On learning to read

I was a precociously early reader, and that, alongside being very small, fairly obnoxious, wearing thick glasses and starting primary school late as a newcomer to London after an early childhood in Norway….well, it’s safe to say that the years spent in primary education weren’t my finest.

All that to say, I didn’t want to focus on my children learning to read much before they started school. I mean if they had showed a particular interest or fascination in being able to read independently before school then obviously I would be flexible, but I wasn’t about to pursue that agenda. 

And so, my firstborn learnt to read in reception (kindergarten) at school, just before his fifth birthday. 

It was all a bit of a mystery and I found the rigid phonics approach a little convoluted and a lot confusing. What are the phonemes in this word, my son would ask me, and I’d have to dash off and make a cup of tea urgently.

In any case, Jacob learnt to read; phonics worked well for him and he loves reading, so that all turned out nicely.

And for various reasons, including an international move and lining up grade levels, I have ended up teaching Elsa, my 5 year old, to read at home. But after a lot of research (scrolling through forums) I found it all still, really, a bit of a mystery. 

So I thought I’d share here what has worked well for us, as she is now a pretty confident reader, and still loves books, so I feel relatively reassured that I didn’t do anything totally wrong or put her off reading forever.

Look if you’re a teacher and you read the next few paragraphs and think you know a better way and I’ve gone about this the wrong way: you’re definitely right! I’m definitely wrong! I’m just a mum and I’ve given it a go and I have no formal training at all. 

But if you’re not a teacher and this might be of interest, then here follows the mum and the mom approach to teaching your child to read: a mash up of phonics, sight words and repetition. 

1. Letter recognition

This really all falls under the banner of ‘pre reading’ – just slowly building familiarity identifying letters and letter formation.

There are lots of simple ways to do this. Fun alphabet games. A classic Seuss alphabet book. And homemade activities, like writing out the alphabet on a strip of paper divided into ‘parking spaces’ and then either just driving toy cars into the spaces, or labelling cars with letters and finding pairs.

Alongside letter recognition, you will likely want to help your child start to work on forming letters. 

And look some children are just more into this than others and really my main aim was always, primarily to not make them hate reading and writing. 

So for the child who is a reluctant writer or too busy to sit and colour / use tweezers to improve fine motor skills you will want to think laterally about giving them an opportunity to practice these skills while doing something they actively enjoy. For example, Jacob was never particularly motivated to spend long with a colouring book but he absolutely loved these maze books by Kumon

2. Pointing as you read

Not sure I can make any jaunty quips about this. Just…point to the words as you read.

You can also start identifying the odd word – “this word says ‘hat’” and then have them find that word elsewhere on the page / in the book.

3. Just get going

I was surprised about this but really if you are ready to help your child learn to read then you can start reading basic books together in combination with learning letters and phonics – you don’t have to wait.

The benefit of this is that it is actually pretty motivating for children to feel independent with books. Find readers that will appeal to them. 

The classic Peter and Jane series.

Or the Biff and Chip set.

Or Poppy and Sam.

Or… reader versions of something a little less classic:

4. Phonics and toy talk

When Jacob was learning to read in the UK with a strictly phonics based approach there was a lot of emphasis on repeating phonics and using ‘toy talk’ which w-as-s / j-uuu-s-t / s-p-eeeea-k-ing very slowly and stretching words out to hear the sounds within the word. 

Doing this means that when they are sounding out words in books then they have some context for joining the sounds up together. Or, it is an excellent way to wind up your siblings at supper, as it turns out.

5. Tricky words that you can’t sound out

There are some words that are ‘tricky’ in the phonics world – that is, they dont really sound like they ought to. 

Like ‘the’ ‘he’ ‘me’ and about a billion others. 

These are also words that less phonics-based reading programs would just call ‘sight words’ or as I call them, words you just have to knuckle down and learn (less punchy title). I gave my daughter a little notebook of words and added one or two every time we read a book that contained one of these tricky words. 

6. Library and variety

I think we’re all in agreement here that the most important thing about teaching your child to read is that you don’t want to put them off literature in the process.

My big breakthrough here has just been making sure I am letting the children drive decision-making on which books they read. So I will pick classics for them – the Roald Dahls and Judith Kerrs (and some ideas here) and will buy these / read these for their bedtime stories – but then I have made a real theatre around going to libraries and never saying no to books (pretty much). 

This does however mean that books like this will enter your house:

Although teenage mutant ninja turtles do abbreviate to TMNT which is awfully similar to tMatM so maybe I’m a closet fan

And this (head in hands)

But the good news is that all four children still love books and I enjoy the odd Fiona Walker novel so who am I to judge?! I think (hope) we can overlook some trashy literature in pursuit of a passion for reading.

Very cute but as you can imagine I was also nagging him to hurry up and look where he was going

It’s not My Little Pony but it’s not much better. Also, note the hideous kitchen. It’s gone! The new one is underway! Updates to follow soon.


I’m writing this from our temporary kitchen. Turns out despite watching hours (days?) of Grand Designs I have limited patience for house renovations when it involves my own actual house. Some survival tips on renovations coming up soon though, once I’ve established that we are going to survive.

tMatM x (not TMNT)


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