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) that could be worked on before a child officially starts reading lessons. And when a child was ready to learn to read, she used Reading By Sight lessons.
Her method, Reading By Sight, is not to be confused with sight words. She introduced whole words, interesting words, one at a time, in the context of nursery rhymes.
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 learn a few thousand words a year. 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.