Charlotte Mason’s reading instruction recommendations seem deceptively simple. Home Education takes 23 pages to lay out the process, with examples of lessons given. Right there on page 204 is an example of a “reading at sight” lesson using “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as the text. But this sample lesson is not given as a model for all reading lessons, nor is it meant to be the beginning of reading lessons or the end of them.
Reading instruction begins with letter play in the preschool years, informally playing with 3-D letters, “air writing,” and writing in sand to learn letter names and sounds and later to play with constructing simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words. This type of instruction should be a fun diversion, only done when the child has an interest.
The baby of two will often be able to name half a dozen letters; and there is nothing against it so long as the finding and naming of letters is a game to him. But he must not be urged, required to show off, teased to find letters when his heart is set on other play. (Home Education, p. 202)
This already has begun phonics instruction, as the child is learning the sounds of each letter as well as the way those sounds are used in words. CM suggests helping the child learn to recognize each letter as the initial sound in a word.
Let him say d for duck, dog, doll, thus: d-uck, d-og, prolonging the sound of the initial consonant, and at last sounding d alone, not dee, but d’, the mere sound of the consonant separated as far as possible from the following vowel. (Home Education, p. 201)
And when the sounds have been mastered, the child will begin building words, learning how to vary the first letter to change one word into another.
Take up two of his letters and make the syllable ‘at’: tell him it is the word we use when we say ‘at home,’ ‘at school.’ Then put b to ‘at’ — bat; c to ‘at’ — cat; fat, hat, mat, sat, rat, and so on. First, let the child say what the word becomes with each initial consonant to ‘at,’ in order to make hat, pat, cat. Let the syllables all be actual words which he knows. (Home Education, p. 202)
Word building, followed by practice reading the words built, continues until the child has achieved facility with building and reading a host of words using short vowel sounds. Then the same sort of work is done with long vowel sounds and finally with words ending with ‘ng’.
Already a solid phonics foundation has been laid. The child who has reached this stage will be comfortable working with many of the common sounds and letter combinations.
During this process, work has also been done on spelling.
Accustom him from the first to shut his eyes and spell the word he has made. This is important. Reading is not spelling, nor is it necessary to spell in order to read well; but the good speller is the child whose eye is quick enough to take in the letters which compose it, in the act of reading off a word, and this is a habit to be acquired from the first: accustom him to see the letters in the word, and he will do without effort. (Home Education, p. 203)
This practice in visualizing words starts with the early word building lessons and continues as lessons increase in complexity.
Only after this extensive foundation has been laid (which for some children proceeds quickly but often takes months or sometimes years) do we proceed to the “reading at sight” lessons, which still involve phonics. The words in the lesson are learned as words, so they are learned by sight, but then they are taken apart and played with as phonetic pieces through word building.
He makes the word ‘coat’ with his letters, from memory if he can; if not, with the pattern word. Say ‘coat’ slowly; give the sound of the c. ‘Take away c, and what have we left?’ A little help will get ‘oat’ from him. How would you make ‘boat’ (say the word very slowly, bringing out the sound of b). He knows the sounds of the letters, and says b-oat readily; fl-oat, two added sounds, which you lead him to find out; g-oat, he will give you the g, and find goat a charming new word to know; m-oat, he easily decides on the sound of m; a little talk about moat; the other words are too familiar to need explanation. Tommy will, no doubt, offer ‘note’ and we must make a clean breast of it and say, ‘No, note is spelt with other letters’; but what other letters we do not tell him now. Thus he comes to learn incidentally and very gradually that different groups of letters may stand for the same sounds. (Home Education, p. 219)
This approach reaches children who face reading challenges. The emphasis on training in visualization, on connecting letters with real concepts, on using the body as part of the learning process, on providing plenty of opportunity for review and practice allows children to build up their areas of struggle. The thoughtful teacher will observe and notice where a student needs more help and focus on those areas, implementing more intentional lessons when those are needed and moving on quickly when that focus is unnecessary.
These steps have been spelled out in more detail by Jennifer at Joyful Shepherdess. With these instructions, anyone can put together a customized reading instruction plan using materials on hand or easily gathered. I myself like to use the McGuffey Primer when we get to the “reading at sight” stage, but many other resources will work as well or better for a particular student.
What appears at first glance to be a simple, unsophisticated reading lesson turns out to be a deliberate, multi-faceted campaign that approaches reading from various directions using kinesthetic and tactile activities as well as visualizing and phonetic work, in small scaffolded steps, in a format that is low cost and easy to implement. What more could we ask for? As Charlotte Mason said,
I believe that this is a practical common-sense way to teach reading in English. (Home Education, p. 222)
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