Get Off the Phonics Train Early: Functional Reading After Phonics

Teaching children how to read is often regarded as an aggravating, difficult, hair-pulling exercise and it need not be. The problem is traditional education makes it so much more difficult than it needs to be.

Here is what I do to teach a child how to read. It is fairly straight forward and simple. It really comes down to this: once my children know that letters make up words, I get off the phonics train. As we see new words as we read, I switch to just pointing to a word and saying what it is.

My older two children are very fluent readers. My oldest son, who is 8 as I type this, was reading by about 4-1/2. He now pores through encyclopedias and almanacs and thus uses his skill of reading to greatly enrich his own personal education. As I type this, my youngest son just turned 4. So, he’s still a bit young. But just the other day, he spelled “s-t-o-p” with movable letters. He thus got to that critical first step in reading, in which he can string letters together to make a word.

And my daughter, who is now 6, could read words such as “jump,” sounding out j-u-m-p before she was 3. She read fairly fluently by 3-1/2. This is her at 3-1/2 reading a beginner book:

So, I have some experience with this. I have also read nearly countless books on education. The book I liked best for teaching young children is Help Your Preschoolder Build a Better Brain by John Bowman.

This is what I propose. There are two basic skills to learn how to read. After this, they can become self-taught readers. They are:

  1. Phonics
  2. Functional Reading


Phonics is indeed learning that letters make up words. This is a stepped process. In my reading program, I outline those steps. It’s not hard, but there are a few steps. And when you think about those steps, you can easily present activities to your child to learn them. Roughly they are:

  1. Learn letter (sounds)
  2. Learn that letters relate to words
  3. Learn that letters follow one to the next in order to read the word
  4. That the word relates to an object

To learn letter sounds (1) I recommend a simple letter puzzle:

To learn that letters make up words (2), I recommend matching movable letters to objects. As an example, how my daughter is matching “e” to elephant here:

If there are questions of how to present this, I have a more elaborate explanation of how to do this at my Get Children Reading! page.

To get children to see that a string of letters make up a word (3), I recommend a very straight forward approach. Draw those letters on a paper and have the child match movable letters to the drawn letters. Have an object of the word next to the word:

To show that words are attached to objects (4), the child can match the written word to its object. An example is how my daughter is matching “dog” to a picture of a dog:

So. As an overview, this is basically it.

There are other lessons you can do. There are assists you can give a child to help with any of these lessons. There are other lessons you can do if they aren’t interested in the above. Some of the 4 steps may even be able to be skipped, especially if children are older when learning to read. I outline more in the Get Children Reading! program. You can follow your child’s natural interest. Maybe they like “hopping” from one letter to the next, as drawn with tape on the ground, rather than stringing them out by matching them on paper. But, if anything, I hope my lesson ideas give you a creative starting point from which to launch. I recommend trying some of the lessons at young ages, but if children don’t like them put them away. Try at age, say, age 3, and then if they aren’t interested, try again at age 4.

But what I really want to emphasize: once they get that letters make up words (or even earlier), get off the phonics train.

Functional Reading

My problem with the traditional approach to reading is it focuses way too much on phonics. Children are taught to read by endlessly sounding out each letter in a word, with virtually no assists. Every time they read “Bob hits the tin can,” they are asked to read it as “bbbbb ooooo bbbbb. hhhhhh iiiiii ttttttts. thhhhh (?) eeeee (?) tttttttiiiiiiiinnnnn cccccccaaaaaannnnn.”

Worse, this is often bluntly the first introduction to reading they get.

It’s too much! This puts too much unnecessary taxation on the purely cognitive functions of the child’s mind, doing something unfair to those cognitive functions: asking them to perform while void of context and to think purely in discrete chunks without understanding the bigger whole.

This is what traditional education does. It stays in cognitive la-la land for way too long, putting pressure and expectation on the child, while never relating what they are doing to the real world. And knowing how to read should be easily related to the real world!

Once children basically get that words make up letters, I advocate you get off the phonics train. In fact, possibly sooner.

And it comes down this. When you see a word, just say it. Women means women. Cat means cat. Mom means mom.

You see, this gives children an incentive to read. It’s fun to feel big and important when they know that STOP mean STOP! Or that they can pick the right bathroom to go in. It gives them a natural drive and curiosity. You don’t have to sit, in a bare room trying to convince them to read bbbbbooooooobbbbbbb hiiiiiiittttttssssss thhhhhhheeeeee ttttttiiiiinnnnnn ccccccaaaaaannnnnn.

You can do this at any time, really. Just so long as they are interested. In fact, at all times I recommend just saying the word. I find it unlikely they will be interested in letters without some lessons drawing them in to show that letters act as symbols (such as the lessons presented previously). But, if a child is interested in a word, at any time, just say it. In fact, I see no need to make a child sound out a word purely by reading it ever. All “sounding out” can be done as they build words with movable letters.

We humans don’t read by sounding out every letter. Once we know a word, we commit it to memory. Learning to read has basically three steps: 1) know letter sounds 2) know letters make up words and then 3) commit the words to memory. Strict phonics denies the child #3 in that process. And this is extremely taxing on the brain. I can’t find it now (and I looked) but I remember reading one study that linked excessive phonics use to dyslexia, because it denied to the child step #3 in the reading process.

Self-Taught Readers

Once a child knows:

  1. Letters make up words
  2. What those words are

They can become self taught readers. They can learn hundreds upon hundreds of words. In a book they are reading, they see a picture of an egg and they also see the word “egg.” They know what sounds eee and gggg make. They can easily deduce from word and the picture that egg indeed reads as egg.

As they go out and see oddities, they naturally fold them in. “Women” doesn’t totally read as “www oooo (as in ‘octopus’) mmmm eeee nnnn.” But they know the word says “women.” That’s because when you go to this word, you just told them, “this says ‘women.'” They naturally see any weirdness of language. You don’t have to remember the 400+ different letter combinations such as “ough.” When you get to odd ones like “ough,” indeed explain it says “ooo” or answer any questions. But that’s all you have to do.

The Power of Mom and Dad

Finally I do want to note that I recommend YOU teach your child how to read. This is because there is power in the attached relationship they have with you. Children respond to the loving, soothing voice of their mother. And you can monitor them and come up with unique activities for them. We shouldn’t shy away from this. Anyone telling us we can’t educate our children is not our friend.

So that is it. This is what I recommend. Get off the phonics train early. Tell me if this makes sense and if it helps you.

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