Some folks try to gradually and seamlessly introduce reading from infancy, while others argue it is better to wait until first grade or so and work quickly.
The mother of the Wesleys waited until five. Then, in one day did the alphabet, and then began going through Genesis verse by verse — first spelling it out, then reading it over and over until fluent.
For most people, despite the difficulties inherent in English, reading comes easily enough that we don’t remember learning how.
For the alphabet, Mason recommends something that sounds very much like the Montessori moveable alphabet — a box of letters, multiple examples of each one — and a sand tray in which little fingers can form letters. Various games can be invented to work with both items, such as mom drawing a letter in the air and asking the child to find that letter in the box, or asking her to find all the D’s on a page in a book. As long as the games are of interest to the child, there’s nothing wrong with them, but it is a mistake to pressure an uninterested child with alphabet work.
Similarly, one can help a child to begin to make words on a pattern, such as starting with “at” and adding various initial consonants. He should close his eyes and spell any word he’s made, beginning to see in a quick glance the letters composing a word. (Spelling is seeing, argues Mason — and no more.) In the same way, the child should learn by sight words that do not follow a regular pattern.
When introducing a text, such as one or two lines of a rhyme, the parent should read beautifully first, then work on each word individually, then let the child read the whole text beautifully as well, paying attention to enunciating clearly. The child can look for examples of the individual words in a larger text, perhaps a paragraph. It is fine to listen to and address any thoughts and questions the child may have about the meaning of the text, but not to follow the tangents too far from the lesson at hand.
V. The first reading lesson.
Here Mason presents a dialogue between two parents on the topic of teaching reading in this way.
One parent notes that “plum-pudding,” though longer than something easy like “to,” is much more interesting — and so the child is more motivated to learn it, first by sound and then by sight. It is actually easier for children to learn varied interesting long words than to drill over short dull parts of words in a patterned list. Still, it is good to have variety — sight words as part of a poem one day, word-building games the next.
As for spelling, it is not necessary for reading but for writing. Using spelling is not an effective way to help kids read a strange word — especially when the word doesn’t follow regular phonetic patterns. Most people read by seeing whole words, not by seeing letters, thinking through how they are combined, and then pronouncing the word. We might approach a new word with a trial of phonetic rules, but we know English is varied enough that such trial won’t always result in the correct pronunciation.
One of the parents describes cutting up a few copies of a simple text, putting the individual words into a box. She writes on a board one of the words of the text and has the child find all the examples in the box — just like the alphabet game with the box of letters. She proceeds in the same way, making a column of the words on the board. Then the child can mix his words up into a different column and read through it, and again. Finally, the parent directs the child to order the words to form the text, and read it. At last she gives him an uncut copy he may read from.
(I could see one of those magnetic poetry sets being useful for this sort of thing!)
VI. Reading by sight and sound
Learning to read is hard work that requires discipline. It is good for kids to exercise concentrated effort — when the matter is interesting and intrinsically rewarding.
There’s not really a particular necessary step-by-step way to learn reading. It’s just a matter of getting the associations between certain arbitrary symbols and their sounds, however works best for a particular kid. It’s good to spend some time on the most frequent sounds associated with individual letters, but letter-sound correspondence is so varied and irregular in English that it is good to spend even more time on whole words by sight.
Again she reminds us that teaching words by sight depends on words that are interesting and meaningful to the child. Suppose one starts with “robin” — have the child look at the word until she thinks she could recognize it again. Then have her form it from memory with letters from the box. After the child has several words, let her form varied sentences with them.
Next day, start with one of the words from the previous day, e.g. “coat,” and have the child build new words from its parts, such as “boat.” If he tries something like “noat,” there’s no need to get into how “note” is really spelled, just to say that it doesn’t fit the pattern of the day’s lesson and will be in another lesson another time.
One can even dictate sentences with new unknown words in them, especially the function words like “in” and “the,” and if the child doesn’t have ideas on how to form them, she can use counters to hold their place in the sentence. This substitution may pique the child’s desire and need to learn the new words.
Mason claims moral benefits to this approach to reading. It keeps the child interested, gives a sense of achievement, making learning seem within reach, whets the appetite for more learning, and does not lend itself to unintended habits of poor enunciation or stumbling or hesitation.