In the age of Pinterest moms and Facebook, parenting has become more competitive. After having my first boy in 2013, I felt the pressure. Despite knowing my son was capable, I worried about keeping up. I taught him a lot at home, filling our days with learning-type activities. He loved learning, and he absorbed everything. I decided after my oldest turned four, that I would start casually teaching him how to read. He loved books, and I wanted to give him that independent ability. We worked through a program, which I will talk about in more detail below. I wasn’t pressuring him, and we made it fun. Then, I had an eye-opening discussion with another mother at his school. She has older children, and she informed me that on the first day of Kindergarten, the children are given an assessment test. That’s right… a test. So, not only are they dealing with all the overwhelming emotions of a new teacher, new school, and longer day, but they are put under pressure to perform. In my research, I found that about half of the states give these assessments. And people can claim that the tests are just used as a base for each child’s needs, I would argue that bias can start to come into play for some students and teachers. Regardless, I was determined to make this one less thing to stress over, so we pressed on and found our own way on the path to learning to read.
A few months after my oldest son turned four, I purchased a book called Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. It is by Siegfried Engelmann, the man behind Direct Instruction. It is based on phonics and phonemic awareness. Each lesson requires about 20 minutes. It does suggest prepping beforehand so you have a basic understanding of what to expect from your child. The lessons start simple, such as saying and holding letter sounds. They then begin to combine sounds in short words and eventually they begin reading simple stories. Letters are introduced in a particular order, and there is a lot of repetition, but it doesn’t come across as too tedious. Each lesson finishes with writing practice.
When we started, it felt slow going. My four-year-old didn’t care too much to sit still, and he looked at his lesson as a form of punishment that kept him from playing. I tried to do it every day, but I didn’t want him to feel forced. I wanted it to be something he could enjoy learning. I gave him a sticker after each lesson that he put on a sheet with a race track. When he hit the finish line, he was rewarded with a small prize (every 20 lessons). This kept him engaged and fulfilled. Eventually, he actually seemed to enjoy the lessons, and I was continually impressed with his improvement. With our move and the holidays, lessons slacked off, and we would end up going weeks without a lesson.
In the new year, a couple months before his 5th birthday, I pushed back in. Reinvigorated by that story of testing on the first day (which was coming up in the fall), I wanted him prepared. He started incorporating things he’d learned in his Pre-K class, like Letterland characters. I’d catch him trying to sound out signs as we drove around town. As the lessons carried on, the stories got a little longer. He was to read each one twice: first sounding out each word if he needed, and second reading each word the fast way only. He read it the fast way both times. He blew me away every day. We hit lesson 60, and then he watched a movie.
Discovering Dav Pilkey
When browsing Netflix one afternoon for something for my son to watch, he spotted Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Now, as most parents of young boys know, they love potty humor. And the movie has literal pottys causing mayhem, led by Professor Poopypants. My son found it hysterical, and as is his tradition, watched only that movie repeatedly over the span of the next few days. As is my tradition, I told him that the movie was first a book.
My previous experience with children’s books at this point was picture books averaging 32 pages. I did not know what grade level Captain Underpants was considered or if my son would be able to read it. I just knew I found something he was really into that I could use toward progressing his reading abilities. I was fully prepared to simply read it to him while pointing at the words. We found it in the middle-grade section, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were pictures on every page. I would say two-thirds picture to one-third words, on average. Some were wordier but not much.
We read the book together, over time increasing the amount he read on each page. I could see him putting those lessons to use. Sometimes he was in the mood to just follow along, and that’s okay. It was slightly different from the movie, which was good, as it kept him curious. But I felt there was more I could do to give him that last push into wanting to read it all on his own. The idea came to me when we were looking through his Lego magazine, and he got really excited about reading the talk bubbles, to the point that he would interrupt me if I was reading them. So I went on a search for children’s comic books.
I wanted to find a graphic novel or comic book made for younger children. One that didn’t have a couple sentences in each bubble. Those ones resemble adult comic books more, and there are some great ones for kids, but I didn’t want to discourage him by having too much on the page. Wandering around the bookstore, I couldn’t seem to find what I wanted. The woman working in the children’s area was helpful, but she couldn’t seem to come up with anything related to what I was asking for. I gave up in my search until a couple weeks later when I stumbled across a display of new and recommended releases.
I immediately recognized the author, none other than Dav Pilkey, so I scooped it up and gave it a flip. Lo and behold it was exactly what I had been looking for. It was a comic book “written” by the child stars of Captain Underpants. That meant there were only a few words for each bubble and it was the same style of potty humor. Each page had about six frames, and they did a good job of giving enough detail for context. We bought the first in the series, DogMan.
Now, some people may say that these books and their humor aren’t appropriate for a 4- or 5-year-old, but those people probably haven’t met a little boy that age. They love poop jokes. And while they are considered 2nd to 4th-grade reading level, I found it to be the best way to get my Preschooler more interested in expanding his reading skills. He was literally bouncing in his seat to start reading, and he would interrupt me more and more to read it himself. He was sounding out difficult words and then saying them the proper way with little or no help from me.
Now he brings a book in the car, usually DogMan, and I hear him reading it on his own. While I know those lessons gave us an amazing foundation to build on, it was Dav Pilkey who inspired him to try harder. He uses the skills we learned in our lessons and his love of the content and puts it all together. It’s an amazing sight to see.
I recommend finding your child’s own path to learning to read. Start with a good base and begin incorporating interests and non-traditional lessons. Explore new and wonderful ways to get everyone interested in books and learning. What are some ways you could get your child interested? I’d love to hear about your own personal experiences.