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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Learning to Read Before Learning to Read

    February 25, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    I would have children taught to read before they learn the mechanical arts of reading and writing; and they learn delightfully; they give perfect attention to paragraph or page read to them and are able to relate the matter point by point, in their own words*; but they demand classical English and cannot learn to read in this sense upon anything less. They begin their ‘schooling’ in ‘letters’ at six, and begin at the same time to learn mechanical reading and writing. A child does not lose by spending a couple of years in acquiring these because he is meanwhile ‘reading’ the Bible, history, geography, tales, with close attention and a remarkable power of reproduction, or rather, of translation into his own language; he is acquiring a copious vocabulary and the habit of consecutive speech. In a word, he is an educated child from the first, and his power of dealing with books, with several books in the course of a morning’s ‘school,’ increases with his age.

    Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education

    What in the world does she mean, to say that a child can be taught to read before learning the “mechanical arts” of reading?

    She means, my friends, nothing less than reading comprehension and appreciation. She means that the child becomes able to gain knowledge from books.

    Teaching Reading with Bob Books focuses almost exclusively on the so-called mechanical arts. These are the skills which, for many children, require instruction.

    For today, we are going to take a break from mechanics and talk briefly about helping a child cross the bridge to understanding language, of building a foundation for the child’s reading abilities to stand upon.

    The idea is that, at age six, we can engage in some rigorous instruction, to which their mechanical abilities, their “reading skills,”  will eventually catch up.

    In a similar post, I equated some of this idea to diet:

    To use an analogy: in our world, we approach children in a way that is like taking a four-year-old and saying that, as she is only capable of pouring herself a bowl of cereal by herself, and cannot prepare other foods, therefore this is the diet she ought to subsist upon until she is older and able to make something a little more elaborate.


    Just as mommy prepares the child a generous diet regardless of her ability to prepare it herself, so the generous teacher reads aloud from wonderful, beautiful books. We do not assume that just because the child can only make pancakes, therefore she can only appreciate pancakes. Rather, we assume that she can read the pancake books on her own, but that we honor her soul by feeding her generously, even if in the early years it is a feast of the ears rather than the eyes and it is consumed with Mom rather than in solitude.

    So, the better (and earlier) your child reads, the more you need to read aloud to him. Read him amazing stories. Read him classic literature. Are you in the mood for Jane Austen? Read it aloud while your children are playing with cars or blocks (I assure you they are usually listening). They will hear wonderful language from any of her works. Read them Shakespeare. Read them 1000 Good Books. Read to them from the best, and you will help them triumph in language mastery when they are older.

    Even though we spend ten minutes a day on Bob Books, let us not think that the child has read anything of importance. I adore Bob Books. But I do not pretend they honor the child’s soul. I only acknowledge that they are an excellent tool for use in perfecting, slowly and methodically, the mechanical arts of reading.

    This does not mean, because the child can only read Bob Books, or perhaps is still learning his alphabet, that this is the only knowledge he can handle. No. Every child can handle ideas, and we are generous if we offer them ideas every day.

    What is the best way, then, to build what some call reading comprehension? How might they learn to read before they are actually able to read for themselves?

    Willa was kind enough to pass along an article this week that was just brilliant. From it, I gained two main ideas that we can keep before our minds in this area.

    1. Read aloud to them every single day, from good books of high literary quality. Willa says that she believes in literacy through auditory channels. I completely concur. The article says:

      [I]t’s an interesting observation, but many children who become early readers, independent readers — good readers — often do not store complete and correct language patterns in their brains. Good readers read quickly, silently, and aggressively. They don’t audiate (hear internally) each word or even complete sentences. Generally, comprehension increases with speed, but speed decreases language pattern audiation because good readers will skip words, phrases and even complete sections of books that might hold them back. And to the extent that children don’t hear (frequently) a multitude of complete, reliably correct, and sophisticated language patterns, such patterns are not going to be effectively stored in their brains. (emphasis mine)

    2. Memorize poetry with your children. This is something we recently began doing, and I mainly started doing it because I trusted someone who said it was important, and that I’d be doing something good for them. Already I have discovered that this is great fun for our family. But that’s not all. To refer back to the article in question:

      There is perhaps no greater tool than memorization to seal language patterns into a human brain, and there is perhaps nothing more effective than poetry to provide exactly what we want: reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns. Although rote memorization and recitation went out of vogue when the great god of Creativity began to dominate ideology in the Schools of Education, it has stood for centuries, even millennia, as the most powerful way to teach, to learn, to develop skills, and to preserve knowledge. By memorizing and reciting, you practically fuse neurons into permanent language storage patterns. Those patterns are then ready to be used, combined, adapted, and applied to express ideas in a myriad of ways. Additionally, because of the nature of poetry, poets are often compelled to stretch our vocabulary, utilizing words and expressions in uniquely sophisticated — but almost always correct — language patterns. A child with a rich repertoire of memorized poetry will inevitably demonstrate superior linguistic skills, both written and spoken, because of those patterns which are so deeply ingrained in the brain. (emphasis mine)

      Start with small poems. Our first memory project was Bed in Summer by Robert Louis Stevenson. Even my then-three-year-old memorized it just fine. We memorize easily by simply reading the poem every day until we are ready to fill in some blanks along the way. Eventually, it is memorized, just from hearing it so often.

    This week, we finished up reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (it surprised me that the girls liked it so much), and now we are beginning Redwall by Brian Jacques. We have read hundreds of books over the years, and I find that my little ones, who have been listening to complex language their whole lives (because they have an older brother) understand far more than I realize — because their ability to use language has not caught up with their ability to understand language.

    In addition to all of this, I find that reading together always keeps our family…on the same page!


    *Relating a paragraph or page “point by point” is what we call narration. If you want to read some thoughts on when and how to begin this, click here.

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