to read big, idea giving words such as “little”, “thresh”, “grind”, or “seed” while also grappling with the deeper character questions present in the story. (Should the little red hen share her bread with those who didn’t work for it? There has been much debate about the answer to that question in my home.) Using this method, I appreciate the flexibility this method gives me as the teacher to work at his pace and to better know his strengths and weaknesses. It is freeing to teach reading without following a curriculum and feeling rushed or behind. Our reading lessons have turned into a flexible, relaxing, and enjoyable way to spend 10 minutes of lesson time each day.
If you haven’t tried to teach your children to read this way, I would highly encourage you to give it a try. I will continue my son’s reading lessons in this way and see where it takes us. Maybe it will be a flop and we can return to other curriculum and programs out there. But for now, we are both enjoying it and experiencing growth, so we will keep at it.
Home Education Series, Vol. 1 Home Education by Charlotte Mason, pg. 199-222