Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part II, Print Awareness

  • 06 July, 2014
Last week, I began a multi-part series on how I taught my daughters to read. My oldest daughter wryly replied to that entry, suggesting I could have saved a lot of pixels if I had just said that I hired a tutor…. And her son who just had his third birthday (and who did not read that entry) informed me that his goal for being 3-years-old was to read words.
In that first entry, I described the literacy context in which my daughters grew up. Now, let’s turn to the more formal side of the teaching.
When the girls were 2-3 years old, more explicit teaching was introduced. Each child was encouraged to tell stories (often recounting personal experiences—I think this may have started with a family vacation). Essentially, these were language-experience approach stories. They would tell the story and I’d print them out in letters, two-lines high with plenty of space between words (initially on pieces of paper, and later in composition books—which they still have). I’d read the stories back to them, and they would choral read with me. 
Over time, they came to recognize some of the words in their stories. This was less direct teaching (I did not set out to teach particular words), but I was just responsive to what they were picking up. If they seemed to remember a particular word, I’d add it to an index card (yes, a flash card); if they forgot it at some point, that word would disappear from the pack. 
The point was to build a collection of words that they would recognize at sight. Like most children, they were fascinated by words like mommy, daddy, grandma, grandpa, as well as their names and their sister’s name. They each managed to develop a sight vocabulary of approximately 25 words—words they could recognize out of context—before they could actually read.
This facet of what I did probably accomplished several goals beyond getting some written words into their memories: 
(1) it would have developed an understanding of print awareness (including directionality, the idea that letters are used to write words, the concept of word—the idea that words are separable); 
(2) it would have further sensitized them to the relationship between language and reading (since they saw language being recorded and read back); 
(3) it would have started to sensitize them to the idea of the permanence of literacy, that we could read back the words and that they didn’t change over time; 
(4) it may have provided them with some baseline insights into sound-symbol relationships (as I would repeat their words as I wrote them)—however, I don’t think it was particularly powerful in this regard and I did not stress that.
Thus, we built an early base of both word knowledge and print awareness.
Authorities argue over whether you should start with words or letters and sounds. My reading is that here is no convincing evidence on either side; research seems to show that both approaches work and that they do not need to be mutually exclusive.
In our case, the whole time we were meeting the goals listed above, we were also explicitly teaching letters and sounds, and later spelling patterns. Thus, when they were telling these language experience stories, they were also memorizing their letters and learning the letter sounds. 
(The same thing is currently going on with my grandson. He is currently learning some words, but he already knows all of the letters—lower case and upper case, and the simple sounds that go with all or most of the consonants. He isn’t decoding yet, but he is gaining the raw materials needed to do that well).
We did many language experience stories and this soon morphed into the kids doing their own writing--they could both "write" before they could read. But let me add one additional "print awareness" activity that we found beneficial.
I have already described the extensive shared reading that we did with our girls. Remember, I was a young professor at the time, still learning lots about my craft. One day I was reading some research studies by Ferreiro & Teberosky. They described how the children they were studying had to learn that the words on the page told the story (the kids thought their parents made up the stories based on the pictures). I'd never noticed that confusion before--whether it had been there or not--but I brought this one home right away.
That evening when I was reading to E., she put her hand on the page as young children do. Usually I would have just moved it away and kept reading, but this time I stopped in my tracks. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"You've covered the words, so I can't read them."
"You read that?"
She was amazed and the rest of that reading was spent with her trying to interfere with it by anticipating where my eyes were going to be looking. Despite having the benefit of outstanding parents, she had no idea what to look at during reading before this. Not surprisingly, I introduced M. to this little game earlier than I had done with her sister. 
Japanese scholars have long believed that when parents point at the text that they read to their children, that they are teaching important aspects of print awareness. You don't always have to print at what you read, but it is a good idea to do that some of the time.
Next week I’ll get into the home decoding instruction more explicitly.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Alexis Jovel Jun 15, 2017 12:02 PM


Thank you for sharing this Tim! I have a 5 year old entering Kindergarten and just completed my first year as a Kindergarten teacher (after 10+ years of teaching First grade). I usually track with her when I read those easy readers (which obviously have less words and bigger and less print on the page). I will start writing down her stories for us to share at home.

Robby B. Jun 15, 2017 12:02 PM


This series is really great stuff. I appreciate you detailing this complex process of teaching your own children to read.

I'm curious about the idea of teaching kids to recognize words by sight. As you mentioned, there is some contention around this, and I've advocated for drastically limiting sight word instruction my district's K/1 classrooms. Previously, we had been testing for the recall of up to 200 sight words. The "sight word instruction" was taking precedence over decoding instruction.

I've analogized this to the emphasis in math instruction to not expose students to the standard, vertical alignment of addition problems. Rather, math teachers want students to understand the concept before they learn the shorthand.

Perhaps the research doesn't suggest there is harm in either approach, though I wonder what those studies were like. Did they follow two groups of students exclusively taught by either method? Were they controlled for demographics? I imagine that it wouldn't affect your kids as much, given the richness of their language environment. And I imagine it has a more deleterious effect on students like the ones in our schools--those who come from households with lower levels of education, and, likely, language richness.

Would love your thoughts on this.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 12:03 PM



The best comparisons between sight words versus phonics weren't as pure as you are suggesting (which makes sense given that pretty much everyone agrees that there is a need for both). However, they generally suggest that for most kids, everything comes out pretty much the same in terms of reading (but there were fewer struggling readers in the phonics groups and later spelling is better for them).

The reason for teaching both is that it is not entirely clear what our brains are doing with the information. There is some evidence that readers follow rules or patterns, but there is also evidence that they internalize some kind of word templates.

The goal of early reading instruction is to get students to develop sight words (that is words that they can read AS IF they are just recognizing them without any kind of mediation. The 'as if' point is a big one. Readers do analyze words, they just do it very quickly and seemingly without effort. Initially, learning words is hard work, but as they learn the decoding system (either from memorizing so many words that they know the patterns or from learning the patterns--phonics), their memory for words grows and they often can read a word as a sight word with only a single exposure or even no previous exposures.

You definitely want some of both (word memorization and phonics). But 200 sight words in kindergarten is a silly goal (I used to require that our first graders learn the 100 most frequent words and that by the end of second grade the kids would know the first 300). 25 is probably adequate, with enough decoding skills to allow them to sound out many more simple words. You're trying to develop a system of response, not just a bunch of words in memory.

I'd argue for fewer sight words and maybe fewer decoding skills in Kindergarten than many kids are now getting. However, I would expect them to do a lot more with the skills that I would teach--much more writing and dictation and reading texts based on those words and patterns. Slow the introduction of new skills down a bit, but deepen student understanding of them through increased use.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 12:03 PM



You make an excellent point. There are really many ways to teach the skills that I described here. One way is with language experience stories, something that I have always done with beginning readers (including adults). However, it is also possible to teach these skills with simple controlled vocabulary readers as well. Again, the students may not actually be "reading" these initially as much as they are memorizing them, but it works the same way and has the same outcomes. It is also possible, initially, to engage in fingerpoint reading with predictable books (with really strong language patterns--Brown Bear, Brown Bear, for example, or even the Happy Birthday song. You can use any one of these or any combination of these to get the job done. Remember, stay to the goal of what you want the child to understand or do and fit your actions to that.

bdobler Jun 15, 2017 12:04 PM


I am thoroughly enjoying your posts about teaching your daughters to read. Each time I am anxious to see the next installment! I think it's because of the eloquent way you combine your knowledge of the reading process with your own experiences as a parent - including your rationale for activities and the realism of parenthood. I actually think the ideas in these blog entries would make a great book for both educators and parents.
Beth Dobler

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Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part II, Print Awareness


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