Topical CM Series

Charlotte Mason's ideas are too important not to be understood and implemented in the 21st century, but her Victorian style of writing sometimes prevents parents from attempting to read her books. This is an imperfect attempt to make Charlotte's words accessible to modern parents. You may read these, print them out, share them freely--but they are copyrighted to me, so please don't post or publish them without asking.
~L. N. Laurio

The Charlotte Mason Series in Modern English Arranged Topically

Phonics and Learning to Read

Volume 1, Home Education, pg 199-222


When to Teach Reading is Open to Discussion

Reading is the first of our instruments of education. But, should a child absorb the ability to read unconsciously, starting from the time he's a baby, or should all attempts to give reading lessons wait until the child is 6 or 7 years old and is more ready? In a helpful letter that Susanna Wesley sent to her son John, we read her description of how she taught her children to read:

Susanna Wesley's Reading Plan

She says, 'None of them was taught to read until they were five years old, except Kezzy. I was pressured to teach her earlier, and it took her years to learn to read what the other children learned in a few months. Here is how I taught reading: The day before a child's first reading lesson was to begin, the house was cleaned and set in order. Every child was given a list of tasks and chores to do and instructed not to come into the teaching room between 9-noon, and between 2-5, because we'd be doing reading lessons in there. The first day, the child was expected to learn all the letters. All of the children learned it in a day except for Molly and Nancy. It took them a day and a half to learn them perfectly, and I thought they were less intelligent because of it. After all, the other children learned it so quickly. Samuel, who was the first child I taught, learned the alphabet in just a few hours. In February (1696), the day after he turned five we started his reading lessons. As soon as he knew the letters, we began with the first chapter of Genesis. I taught him to spell the first verse, and then to read it again and again until he could read it smoothly without hesitating. Then we did the same with the second verse. Soon he could learn ten verses at a time. Between Easter (Apr 22) and Whitsuntide (Jun 17, Pentecost; 50 days after Easter), he had made so much progress that he could read an entire chapter. He was always reading and had such a good memory that I never had to tell him the same word twice. Even stranger, whenever he learned one word from his lesson, he could recognize it wherever he saw it, whether in his Bible or any other book. By this means, he learned to read English very well.' (from The Life of Wesley by Robert Southey, 1820)

Conscientious mothers should keep track of the methods they try on their children and make a note of which ones work.

Many people think that learning to read is complicated because of the peculiarities of English, and that we shouldn't impose such a challenge on a child at too young an age. But, the truth is, most of us can't even remember how or when we learned to read. For all we know, it could have come by nature, like learning to run. Even mothers of the educated class don't usually know how their children learned to read. 'Oh, he taught himself,' is usually the only answer a mother can think of about her little Richard's ability to read. Thus, it's clear that the idea that it's hard to learn how to read is a notion assumed by grown-ups, not children. Books like Reading Without Tears wouldn't exist if tears weren't sometimes shed over reading lessons, but those tears are the fault of the teacher.

The Alphabet

Children usually learn their letters on their own. A child has a box of magnetic letters and picks out p for pumpkin, b for bird, h for horse, and knows both the big and little letters. But learning the alphabet should also be an opportunity to enhance the child's observation. He should be encouraged to really see what he's looking at. Make a big B in the air and have him say which letter it is. Let him make a round O and a squiggly S, and the first letter of his name, while you guess them. Making the small letters from memory is harder and takes more observation. A tray of sand is helpful. The child can draw his finger boldly through the sand to make a D, his first straight line and curve combination. There are lots of ways to make learning the letters fun. There is no need to rush. Let him learn them one at a time, and so well that he can pick out the letter d, both big and little, every time it appears on a page of large print. Let him say d for duck, dog, doll by drawing out the sound of the d at the beginning. Then find words that end with a d to practice saying, making sure to end with a crisp, individual 'd' sound rather than a 'dee' or 'duh.'

A child left alone will learn the alphabet himself, but most mothers can't resist the fun of teaching it. And there's no harm in teaching it, since this kind of learning is merely a game to the child, and if the alphabet is carefully taught to the child, he will learn to appreciate both the form and sound of words. So, when should he begin? Whenever his box of letters interests him. Even two-year-olds sometimes can name a few letters. That's fine as long as finding and naming letters is a fun game for him. But he must never be coaxed or required to show off or prodded to find letters when he'd rather play something else.

Making Words

The first word-making activities will also seem fun to the child. Treating them as a game while still teaching what letters can do is the best way to start before actually making sentences. Pick up two of his letters, the a and the t, and make the word 'at.' Tell the child that we use the word when we say 'at home' or 'at school.' Then add a letter to turn it into bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, sat, rat, and so on. They should all be real words [no fair using dat, jat, yat!] See if the child can guess what the word is with the new consonant. Put all the words in a row and see if he can read them. Then do the same with other short-vowel words [-in, -un, -ar, -ad, etc.] Soon the child will be able to read dozens of short words, and will learn to figure out others. He might even start playing the game by himself, trying to figure out how many words he can make that end with -en or -od. Let him take his time.

Making Words with Long Vowels

When the game becomes so easy that it's no longer fun, do long vowel words in the same way. Use the same syllables as before, only add a silent 'e,' so that -at words become -ate words such as late, date, rate, etc. The child can be told that the 'a' in rate is a long a, and the 'a' in rat is a short a. His experience with short vowel words will make long vowel words easier.

Then can come words ending with -ang, -ing, -ong, and -ung, such as ring, fang, long, sung. Then do words beginning with 'th,' such as that and then. Then do words ending with 'th,' such as with, math, both, bath, moth. As you go, more words will suggest themselves. This is not yet reading, but is preparing the foundation for reading by making words familiar things that won't be so intimidating when the child sees them in real books. Make sure that when the child says the words that he does it distinctly and confidently so that he can hear each letter's sound.

Early Spelling

Teach the child from the beginning to close his eyes and try to spell the word he has made. Reading isn't the same as spelling, and you don't have to spell well to be able to read well, but it's still important to be able to visualize the way a word is spelled. A child who can see quick enough to take in the letters of words while reading them will be a good speller. The child should start developing this habit from the start. Get him used to seeing the letters that make up words, and it will become second nature to him.

If words always followed the same rules in English, using the same spelling patterns, then reading would be easy. The child could simply learn the rules and be able to read anything. But many words in English are a rule unto themselves. The child has no choice but to learn those irregular words by sight. He must memorize and recognize words like 'which' as familiarly as he knows the letter B. And he learns this by looking at the word intently so that the image of the word is stamped into his mind. This process should happen simultaneously while learning letters. The more variety there is in his reading lessons, the more he'll enjoy them. Making words will encourage his interest in words, but learning to recognize words by sight will help him to be a good reader.

Sight Reading

The teacher must be patient enough to go very slowly, making sure that the child's footing is secure in each lesson before moving on. The first lesson might be

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,"

Read just those two lines to the child. Read it very slowly, sweetly, and dramatically enough to make it interesting. Point to each word as you read. Then to point to 'twinkle,' 'wonder,' 'star,' 'what,' and ask him to say each word as you randomly point to it. After he can recognize each separate word out of context, and not before, let him read those two lines carefully and with expression. Insist right from the start that he read with clear, beautiful enunciation and feeling. Don't let him even begin a habit of reading in a dry, dull monotone that bores both him and whoever is listening. By this time, he will naturally have no trouble reading the first two lines precisely [instilling a feeling of success and competence, rather than defeat and tears]. He will learn the rest of the poem in subsequent lessons.

Reading Prose

At this stage, his lessons progress slowly and there's no reason not to let his reading lessons, both poems and prose, double as recitation exercises. There are lots of little poems that can be used; it's easy to find suitable ones. But prose might be even better because it uses more words found in everyday speech, as well as words of Saxon (old German) origin, and irregular spelling. Short fables, or graceful, simple prose such as Parables from Nature, or, better yet, prose poems such as those by Anna Letitia Barbauld (read some of her work here or here) make good recitation material.

But the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star reading lesson isn't over yet. The child should hunt through a couple of pages of clear, large print for each of the words he has learned: little, star, you, are, until each word becomes as familiar as an old friend when he sees it on a page of text. To prevent discouragement, the teacher can clue him as to which paragraph or line contains one of the words. By the end of the lesson, the child has learned 8-10 words well enough to recognize them anywhere, and all in probably ten minutes.

The next sight reading lesson should begin with a hunt for familiar words [as a review] and then the next lines of the poem:

"Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky,"

should be learned the same way. Good spelling is no more than proper seeing by observing the letters in a word in the same way one might see the features of someone's face. To encourage this, ask the child, "Can you spell sky?" or any of the other short words. The first time may catch him unaware, but he will rise to the challenge and be sure to get it right the next time you ask. Don't let him spell the word, or even say the letters out loud while the word is in front of him.

Comprehension is no problem. The child will have lots of bright, intelligent comments and questions and will take care of the comprehension part of the lesson himself. It is more likely that the teacher will have to be careful not to let his questions draw her away from the reading lesson.

Careful Pronunciation

Most children need help in pronouncing their words properly. They need to learn to say 'high,' sky,' 'like,' 'world,' with careful preciseness. They will tend to hurry through words like 'diamond' and 'history' so that they sound like 'd'mond' and 'his'try.' Another reason to strive for slow, steady progress is to make sure the child says every word with full attention so that he develops the habit of careful enunciation. Every day he learns to recognize a few more words by sight. The more words he knows, the longer his lesson will have to be to fit in 10-12 more new words.

A Year's Work

'But what an excruciatingly slow pace!' you might say. It isn't as slow as it seems. Doing it this way, a child will learn 2000-3000 words over a year's time without much effort, which amounts to reading, since mastering that number of words will enable him to read most of the books he will be faced with fairly easily.

Ordinary Method

Compare the steady progress and bright interest of this method with the tediously wearisome lessons of the ordinary method. The poor child blunders through one or two pages in a dreary monotone--no expression, no clear enunciation. When he comes to a word he doesn't know, he tries spelling it, but that doesn't help. He is told what the word is and he says it, but no mental effort is made to remember it. So, the next time he stumbles on that word, he has to go through the whole process all over again. When the day's lesson is over, the child is miserably bored--and hasn't even learned one new word. Eventually he learns to read, somehow, as a result of constant repetition. But think of the abuse to his intelligence by using a system of teaching that forces him to expend effort every day with little or no result. This gives him a distaste for books before he has even learned to use them.

V. - The First Reading Lesson

It is so important that children should be taught to read in a reasonable way that I am including two articles that I wrote for The Parents Review in the hopes that they will clarify and familiarize readers with the suggested method.

Two mothers are talking.

'Do you mean that you would start a child with two or three syllable words before he even knows his letters?'

'Yes, it's possible to read words without knowing the alphabet in the same way that you might recognize a face without being able to single out its individual features. And we do learn the alphabet before reading words--not just the names of the letters, but the sounds each letter makes.'

'Our children learn their letters without us even teaching them. We keep a shoebox handy with a half inch of sand at the bottom. Before they're even two years old, the toddlers make round O's and crooked S's and a T for Thomas, and so on, with their chubby, clumsy fingers. The older ones teach them by making it a game.'

'The sand is wonderful! We have various gimmicks, but the sand is the best one. Children love to be active. The cute, shaky lines they make with their own little fingers are ten times more interesting to them than just looking at the shape of the letter in a book.'

'But the reading! I can't believe you teach three syllable words in the first lesson! It's like teaching a toddler how to waltz!'

'It seems that way because you forget that a group of letters is just a representative symbol of a word, and a word is only a representative symbol of a thing or an action. Here's how a child learns: First, he understands the concept of a table. Then he sees several different tables and realizes that they all have legs that he can climb, and sometimes cloth covers that he can pull at, and lots of interesting things on top to try and reach. Sometimes he can pull things off the table and make them fall off with a crash, which is fun. The grown-ups call this pleasant thing with its interesting aspects a 'table.' Soon, he can say 'table,' too. In his mind, the word 'table' comes to mean all of these things in a vague way. 'Around the table' and 'on the table' expand his concept of 'table.' In the same way, he chimes in when his mother sings, and she says, 'Baby sing.' Soon he realizes what sing, kiss and love are.'

'Yes, they're so cute! It's amazing how many words a child can understand before he can say them. 'Kitty,' 'doll,' 'stroller,' soon come to mean interesting ideas to him.'

'That's just it; once a child becomes interested in something, he learns what the abstract sound-symbol for it sounds like--I mean, he learns the name of it. I say that, when he's older, he should use the same principle to learn to read, by learning the visible symbol for it on a printed page. It's actually easier for a child to read 'pumpkin-pie' than 'to,' because 'pumpkin pie' conveys a much more interesting idea.'

'Maybe that works with long three-syllable words. But how do you teach simpler, one-syllable words, or words with only two letters?

'I wouldn't go out of my way to teach him one-syllable words at all. The bigger the word, the more interesting it looks. And that makes it easier to read--provided the word conveys something interesting to the child. It's pitiful to see a bright child struggling over a reading lesson that insults his intelligence--ath, eth, ith, oth, uth, or something a little better--the cat sat on the mat. How would we adults like it if we had to learn German by slogging through every conceivable combination of letters, arranged solely by how similar they sound? Or, even worse, what if what we read had to be graduated by the number of letters in each word? We'd be hopelessly lost in a fog of words if we were faced with a page full of three-letter words all drearily alike, with nothing distinctive to capture our attention. Why should children be any different? Do we think it's good for them to grind in this mill just because they're children? And this is just one way children are needlessly and cruelly oppressed.'

'You're taking high moral ground! Still, I don't think I'm convinced. It's much easier for a child to spell cat than potato chips.'

'But spelling and reading are two different things. You need to learn to spell so you can write things, not so you can read them. A child might be droning over a reading lesson. She stumbles over the word, 'cough' and spells it out. You tell her the word is cough. She repeats it, and, by repetition, she begins to associate that arrangement of letters with the sound of the word cough. She recognizes and reads it, and you think she's figured out that c-o-u-g-h spells cough. But she hasn't. She may still spell it c-o-f.'

'Yes, but cough is a difficult word. It has a silent u and the gh sounds like f. But if there were no silent letters and if all the letters sounded like they look, reading would be easy. In that respect, the phonetic enthusiasts have a point.'

'I suppose you would agree that plough should be spelled plow, through thru, enough enuf, ought ot, and so on. But this idea assumes that, when we read, we look at each letter individually, consider each of their sounds, blend them, and form the word. But that's not how we read. Instead, we recognize the collective letters as the symbol of the word we're used to reading. Only when we come to a word we don't know do we resort to sounding it out by the letters, but we are very aware that this way only guesses, so we're careful not to say the word out loud until we hear someone else pronounce it.'

'But children are different.'

'No. children are just the same, maybe even more so. We adults, if we wanted to, could break up words into syllables or sounds to figure out individual pieces, or we could put the combinations we know together to help us figure out the rest of the word. But children can't do that yet. They have to learn to recognize a word by the way it looks. The more unusual it looks, the easier it is to recognize, as long as the word is one they've heard and whose meaning they know.'

'I'm not sure I quite get it. Can you tell me, step by step, how you would give your first reading lesson? An illustration would be really helpful.'

'Okay. Michael had his first lesson yesterday, on his sixth birthday. The lesson was part of the celebration. By the way, I think it's a good idea to begin a new study with a child on his birthday or some other significant day. That way, he starts by thinking of the new study as a special privilege.'

'That makes sense. But go on, did Michael already know his letters?'

'Yes, he had picked them up, but I had been careful that he didn't do any little readings. You know how Susanna Wesley used to spend hours in her room with the child who was having his first reading lesson, and the child would come out able to read a good part of Genesis 1? Well, Michael's first reading lesson was a solemn occasion, too. We took a week or two preparing for it. First, I printed up six copies of Old Mother Hubbard with bold, large type.

Then we had a fun pasting day when we glued the sheets to card stock.

Then we cut up the first three lines of all six copies, line by line, word by word. We put the words into a box and we were done, our preparations were complete.

Then for the lesson. Michael and I shut ourselves up in the school room. I have a blackboard in there that I use for school. I printed clearly the word,


Michael watches with more interest because he knows his letters. I point to the words and say, 'Mother,' and he repeats it.

Then we scatter the words in the box out on the table, and he easily finds a half dozen 'Mother's.'

We do the same thing with the words cupboard, to, old, bone and so on until all the words in the first three lines are learned. The list of words on the blackboard grows into a long column, and Michael reads the list backwards, forwards, every way except in the order they appear in the verse.

Then Michael arranges the loose cut-out words into columns like those on the blackboard. Then he arranges them into his own columns and reads them.

Last, to his delight (the whole lesson has been fun!), he finds the words in order as I dictate:

Old Mother Hubbard;
Went to the cupboard,
To give her poor dog a bone

He arranges his words in the order they appear in the poem. Then I pulled out a copy of the poem that hadn't been cut up, and Michael read those first three lines with pleasure, both forwards and backwards. As long as he lives, he will know those thirteen words!'

'I'm sure it was a pleasant enough lesson, but think of all that cutting and gluing!'

'Yes, it was time-consuming. I wish some publisher would sell what we need--nursery rhymes in good, bold type with a box of loose words to match, a box for each rhyme so the child wouldn't be confused by having too many words to hunt through. The trick is, the child needs to look at and really see each new word many times to impress its image in his mind.'

'I see. But with this method, he's only able to read Old Mother Hubbard. He doesn't learn the general skill of reading.'

'Yes he does, he'll be able to read those thirteen words no matter where he sees them. If he learns maybe ten new words a day, he'll know over 600 words in six months. Then he'll know how to read a little.'

'That's impressive, if your children actually remember everything they learn. My children wouldn't. They might still remember Mother Hubbard by the end of the week, but they'd forget the rest.'

'Not if you review what's been learned. When we master the next three lines, Michael goes through the beginning of the poem. As I point to individual words randomly, he tells me what they are. It takes less than a minute, but it secures what he's already learned.'

'That first lesson must have been long!'

'I have to admit--it lasted a half hour. Michael's interest tempted me to do more than I should have.'

'It sounds appealing, like a game. But I'm not convinced that a child should learn to read without knowing the phonetic sounds of the letters. You've seen how children read by spelling a word over and then pronouncing it, especially if they've been taught the sounds the letters make rather than just their names.'

'Naturally. Although many English words can only be learned by sight because of their irregularity, some words are a key to a whole group of words. Adding m to other gives us mother, add a br to get brother. We switch off days, we'll do reading one day and phonetic word-building the next day as a way to vary our lessons. That keeps them interesting, which guarantees success.'

VI--Reading By Sight And Sound

Learning to Read is Hard Work

In all of education, there is probably no more difficult and more unpalatable task than the one presented to every child--the challenge of learning to read. We realize how hard it is when we hear of the heroic labor some adults go through to become literate, but we forget that it goes against the nature of a child to busy himself with dreary mysterious black squiggles on a page that all look the same, when the outside world is beckoning with all kinds of interesting things that he wants to know about. But that doesn't mean we should excuse active little Thomas from learning to read. It wouldn't be in his best interest. He needs the skill of knowing how to read, and the discipline of the task itself is good for him. All the same, we should recognize that learning to read is hard work for many children. Let's do what we can to make the task easy and inviting.

Knowledge of Arbitrary Symbols

First of all, keep in mind that reading is neither a science nor an art. Even if it were, the teacher would still need to put the child's interests first. But it's not. Learning to read is nothing more than figuring out, however we can, the arbitrary symbols for objects and ideas. There is no one 'right way,' and no necessary sequence of steps. There is no beginning, middle and end. The arbitrary symbols we must know so we can read aren't letters. They're words. To illustrate, consider how the letter 'o' sounds different in various words just in the previous sentence: for, symbols, know, order, to, not, words. Memorizing each variation is a quaint (yet useless!) study for a philologist, but it's dreary work and inappropriate for a child. We must admit that the letters that compose English words are an interesting study for language experts, and their study may result in new understanding and future improvements in the way we educate. But for now, letters don't always sound like they look, so teaching to read only by sounding out letters will mean a lot of extra work for the child, and lots of confusion because of the irregularities of spelling. It would be a challenge to try to get every letter to follow the rules.

What is our suggestion in teaching a child to read? (a) He should know maybe a thousand words by sight. (b) He will be able to build on the words he knows and recognize more words. By learning ten new words a day, he'll be reading to some extent in twenty weeks, and he won't be limited by the size of the word. The second and less important of our task is teaching the child the sounds of the letters and helping him blend letter combinations.

The child needs some kind of a bridge between the things that interest him, and the arbitrary symbols (sight words) that he needs to know.

These Symbols Should Be Interesting

A child is interested in things, not words. His mind doesn't yet analyze, but he is a quick observer. Nothing is too small for his notice. He can spy out the eye of a fly. Nothing is too intricate for him, and he loves puzzles. But what interests him is whatever he can find out about by looking. And this fact is a key to reading. No meaningless combination of letters, like cla, cle, cli, clo, clu should be presented to him. He should be given real words that mean something interesting to him from the very beginning. It's easy to read 'robin redbreast' or 'buttercups and daisies.' The number of letters in a word doesn't matter because the words themselves convey such interesting ideas that it's easy for the child to fix his attention and make the association to the thing. Once the child has made the association between the printed word and the idea that it conveys, it will be easier for him to use what he knows about the sounds of the letters to make other similar words by building on that word. For example, once he knows butter, it's easy for him to change the b to an m to make the word mutter.

Thomas's First Lesson

But example is better than theory and more convincing than the most logical reasoning. This is the kind of reading lesson we have in mind: Thomas knows the alphabet, and the sound each letter makes, but no more than that. Today he will jump right into reading without taking any steps at all. Remember, reading is neither an art nor a science and probably has no distinct beginning. Today Thomas is going to learn to read--

"I have a little shadow
That goes in and out with me"

And he will know those twelve words so well that he'll be able to read them wherever he sees them from now on.

'Yes,' a reader might say, 'Just like in the Mother Hubbard lesson. Perhaps the principle is sound, though some might debate it. Even if it is, who has the time to go through all that cutting and pasting to prepare for the first lesson? Perhaps learning from books is an inferior way to learn, but it will have to do for me. I don't have time to make my own word cut-outs.'

I admit, cutting and gluing all those words was tedious, but the lesson served its purpose. It induced my friend Miss Miller to prepare a nice little box with the loose words in big type for us, with two lines in each bag. Anyone who learns to read Old Mother Hubbard this way will already have learned at least a hundred words. That's not bad for a beginner, and the words are useful ones that occur every day. There is one foreseeable objection, though.

Contractions, such as I'll are ugly to work with. Hopefully poems can be chosen that don't use contractions.


And now we begin. Materials Needed: Thomas's box of loose letters (perhaps magnetic ones), the baggie of word cut-outs from the first two lines of My Shadow, and pencil and paper (or, even better, chalk and chalkboard). We write in large, clear letters, the word Shadow. Thomas watches with interest. He knows the letters and may even say them out loud as we write. After all, he is probably excited about this great event, the day he's learning to read. But we don't ask him anything about what he may or may not already know. We simply tell him that the word is 'shadow.' He is interested at once. He knows what a shadow is, and seeing the word in print is pleasing because he associates it with the idea of shadows that he already has in his mind. He is told to look at the word 'shadow' until he's sure he would recognize it if he saw it again. Then, from memory, he makes the word 'shadow' with his own loose letters. Then his baggie of words is emptied and he finds the word 'shadow.' Last of all, the sheet with the poem on it is shown to him and he locates the word 'shadow,' but he's not yet allowed to find out which poem it is. The words it, out, goes, me, little, and, have, I, a, in are taught in the same way, in less time than it would take to describe it. As each new word is learned, Thomas makes a column of the words he's already learned and reads the column up, down, and criss-cross from the blackboard.

Reading Sentences

Thomas knows some words now, but he can't yet read sentences. Now comes the delight of real reading. We read off some words to him to find: 'shadow--goes--in' and he places them in that order, and then reads off the resulting sentence. He is as excited as if he'd discovered a new planet! Then other arrangements are made. 'shadow goes with me,' 'that little shadow goes out,' 'I have a shadow,' 'a little shadow goes with me,' and so on through numerous combinations. If the identity of the poem can be kept a mystery, that's even better. Making verses up with his loose words will give Thomas a delicious sense that knowledge is power like few other occasions will give him. And from here on out, the idea of reading will be so delightful to him that it will take some very bad teaching to make him ever develop a distaste for it.

Thomas's Second Lesson

Thomas looks forward to another fun reading lesson the next day, but he has a spelling lesson instead. It's conducted like this:

He makes the word 'that' with his letters, from memory if he can. If not, he can copy the cut-out word. Say 'that' slowly, give the sound of 'th.' 'Take away the th, what do we have left?' With a little help, he'll get 'at.' How would you make bat? (Say the word very slowly so he hears the b). He knows the sounds of the letters and says b-at readily. Next, ask if he can make flat, which uses two added sounds. See if he can figure that out. Try cat, he will find the c, and that's a word he'll be glad to know. Vat, he easily decides on the sound v, and you can explain what a vat is. The other words are familiar enough to him to need no explanation. Thomas may offer gnat. Explain that the word is spelled with other letters, but he doesn't need to know which ones yet. Thus he finds out casually and gradually that different letters can make the same sounds. But we don't expect him to sort it all out yet. We just let him know that nat doesn't spell the symbol that we express with the letters gnat. Slat--he'll be able to give the sound of the first letter, and slat may call for another explanation, and he's learned another interesting word. He's made a group of words with his letters and they're all in a column on the blackboard like this:


He reads the list up and down and criss-cross. Every word means something to him and carries an idea. Then all the loose words he already knows are dumped out and we dictate new sentences, which he arranges: 'I have a cat.' 'That vat goes with me.' 'I have a little bat,' and so on, making the new words with the loose letters.

Unknown Words

Now for something new. We dictate 'The cat is fat.' Thomas is bewildered. He doesn't know 'the' or 'is.' 'Put blanks for the words you don't know. They might be in one of our next lessons.' Now Thomas has a desire and a need--he has an appetite for learning.

Similar Combinations Have Different Sounds

We handle the rest of the words in the same way. Little gives brittle, tittle, skittle. Shadow, I, a, with give no new words. Goes gives does, foes, hoes, toes, woes. Me gives be, he, she. From have we get cave, gave, pave, rave, shave, slave, wave. We pronounce have to rhyme with gave, but Thomas notices that such a pronunciation is wrong and improper. He sees that all of these words rhyme with gave, but not one of them rhymes with have. In other words, he sees that the same group of letters don't always have the same sound. But we don't ask him to make any note of this fact. We just let it grow on him gradually after many experiences.

By now he has over a dozen new words on the blackboard from which to make sentences with the word cut-outs from the Shadow poem. 'I gave a little,' A cat goes out,' 'That rat is little,' and so on. We make sure that the sentences make sense. 'Her wave goes skittle,' is silly and not to be used. Thomas writes his new words in a notebook so that he has his very own collection of words he knows.

Moral Training in Reading Lessons

The next day, the following two lines of the poem are learned in the same way. If these lines don't offer much in the way of spelling lessons, we just move on to the next two lines. Our collection of words continues to grow, and, as we go on, we're able to make almost unlimited sentences. In the rare event that a blank has to be used, it only whets the appetite to learn more. By the time Thomas has finished learning My Shadow, he has an impressive collection of words. He is more able to attack new words that have familiar letter combinations. More important, he has achieved some success and has the confidence to approach all kinds of learning with the sense that positive results are within his ability. He learns to read in a way that builds good habits. There is no dawdling or resisting. Instead, there is bright attention and perfect achievement. He enjoys his reading lesson. But he doesn't get the privilege of having a lesson if he shows up in a lazy, dawdling mood. Pronouncing each word precisely and clearly is insisted on. When he gets to his favorite part of the lesson, where he arranges the poem with his word cut-outs and reads it, his reading must be a perfect and finished recitation. (Lively nursery rhymes are the best texts for reading lessons.) I think this is a practical, realistic way to teach reading in English. German children may have to work their way through tedious lists of letter combinations because, before children can really enjoy reading, they need to know the combinations. They always follow the same rules. But since English is so irregular and has so many exceptions, the child is fortunate enough to be able to skip that step. (Thomas should not begin his reading lessons until he is ready for the challenge of these kinds of lessons. Some children may need each lesson broken up into two, or even six, smaller lessons, depending on their readiness.)

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 244

A lot of time is spent between ages 6-8 learning to read and write. But the students still get a good deal of consecutive knowledge in history, geography, tale and fable.


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