How I taught my son to read at Four (and a little writing and spelling)

I don’t know how to teach your child to read. Every child and parent is different. You as the parent know best how to teach your individual child how to read. I will tell you how I taught my son to read at four (I’ve used this same method with my oldest two sons) and hopefully that will give you some ideas how to start teaching your child to read (though not necessarily at four). Don’t worry about doing it the wrong way, there are many different methods of teaching your child to read, some may work better for one person or another, but as far as I know, they all do work. I learned how to read phonetically, whereas my husband learned how to read whole words. You can’t get much more opposite approaches, yet as adults we both know how to read well.

Initially my husband and I wanted to incorporate the best of both worlds, and teach our oldest son to read primarily phonetically but also learn the DOLCH sight words so that we would be able to read more rapidly-we thought. However, he really didn’t get the sight word approach, it just kept frustrating him. I ended up dropping that approach altogether. He is only 6 yet he is able to read most of the words on the DOLCH word list without a problem after learning them phonetically.

My second son’s brain works differently than my oldest son’s. My second son learned many sight words on his own after I read them to him just once or twice in a book. Sight words come very naturally to him. I am still teaching him phonics in the same basic steps that I taught my first son, just tailoring it to fit his style a little. This approach seems to work just as well for him as it did for my eldest son, even though they seem to learn a little differently.

Read on for the basic steps I used to teach my child to read and some ideas on how I did each step.


1. Know the upper- and lower-case letters of the alphabet, both in and out of sequence

  1. I taught him the alphabet song. I sang this song to him often, sometimes when we are waiting in line or driving in the van.
  2. Once he knew the alphabet song pretty well, I started showing him what each letter looked like. I started by pointing out the first letter in his name, using the letter magnets on our fridge. Then whenever we would see the first letter in his name somewhere (in a book, or on a sign while we were driving, etc.) I would point it out again and again “Look there is a C on that Coborn’s grocery store sign, just like in your name!” When he started pointing out Cs on his own, then I progressed to the next letter in his name and eventually to all the other letters trying to associate meaning to them such as D for daddy or P for pancake.
  3. At the same time whenever he would color a picture, I would help him (my hand over his on the crayon) write his name on the paper saying the letters as we wrote them. In this way, he not only was learning to recognize the letters, but also starting to learn how to write them.

2. Know letter sounds for all the consonants and the short vowels

By associating meaning with the letters as I taught him the shapes of the letters in the last step of this process, I was introducing the sounds of the letters to him at the same time. Once he was able to recognize most of the letter shapes, I started focusing more on the sounds. I would say “Look there is a C on that Coborn’s grocery store sign, just like in your name. C says ku, ku, ku, Coborn’s.” Later, when he started getting more of the sounds, I would say, “Look there is a C. What sound does C make?”

When I would go to the grocery store with him, I would make a game and tell him to help me find things that start with "B" (or what ever letter I wanted that day) and see how many things we could find together that started with B. If he didn’t identify the beets or bread or bologna, then I would point them out to him. (Not only was this a way to help him learn the letter sounds, but it made my trips to the grocery go smoother because he had something to focus on.)

Another game I would play with him at this stage, was to get a bag and then have him put as many things as he could find in the house that start with the designated letter into the bag. For example if I chose the letter B, he would maybe fill it with a ball, book, barret, and a Barbie. After he got comfortable with this, I would set a timer for one minute or so and have him do this as fast as he could.

Once my son knew many of the letter sounds, it was at this point that I started my Letter a Week curriculum with him. I felt that demonstrating this level of pre-reading ability was a sign that he was ready for a more organized approach to learning all of the letter sounds.

3. Know that letters are linked together to form words

I read stories to my son every day. I think most children figure out that letters are linked together to form works quite naturally on their own with very little effort from anyone else.

To encourage this concept early on with my son, I would trace the words that I was reading to him, with my finger as I read them.

Once my son was progressing through all the previous reading steps, I got a list of the Dolch words. I selected one simple word at a time, starting with the word, “a”. I showed him what the word was. Then when I read him a story, I told him that we were going to read the story together. I would read all the other words except his words. When we got to one of his words, I would pause and he would read it. This helped him have some quick success in reading. When he mastered a word, I would add another from the list and so on.

4. Start blending/sounding out short CVC (Consonant, Vowel, Consonant) combinations of words

Once my son learned the first three steps, step 4 followed quite naturally. He wanted to be able to read, and with a little encouragement from me, he started trying and reading! I started with simple CVC words spelled out on the fridge with magnets. From there we expanded to other areas of reading including books. One of my favorite books (it’s actually a series) for this stage of learning is The Bob Books by Bobby Lynn Maslen. When we read together, I started having him sound out one or two simple words per page in addition to the sight words that he already knew. Then I slowly increased the number of words he was sounding out per page until he was able to read whole pages and eventually whole books by himself. It was about this point that my son’s reading ability really started to blossom. Since he had had some quick successes, he started having more of an interest in reading and wanted to read more and more.

Once he became more comfortable with reading simple words, if he wanted help and the word was spelled phonetically, I would first encourage him to sound it out before I offered help. Even if he couldn’t read the word after that, and I told him what it was, this taught him to first try.

About this time, my son also wanted to learn to make his own words (spell). I encouraged inventive spelling initially to help him get started. I also introduced the vowels to him, explaining that every word must have at least one vowel. When he wanted to know how to spell a word, I would always ask what he thought it started with and usually what came next or what vowel he thought it contained. I would also ask him when we were at the grocery store what letter the item we were buying (such as an apple) started with, and what other sounds (especially vowels) he heard in that word.

I taught him the special sounds (like ph in phone) as they arose in his reading or writing.

One of my favorite resources while teaching my son to read was "Home Learning Year by Year" by Rebecca Rupp. In the Kindergarten section for Reading, it gives a lot of detail for each step and lists more books and other resources you may find helpful to teach each step to your child.

As you can see, many of the things I did with my son while teaching him one step of the reading process were at the same time teaching him part of the next step as well. It doesn’t all have to be separate. In fact it was hard for me to separate it into steps for this article, because so much of one step blends into the next.

I didn’t push my son to read early, I simply recognized that he had mastered a step in the reading process and started on the next when I felt that he was ready. I tried to make it as natural and as normal a part of our lives as was possible. Since every child is different, this approach may not work with my younger children, but it may.

After completing the above learning to read steps that I described, I used A Beka Book curriculum with my oldest son, and Alpha Phonics with my second son. They both are phonics approaches and both work well.

What techniques have you used to teach your child to read?



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