A school teacher suggests how to teach preschoolers to read at home
I had been teaching secondary school for about four years when I started to notice a pattern. Many of my tall adult-looking kids were embarrassed to read aloud and they shuffled restlessly, laughed and whispered inaudibly as if any reasonable and merciful teacher would please let them sit down. For some time I thought it was shyness or a problem of one or two individuals only but talking with them one on one I discovered a sadder revelation – many of them could barely read. Somehow in this high-tech, computer literate, well-funded education system, they had fallen between the cracks and now were struggling in ways unimaginable. Not only did they get low marks in English but also in Social Studies, Science, Geography, Legal Studies, in fact in anything that required them to read. And that meant they even got low marks in math because they did not read the problems well, and low marks in any written part of Home economics, Industrial Arts, even Drama and Phys Ed.
Inability to read was standing in the way of their success in nearly all subjects. And what was worse for me to watch was that a long time ago each of them knew that, and made a mental leap to a horrible conclusion- I am stupid. It was completely inaccurate- often they were very very smart. But they had not been taught well and maybe someone inadvertently had also had the audacity to blame them not the poor teaching, which was a heartbreak. Whatever had happened back then, from this they had leapt to another coping mechanism- I will hide this fact; I will mock the system and not even try because that way no one will be able to see my problem. Often the poor readers fell into two groups – the loner isolated kids and the highly visible behavior problems.
I did what I could to help these kids but many of them by age 16 dropped out of school, a few entered the criminal justice system, a few got pregnant. I felt a kind of despair for them.
When my husband and I had our first son, I watched him closely and one day while camping, when he was two I had an idea. It occurred to me that he already was interested in being read to, and in what the letters on the page were, and here was a chance I could use to save him the heartbreak of those kids I had taught. I would teach him to read before he even went to school.
I scoured the market to find material for this early instruction and was sad to see that there were many game books about the alphabet, and some audio and video and even computer games for young kids, but there was nothing that actually taught the skill sequentially from zero ability to say a grade 3 reading level. And I had figured out I needed that because my little son was no different from other kids but that meant he was incredibly logical. It would be very kind to show him how to put letters together to make words. But it would be very cruel to confuse him with oddities of the language right off, with words like orange where ‘g’ sounds ‘j’, or words like ‘ boy’ where y sounds e, or words like ‘night’ where two letters make no sound at all. If I did that, his logical mind would find the system illogical and he might even feel stupid.
I owed him a course that was air-tight in its logic, at least at first, so that he felt a joy in reading and never ran into exceptions to confuse his early theories. I needed a course that was at his interest level for toys and food and little songs and I needed something that he could do for very short times a day – maybe even 10 minutes, to match his attention span.
Another top priority was a course that really taught reading. I had seen too many kids who guessed at words, reading ‘commander’ as ‘computer’ and ‘ devious’ as ‘devil’. I knew that a bad way to teach kids to read was to have them guess at words or to have them memorize little books pretending they could read. I wanted him to actually learn to figure out what the word said, to sound it out. I realized that having him learn a lot of terms like vowel, consonant, digraph, blend, was completely unnecessary. So what was needed was something elegant and simple, with no unnecessary labels- just fun.
I did not want to push him. I wanted to take however long it took, but I wanted to move through the course step by step so he was gradually acquiring the alphabet and how to read. It became apparent that I would have to design the course myself. Maybe another exists but I had not found it.
It really is quite simple to do this, just time-consuming. I would like to explain how other parents can do it with a few basic insights into the learning style of the very young.
At three my son wanted to know what those marks were on the page. I figured if he could name 26 toys he could identify the 26 letters. But I knew I should not teach them all at once. He could not remember them all. I would have to break the task down into pieces, even as slowly as one letter every few days. For each letter I would show the shape, teach a rhyme to explain its shape, show him objects that started with the sound of the letter and show him pictures of these objects.
I decided to teach lower case letters only, to not confuse him. I would not require him to print the letter himself since his manual dexterity was not sophisticated enough- this would be reading only, not printing. And to further simplify, I would make the letter’s name that same sound. H was huh not aitch, m was muh not em. This was eminently logical since those are the sounds those letters make. I would even let him name the letter by its memory device. For instance h was also called ‘house’ since the memory device was that it looked like a house with a chimney.
So the first principle of the course was to simplify, simplify. Teach only one small thing at a time.
The second principle was to understand his frame of reference. I entered into his world by explaining the shape of the letters in stories –s was a snake, w was waves, m was mittens, c was a curl. I entered his world by singing nursery rhymes with that sound at the start, by eating food that day that started with that sound. On the h day for instance we’d sing about Humpty Dumpty, we’d eat a hot dog, we’d look at houses and try on hats. We’d draw happy smiles on faces. We’d immerse ourselves in ‘h’ sounds and I’d label things around the house with that one letter, lower case ‘h’. We’d go for a walk and I’d have him feel the texture of any embossed lower-case h letters we saw. I carefully ignored and did not expose him to any other letters at all, just the one we were studying or ones we had studied. We did not deal with capital letters. I sorted alphabet magnets and alphabet cereal and alphabet soup letters so I only brought to his attention the letter we were studying. Yes it was kind of hard to set up, but my son could see what I was doing.
He could see that this was the sound of the letter, and that the letter was distinguished by its shape. It did not matter if the letter were made of cheese or wood or linoleum carving or plastic or noodles. He discriminated what mattered about the letter was not its color or size. He was doing essential noticing of relevant variables all little kids have to deal with when they first try to read.
Often parents wonder for instance why a child confuses b with d. And yet they expect the child to look at a kitchen chair and call it a chair if it is facing left or right. The child is very logical – he is wondering if the direction of the letter matters or not because it does not matter for labels of other objects. He has to be taught that in this instance direction matters. And I did this for instance with my poem. Every letter’s shape was explained in a story I created. Lower case ‘b’ was ‘bump on bottom’, it sounded ‘buh’ and admittedly the clue could be confused with d. But for ‘duh’ I gave the hint of a doorknob and then a door. First you touch the doorknob, then you open the door. So the child got the message that if the lump at the bottom comes first, it is a doorknob ‘duh’ – the letter d. Studying each letter like this was easy. It was within the understanding of a 3 year old easily and each day we’d review the letter of the previous day and some days we did no more than that. We’d cut cheese slices into that shape, roll plasticene into that shape, and I’d even carve in the sand or write on the blackboard that shape. We revelled in it. And then after a few days we’d move on and do the same with another letter.
I decided not to do the whole alphabet right off. After I had taught 7 letters I added ‘a’ which I said was half an ‘apple’ and it said ah. Then one magic day I reviewed the 8 letters we now knew and I put two together – a t. I sat down with my son and showed him ah then tuh and said them together as I put them together – ah-tuh, ah-tuh, and then said it faster and faster till I was saying ‘at’. He probably had not a clue what I was doing. Then I did the same for three letters we’d studied – puh, ah, tuh. I put them down together from little blocks we’d made, and then I sounded them out together faster and faster till I was saying ‘pat’. I did this a few more times, with sat, sam and then quit for the day and we went to play.
The next day I showed him a few more letter blocks of the 8 we knew and I showed him again how to push them together –r at, ram, pam, hat. I showed him papers with these words printed next to illustrations I’d made of what they meant, and he drew a little pencil line from the word to the picture. The next day we did a few more words with the 8 letters he knew – map, mat, ram, ham.
I recall vividly the first time he put the letters together and sounded them out, nonchalantly. He was reading! What shocked me was that he did not seem surprised at this or anything – it was just a normal progression. He wanted to do more – and by the way I always quit when he wanted to stop and even sometimes made him wait till the next day if he wanted to go on a long time. In this way reading was never a punishment and was always a game.
After our first six letters I brought in another one. Then another and so on, and then after a few more we added another vowel, though I did not of course call it a vowel. Eventually I had introduced him to all 26 letters and along the way, to any logical word combination that could be made with the ones we knew to date. I excluded all words with silent letters, double letters or any exceptional pronunciation of letters from the restricted 26 sounds we’d studied. By the end of the alphabet he could read at least 600 words. His self-confidence was a joy to see and he wanted to do more.
The process took about a year. I figured it was time for the capital letters so I invented stories of how the letters grew up – b got a new bump, h got a new chimney. I created rhymes to remind him of the sounds of the letters and logical stories about letters fighting to explain why some double letters make odd sounds. For instance to explain long sounds of vowels in words like ‘gate’ I’d say guh wanted to talk to tuh but ah got in the way. Ah was always butting in and yelling “Get out of the way, ay” so ah now said ‘ay. In the situation where ‘e’ got in the way, as in ‘Pete’ this little letter is bossy and keeps calling out for attention” It’s me!”. I invented how small ‘I’ says “Hi “, small oh says ‘Hello-o-“, small uh says “How are you- you” and the odd thing is, ridiculous as these stories seem to an adult, to a child they are logical enough and they bridge that gap as he starts to learn a system for reading.
Armed with reasons for shapes of letters and reasons for combinations of letters making new sounds, the child had entered a kind of story land where letters were the characters – but it was a very intriguing word to him and logical. English is one of the least logical and most difficult languages in the world so I knew that if I really wanted to eventually have him read anything well, we’d have to move on to the exceptions and silent letters I continued writing the course and helping him one day at a time, to look at the oddities as funny too. But as I mentionned we did not do this until he was very well grounded in the logic of a system that was easy to understand.
We continued till I had four volumes of books and he had now a reading vocabulary of several thousand words. Best of all, he was equipped to enter school feeling competent and excited about learning.
Here is the poem the child learned, combining rhyme, rhythm, visual clues and logic for the alphabet-
huh is for house
muh is for mittens
puh pretty flower
suh – snake is bitten
wuh is for waves
tuh for traintracks
ruh -round the corner
ah –apple stacks
buh- bump on bottom
cuh –is for curl
duh –is for doorknob
guh –long-haired girl
nuh-nail got bent
ih- it jumped up
eh- egg felll open right into a cup
oh- is for octopus
uh- under umbrella
fuh has a funny top. He’s a strange fella.
juh- just a jet’s trail
kuh –kite on string
luh is for ladder. You climb it in spring.
vuh is for very good
yuh- yarn with tail you see
zuh is for zigzag you draw when you feel happy.
x is for crossing the street where you’ve been
quh is a lady with long dress, a queen.
My husband and I went on to have three more children, who all took this course. All 4 entered grade one able to read and all did very well in school. I for free tutored neighbor kids and later had people drive to my little sessions from all over the city. Eventually we filmed the course on video so that people would not have to drive over. All of the methods work- the workbook with parent, the video, or the small classes. I am sure that other parents are anxious to ensure that their 3-5 year olds too get a headstart for school. Some of my early graduates are now in international baccalaureate programs, and faculties of law, medicine, engineering. I must admit that I am not the only reason they are doing well. But I dare to say I played a small part. It is a real boost to children, maybe the best gift we can give next to love, to teach them to read.
Here are my websites for the preschool reading course
I have made the course into a home- video for those who want to have me do the teaching but in their home at their convenience (and to reuse it for other kids) Teachers have told me the video is also useful for reluctant readers already in school and for immigrant children or teens who need immersion in English.
I have also prepared a faster-paced one volume quick summary of the course for kids who are 10 and up who need a quick review of basic skills. It is called the Reading Refresher. Some have found this quick one also works for people for whom English is a second language.
I have also prepared a slower-paced course for the handicapped. ITips for this are at
I have a course to teach math to preschoolers. Tips for it are at
I have a course for adults with reading problems. It is called Our Little Secret and its website is
And I have a course to teach reading skills in French. It is at
I send out free comprehensive brochures of the above tips. Just send me your street address.
Best wishes with your teaching. It’s worth it.
Bev Jaremko, (403)283-2400
521-18 A St. NW Calgary AB Canada T2N2H3
Teacher and mother