Two years ago when we adopted Wenxin from China, he was a 7 1/2 year old who'd had no formal schooling. He could speak Chinese, but couldn't read or write it. He didn't speak a word of English and couldn't tell an "A" from a "Z". To top it off, he was 100% boy with boundless energy and zero tolerance for anything involving pencil, paper, or books.
Homeschooling allowed me the wiggle room to relax about all this; to spend our first months focusing on bonding and learning to live together as a family; to put away the English flash cards unless we were using them in a really fun game. In the process of normal life with a mom and dad and three English speaking siblings, Wenxin quickly became an English speaker himself.
We spent our first year playing with the language in preparation for learning to read. I taught Wenxin the English alphabet and a sound for each letter using an alphabet puzzle and fridge magnets. We played rhyming games. We sang songs. We drew pictures together which I labeled with words. And I read aloud. Every day. For long periods of time.
Reading aloud to my kids is my favorite part of homeschooling. We do it every day. I start as the kids eat a morning snack, and when they finish eating, they do something quiet with their hands as they listen -- coloring, play-doh, or even quiet building with Legos.
Last year, I read good children's literature aloud to the kids -- chapter books that were often way beyond Wenxin's language ability. I didn't really care if he was understanding every word or even any of the words for that matter. Does a baby understand all the words swirling around him at first? Of course not. But just like a baby, Wenxin was soaking in the sound and cadence of the language. And before long, I realized his comprehension was exceeding my wildest expectations. I believe that reading aloud to him has been the most important thing I've done in helping him become literate in English.
Today he speaks English fluently and is on his way to becoming a fluent reader. Below are some of the tools I'm using as I continue to teach Wenxin to read this year.
Alpha-Phonics - This is my favorite phonics program. It's a simple, non-consumable book that I've used to teach all my kids to read. Once your child recognizes the letters of the alphabet and learns their common sounds, he can begin to work through Alpha-Phonics.
Providing tons of practice blending sounds into words, this book will have your child reading simple sentences the first week. There's not a single illustration in the entire book, so it eliminates the temptation to just guess from the pictures.
Reading exercises - that's what I call this book. We do a little bit each day. Just like the drills Wenxin does at soccer train his feet to automatically respond in the game, our daily reading exercises train his brain to automatically decode written words as he reads.
Explode the Code - Most beginning phonics workbooks scream preschool. I needed to find a phonics workbook for Wenxin that looked cool enough for a 9 year old boy.
The Explode the Code series fits the bill. The illustrations are a little edgier (see the cover), and the sentences are often funny. I bought a stack of these inexpensive workbooks at the homeschool convention, and Wenxin does 2-4 pages a day.
Fly Guy series - These are our favorite easy readers about a boy named Buzz and his pet fly, Fly Guy. Funny enough to get some laughs from the teacher, this series was definitely written with boy readers in mind.
At this stage, it's essential to listen to kids read aloud, but many beginning readers are nursery-rhymish and just plain lame. Fly Guy is way cooler, making reading aloud almost painless for nine year old boys and their moms.
Sight-Word Bingo - English is full of words that break the rules (sight-words) and other words that occur so often you shouldn't have to stop and sound them out every time (high frequency words). To become a fluent reader, there are a lot of words a child must learn to recognize by sight.
In addition to teaching sight words with flash cards, last year I purchased this sight-word bingo game to sneak in some extra practice. My super competitive kids all love WINNING at bingo, so I don't have to twist arms to get anyone to join Wenxin in a game.
Let me explain. Wenxin is very good at math. For the last two years, I've taught him using the Saxon Math homeschool curriculum. It's a very solid, challenging math curriculum, and Wenxin has done well with it. Saxon, however, is very language heavy. Lots of word problems = lots of reading = Wenxin couldn't do it independently = I had to sit with him the whole time he did his math practice = shoot me in the head; I'm exhausted.
This year I initially decided to switch to a computer based curriculum so that the computer could read his math problems to him. Problem solved. I had visions of actually getting other things done while a computer talked Wenxin through the math lesson.
But then, I met Cheryl Bastian, a teacher and home educator who evaluated Wenxin's homeschool portfolio from last year. When I mentioned the new math curriculum, Cheryl said, "That's a mistake." She encouraged me to keep him in Saxon, the more challenging program, mentioning that perhaps this strong area (math) might be used to pull up his weak area (reading).
And you know what? That's exactly what's happening. While we're doing math, Wenxin sits a little straighter. He feels competent. And I've noticed that while he's feeling competent because we're working in one of his strongest subjects, he's more willing to take a stab at reading those problems for himself. His ability to read the math book is growing by leaps and bounds.
Who would've guessed? Reading practice in a math book.
"Funny" is always good when teaching kids. "Funny" makes things stick. "Funny" makes learning hard stuff much more enjoyable. I have a theory that laughter aids retention in learning. I wonder if there's been any research on this?
In my experience, teaching kids to read is like pushing a giant boulder up a mountain. There are so many skills that have to be in place, including many we take for granted, before they can even begin the complicated process of decoding words. It's hard work, and progress seems slow. But at some point, you push the boulder over the top, and things really start moving. I think we're cresting that hill.
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