Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part I, Context

  • 30 June, 2014
Blast from the Past: This blog entry was first issued on June 30, 2014 and was reissued on March 28, 2020. As I re-introduce this piece, we are sheltering in place as is so much of the world. That means schools are closed in many places and teachers and parents are concerned about what is being lost from children's education. As with many of you, I've been trying to help protect children's learning during these fraught times. Which brings us to today's blog entry, this one about how I taught my own children to read at home. This blog was published in four parts and the other three are now linked at the bottom of the first. Perhaps there will be something in these that will be useful to families at this challenging time. Be safe.

Hi Dr. Shanahan,
I couldn't help but notice in your latest blog post the mention of how you "remember vividly teaching your oldest daughter to read."  I am writing in hopes that you'd be willing to share - either with me or your readers on your blog - what you did (either in broad strokes or even specifics) to teach her to read.  
I would not expect you to publicly endorse a program or approach nor am I asking you to divulge anything about your family publicly - I'm simply in the same position as a father of a four year old daughter and sincerely interested in how you approached this fun and special opportunity.
Response- Part I:
Yes, we taught both of our girls to read at home before they started school. I’d be happy to tell you how, but that will have to spread out across a few entries to do the topic justice. 
Anyone who has had one child is usually a deep believer in the power of DNA; anyone with two realizes that couldn’t be the explanation. Children can be pretty different, and my daughters definitely were not cut from the same cloth. Some of what we did with them was the same, and some of our efforts differed because of their differences. 
For instance, language came much easier to my oldest (E), while my youngest (M) was a late talker (or, perhaps, more accurately, her development was slowed by having an older sibling who spoke for her—not surprisingly her spokesperson eventually became a lawyer). When M was three, we took her to the neighborhood elementary school to get speech services, focused on pronunciations and general vocabulary.
Let’s start with context. Most kids don’t “learn to read” just from being in a literate environment; teaching is needed, too. But that doesn’t mean that context does not matter so let me describe that. There were lots of opportunities for our kids to find out about literacy and language and to develop some motivation for it.
Both girls were read to a lot, though E received more of this—mainly because she was more attentive and interested from an early age. Shared reading started within hours of birth for both, and they were exposed to typical picture books (usually read by their mother) and advanced chapter books (my contribution). There was no set schedule for this reading, but it typically took place several times per week throughout their childhoods, including when they were learning to read from more explicit lessons. 
E stayed interested in my book sharing once she was a toddler, so reading Charlotte’s Web or Grimm’s Fairy Tales to her was a joyful duty. M, once mobile, made it clear that having her father read to her was something to avoid. 
This will sound horrible, but I’d have to “capture” her—that is, I’d grab her up in my arms for reading—initially for very brief periods (often fewer than 15 seconds at a time). She’d wiggle, wrestle, and squirm away, giggling all the way, but resistant to the book sharing. 
Over time, she grew less resistant and could sit longer and longer; it was never unpleasant, but at first it was unusually brief and was not something to which she submitted willingly. [Lest this description sound too negative, I would point out that M. and I continued to read together until she was a freshman in high school—and those exchanges and the books themselves are something that we are quite both sentimental about today).
Each girl owned their own little library and books were often given as presents to them. They also had magazine subscriptions, too, and the public library was close. Rarely did a week go by that they didn’t bring home an armful of books. 
The books that my wife read to them tended to be these library books (picture books for the most part) and from the girl’s own libraries while the books that I read tended to be in our library (or they were classic books with which they had been gifted). 
It can take a long time to read books like “The Yearling,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Hobbit,” or the “Odyssey.” Given that I often tried to follow the completion of these books up with some fun activity. Sometimes we would rent a videotape of the book and pop some corn and make an evening of it. A couple times we even built vacations around particular books (“Tom Sawyer” led to a visit to Hannibal, Missouri, and “Misty of Chincoteague” had us meeting the island ponies in Virginia).
    The TV was often on in our house and they would watch Sesame Street often (and there are some reading and language lessons there). Later they became big fans of “Little House on the Prairie” and “Anne of Green Gables” (we read a lot of those books, too).
Lots of toys in the household had literacy or language themes, too, including alphabet blocks, early electronic toys that taught about flags, musical instruments, and flags. And, they definitely saw their parents reading and writing both for pleasure and work.
Not only did we read to the kids a lot (from the first day), but we spoke to them a lot, too. Reading is a language activity and our children had lots of opportunity to hear language, to engage in language—including songs, nursery rhymes, and language games. For example, we used to play Game of Fives. I’d name a category and the kids would try to come up with five examples (5 toys, 5 kinds of jewelry, 5 family members, 5 colors—and later 5 lakes, 5 states, 5 shapes, etc.). 
As, I said, context alone is usually insufficient to cause someone to be a reader, but it does carry lessons, opportunities to learn, and motivation. My daughters were surrounded by literacy and language and this likely played an important role in the eventual success of the lessons that we provided to them. I’ll write about those lessons next week.


See what others have to say about this topic.

BRIAN T MCKINNON Mar 28, 2020 10:42 PM

Tim. I am pleased to catch up with you again
I wrote to you some years ago, but can't find a reply. I am a retired teacher and principal from australia, who has been teaching reading and spelling for over 50 years, with my method,which is so easy and effective, we could eradicate illiteracy , much simpler than Covid19. It does
not use rules, either, unless I give reasons for them and my students range from 6 to 60รท with no failures but fun and growing self confidence every session
Would appreciate your comments. Thank you.

Meredith Schwartz Mar 29, 2020 12:27 AM

When my boys were born, I was not a reading specialist. However, I was a prolific reader, and I new how good readers read. I taught my sons the way you taught your daughters. My older son, however, NEVER learned sight words, couldn't rhyme, couldn't blend, didn't know the alphabet, didn't know the sounds of letters. It didn't matter what we did, he could not read and his writing made no sense. Sadly, when he entered school, Whole Language was the rage. Needless to say he exited 1st grade still not reading. Luckily, a retired reading specialist friend took him for the summer between 1st and 2nd grades and, using phonemics and then phonics, taught him to read. He entered 2nd grade reading a above grade level. He never had problems comprehending; it was the decoding that mystified him. Fortunately our younger son learned to read easily and entered K already reading. He had a reading profile similar to E. Those boys are now in their late thirties and both are avid, efficient readers. I write all of this to say that there are children who need much more intensive, explicit phonemic awareness training and phonics than most other children do. The problem is that by the time these children get to K and 1st grade, they are behind their peers in reading readiness. Compound that with early elementary teachers who lack the knowledge and the time to work with these children. So these children get pushed on and, by 3rd grade, can't use reading to learn. Then they get to middle school and need my help--as a reading specialist--to both diagnose and remediate their reading issues. My older son was lucky to have someone who taught him the foundational skills of reading before he experienced the negative impact of not being able to read. Many children are not that fortunate.

Betty Clemens Mar 29, 2020 01:26 PM

Meredith's story is similar to mine. I was an English teacher and raised an avid reader, but knew nothing about reading instruction when my son developed reading problems in fourth grade. A retired nun taught him in a summer session and I credit her with his becoming an avid reader and scoring in the 99th percentile on nationally normed testing. When I was accepted into a fellowship program preparing experienced teachers as Reading Specialists I learned what I was missing. With application, I also learned how individual the teaching of reading is and the need for pre and post testing to assure results. It's called accountability, a lesson public education has not learned.

Wendy Mar 29, 2020 06:15 PM

My oldest daughter (20) absorbed words when she was little. We read everything, everywhere we could. Then in 3rd grade, she had a very negative experience that turned her completely off and now only reads when necessary. My second daughter (16) sounds much like your second. She would actually take books from my hand and throw them across the room. However, as she got older her interests shifted, and now she devours 2-3 novels each week. (Her library is quite impressive.) My son (12) loved to be read to when he was small. As time passed his interest has turned to sports, and that takes precedence over reading. I don't give up though and hope that one day he'll find balance. So, yes, all children are different. Some personalities are going to latch on to reading more than others. We just have to keep working to invite them into the wonderful world they can find in a book.

Dawn Pettway Apr 08, 2020 02:56 PM

I work with older students in the upper elementary grades and the reading ranges in a classroom of 20-30 students can vary so much. I have noticed that they do lack phonics skills and strategies, so I go back when time permitted during small groups to teach the sounds in words incidentally and systemically. I also found that engaging readers is important because most students have become accustomed to stories being read to them through audio. I try to make time for girls and boys to find a reading space to read a book of choice 15 minutes daily in class. I try to include the parents and ask them to help develop a love and time for reading at home a few times during the week. Some students have done very well with this but it is still a challenge to get girls and boys to finish reading a chapter book independently and completely. dp

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Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part I, Context


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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