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Is He Behind or On His Own Path? Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I am homeschooling a seven-year-old and a six-year-old. The older one picked up on reading right away. Last year by this time she knew all the letters and their sounds and was trying to spell words out loud. Her handwriting wasn’t too bad either, starting off with lots of errors for upper case and lower case, but that’s so much better now.

How do I get the younger one to grasp the words in the simple story books my daughter enjoyed so much last year when he isn’t even interested in learning the names and sounds of the letters?

Totally Different Children

Dear T.D.C.,

As you have observed, every student is different. For starters, there are generally accepted differences between boys and girls, especially in the early years, for language and fine motor skills. Although there may be a social influence of encouragement by parents and others for different skills, your two are fitting the typical pattern. Usually girls are about six months ahead of boys for these skills. Boys are ahead of girls for running, jumping, and playing catch. Ordinarily, boys are more interested in activities that keep them moving.

There’s No Rush

The beauty of homeschooling is that things can go at each students’ pace. Your six-year-old doesn’t need to master skills according to anyone’s timetable but his own. Much like learning to walk and to dress himself, his reading skills will advance with his eventual desire to conquer them. It’s all part of his unfolding path toward independence. Some day he’ll want to read his own mail.

Start with Stories

The best way to encourage a desire to read is to read to your child. Choose books that captivate his interest with their illustrations, characters, settings, and plot lines. Find humor that tickles his funny bone. Include books that can be sung – if he enjoys music. If he prefers non-fiction, follow his lead to explore the topics of his choice, from creatures at the bottom of the sea to distant constellations, or anything in between, as you summarize the text and read the captions for him. Only read to him as long as he’s interested so he associates it as a pleasant activity.

You can also incorporate storytelling to support his interest in literature. Use well-known folk tales when you’re in the car or after lights are out in his bedroom. Repetition builds his brain cells as you use consistent voices for each of the characters and heighten the drama with a well-rehearsed bellow or a whisper. When he gets to the point of wanting to read a story for himself, he’s very likely to imitate your exact expression when Papa Bear discovers that, “Someone’s been eating my porridge!”

Conversation and Comprehension

It helps to decode the sounds that make up words, and the words that make up sentences, if he already knows the meanings of the words. Vocabulary is best built through conversation and real experiences. For example, when you ride up in an elevator together, mention that it’s fun to “elevate” this way. “That means to go up,” you’ll say.

Rich conversation is easily carried out anywhere, any time. Again, follow your child’s interests and ask good questions to get him thinking. Encourage his questions, not necessarily by answering them all immediately, but by delving into books or the internet, or subject matter experts, to explore possible answers. Grandpa who grew up on a produce farm might be a good source of information about how potatoes grow. Someday when your student sees “tuber” and “propagate” in print, he will know just what they mean – as well as how to pronounce them. Reading is so much more than the sounds of the letters.


Before a child knows how to read you can show him the purpose of print. Together, you can label toy bins and the drawers of his dresser – with a simple drawing and the word that tells what’s in it. Ask him to title or describe his art work – and clearly print what he says where he tells you it goes on the paper. A child might enjoy making up long stories that you write out as he illustrates page by page. Or he might compose an email to a cousin – with you on the keyboard. Or you can simply ask him to contribute to a grocery list. Then take the list with you and show him how it tells you what to put in the cart.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonics – the sounds of individual letters and letter combinations – are part of reading, too. By age four, most children can hear similarities in the ending sounds of words, otherwise known as rhyme. Plenty of picture books use rhyme to hold the reader’s attention. Then there’s the starting sounds – “Barber, baby, bubbles, and a bumblebee” to quote Dr. Seuss’s ABC. Words are made up of syllables, from one syllable to many, as in supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Inside a syllable there may be more than one phoneme – or sound – such as the “s”, “oo”, and “p” in the first syllable of that very long word from Disney’s “Mary Poppins”.

You can play with all these elements of spoken language to help your student hear them long before he’s ready to read them. Made up sounds are good practice, too. Can he sound like thunder? Like a robin? Like popcorn popping? Try to capture his sound-making by transcribing it. “K-r-r-r-r” could be his version of thunder.

Shapes Before Letters

There are many activities that help a student’s visual sense to recognize patterns so that he can quickly recognize a word by its shape. For example, the word “bed” has upright lines at the beginning and at the end, and three curved shapes (almost circles) in the middle. Block play, art activities, and even food experiences and observing nature can all hone skills in shape awareness.

Plenty of educational toy sets involve pattern matching and pattern repetition – dominoes, Go Fish playing cards, parquetry blocks, etc. These are also excellent for early math concepts, long before using digits to represent the numerals.

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

When you’re out and about, model for your student how you use signs for information. Most little ones quickly catch on to company logos for their favorite fast foods or other pleasures. Even a traffic light is an example of using symbols to express an important communication.

Use time in the car, or on walks around the neighborhood, to point out symbols and words.

One day your novice reader will notice that mail addressed to him uses the same words that are on the street sign at the end of the block.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  

Chesapeake Children’s Museum and community partners will present: Kids ‘n’ Kaboodle, the totally free fair for all the children of Annapolis, Saturday, June 4, 12-4 pm at the Weems-Whelan Memorial Athletic fields, 935 Spa Road. Overflow parking is available at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase Street.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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