A post about reading instruction is not what you might expect to see on a Charlotte Mason early years blog. One of my huge motivations for wanting to homeschool in the first place was the sheer joy of teaching my children to read. Sheer joy, you say? Does teaching Charlotte Mason reading lessons sound like something other than joyful and delightful to you? I hope that I can make it easier. This post will explain the different methods that Charlotte Mason used for reading instruction, and describe the modern day equivalents. It also gives a short description of the activities she recommended for reading instruction.
Miss H has started to read on her own. Since my dream is to actually teach her how to read, I’ve jumped in with some lessons when she requests them. A year or two ago, when dreaming ahead to these beautiful moments of reading instruction, I pictured myself purchasing a reading curriculum. One that aligned with Charlotte Mason, of course, but one that was based on what I knew about reading instruction through my Master’s degree work and my teaching experience. Surely Charlotte Mason’s recommendations for reading instruction wouldn’t be enough.
But I was wrong.
After carefully examining Charlotte Mason’s words about reading instruction, I’ve realized that many of her methods align very well with modern reading research. Although modern reading programs go for the quick-fix, Charlotte Mason thought that teaching a child to read should be a slow process. So Miss H and I have been proceeding slowly through the processes that Charlotte Mason recommended in Home Education.
What Style is Charlotte Mason Reading Instruction?
There are two main styles of reading instruction:
Whole language- The whole language approach surrounds the child with print, meaningful stories, and opportunities to write. Children aren’t taught the specific sounds that each letter makes, but are presented with whole words and are expected to make meaning of them gradually. This method was especially popular in the 1980’s. I remember being taught to read this way, and as a young child, it stressed me out when the teacher asked me to read the words in the large book she held up. I told her what was happening in the picture, and she said, “You’re supposed to read the words, not tell about the pictures.” I remember replying, “Oh. I can’t read.”
Besides leaving some kids (me!) utterly confused, experts also worried that at-risk children or those with special needs would be harmed by this approach. And, as you can probably imagine, this approach didn’t make for super great spellers. (Not that spelling is considered important anymore in some circles, anyway!)
The whole language approach started to fade in the mid-2000’s, but bits and pieces of it are still found in schools and text books.
Phonics– A phonics approach teaches phonemes, the distinct sounds in the English language. Meaning is often overlooked in favor of teaching the workings of each letter and letter combination. Children often read nonsense words just to use the phonics patterns they have learned. Some people argue that this approach focus so much on decoding (making meaning of the symbols) that reading comprehension plays second fiddle. Not to mention, this approach can take the joy out of reading for many children since there is so much “drill and kill” involved.
A Balanced Approach
My very first year of teaching, I filled in for three maternity leaves, which means I had to not bomb three interviews in order to be hired. The majority of my year was spent in first grade. I remember sitting in the interview for the first grade position, a nervous, just-out-of-college young lady, my knees jumping up and down and desperately wanting to bite my nails. The principal asked me, “Which do you agree with: a whole language approach or a phonics approach to reading?” Oh! What a tough question! Which one was I supposed to prefer? I remembered learning about whole language in college, but once I started student teaching, it was ALL about the phonics approach. In a meek little voice, I said, “A balanced approach? Balancing phonics and whole language?” The principle boomed, “Exactly!! You have to balance them both!”
And all this to say, my friends, that Charlotte Mason understood the balanced approach long before whole language and phonics even existed. She recommended that children learn their letter sounds as early as the age of two, or when they become interested. She gave recommendations for simple word building to understand phonics patterns (she described word families, sets of rhyming words using the same phonics patterns, long before this was put into a teaching textbook.)
Charlotte Mason Phonics
In order to give you a more picture of what Charlotte Mason reading instruction looks like, I wanted to share the activities that she mentioned. Before formal lessons, Charlotte Mason recommended these phonics “games”-
- learning each letter sound, including short and long vowel sounds (Home Education, pages 201-202)
- short vowel word families, like cat, sat, mat, etc. (Home Education, pages 202-203)
- silent e long vowel word families, such as mate, late, rate, etc. (Home Education, pages 202-203)
- word families with final blends. Blends are two letters that work together while still making two sounds, like –ng, –nd, (Home Education, pages 202-203)
- word families with final digraphs. A digraph is when two letters make one sound, like –ch, –th, –ph (Home Education, pages 202-203)
- words that begin with digraphs, like this, that, and chirp. (Home Education, pages 202-203)
We often hear that there should be no reading lessons until a child is six, but Charlotte Mason made these recommendations before the section in Home Education entitled “First Reading Lessons.” Of the above phonics recommendations, she said:
This is not reading, but it is preparing the ground for reading; words will be no longer unfamiliar, perplexing objects, when the child meets with them in a line of print.” Home Education, page 203
After formal lessons begin, phonics seem to take a backseat to “reading by sight” (which I’ll explain in the next section.) She said:
For the second, and less important, part of our task, the child must know the sounds of the letters, and acquire power to throw given sounds into new combinations.” Home Education, page 216
- Substituting initial sounds using their own set of letters. For example, “Change butter to mutter.” or “Change lent to spent.” (Home Education, page 216)
- Avoid nonsensical phonics patterns (cle, cla, etc.) but make the words your child learns meaningful. (Home Education, page 216)
- Spelling lessons (or, word building lessons) to create words in the same word family (such as coat, moat, etc.) (Home Education, pages 219-220
- “Little talks” about words that don’t fit phonics patterns (example- goat and note.) (Home Education, page 219)
Charlotte Mason Reading By Sight
I did not call this section “whole language” because even though there are similarities to the whole language approach, it isn’t exactly the same. Charlotte Mason called this “reading by sight.” The basic ideas are the same though: present a child with whole, real-life words instead of bits and pieces of words.
“It is far easier for a child to read plum-pudding than to read ‘to, to,’ because ‘plum-pudding’ conveys a far more interesting idea.” Home Education, page 209
With this idea in mind, Charlotte Mason recommended the following activities to help a child “read by sight.”
- Learning whole words from a nursery rhyme (10 or 12 at a time)
- Arranging the words in order
- Arranging the words in a column and reading them (Home Education, page 218)
- Search for familiar words in context (word hunt) (Home Education, page 218)
- Forms short sentences that are dictated to him (Home Education, page 218)
- Forms his own sentences (Home Education, page 218)
- Use counters or place savers to represent unknown words. In modern terms, this is the “skip it and move on” strategy, used to build contextual understanding. (Home Education, page 220)
Be Okay With Slow Progress
Charlotte Mason’s guidelines for teaching reading are wonderful and thorough. But they are slow. She said that we should be content to move slowly, and that by the end of the year moving at this pace, a child should now 600 words. I have a friend who said that slowly progressing through a nursery rhyme and then reading through a simple living book like Frog and Toad was the vast majority of reading instruction in her home.
Right now, Miss H and I are working on some phonics patterns as Charlotte Mason recommended before formal lessons. But to prepare, I’ve made some reading printables using the Charlotte Mason processes above. If your child is ready for formal reading lessons, make sure to check them out in the My Little Robins shop. These will save you time and effort, and make the teaching-to-read process a little simpler!