Sam’s Secret to Learning to Read

It’s been a long time since I’ve worked up the nerve to write about my teach-Sam-to-read-project. That’s mainly because I’m not always sure how to talk about it…at least without coming across as either a nut case, or a tiger parent out to make you feel bad about not teaching your toddler to read. Please don’t hear it that way. To put it simply, I’m teaching Sam to read because I love reading. I think that reading can be easy, words can be our friends, and books can unlock our best adventures. I believe that reading should be introduced right along with spoken language, and if it’s done that way, in most cases it’s 1000x easier to learn how to read, and reading will always be easy. Here’s my philosophy: if I introduce written language to Sam as a way of life–just as I introduce him to spoken words and food groups and people and things and sounds and textures–he won’t know a day that he wasn’t friends with words. And I want to share a couple of those ideas, because I think everyone hopes that reading will come easily to their kids. 

Let me give you a little bit of context, first, since my strategy isn’t phonics-based; bear with me! Early reading, as I prefer to understand it, is based on sight words: seeing a word as a whole and recognizing it as you would recognize a shape. For example, when Sam sees a circle, he knows it’s a circle at one glance. Same with words: “Refrigerator” doesn’t create some long process of phonetic decipherment in Sam’s brain; he just sees the word and instantly points to the fridge. He recognizes it as a whole. This actually makes the whole reading thing much, much simpler, because you don’t have to struggle to teach little kids any rules. You just start by getting them acquainted with words as little entities that represent familiar things, actions, or ideas. Sam sees the word “fish” and instantly smacks his lips in a fish kiss. He sees “Home Depot” and yells, “BEE DEE PO!” And this is how words become old friends and reading becomes wholly fun. If you do this with enough words, then later on the kid will start to infer the rules of phonics (which aren’t totally reliable anyway)—and/or be taught them—and be able to figure out the rest of the words for themselves. A side note about the alphabet: I taught Sam about fifty words before he started to care about individual letters. Most letters have zero meaning on their own. They’re too conceptual; they’re just tools. So I didn’t start with letters, but I’d point them out sometimes, and then after a while Sam started getting really interested in which letters were which. He was already used to seeing them, so he learned them super fast, without any effort.

Anyway, so I’ve been teaching Sam to read since he was born, simply by showing him words. The result? He adores words. I wouldn’t say “he can read,” but I would say “he can read a lot of stuff.”  He’s only 2 1/2, but he instinctively gets how words work and, in general, which letters go with which sounds. Words delight him, crack him up, keep him on the alert; he looks for them everywhere. The more he learns, the more he wants to learn.

Want to know our secret? Okay, here it is: the best secret weapon I know for teaching tiny kids to read.

Index cards.

Sorry for the letdown! I know you were expecting something difficult, hard to obtain, and expensive. Seriously, though: index cards, used with some regularity, are the secret. 


-They’re cheap (for $9.99 on you can teach your kid 1000 words…not too shabby!)
-They’re disposable (if they get chewed up or covered in applesauce, who cares?)
-They’re easy to make and store (it takes 3 seconds to transform them from a blank rectangle into a word your kid can learn)

I keep a stack of index cards in the kitchen junk drawer, along with a fat sharpie, and every day at breakfast, I write a few words, big and clear, in lower case, one on each card. I pick words that Sam is currently using or interested in (“uncle,” “sprinkler,” “pooping”). I show them to him quickly, like flash cards, and then I hand them to him one at a time to inspect. Once he’s handled them for a minute, I pull out a couple old ones from the previous day, and we look at all five. And that’s it. If we have time during lunch, we’ll look at those five words again and maybe a couple old ones, too. And sometimes I just make them on demand. For example: Sam’s looking out the window at the moon and talking about it. I immediately make a “moon” card. You get the picture.

I don’t test Sam on the words, but sometimes we’ll play games with them, which is how I try to gauge if the project is working. Here’s Sam’s favorite game: I’ll hand him a card, he’ll say the word, and then he’ll throw it down on the floor with gusto. For example, I’ll hand him “Grandpa,” he’ll say “Grandpa,” then cast the card onto the floor with glee, and I’ll yell, “GOODBYE GRANDPA!” (He loves this. I have no idea why this is so much fun, but he gets a huge kick out of it. Apologies to all our relatives.) If he hesitates on a word, I’ll just say it for him before he throws it. That way there’s no shame in not knowing it, and it helps review the words he’s not yet sure of.

Here are couple other strategy games we like:

Label the House. We did this when Sam was around 1 or 1 1/2. I used big pieces of card stock rather than index cards—mainly to catch Sam’s attention—and wrote names of things in big red letters, and I used painter’s tape to stick them everywhere. I labeled rooms of the house and any item that could hold a word card. (Sam learned the words, but eventually I got tired of explaining my crazy plan to visitors, and I took down the cards).

Word Wall. We’ve been doing this for the last few weeks, with huge success. The first day, I asked Sam what words he wanted to learn, and we wrote three of them on index cards. Then we stuck them to a wall of the house with painter’s tape. (Pro tip: pick words that look REALLY different. As in, don’t use “cat” and “car.” No need to make it tricky at this point. Try “cat” and “bellybutton.”) Every time we walked past the wall that day, we pointed out the words. Next day, we added a couple more and Sam said all of them. Whenever it occurs to us, we go visit the word wall, where Sam gives each one a hearty smack and proclaims the word. We’ve got about 25 words on there now, and Sam knows every single one. They’re his words, and he LOVES THAT WALL. We’re going to keep on adding to it until the wall is covered in words. Because we can!

If you’re still skeptical about whether this whole thing really works, here’s some really cool proof: I tried an experiment. Like I said, I never test Sam (testing is probably the fastest way to make something fun into pure misery), but about six months ago, a thought occurred to me: Yikes, maybe Sam can only read these words in my handwriting! Maybe he’s somehow able to identify the particular index card and not the word itself. So we sat down at my laptop (a big treat), I pulled up a blank Word doc with 70 pt Helvetica, put Sam in my lap, and created a game. I’d type a word, and he’d say it. (He LOVED this.) And guess what? He read more than 2/3 of the words I typed. If you think about it, that’s not a bad percentage. If I teach him 1000 words, and he solidly learns even half of them…that means he still can read over 500 words! And that’s pretty remarkable. Because we haven’t put a lot of work into it. We’ve just written a bunch of words on index cards, stuck a few to the wall, and thrown them on the floor repeatedly.

All right…I really want to hear what you think. Am I, in fact, a nut case? (Yeah…I have a feeling I know the answer to that). Would you ever try using index cards for teaching your kid to read? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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