For several weeks I have been tutoring a four-year-old, teaching her to read.
- I started with letter tiles, placing one before her at a time and asking her what sound each letter represented. She knew many of them, but not all of them. As I expected, she couldn’t sound out “e” and “i” and was vague on “u” too. The consonants “d,” “j,” “q,” “x,” “y” and “z” also were mysteries.
- On a paper I had written all the sounds associated with individual letters, and as she said them properly, I crossed them out, to know which letters we needed to focus on.
- Since she was confident about “o” and “a,” I used those letters to form CVC words, real and imaginary, spelling them phonetically. With the letter “a” I sandwiched two consonants, one on either side, separating the tiles and then moving them closer and closer until they looked like a word. All the time I was pronouncing the sounds, such as “c” “a” and “t.”
- Since the hardest letter sounds for beginning readers to hear are the middle sounds in CVC words, I kept using the same vowel sound, the letter “a,” for one half-hour lesson. I put a “t” after the “a” and kept it there for several minutes, exchanging one beginning consonant for another as she read the words.
- My little student caught on quickly that the sound in the middle and at the end of the word didn’t change, so all she had to focus on was the beginning sound. When we encountered one of her difficult letter sounds, I would say it and then she would.
- At our next lesson, I repeated much of the first lesson, asking her to pronounce the sound for each letter tile. This time she sounded the “q” consistently correct, so I crossed out that letter sound on my list.
- I made CVC words using the letter “o.” Some words were real; some were nonsense words or real words spelled phonetically. What she showed me was that she knows the sounds of various letters.
- The next week I used both “a” and “o” words. This was more difficult because my student needed to keep track of two sounds in CVC words.
- This past week I used “u” as the vowel. At first, my student would forget the sound “u” represents, but by the end of the lesson, she was remembering it.
Because the lesson lasts just 30 minutes, this student hangs in there, but by the end of a half hour she is losing interest. I compliment her work often, telling her, “You didn’t know that letter last week, and now you do!” or “You figured out that word all by yourself.” Sometimes she acts out a word or tells me what it means, and I compliment her on that too.
These early lessons focus on letter sounds and how combining sounds gives us words. It might seem boring to an adult, but brain research shows that there are no built-in pathways in our brains for reading, the way there are for movement and speech. A novice reader, like my student, must activate much more of her brain to read “cat” than an experienced reader like me. Over years of reading, my brain has built shortcuts to figuring out words that this child’s brain hasn’t done yet.
At our next lesson, we will do more CVC words using “u” as the vowel, and then exchange the “u” for “a” and “o.” We will focus on letter sounds my student is still learning. Her progress may seem slow, but it is steady.