Thursday 12 January 2017

Early reading - our take.


      We began reading to Anouk when she was 3 months old (no other reason than the fact that we happened to purchase the first board books only by then) and the first 3 books still remain among her favorites 20 months and 200+ books later. We used to read to her when she was simply lying on the bed, and after a while, during meal times, when she's perched on her high chair, before naps, and at different times a day, each spanning over 5-10 min, and even 20 min on rare occasions, back then and a common thing, now at 22 months. Around the time she was 14 months old, we started researching on how to teach her to read. After a really inspiring and thought-provoking essay[1] from Larry Sanger and  quite innumerable articles on early reading together with some friends that promote early reading with their kids, we were convinced of the relevance of teaching the phonics sounds in addition to the name of the alphabets. Our approach is based on a collective knowledge from all of them - rather than sticking to any particular norm, and we did bend the methods to suit the child and household and not something completely innovative. 

Setting the ground work - learning the alphabets and sounds

 Now, some would argue that introducing the name of the alphabet itself is unnecessary and that only the alphabet sound matters in the beginning. But, we felt that it'd be extra effort for the parents as we'll have to revisit the sounds and teach her the names once she has mastered the sounds. So we set out on the following plan.

1. Parents learnt all the phonic sounds based on [2]. Trust us when we say that we did not learn the phonics in our respective school system. :)

2. DIY flash cards - this requires a bit of elaboration and so I have captured it as a separate post altogether[3]. Essentially, these flash cards helped to teach her all the 26 alphabets, both upper and lower cases, as well as the phonics sounds. The most interesting part of the flash cards was the flexibility it allowed when to use, be it meal time, in between general reading, a quick 1-2 minute revision later in the day etc.

3. Videos - At this time, we also started active search for good videos, which teach the alphabet sounds and names, in an interesting way. After a VAST search, involving parents vetoing out each other on different videos, we narrowed on readingbear[4], (again from Larry Sanger) which we found extremely helpful. The methodology, the step-by-step approach to introduce kids to the world of reading and the videos themselves were quite impressive, given the fact that our child loved them, and having rejected some videos before.

4. Last, but not the least, we had made an alphabet and numerals wall [6] for her, when she turned one. This, though was more of a DIY project accomplishment for the parents at the time and not very appreciated by the kid at that time, she started to use it very frequently around the time, she started learning the alphabets, together with a range of library-borrowed alphabet books

The below list captures the videos we used at different stages of her learning, from different sources, mainly from A learning progress checklist[5] that we found here, was quite helpful in understanding where our child stood in terms of learning and in figuring out the nature of the videos we should be searching for the next step.

1. Listening to, practising and singing alphabet song (in that order, ideally :) )
ChuChu TV ABC - Slightly more advanced and more loved.

2. Learning, practising and singing the letter sounds (though a few in the first list will also help)
Jolly Phonics   - was an interesting pick, thanks to 26 different songs in familiar rhyme tunes.

3. Saying the letter sound (and name) when pointed to. 
This is one step where we spend most of the time, as we wanted to make it quite sure that the child is absolutely fluent and comfortable with the letter names and more importantly, the letter sounds, as we felt there should be no setbacks on this account, when we start learning the blending.

We were always very keen not to teach the alphabets/sounds in any particular order, even after learning to sing the ABC song. No particular reason, other than seeing some kids struggle to identify the letters and trying to remember from the sequence, which we felt was not the right way for learning alphabets, though good for numerals. At all times, we continuously kept reading to her. Reading together is one of the important, frequent and the baby-loved-and-led activities that keeps happening at home all the time owing partially to both parents' love for reading. And we believe, this has been the most important aid and most singular motivation for her to learn the alphabets/sounds.

Moving on... Blending the sounds and read words

 We started showing her the videos and flash cards when she was around 18 months, and after 5 weeks, she appeared to have learnt all the phonic sounds together with the upper and lower case letters. The learning sessions were strictly informal and never lasted more than 10-15 minutes everyday, including a 5-6 minute video time during dinner, the only time of the day when these videos were shown. Most importantly, the learning activities were(and are, still) pure fun for the three of us. Anouk grew quite excited when she realized that she could actually read the letters and sounds aloud from her books' title, parents' badminton racquet covers, her shampoo bottle, to cite a few real-life examples and it was more like, it hit her (in her head :D ) that she could find a correlation between her learning exercise and the practical applications. 

At 21 months, we started introducing the blending techniques. Again, is proving to be highly successful with its no-nonsense, non-flashy, aesthetic and interesting (for children and adults) way of learning. This is where we are right now, and it mostly involves, the parents pointing and sounding out the letters, with the kid jumping eagerly to form the word, correctly or otherwise :D And the learning goes on...And we still enjoy reading together everyday.



DIY #2 - Phonics Flash cards

We had browsed for a few phonics/alphabet flash cards available at store, but found some difficulties with respect to following points

  1. Font - The type of font normally used was comic sans, but most of the books we read, used Times New Roman, so we felt that some letters, for eg: "a" might be confusing for the child.
  2. Pictures - We felt difficulty explaining some pictures - for eg : Unicorn, which is a mythological animal. We wanted a picture that the child was already familiar with and felt she could relate to the alphabet better that way.
  3. Layout - Some of them had only the word explaining the picture ( which we felt, would lead to simple memorizing of the word) or only the alphabets together with picture. The con, we felt was that, the kid will associate the alphabet with the picture and just memorize the picture connection and not memorise the alphabet. We wanted one side with just alphabets.
  4. Letter cases - Some of them printed only upper and some of them only lower, while we wanted the child to learn both together. We felt the initial struggle is simply worth while and explained to the kid as upper and lower case itself. ( A daycare we had initially planned to send our child to, was teaching them as mommy "A" and the baby "a"!! Wonder why adults often underestimate the clarity and ability of young minds to absorb straightforward thoughts)
  5. Alphabet names/ phonics sounds - As mentioned before, we planned to teach her all the phonics sounds [1], so a mere 26 letter flashcard were not sufficient enough.
So, bearing all this in mind, we set out to create our customised phonic flash cards. A quick overview of the flashcard specs :

  • Size : Each were around 10cm x 14cm (4 cards printed on one A4 size sheet, minus margin to trim off the borders)
  • Layout : One side had just the alphabets (both upper and lower) and other side had alphabets together with a picture, whose name started with a short sound of that letter (eg : c-cat, i-ink, e-egg) (a few exception eg : x-box). 
  • Software used : Inkscape [2]
  • Materials used
    • Photoprint paper
    • 2-3mm thick chart paper
    • Scissors, Ruler and pencil (to mark and cut)
    • Transparent/clear tape (Taped out all the 4 edges, thanks to a kid who really likes to pry on edges)
  • Outcome : Snaps are taken a few months too late, so some of them will appear pretty "loved".
Front view


Foot notes :  Kiddo took to these flashcards quite instantly. We used this as one of the tools (among a lot of songs, books and a few(3-4) videos) while teaching alphabets and phonics. Proved to be very handy for any time of the day, be it meal time, general book reading time or during bedtime routine. The phonics learning process took around 1.5 months, when Anouk was around 18-20 months ( Mid 2016) to learn the set completely and still being used from time to time for revision, or out of pure pleasure for her.