One of my main motivations for wanting to homeschool in the first place was the sheer joy of teaching my children to read. Getting to watch my child's face light up with recognition when he or she reads their first word. Getting to help pick out a book when they build enough confidence to read on their own. Witnessing these things is a huge blessing!
I've used Charlotte Mason's approach to reading lessons for several years now, and it has helped my children enjoy reading lessons and eventually fall in love with reading. But these methods have been under fire lately, as voices are rising up and saying phonics, and only phonics, is the way to teach children to read. So, does this make Charlotte Mason's approach to reading illegitimate? I personally don't think so!
This post was updated October 2021
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 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.
The whole language approach started to fade in name but the mid-2000's, but many people think that it just began using a different name.
Phonics– A phonics approach teaches phonemes, the distinct sounds in the English language. Children who learn phonics tend to understand spelling patterns. Some argue that since reading isn't a natural process, direct instruction in phonics is the only way to teach reading.
There are some downsides. Sometimes, meaning is stripped when children learn nonsense words for the sake of figuring out a phonics pattern. This could make reading for meaning seem like it takes a backseat to reading to decode. Comprehension may not come naturally when there is so much focus on letter sounds. 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 do 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 girl, 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. After a word was introduced, she drew attention to the phonics pattern that made the word. In short, both of the popular approaches were used.
Be Okay With Slow Progress
Charlotte Mason’s guidelines for teaching reading are wonderful and thorough. But they aren't as quick as a purely phonics approach. 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. Little by little, this adds up, all while your child learns to love reading