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19 December 2011

Pre-K/K at Home (part 2)

In part 1, I talked about a number of things we do that help our little ones learn the language. Both of the boys have been early talkers, and I think all that talk and reading have contributed to that.


With Monkey, teaching letters and their sounds happened very much by accident: He asked to use my mouse one day, so I let him click around Starfall a bit. He loved it so much that soon we were limiting his screen time. (We only used the free parts.) By his second birthday he knew all the letters and their sounds, and not long after I was starting to research phonics in preparation for introducing the next step.  I knew he was young, but at the same time he was starting to show the "reading readiness" signs, and I had no idea what I was doing. I browsed across Happy Phonics and it has been the perfect fit in many ways.

Happy Phonics is an entirely games-based program: all the practice the new reader needs, but in a fun format. No writing necessary. Monkey and I started playing the program's games for about 15 minutes 2-3 times a week shortly before his 3rd birthday. (Now that he's older we've moved to doing it just about every day.) It starts with very basic stuff: letter sounds, matching the upper and lowercase letters, which was easy after Starfall. After a while we moved into the beginning blend games. Blends were hard for us. I wasn't teaching them very effectively at first, and we stayed there for a looong time. I'm also told that figuring out how to make those blends is the hardest part of teaching reading. With Dragon I'm planning to play oral blending games before we move to written blending games. I saw someone else had blogged about doing that and thought it was a wonderful idea that would make that leap into blending a lot easier.
To that point, Happy Phonics was wondeful, but as Monkey got the hang of doing the CVC blends, I started to feel like I don't know what I'm doing. The program assumes that Mom knows something about phonics... and I didn't know any more than the most basic blends. Enter Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading. When I'd checked the book out of the library I'd rejected it because it was so painfully dry. But now I looked again, and I found that the program had something that I needed badly: an systematic approach to phonics. What rules to introduce when, and word lists for practicing the rules, as well as little phonetic stories for the student to read. I still didn't like the format that OPGTR suggests, so I changed it. The word lists I wrote out on 3x5 cards to play with file folder games and the HP games. Works like a charm, and takes about 5 minutes per lesson.

L: Silent E Machine. R: File folder game & word cards.
The other thing I do with OPGTR is a bit more involved, but since I'll be teaching more than one student with it I feel that it's worth my time. OPGTR has little stories that use the words from the lessons to give the student practice at reading. The book suggests using a sheet of blank paper to cover the extra text so it's not too overwhelming, and have the child read right out of the book. Phonics is probably the least favorite topic under study at our house, and I've have mutiny and tears if we did it that way, so I turn those little stories into little books. Over time, the collection has grown. I do not do this for every lesson. But enough to get some good reading practice.

Here's what I do:
  1. Take 5-6 pages regular printer paper and 1 sheet colored cardstock. Hamburger fold them so the cardstock is on the outside.
  2. Open them, and carefully sew down the fold. The color of your thread doesn't matter, and it doesn't have to be perfect. I generally make several of these at once, and often let Monkey choose the color of the covers.
  3. When I'm ready to make the books, I get out OPGTR and count the lines. Sometimes it works out perfectly to match my pages, more often I have to add something to make it fit, or occasionally double up 2 sentences on 1 page. If a family name fits the rules, I usually substitute family names for the generic ones in the book. Monkey likes that, and I like anything that makes him more willing to read the little stories. If I have to add stuff, I usually add silly stuff as it is more fun to read that way. Or ducks. He likes to quack, so there's been lots of ducks in our stories.
  4. Once the words are all worked out in my notebook, I write them into the book.
  5. Last, I draw pictures. We're not talking about beautiful pictures, just stick figures with clothes on them, usually. Or sometimes I'll borrow from the Bob Books style. It's very minimalist, but it does take some time. However, Monkey is soooo much happier reading these little "illustrated" books that it's worth the effort to me. I want him to enjoy reading, but right now he thinks it's tons of work, where so much of the rest of school comes very easily. Those little stick figures make a huge difference in his willingness to put out the effort. 
In addition to reading the story as we're doing the lesson, I use them to review old rules that we have already learned. There's some review, naturally, in the process of reading stories. But I think it makes a difference to go back and re-read the old stories too. Over time his fluency on the older books has really improved. Which is not the same as saying that he's fluent, not at this point yet. But we're not quite halfway through OPGTR, so I'm fine with that. When I asked around on my favorite message boards, it looked like it takes most people about 2 years to work through OPGTR. I think it's going to take us a little longer than that, unless he decides that it's important to him. Right now it's just not. But I'm OK with that. He knows the stuff that we've covered, and he's learning the new rules, even if he's not super enthusiastic at this point. But it's working. And it's thorough.

OPGTR uses very few sight words. If it can be taught phonetically, it is.  I like that. English has a reputation for being very irregular (and is, compared to other languages I've studied), it's still largely a rules-based system. I've seen a variety of numbers for how "regular" English is, but 80-90% seems to be the consensus. Although I've been told that expecting my sons to learn phonics is "too much to memorize," it seems to me that it would be much harder to memorize enough vocabulary, as whole words, to read even close to fluently. And this very phonics-intensive instruction is working. Monkey can read any word that follows the rules we have covered, and has a small-but-growing collection of truly irregular sight words as well.

Happy Phonics puts things into a format that Monkey enjoys. Doing it in a games-based way allowed us to start much earlier than anything else I've seen would have. OPGTR holds my hand so that I'm confident that I'm not missing anything, and helps me put things into a logical order as we progress. I need that. The two of them together are just right for our family.

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