Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Teach Your Children Well

Hello, old friends!  We're finally starting to come up for air here at Me Show Central after a relentless whirlwind of Halloween, colds, Thanksgiving, colds, stomach flu, Christmas, sleep training, colds, New Years, and colds.  That's an overwhelming list to try to recap in one post, so let me just say this:

Larsen ladies in effect, y'all!

You see those people?  The little ones snuggling in that chair?  They are relentlessly adorable and relentlessly exhausting in equal measure.  I look at that picture and I'm as weak with devotion as much as I'm weak with fatigue.  God, I love 'em.  God, I'm tired.  Wash, rinse, repeat for at least 2 more years, or until they both agree to sleep through the night - the same night - at the same time.

So, this may not be my most coherent post, but due to repeated requests for information on my jumbled (but effective!) approach to teaching Livy to read, I'm writing it anyway.  Jessica, Aley, Katie, and Mrs. Miller:  This one goes out to you.

First things first, my kid ain't your kid, and my kid ain't normal.  She knew her letters by sight at 18 months, she spoke early, and she's always been drawn to language and books.  She is this kid.

15 months, and all we did was read books all day long.

She is also this kid.

20 months - letter recognition fully down and working on bizarre sight words.

So, no, she's not typical.  This means that, as much as I would love to take credit for being a fantastic, Annie-Sullivan-caliber teacher here, really I can't.  Livy was bound to acquire verbal skills readily and easily because of who she is, not because of what we've done together with books and reading tools.  Thus, obviously, but it must be said lest I start sounding too much like a blowhard, your mileage may vary with these suggestions.  

1.  Read to your kid frequently, early, and often.

This seems intuitive, but it was really hard for us to implement until I built it into a regular schedule.  I began when Livy was a little over a year old by choosing three hardcover picture books every morning and reading them to her with her on my lap so that I could control the paper pages and make sure she couldn't maul them too badly during story time.  Then I added in an afternoon, post-nap book time during which she and I would paw through her basket of board books, and I'd read anything she chose as many times as she chose it until she was ready to do something else.  Sometimes afternoon book time lasted 5 minutes, and sometimes a half hour or more.  Now, being an Awesome Housewife, I had the luxury of time on my hands, but I believe it was the regularity of this practice that nurtured her love of books rather than the quantity of time we spent reading.  On days when we're really pressed for time, I've read to Livy during meals and during bath time (We had a good thing going where I'd read her poetry during her bath - we need to start that up again.).    

2.  Regularly expose them to letters.

It's easy to understand - if you want your kid to learn his or her letters, then you've got to show him or her letters.  We started insanely early because I am an insane babbler and constant singer.  In addition to repeating the alphabet song until my voice hurt, when Livy was a baby I also made up a goofy little song whose only words are "O-L-I-V-I-A, O-L-I-V-I-A, Olivia!," and then I sang it all the time.  That, plus Livy's love of a beautiful piece of custom name artwork from Auntie Morah, led to this:

Yep, she's 19 months old and attempting to spell her own name.  Also, there is a poop joke in there, you lucky devils!

We also played with a smaller set of these foam letters a lot, at first in the tub and then out of the tub, where she'd randomly fish them from the dispenser lid of old, plastic wipes holder for me to identify.  My mother-in-law's preschool also had this toy (It wasn't this expensive when we bought it; there must be a new version that's cheaper), which Livy loved, and so I bought one for our house, too.  That, plus reading tons of alphabet books, both ours and those that we borrowed from the library, really helped cement her alphabet identification.

3.  Books, Books, Books.

Quality is good, but at this point quantity is better.  If you're going to read lots of books with your kids, then you need lots of books to read.  Although I am an admitted book snob (Sookie Stackhouse and Alexia Tarabotti notwithstanding), in the early days of Livy's book journey, I put no limits on what we read during the day.  The booty from a book shower at the school where I was teaching when pregnant with Liv got us off to a good start in building a children's library in our home, and my rampant bibliophilia has added to that library mightily.  Now that Livy has a keener understanding of narrative and plot, I'm starting to weed out the literary twaddle and replace it with more quality children's literature, specifically feminist picture books, Caldecott Award winners and nominees, and books about whatever scientific topic is currently piquing Livy's interest (mostly space, volcanoes, and snow/winter).  I buy from everywhere, but especially love finding books at thrift stores, yard sales, and used book stores.  Scholastic.com is a great resource for paperbacks and thematic packs of books, plus my mother-in-law's preschool benefits from our purchases.  We also bring home sacks of books from the library to enjoy, and I'll order particular favorites from Powells.com or Amazon.com (Having worked at the best children's bookstore in the world, Bank Street Bookstore, I realize that I should be ordering from them.  I will remedy this immediately.)  Out of print favorites from the library are easy to find on Abebooks.com.  If I'm feeling adventurous and have the time and patience to go browsing with Livy, we'll go to Secret Garden Books or Third Place Books, both of which have excellent children's sections.  

And so that's what has worked.  Now that Olivia is showing an enormous interest in learning how to read, which I have expertly discerned from her cryptic comments like "Mommy, would you please teach me how to read?," we're off into the world of direct instruction.  So, these aren't so much suggestions as mere peeks into our current practice.  I don't know if or how they'll work in the long run, but this is what we're doing.

So far, with some tweaking, I really like using this book.  It's a great, straightforward curriculum for teaching phonics at home.  We followed the plan strictly for learning short vowel sounds, and then veered away from it a bit since Livy already knew her consonant sounds.  Now we're back for learning three-letter words using those short vowel sounds, and it's working wonderfully.  It involves a lot of index cards, so we've invested in a few packs of those and a plastic envelope for containing them.  Beyond that, all it requires is the book - no special materials required.  Easy peasy.

2.  Bob Books

We used to sell the daylights out of these at Bank Street Bookstore, and I know why now.  They're fantastic for the little people using them to learn how to read and easy for the big people helping them to use.  Each book has an illustrated list of the letter sounds used in it (M has a moon next to it, etc.), so kids can tell right away which sounds to look out for.  The stories are not riveting for adults, except for the book with the line "Muff has nine rags," but Livy genuinely likes them.

3.  Homeschooling binder & activity books.

We just started this a couple of weeks ago, and it's more of a playtime toy at this point than a serious piece of instruction, but I've made Livy what I'm calling her homeschooling binder. Livy has a number of preschool-oriented workbooks, some gifts and two that I purchased on learning how to print, and I've torn out some of their pages and put them into page protectors within the binder.  With the page protectors over the worksheets, she can use them over and over again with whiteboard markers.  So far my only intention with these pages is to get her to practice her pencil grip and start controlling her pen strokes in preparation for learning how to write.  She thinks it's fun to use the whiteboard pens, and she gets in a few minutes of concentrated small motor practice a day.  If it works, we can continue to use it for the reading, writing, and math exercises included in the workbooks.  So far she likes "doing school" with her binder and seems to be controlling her writing grip better.  Liv also has a number of cheap activity books with dot-to-dots, puzzles, and mazes in them that she likes to do.  While they're clearly games, I consider them legitimate educational activities in that she practices her small motor skills while improving her concentration and perseverance (you'd better bet I don't let her leave pages half done).

Santa got Livy this for Christmas, knowing that she loved the letter-based version of this, but the jury is still out.  Sometimes she plays with it, but she prefers to just make me write 3-letter words on index cards for her to carry around all day long.  We'll keep trying with it, but so far the verdict is an apathetic "meh."

Having written all of this, it seems like a lot.  It's not.  At all.  We do about 4 dedicated "lessons" a week, usually during breakfast, and each of those is about 5-10 minutes long.  No biggie whatsoever.

Best of luck, friends!  Happy reading!