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How I Taught My Kid to Read (theatlantic.com)
210 points by objections 14 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 173 comments



You teach Russian or Spanish with phonics. You teach Chinese with whole-word. English needs a bit of both, since it is mostly phonetic.

An on-demand approach to phonics works very well. The rules and exceptions are pointed out as mistakes are made. This avoids the boredom of drilling endless phonics rules and the long-term difficulty of whole-word.

A common mistake with phonics is the accidental association of specific vowels with consonants. For example, B is not buh. It is equally bye, boo, bah, and so on. When describing the sound B makes, it is best to always resist giving just a single example. Instead: babe, boob, Bob, bib, bub. That mistaken association causes trouble when sounding out words, because the extra vowel ends up in the resulting word. Something like "baby" turns into buh-ay-buh-ee with 4 syllables.

Untreated speech problems also interfere, no matter if you want to call them accents or dialects or whatever. It is common to fail to distinguish running from run-in, or pin from pen. It is common, particularly in New England, to drop or add an "R". This makes reading so much harder. Teaching a person to read can easily turn into speech therapy.

Late readers face the additional problem of not wanting to read books that parents would buy for 4-year-old kids. (the intersection of things 4-year-olds like and the things that won't offend or embarrass parents) There really isn't much adult fiction with the vocabulary at the level of The Cat in the Hat.


> the additional problem of not wanting to read books that parents would buy for 4-year-old kids.

There are actually a couple of startups that are trying to address this problem.

One is early-stage and is focused on this specifically [1]. Their content is crowdsourced via student writing competitions.

The other startup is very well-funded and uses a team of editors to ratchet down the vocabulary and sentence structure of news articles, which they provide at several reading levels [2].

1: https://www.storyshares.org/books

2: http://www.newsela.com


As a native Spanish-speaker I'm astonished to learn that phonics is not the only way to teach reading in English. It makes sense, since phonics are way more difficult to follow in English than in Spanish (written Spanish maps 1-to-1 to the phonetics)

I know a little Spanish still I would argue about 1-to-1: at least you do not pronounce `h` and there are two different ways to pronounce `g`.

Compared to English, I think it's reasonable to unscientifically call it 1:1.

Spanish is at least 0.98:1. English probably struggles to reach the 60's.

Yes. But they are very few and consistent rules. The sound of "H" will be consistent, unless it is actually a "CH", which is another letter phonetically speaking (some dictionaries would treat it a a separate letter).

England has rules - albeit not simple ones - such that about 85% (IIRC) of never before seen words can be pronounced correctly.

Obviously I'm paraphrasing someone else's study here and may be getting it slightly wrong but the gist is that English is more decipherable than it first appears.


I like that you use the word albeit in that comment. It's one of the words where the pronunciation rules go awry.

No one is denying that English has rules mapping spelling to pronunciation for the lion's share of text. It's just that the rules are (as you say) complex and there are a lot of exceptions.

On the production side, there are a number of different opshuns for righting the seim sownds, sum ov witch are legitimate homophones, rather than just misspellings.

In languages like Spanish (or even better, Welsh, where sandhi is actually written down), as long as you know the rules, you can correctly pronounce 100% of never before seen words, and you can correctly spell a higher proportion of words than in English.


There are so many words in your second sentence that belie your point that it almost seems like you wrote it that way.

From what i understand the 'g' pronunciation is entirely dependent on the vowel following in, in a completely regular manner. So still a lot better than English.

Mostly true. At the end of a word it's pronounced as though it were followed by an 'e' or an 'i'.

I used to work with a guy named Gerardo Ochoa. His username was gochoa, but when addressing him in person we'd sometimes call him "jochoa." (Not his real name or username, but what I'm describing is true in its essence.)


Yes, there are variations on sounds, but none of the through/enough bullshit english has.

Also 'x' is a little weird. Depending on the dialect and the word, it's pronounced roughly like English 'x', 's', 'sh', and a guttural 'h'.

AFAIK, neither Spanish, nor Italian (my native language) maps 1:1. The concept you are referring to is called Phonemic Ortography [0].

And let me add, it's a common mistake by Italians and Spanish and Japanese native speakers to think that their own language phonetics maps 1:1 with written.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonemic_orthography


Japanese is pretty close to 1:1 mapping if you write using Hiragana for example. Its not complete since there are some words written the same way to which you give a different intonation, but compared to languages like English or French its WAY more standardized.

I'd challenge any Japanese native who somehow believes this to read any nontrivial roster of names...

>> It is common, particularly in New England, to drop or add an "R".

The dropping and adding of consonants is one of the defining aspects of many accents. It isn't really incorrect, just a mode of speech.

Texas: "Readin."

Canada/Nebraska: "Reading."

UK: "Reading-g." (Really. Every BBC presenter does the double-G ing on everything-g.)


> UK: "Reading-g." (Really. Every BBC presenter does the double-G ing on everything-g.)

I had a hard time believing this one. It's subtle to my ears, but I'm a believer now. For those who are curious, check out the clip below [1]. You'll hear "hunting" & "willing" shortly after the linked time

[1] https://youtu.be/kngB7PzsDzM?t=48


My accent: "-ing" -> /ɪŋ/

Broadcast British: "-ing" -> /ɪŋg/

When I first hear the /ɪŋ/, my transcriber notes it as "ing", but then I hear the /g/, and it appends to get "ingg". When I switch accent modes, that /ŋ/ reads as just "n" instead of "ng", and the problem goes away.

If you do not process audible speech in part by transcribing it back to letter symbols, you will not hear a second "g". It is an illusion. You can determine whether you are such a person by trying to read from a book while someone else talks into your ear. If hearing the speech drastically slows your reading, you will probably also hear a second "g" in the Broadcast British accent.


I think the terminology is confusing people. There may be a ŋ + g, blended together. I guess you could call that "gg" in ASCII, but it's "gg" in the sense of "more than just a lone ŋ or g, or a long sound / mora not in the sense of "gig" or "ŋig"

Nope, there is no second "g" sound in the clip you linked.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGjQFgGrBXs

Brian cox is one of the most pronounced. Listen to how he says "big bang-g" at 02:55. With him is is almost like "big bang-[cough]", the extra G being almost an extra syllable.

Or at 6:55 when he says "our universe is expanding-g".


At 2:55 it is a normal g. There is just one. Maybe an extra is generated in your mind, as would be needed to correct the error of dropping it, and then you hear it properly pronounced and count that as a second one.

At 6:55 there is something extra, but I don't think it is a g being pronounced. Note that the same word, at 6:51, is lacking that extra sound. It may be an audio glitch or related to a breath he is taking.


I think it sounds like hunt-in-guh and will-in-guh. Not sure about a "second" g, but there is definitely some kind of emphasis on the final g.

I hear them emphasize the "ing" slightly, but I don't hear a double G at all.

Huw Edwards is Welsh, from a Welsh speaking family. English is his second language, so I wouldn't put too much stock in his accent being indicative of clipped RP.

> UK: "Reading-g." (Really. Every BBC presenter does the double-G ing on everything-g.)

I've listened for this, and can't hear it. Are you saying that after the final ŋ, you hear a g sound? Or that you think the ŋ sound is lengthened?

Every text on English phonetics gives ri:dɪŋ as the RP pronunciation. Here's a transcript containing words ending in "ing": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Received_Pronunciation#Spoken_...


Maybe they mean that the the ŋ sound is hard and sharply cut off?

I don't envy native english readers, as my teacher said, "I wouldn't be surprised if one day English write Manchester and read Liverpool".

I am not sure of all Slavic languages work best with phonics, but one I learned seems it does. Like if you just read the sound of each letter fast after the other, you are 80% saying the word :)


Serbian is a slavic language with 100% letter for letter pronunciation. You can probably learn to read in Serbian in 30 mins and impress your friends. Understanding it is another matter :)

The thing that impresses me about this is that this was achieved intentionally, possibly spearheaded by Vuk Karadžić [1] and continued by others [2] - at least that's what they drilled us on in grade school back home. When we had a choice to write down English (or any foreign) words we could write it down in source form or "po Vuku" - "by the Wolf" - where we would write down the sounds in the pronounced word. It was almost like writing in the international phonetic alphabet.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vuk_Karad%C5%BEi%C4%87

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croatian_Vukovians


No, you still actually need to properly learn the language. Just reading the letters out loud will make you miss the word accents/stress, at the very least you'll sounds wrong, at worst you'll mix up words.

Russian is even harder, as accent can change the sound a letter makes - e.g. unstressed "o" is pronounced as "a".


That's regional accent. In Moscow it would be like that, but in other parts unstressed "a" would be pronounced more like "o" instead.

I agree with this, however to be pedantic even in Serbian (or BCS more generally) there are some homographs (in ordinary orthography at least) which are not complete homophones - the classic example being grâd "city" / gràd "hail". It's definitely not ghoti though ;)

I can't resist linking this video: https://youtu.be/A8zWWp0akUU "What if English were phonetically consistent"

Gallagher used to do this as part of his routine. Second half of this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mfz3kFNVopk


Isn't that how Arabic and Chinese work? Vastly different spoken languages for the same writing? Chinese at least does, but of course they don't even pretend to have phonics, where English is on the fence.

Well, with Arabic writing you are not supposed to write wowels, so when I attempted to learn it, I mostly read the shape of words at once. But I didn't really get beyond 'This is Rami and that is his book' :)

> not wanting to read books that parents would buy for 4-year-old kids

Similarly, children's books can be great for learning a foreign language, except that they're children's books. It's hard to find simple language books to practice with.


Children's books are usually horrible for learning foreign language. They're full of all sorts of cutesy bullshit that's really strange. Some children's books aren't but if you read a lot of them you find they actually often contain quite bizarre language and scenarios.

Maybe this is why The Little Prince is the most translated book outside the Bible. It's a children's book, and it uses relatively simple language, but it has a story and theme that even adults find profound.

They're fine if you can sample a large number at the library to find ones that currently work for you. It'd be an inefficient strategy ordering from, say, Amazon, before around the Harry Potter level.

Not really. They're boring for adults and the language can be highly idiomatic. You're better off watching films with subtitles in your target language.

Depends on the book. My kids (4 and 6) enjoy a lot of books that are full of puns that I catch as an adult that my kids don't get at all. They get a very different story than me or my wife, but the result is we can all enjoy it - if for different reasons.

> It is common to fail to distinguish running from run-in, or pin from pen.

The pin-pen merger is a reality for millions of people all over the country, and we are understanding each other and everyone else just fine.

Check the map: https://www.ling.upenn.edu/phono_atlas/maps/Map3.html

Also, as a person who actually had years of speech therapy despite a very early mastery of reading, it's honestly a bit offensive to see you conflating the two subjects here. Mutual misunderstandings while reading between two people who each speak different dialects is not a form of speech pathology. Teaching someone else your dialect through reading with them does not correct genuine speech pathology either.


I don't get your examples. babe, boob, Bob, bib, bub, bye, boo, bah all have the same B sound.

It isn't like 'ate' and 'apple'.

Or are you saying they will literally think B is 'buh'? But then any one of those examples will disabuse them of that idea???


>Or are you saying they will literally think B is 'buh'? But then any one of those examples will disabuse them of that idea?

Unfortunately, the fact that English has any number of vowel sounds depending on accent, dialect and even formal register makes it less intuitive to teach consonant sounds based on syllables. Even worse is the fact that consonants themselves may express different sounds in ways that would seem arbitrary to a child (e.g. "Ti" in "tiger" vs "attention").

In contrast, Spanish has a closed set of five vowel sounds, so every consonant can be exhaustively expressed in five digraphs/syllables: Ba, Be, Bi, Bo, Bu – and that's the way children are usually taught. Things can get a bit more complicated when spelling particular sounds (e.g. the hard "G": Ga, Gue, Gui, Go, Gu) but the rules are always followed consistently.


Try making a pure "b" sound without any vowel sound. You can't really, as you end up making an aspirated vowel sound to make any sound at all.. So we often tell kids that "b" is pronounced like "buh," for example. The point is to tell them "b" with other vowel sounds so they don't associate it with only one.

"B" is buh, bee, boh, boo, bah, bay, beh, bih.


It's possible to make a 'b' with no vowel. Start with the sound and never open your mouth. It's like an 'm' without letting any air out your nose. Hold it and your cheeks will swell, there's no place to release the air. You can do a tiny release and have no voice at that point.

But I still agree with you overall that the correct approach is to teach it by demonstrating what's common across all its uses.


The point is giving examples of "b" with each vowel, so the child does not associate "b" with any particular sound.

What words do New Englanders add and remove Rs in?

First, there is the dialect feature known as a "Linking R" (which usually happens in dialects where people don't pronounce the "r" at the end of words by default).

In this video, you can hear JFK saying "eleven billion dollah" then a few sentences later, he says "eleven billion dollars", because the word is follwed by an "i". So, his accent drops a lot of "r" sounds by default, but inserts them back in if the following word begins with a vowel. https://youtu.be/bOGWTEgta_w?t=52

So there is a perfectly articulate, quite educated man, who is making "non-standard" usage that is quite correct in his own dialect.

Another example is where people would typically say the word "car" as "cah", for example. "Pahk the cah." However, if the next word begins in a vowel sound, these same people will suddenly pronounce the "r" at the end of the word. The same person would say "pahk the car in the yahd", because the word after "car" begins in a vowel sound.

There is also the "Intrusive R" where people add a "r" sound to words wholesale (instead of merely pronouncing an "r" that was already there, which they were dropping before). You often hear this if the following word also begins with a vowel. You can hear this when people say things like "idear" instead of "idea". Here's a British gent talking about this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpX8NZMxp9Q

This happens in certain parts of New England, Britain, and Australia. In the USA, while some in New England are laughing at Southerners for their exaggerated vowels, the Southerners are laughing at the New-Englanders for their crazy "r" sounds.

Human dialect is fascinating.


Note: I don't agree with the above poster's "speech therapy" comments at all and I'm assuming this question was asked in good faith (which can be a mistake)...

This kind of drop accent happens in all sorts of languages for what it's worth including Dutch (drop the 'N' at the end of things like Leiden and verb conjugation) as well as Spanish (Puerto Rican dialects) so

But for New England, I'd say it's mostly the lahng Ah that gets ya. (that's the long R). It's more common to drop whenever a word contains an "AR" sound. The classic example being: "Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd"

But sometimes it's added: Examples: Draw(r), Idea(r)


You are betraying your ignorance of linguistics and dialect by viewing regional accents as defects requiring speech therapy. If children are taught to read by instructors who share their accent, such things are not even noticed at all. The child smoothly learns to read well. They do not sound like a flattened-accent Mid-west TV announcer, but they learn to read quite well.

"Linking R" and "Instrusive R" in New England or exaggerated dipthonged vowels in the Southern Mountain dialect are equally "correct" to anything anywhere else in the country. Any educator who claims otherwise is simply displaying a deep ignorance of language, phonetics, and dialect.


Can you please omit personal swipes from your posts to HN? Providing correct information neutrally is by far the best way to get it across, and then you won't be breaking the site guidelines or damaging the community either.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Was the comment above edited or something? Because I don't get how it's interpreted as a personal swipe as is.

That the parent comment would make such sweeping statement and dismiss regional accents as "untreated speech problems" is incredibly offensive, and in fact does indicate that they have not done much study on linguistics. Literally the first chapter of a Linguistics 101 book explains how dialects are a natural and healthy part of language and the existence of a dialect is not relative to someone's communication ability overall. As a person who had actual speech problems that required years of speech therapy - it's incredibly frustrating to see someone try to equate learning to read with speech therapy and then see you say that it's a "personal swipe" when that person is correctly called out as ignorant on the specific subject matter it relates to.


"You are betraying your ignorance" makes the discussion personal and expresses a pejorative. That's what I mean by personal swipe. Even if another comment was bad and provocative, the guidelines ask you to omit those. The issue isn't whether the other commenter deserved it—it's the effect that including such things has on subsequent discussion. We know from long experience that the effect is degrading, whether someone deserved it or not.

Disagreement is not ignorance. The fact that a Linguistics 101 book contains a politically motivated viewpoint is unsurprising. That viewpoint is not factual.

I have a relative who drops the R. He was raised around people (family and city) without that error, so clearly it didn't come about due to accent or dialect. Well, he invented his own, which is what a speech problem is. He was thus taken to speech therapy. Sadly the problem was not easy to fix. The speech therapist told his mother to not worry too much, because he sounded like he came from Boston.

It does impact communication ability. Nearly everybody can clearly understand the speech of the national news anchors, particularly those of the 1970s and 1980s. Just the other day I met somebody with a thick native Florida accent, and communication was impeded. This matters.

Getting back to reading, the more your speech differs from simple phonetics the more trouble you will have. Typical Russians learn to read a year or two before typical English speakers, and typical English speakers learn to read a year or two before typical Chinese speakers. If your speech is far from phonetic, your situation is closer to Chinese. That delays reading.


You can, in contrast, say a "p" in isolation, as it is the unvoiced consonant. But the English "p" is actually two sounds-- there's the lips-puffing-air sound, and the lips-stopping-air sound. The same letter is used for both, because context allows them to be coded correctly (subject to accents). Usually, the puff is at the start of a syllable, and either one can be at the end. This is one case where the teacher might not be able to distinguish the two sounds, but the student might be able to recognize them as different, because they don't already have the association that they are both represented by the same letter in English.

"B" is the voiced equivalent, but as voicing comes from the larynx and not the lips, you need an additional symbol to characterize that part of the sound. In that sense, "b" is the combining symbol for "p" and an adjacent voiced sound.

This is why Greek codes English "b" sounds as "μπ". Their "β" is more like partway between "v" and "b" than an English "b". Doing this language hack leaves a mark, so if your name starts with a hard "b", you might be able to detect a native Greek speaker still voicing an "m" before your name, or mispronouncing a "b" in your name as an almost v-like beta. I'd be "Log from Mblammo", for instance, and you might be "Mburfog". If someone teaches the phonics incorrectly, it might leave a similar residue in the student's speech.

Since "b" is not an atomic mouth sound, I wouldn't teach it before "p". I'd introduce it with other voice-added sounds, and use whispering and yelling (for some reason, my kids thought it was fun to yell) or normally-voiced speech to help tell the difference. Like when you whisper "cup" and "cub", they sound the same, but when you yell them, they are different. The "p" stops the voicing at the letter boundary; the "b" lets it bleed through from either side. That's why the "b" can't be by itself--a lone "b" is just a whispered "b", which is actually a "p".

Practice voicing boundaries with "pop", "bop", "pub", "bub", "tot", "dot", "tad", "dad", etc. It might also help reinforce that the written symbols are encoded speech sounds, and that means they have to describe what the lips, tongue, cheeks, jaw, and larynx are doing.

And you might as well tell the student that accents happen when some of the encoding rules get changed. Play a video of someone with a tough-to-understand accent speaking, have the student read a transcript, and then watch it again. One that immediately leaps to mind as kid-friendly is Merida in "Wreck-It-Ralph 2", who essentially says, "May your hearth stay warm, and your pantry full. Come back soon.", but no one else can understand the dialect. Somewhat less kid-friendly is the scene in "Hot Fuzz" that translates a very Northern accent in multiple progressively less-Northern stages, until it can be understood by someone from London.


I love McWhorter but this is a disappointing mishmash. While it does seem that a lot of new educational techniques seem to be based on skipping past the underlying fundamentals and trying to teach kids to immediately start reading by whole words before learning the sounds letters represent and giving the brain a few decades to recognize whole words at a go (as McWhorter describes here), or by doing math by estimation before learning how to add or multiply (and thereby developing an intuition for what estimate to even make) as my daughter faced in elementary school, or as my accounting professor partner struggles with as fundamental textbooks attempt to de-emphasize debits and credits and just skip to the financial report; even so the lesson we should probably take is not “just use phonics dummy!” But rather “maybe use multiple methods and find individual paths for each student to be successful”.

We tried to teach my daughter to read using the exact book McWhorter praises when she was that same age. She hated the lessons and didn’t progress, and in fact didn’t learn to read until she was eight years old, and yet somehow she is now, at 17, an avid reader and writer, having completed multiple NaNoWriMo projects, an editor on her high school newspaper, and a star student in every writing class she can get enrolled in.

Ultimately she benefitted from patient teachers and a nurturing environment and a heavy dose of innate interest and the right disposition, not from a specific teaching method. The only right answer is that there is no one right answer for every kid.


> Ultimately she benefitted from patient teachers and a nurturing environment

All of the calls to alternate education methods fail to recognize the weakest link in the education system: teachers. Teaching methods are not designed just for kids but also for teachers.

Almost any method will work wonders with good teachers who know when to wait, when to push, who are competent and empathetic. Methods need to be tested and proved to work with below-average teachers to be considered a solution.


The great strength of child centred instead of teacher centred methods is in realising that it doesn’t matter whether a child learns to read at four, or nine, or twelve. Once you really understand that Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development means you can teach it to a four year old in 100s of hours, a six year old in tens of hours and that a nine year old has a decent chance of picking it up more or less by osmosis you wonder why we bother. The hard part of reading isn’t sounding out words, it’s understanding complex thoughts. Four year olds can’t do that.

A good teacher can make a big difference to how a child experiences a year of their life but the long run effects on them are unlikely to be large. Children of normal intelligence learn to read easily once they’re ready, just as you can cover grade school math in under 40 hours with a normal twelve year old.


I didn't know there was a term for this! My children are just starting to enter the education system and I constantly find myself thinking, "Why are we devoting so many hours to learning this (something like the alphabet) when we could just spend a few minutes on it here and there and in 6 months or a year they'll be able to pick it up with minimal effort?"

While I heartily agree in not forcing the child into a method, it very much matters when they learn to read. Reading is a tool more than a skill. Having the tool earlier is hugely valuable (provided they don't hate it as a consequence.)

A reading child can begin to write and type earlier. They can be exposed to complex computer use instead of simplified apps. They can use more advanced materials to learn other skills earlier. They can gain a ton of knowledge from the extra years of reading. And even if they cannot understand much at 4 (which of course depends on the kid), they can at 7 or 8 - being fluent readers by then gives them the advantage of consuming many extra books and richer ones.

There are also psychological components. Until school starts the parents have significant influence over 'cool' skills, important values, 'fun' things to do, etc. Schools rarely breed love of learning and peers often push away from it. Learning at 7 creates risks of it being perceived as less cool or being consumed by other activities and not catching. The time before school is hugely valuable imo. And reading earlier gives the parent another tool to teach by providing books.

It is true that the earlier you start the more time teaching takes. But this time isn't only teaching reading. It is excellent bonding time if you don't turn it into an authoritarian war zone. It teaches focus, overcoming obstacles, etc. On the whole, I think it at least holds its own with other activities parents spend time on with their toddlers. The bulk of the challenge is getting the kid on board. Buy-in and motivation matter far more than any specific method since without them the risk of the effort hurting the relationship or their love of learning is too high.

I used a method of my own making. It probably wasn't the most efficient, but it was always tuned to the kid. My oldest was fully decoding in late twos and reads a ton now in late sevens. He naturally memorized words and we added phonetics later. My youngest is decoding short words with basic sounds in the early threes. He is not a fan of memorizing, but took to phonics naturally.


For the teacher to have ability to wait or push as needed, the teacher must have quite a lot of autonomy. And a system that rewards teachers for doing own decisions instead of following prescribed methodology.

Good teachers with autonomy get better results than good teachers without autonomy, but bad teachers with autonomy get worse results than without autonomy.

I ran into the bad teacher with Autonomy.

Singled me out because I liked math and she was an English and Spanish teacher.

I had never gotten a C before, but that teacher in a panic admitted that "I wasn't good at her class like I am at math". In reality she was targeting me for some reason and giving me minimal participation credit despite participation.

By the end of the class, enough students complained she stopped teaching Spanish 1. And she still teaches to this day 11years later.


It is impossible for teacher "to wait or push as needed" without having enough autonomy.

If you give teachers no autonomy, you will turn teachers who want to wait or push based on situation to the ones who don't. Or they will simply leave.

Just like with any other job, you either command details or you have people doing own decisions. Cant have both.


Like most decisions in education, it's the question of what you want to optimize for, minimum, average, or maximum success. That dictates whether you want to separate smart pupils from average pupils, how big your classes should be, how much memorization you require, how much autonomy teachers should have, and many more aspects. The PISA studies provide really interesting data on this.

That's a good point about no particular method working with all children. But first of all, many students are not going to have parents who have the time or the ability to try out various methods until they find the right combination. Like a single mother who doesn't read very well herself, and is working two jobs to stay above water financially.

That leaves it up to the teacher. So what is the teacher supposed to do? And what if one methods works with 90% of students, and then there are 5 other methods that each either work by themselves with a small number of students, or only if combined in some way that is unique to each student?

And let's assume the teacher has 35 students in their class, and a lot of other subjects to teach them. And that a first grader who is not able to read well enough will fall far behind in other subjects, and likely do poorly in school from then on? And one more point. What if a substantial proportion of the students are, unlike your daughter, below average in IQ?

It would seem the smart thing to do is teach them all the 90% success method, and for those it doesn't work for maybe figure out some way to get them instruction in some other method, if that is possible.

Pardon me for saying this, but the fact that you didn't address all these issues makes me think you are looking at this whole issue from the perspective of people in a rather privileged position in life, at least relative to a considerable proportion of students.


...in my day, the same stuff was accomplished most entertainingly by Sesame Street. "c" "oo" "kie"... "cookie!" Nobody was bored by phonics being screamed by a blue monster.

Phonics will always be unpopular with teachers for at least 3 reasons.

1. Teachers are typically from good middle-class backgrounds, and will naturally assume children will just learn to read because their parents basically tutored them for hundreds or thousands of hours and they just magically taught themselves.

2. It's hard for an individual practitioner to have any idea whether their methods are wonderful or absolute garbage. Look at how long it took doctors to figure out hand-washing - now think about how hard it is for a teacher with 20 students (all of various ability levels) to know whether their methods have any real impact. The kids grow up and are reading better after a year, it must be the teacher, their method must be good.

3. Boring stuff is boring for teachers. How are they meant to be entertained in class if it's just mindless drill and kill routines?

So you've got "professionals" with no idea what actually works, some weird notion that reading is easy (because they're good at it) and a choice between boring methods that some researcher claims works, and interesting methods that some other (not so nerdy) researcher also claims works (and they use bigger words that are harder to understand when they explain their ideas).


This is not to contest your overall explanation, but I should note that teaching with phonics can be fun. When I would give baths to my kids, we used foam letters that stuck to the bath walls. They would randomly pick letters to build a nonsense word with, and we would take turns trying to pronounce it.

So they might randomly grab GSLKJUH and stick it on the wall and I would say "Guhslickjuh!" as I moved my finger across the letters in time with my pronunciation. It's super silly and fun.

To make the associations of letters and sounds more obvious, we built our "words" iteratively, one letter at a time.


Well, a good teacher could (and can) indeed see, what methods he use are effective or not. As he gets new data with new "fresh" kids who are individuals, but usual still average. So you could experiment. In real life you probably can't as (at least in germany) it is pretty strict and fixed what is about to be teached in class, when and how. That kills all creativity and creates boredom in the teacher and his class.

> Well, a good teacher could (and can) indeed see, what methods he use are effective or not.

Any evidence?

Doctors could figure out that not washing hands was killing patients, but didn't.

> As he gets new data with new "fresh" kids who are individuals, but usual still average. So you could experiment.

There will always be multiple things a teacher does differently so it will be, in practice, impossible to attribute success or failure to any particular practices. That's aside from random noise (which might be more systematic - what if some random good / bad kid happens to have a large influence on the whole class?).

Remember how Skinner proved pigeons could develop superstitions? Or look at any other profession that deals with a little bit of randomness (human factors / biology) and see the stupid stuff they used to believe.


We do a free schooling approach. My daughter speaks 3 languages and learned to read all 3 simultaneously on her own* once she was ready (around 9). I felt a lot of pressure from everyone (family, friends, etc.) to teach her earlier, but now she reads just as well as her peers, and most of her peers/friends only speak/read one language.

*literally on her own in that one day she wanted to learn to read, so we got a stack of books and she started stumbling through each word and asking how to pronounce it. She already knew some words from the environment, which provided the foundation. I also guided her on the books to choose so that she wouldn't feel overwhelmed, which was in the beginning board books for babies, that way she could feel satisfaction without giving up.


I don't know much about home schooling (I assume that's what you mean by free schooling). It seems to me that it could work well for some cases. But most parents couldn't survive economically with one parent not working (and what about single parents). Also most parents don't know enough academically to be able to do it well, and most students are not as smart as I am guessing your daughter is. So if your goal is to have a well-educated society, free schooling is not the answer.

Check out the book I mentioned, Summerhill by AS Neill for how it could work at scale. We do it ourselves because there is no analogy to Summerhill where we live, so I agree with you in that regard

I really wish people wouldn’t trying “hacking” education. Sure the system has its faults but it’s far better than the alternatives (eg waiting until your child is 9 before teaching them to read).

Ultimately it’s your own children that your disadvantaging in life.


> I really wish people wouldn’t trying “hacking” education.

Does innovation in general bother you? Besides, what we're doing isn't a very new idea. We are predominantly inspired by the 1960 book Summerhill by A. S. Neill, and even he was inspired by prior art (This isn't the only inspiration, but it's a good tldr in a way)

> Sure the system has its faults

For us, those faults are deal breakers, but I understand if they aren't for you or others.

> better than the alternatives (eg waiting until your child is 9 before teaching them to read).

Well again, we didn't exactly teach her, she taught herself with our guidance. She speaks English, Swedish and German, and she's learning French and Spanish. We live in a mono-lingual environment, so it's interesting to me you would think that she is somehow doing poorly. What has she missed out on during the time that she could have been reading? As I said, she already reads as well as her peers.

> Ultimately it’s your own children that your disadvantaging in life.

With all that I wrote originally, and with this added context, I fail to see how she's disadvantaged. In many respects, I think she has it way better than her peers. She has two personal tutors with her that guide her into learning what she wants. Public school does not offer that. Also I find the typo here [1] a tiny bit ironic [2]

[1] `s/your disadvantaging/you're disadvantaging`

[2] In the Alanis Morissette kind of way


Not Op but I work in education. What I would stress is to be aware that it is difficult to understand one's own limitations. So this may or may not be true in your case, but while sometimes parents think their kids are ahead (or behind) on something the opposite can be the case. So just a plea to make sure you get outside feedback (eg on whether she learns all languages 'right', whether she lacks/excells in other skills, ...) rather than just rely on parental intuition.

Yes, we don't see ourselves as the only teachers, but more of meta teachers, so yes we reach out to others more specialized in a subject when needed and appropriate.

Agreed. I wouldn't say there is a right and wrong way to teach (for starters, every child learns differently) but it can be extremely hard to retain objectivity when it is your own offspring.

> Does innovation in general bother you?

Only when I have numerous first hand accounts of where it doesn’t work. Just as I have from my extended family, most of who are teachers and all of who state that kids who have been taught outside of the standard educational system are always behind kids who were not.

This is often even true for kids who have received additional tuition outside of school where their tutors haven’t taught them the same learning tools as what the school teaches (eg different methods for long division, or ways of teaching phonics) because this can often leave the child confused between the two systems when getting taught in class.

> what we're doing isn't a very new idea

Just because it’s not a new idea it doesn’t mean it isn’t also total garbage.

> Well again, we didn't exactly teach her, she taught herself with our guidance. She speaks English, Swedish and German, and she's learning French and Spanish

Learning to read is not just about learning the shapes of spoken languages. Learning to read also teaches literacy and creative writing. It engages parts of the imagination that other forms of creative play do not. Plus it also teaches mental discipline as well.

You claim she can read as well as her peers (which I doubt you’ve done an actual impartial comparison. Partly because kids would never agree to a study under such conditions and partly because of your emotional connection to the “test subject”) but what about those other skills that reading teaches?

My own experience also mirrors that which my family of teachers have observed. I showed very little interest in reading when I was a child. The only things I chose to read were technical schematics and programming manuals for 70s and 80s computing hardware. That had a really significant impact on my writing skills; to the extent that I massively struggled to pass my English exams. The amount of extra hours I had to put in towards the end of my teenage years to compensate cannot be understated.

> She has two personal tutors with her that guide her into learning what she wants. Public school does not offer that.

It’s not an “either/or”. You can still teach your kids things they’re interested in outside of school as well. Just make sure you don’t contradict the curriculum when you do this :)

> Also I find the typo here [1] a tiny bit ironic [2]

Yeah, typing on a phone while getting ready for work will lead to some autocorrect fails. To be honest I’m surprised that was my only error.


Almost all of your points boil down to homeschooled children not being convenient for teachers used to children who have been in day school since they were of school age. If the only bad result of your reading lots of manuals was poor grades in English for a few years this is of no consequence. Learning to express one’s thoughts about things you care about is a very different skill from imitating research in English literature.

If you want to learn more about democratic and child centred education as practiced at Summerhill I can highly recommend the founding Headmaster, A.S. Neill’s book on the school, Summerhill[1]. You are of course free to believe whatever you want about child centred methods of education but Summerhill’s students are not handicapped in life success or exams by the freedom to attend lessons or not as they choose, not are Sudbury’s[2].

You do not need an “impartial assessment” to know how well children are reading if you can read at the level of a university graduate. You can look at the books they read for pleasure and assess the level for yourself. If the child doesn’t quite get it but they’re close enough to try to read those books and enjoy them that’s a good thing.

The idea that you should take care not to contradict the curriculum is ... Education is meant to be for children, not teachers.

[1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summerhill_School

[2]https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudbury_school


I did say in my former post that the reason for not contradicting the curriculum is because it is confusing for the child (this is something teachers up and down the country observe day to day).

Sure, it’s also easier for the teacher as well but that’s irrelevant to the discussion.


> most of who are teachers and all of who state that kids who have been taught outside of the standard educational system are always behind kids who were not.

Would you admit that your perspective then is heavily biased? I don't claim to be unbiased, but I myself come from a family of educators, and I chose a different direction (see also John Gatto). That is, I'm very unsurprised that traditional educators would think that homeschoolers are behind, but it's very not true.

> Just because it’s not a new idea it doesn’t mean it isn’t also total garbage.

Public school is total garbage, in my experience and opinion.

> Learning to read is not just about learning the shapes of spoken languages. Learning to read also teaches literacy and creative writing. It engages parts of the imagination that other forms of creative play do not. Plus it also teaches mental discipline as well.

I don't disagree. You say it as though my daughter has none of that, which I again find strange.

> The only things I chose to read were technical schematics and programming manuals for 70s and 80s computing hardware. That had a really significant impact on my writing skills; to the extent that I massively struggled to pass my English exams.

Right. Well you have a good lesson to share about that, then. And that's the same reason why I still guide what my daughter reads, and still encourage and recommend a variety of works.


Just out of interest, which country are you based? I wonder if the reason perspective is so polarised from mine is because our education systems also vastly differ.

From the perspective of the UK, most of what you said is completely untrue.


From their perspective the people who are against school are against it for basically the same reason you’re against being hit in the head, because it’s harmful and subjecting children to it is wrong. The difference between being punched in the head, punched in the head by someone wearing boxing gloves, hit with a goofball in a sock don’t change that someone is getting hit in the head and that’s wrong. It’s like a Christian trying to convert an apostate from Islam on the basis that they’ve rejected Allah when they became an atheist because the arguments for God’s existence are insufficiently strong. The atheist will reject the Christian and any other theist as well.

The U.K. system is probably slightly more curiosity crushing and stress inducing than average as school systems go, they certainly start academic instruction well before its age appropriate, but the entire system of child warehousing under the authority of people who are to train children to sit down, shut up and do as they’re told, giving them no or minimal choice in what they do for most of their waking hours is wrong, and he system is Many have tried, they even teach their writings in Ed schools. End result, nothing.


I've found that very much depends on the teacher and - to a lesser extent - the school policies as well. Each teacher will have their own teaching style. Some do favour "sit down and copy from a worksheet" style of teaching but I'd argue those are the lazier teachers. Others, however, do find more creative and interactive ways for kids to learn the same curriculum.

Source: my wife is a primary school teacher and really enjoys creating fun lessons.


I presume your wife follows the national curriculum. If she does the subjects children study, the content they learn and their progression within that curriculum are mandated. Children have extremely limited freedom to explore within those narrow guidelines. They are not free to pursue their own interests, to decide what they want to do with their time or to spend the amount of time playing that they would naturally. They are not free to socialise across age groups and they learn little to nothing about the deep, abiding interests of other children in the environment where they spend most of their waking hours for the majority of their childhood. They are not in any meaningful way free.

The curriculum is a mandatory set of topics (crudely speaking), yes. But how you teach that doesn't have to be sterile and unimaginative.

In terms of your point about kids having the freedom to explore the subjects they want, I think a fair amount of structure is actually beneficial rather than counter productive. Again, this doesn't mean lessons have to be boring.

If it was entirely down to the child me to control my learning, there is a lot of subjects I simply wouldn't have studied that adult me is glad are covered under the curriculum. There are children who, if given the choice, wouldn't do any studying at all and they really benefit from having structure. There are also children who simply don't know what that like yet and they really benefit from having exposure to the diverse range of subjects on the curriculum.

It's worth baring in mind that what the UK education system does works for the majority most of the time. There will be outliers of people who are disruptive and need more specialised attention just as there are people who are naturally inquisitive and might excel better in environments where their learning is left to themselves to structure. Given the demographic of HN, it wouldn't surprise me if we fall more into the latter category than a common slice of society normally would. However that doesn't mean that the net worth of our education system isn't there.


I live in the UK. Everybody complains about the public ("state" or whatever) schools. I'd never enroll my kids in public schools here (pre-university), only in private schools, if I had the means. Continental Europe is much better IMO/E.

People moan about a great many things but it doesn’t mean they’re right (hence Brexit, Trump, “Christian values”, racism/homophobia/etc, those who moan about computer security from a lazy ux perspective (eg “why can’t my password be the same as my user name?”).

I take much more stock in the opinions with those who actually have to work under those conditions and see those systems in use first hand.

I agree it’s not perfect and there are plenty of areas it can be improved but some of the comments on here are throwing out the baby water (as others have also pointed out). If you can afford private education then that’s also an option. But you’re still part of the same education system with the same flaws. You are just (hopefully) paying for better teachers (that isn’t always the case - more about that below). For all of its warts, public schools are still a far better option than homeschooling in the vast majority cases.

Its worth noting that I’ve provided IT services for a few private’s schools in my time and frankly some of them were worse than the public school I went to! Both in terms of teaching staff and school equipment. It was a real eye opener for me because up until that point I was planning on sending my (then theoretical) kids to private school too.


> I take much more stock in the opinions with those who actually have to work under those conditions and see those systems in use first hand.

Check out John Taylor Gatto's works [1]. He was a public school teacher for 30 years, but later advocated for homeschooling.

[1] E.g. Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, and The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling


I know of his work. I just disagree with it. He isn’t the only teacher with 30 years of experience in public schools under his belt and plenty of other teachers have the opposite opinion of homeschooling to him.

While I do think it’s good that people like him create a discussion I still see him as somewhat of an outlier when all of the other teachers I know - both retired and those still in “active service” - take a dim view of homeschooling.

But if that’s what you want to do for your kids then I genuinely hope it works out for you.


Schools with worse equipment and worse teachers can sometimes do very well. They might have far less classroom disruption because the rules are different and the families are different. In a school that is free for all to attend, the most important quality of a teacher is probably the ability to control mayhem without having the authority to do much of anything to stop it.

You can’t argue that bad teachers don’t matter in private schools because if a teacher is unable to teach the subject effectively then it doesn’t matter how well the class behave, they’re still not going to learn the subject.

One of the private schools I was referring to had successfully been sued by several ex-pupils because they failed exams because the teachers were that poor they didn’t even touch large sections of the syllabus.

Another school was trying to teach ICT on hardware that was more than 10 years out of date and their ICT teacher was actually a geography teacher who’s only qualifications in IT was a passing interest in the subject.

Sure, if you pay a high premium then I’m sure you can make some guarantees about the quality of your child’s education. But honestly, some private schools are actually a whole lot worse than your average public school.


Curious what you mean by a different direction? I'm a fan of John Gatto so I wonder what direction you mean..

I think Wikipedia explains it well:

> John Taylor Gatto ... was an American author and school teacher who taught in the classroom for nearly 30 years. He devoted much of his energy to his teaching career, then, following his resignation, authored several books on modern education, criticizing its ideology, history, and consequences. He is best known for his books Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, and The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling, which is sometimes considered to be his magnum opus.

I.e. he was a former public school teacher who criticized public education and advocated for alternatives.


The "kids who have been taught outside of the standard educational system" seem to be behind for at least two reasons:

1. You have a biased sample. You're getting the failures. If homeschooling doesn't work, parents give up. If homeschooling works well, parents keep at it. You'll almost never see the successes.

2. You don't check everything. If a student in 6th grade is at a 5th grade writing level but is at 9th grade for math and science, you'll really notice the writing deficiency but you won't realize that the math and science are ahead of grade level. This is simply a matter of an incompatible curriculum schedule, the same as if the student arrived from a different country.


1. You make a valid point there

2. Any half decent teacher will know if that were the case because teachers (at least in the UK) have to set different levels of work for their class anyway to compensate for the natural discrepancy in children’s ability. They know which kids are stronger in what subjects and who struggle. I’m not saying it’s something that every teacher is great at picking up on but there are plenty of telltale signs that help you spot this - even without going as far as testing the kids.

Eg when creating lesson plans my wife will often say out loud to herself things like “I need a 4th challenge for this topic because Charlie and Alice are clever and will do the other tasks quickly” (highly paraphrased and names made up).


> kids who have been taught outside of the standard educational system are always behind kids who were not

This is awfully overgeneralized.

Was this guy “behind” the “standard system kids”? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erik_Demaine


Was he a rule or an exception?

I learned to read from ”100 Easy Lessons” shortly after its publication, completing about 80 lessons before starting kindergarten. I never ended up finishing all 100, however, so perhaps there are some phonemes I have yet to learn.

One key element that the article misses is that a direct instruction approach to phonics means that the learner is not just learning to say phonemes fast and winding up with words, but is learning what it feels like to construct new knowledge from smaller bits. As a four year old, this meta-lesson was known to me only as the incredible sense of joy and accomplishment in seeing my parent’s face light up after successfully sounding out a difficult word. To be able to read a word without anyone telling you the answer first is something truly formative for a budding intellect. I believe there is no way to progress through “100 Easy Lessons” without also learning to some degree that one can tackle the unknown.


Did my daughter, as the child of two hyper-literate people with doctorates, have some kind of leg up? I doubt it. Some kids pick up reading with minimal guidance as early as 3; she wasn’t one of them, nor had she given indication of any impending breakthrough. Besides, Engelmann’s book is designed for kids of average intelligence and has worked with legions of them over the decades.

In a word, yes, she likely had a leg up. The credit mostly goes to her, not you or the book you used.

As the father of a boy with an extremely strange developmental reading profile (couldn't read a thing at age seven even after much one on one tutoring, to reading at an eighth grade level at nine) I learned a few things talking to many other parents and professionals. The most important is that no one method works for all children, as they each learn to read in their own way. My boy was definitely a "whole word" learner, and phonetics was a complete disaster for him. Other kids are clearly the other way round, and many kids do a combination of both.

Secondly, intelligence has nothing to do with it. Dyslexia is caused by many factors, but general intelligence really isn't one of them.


> Secondly, intelligence has nothing to do with it. Dyslexia is caused by many factors, but general intelligence really isn't one of them.

I'd say that's an overstatement and not congruent with existing research in developmental psychology.

To preface it's important to distinguish between two reading skills. "Decoding" is the ability to parse the symbols into words. "Comprehension" is the ability to understand the content after its decoded.

Among children aged 7-8, there's a 40% correlation between general intelligence and "decoding". With comprehension there's an astounding 62% correlation with intelligence. Those are about the highest correlations you'll see anywhere in social science.

Reading skills become progressively more loaded on comprehension relative to decoding, as students progress into higher grades. Therefore you see the general phenomenon that reading ability at younger ages is only moderately correlated with intelligence, whereas for teenagers and adults its extremely correlated.

[1] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1da5/7f319c9f6976b6b9501be1...


Yes - this definitely reads a bit naively, like people saying they "don't have an accent". She almost certainly had a leg-up compared to other kids, even if it was just related to how much she overheard her parents talk or having them make an active effort to chat to her. Other kids have to make do with much less. To realise that sounds link together into certain words, you have to know the words in the first place.

Well this is the first time I feel like my side “project” is worth mentioning on HN. Unitsofsound [1] is a course that teaches reading, writing & spelling using a syllabus based 100% on phonics.

At least that’s my layman’s understanding, we have a number of SME teachers that guide the actual product development, my dad and I just build it.

I thought I would share here just in case anyone is interested, and would love feedback for the new (non flash) version, so if you would like to try the home version for free get in touch and you can become a BEtA tester in the near future.

[1] https://www.unitsofsound.com/


I'd be interested to learn more and chat. I run a startup that, like Unitsofsound, is in the literacy/dyslexia space. Contact via my website if you want to chat! www.beelinereader.com

Interesting, I really like the approach! Thanks for sharing!

Siegfried Engelmann [0] (the author of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, referenced in the story), developed a pedagogical model he named Direct Instruction [1] in the '60s as a direct result of being focused on at-risk, low-performing children. Here is a video [2] from the 60s of him working with one of his initial kindergarten classes (doing complex math, etc), and using many of the hallmarks of Direct Instruction. DI has become popular in many primary charter schools across the country (ex, Thales Academy [3]), although many schools transition to an inquiry-based model [4] after primary grades.

DI is similar to rote learning, which is used throughout much of the rest of the world. Lessons are heavily scripted, down to the minute, although there is an emphasis for only focusing on practicing skills that have not yet been mastered. One of the most controversial aspects of DI, and probably one of the main reasons it has not been used in US public schools despite having a strong history of effectiveness (here is a meta-analysis of over 300 studies over 50 years [5]), is that children are grouped according to skill, not age.

My kids are not quite yet old enough to learn to read, but I plan on using Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. DI might not work for every child, but it has clearly been shown to be one of the most effective methods that helps the most children.

[0] - http://www.zigsite.com

[1] - https://www.nifdi.org/what-is-di/basic-philosophy.html

[2] - http://www.zigsite.com/video/zig_math_video.html

[3] - https://www.thalesacademy.org/academics/what-is-direct-instr...

[4] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquiry-based_learning

[5] - https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/003465431775191...


This is exactly what I used with my kids. Neither finished the entire course of 100, because they preferred to go to YA novels rather than the structured practice in the later lessons. Both have consistently tested at multiple grade-levels of reading ability above their public school age cohort.

I think I started them at 3 years old, though it took a while to get some traction. You might have to repeat some early lessons.


Is direct instruction at all similar to college lecture where the professor basically follows a script for 45 minutes while the students furiously try to keep up?

My wife and I (mainly my wife) used the book mentioned in the article [1] to teach both our kids (now 5 and 7) to read prior to their entry to kindergarten.

I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is so intelligently organized, each day building on the last. If you just read the intro chapter on amazon, you will see how clearly they thought it through

That said:

1. While teaching kids to read is good, I think the real goal should be teaching them to _love_ reading. My son is now a voracious reader, and both kids love books. The techniques we used to make this book fun include:

A. Finding something the kid really loves (e.g. tickles for my son, 'squeeze hugs' for my daughter), and pairing it with each lesson. Every lesson ended with a giant tickle or a set of squeeze hugs. You would think the kids would get sick of this, but ours didn't.

B. Massive positive verbal reinforcement. Excitement, joy, at the reading, amazement, wonder, etc.

C. Regular rewards, including little ribbons every 10 lessons, dinners out, and a huge celebration when they hit 100. Every 20-30 lessons we would do something crazy/unexpected, like rolling out a cake for breakfast (That was just fun, kids love a surprise cake for breakfast).

2. Our kids are very intelligent, but both hit a wall around 30 lessons. I think they were both about 4.5 years at the time. The book says any kid over 4 can run right through the lessons, but I don't know. For both kids, when we sensed they were hitting a wall, we decided to declare victory. We had a big celebration, and told them to book said we had reached a stopping point. Then we returned to it 6-12 months later and picked up where we left off. At that point, we sailed though the rest of the lessons.

All this said, having watched my son, I think the best thing you can do for your kid is make reading fun. The only way to develop a deep vocabulary is by reading massive amounts, and you cannot force a kid to do that.

So, as awesome as this book is, and as amazing as it was to participate in the process as a parent, the number one thing to do is not make reading stressful/negative. Kids will learn eventually, they don't need to learn early. The reason to take control of the process as a parent is to ensure that the experience is positive/filled with joy.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Teach-Your-Child-Read-Lessons/dp/0671...


These are great points, and I'd take it even further and say the real goal of all education should be to get them to love learning.

The quantity of formal education 18 year olds receive is potentially dwarfed by the amount of stuff they can learn in their free time if they WANT to. On the flip side, if kids really hate participating in education, they pass out of the school system having learned astonishingly little.


I've been using the technique they describe with my daughter, but it often takes a long time for her to get from saying "pi" "ih" "gu", to "pig".

I have had more success with an experiment I'm doing, which is a side project of my bigger project, a music learning app. Since she loves to sing along with songs, I put words of some of her favorite songs displayed where they are highlighted syllable by syllable, synchronized with precision timing. This is displayed on top of the YouTube video of the song. It's more effective than reading aloud while pointing at the words (we do that too of course), and I think having it to music helps a lot.

Here's an example (she likes Taylor Swift of course) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ln9BenYpimQ


I used this book to teach my daughter (and now my son) to read https://welltrainedmind.com/p/the-ordinary-parents-guide-to-...

Worked really well.


I've got school aged kids in the UK, and I've never seen anything other than phonics as the way to teach reading.

Seems to work just fine, never came across a kid who couldn't read quite soon after they started being taught.

But of course that may just be my particular environment.


Yes, only ever seen phonics taught in the UK - wasn't aware there were alternative approaches, let alone any controversy on the topic. It might not be clear from the original article, but it isn't just single letters, there are also digraphs (i.e. two letters that make one sound, e.g. bee is read b-ee), split digraphs (i.e. where a digraph is split by a consonant, e.g. a-e for cake), and later on things like the magic e and suffixes with a-y for baby. There's some resources at https://www.gov.uk/education/phonics , and you can look on iPlayer or YouTube for https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphablocks .

Alphablocks is excellent and is also now accompanied by Numberblocks, which was developed in conjunction with the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics.

There was a big push by the Conservative government as soon as they got into power to get all primary schools to teach synthetic phonics. Before then, whole word teaching was quite common.


I do too (albeit they are in the private system not the state system). While mine are/were taught phonics, reading is taught separately to that, and we're lucky enough to have teachers who recognised that they learned better with whole words. As others have said, it's about going with what works for the individual child, not one size fits all.

I think phonics is a slight mismatch with English, which might produce poor spelling ability?

The "buh-aye-buh-ee" comment elsewhere here also seems somewhat on the nose.

UK schools have been all-in with phonics for some time though.


I'll put this here since I learned of it from a Hacker News thread and taught both of my boys to read with it: Let's Read: A Linguistic Approach. My youngest still picks it up just to read it from time to time.


I'm using it with my eldest also after seeing it mentioned here. I can't recommend it enough, it has helped him enormously.

We've used Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Lessons with 4 of our 5 children (the 5th is 2 years old). Starting at 3, they generally completed the book by 4-4.5, one took until he was 5. After they finish the book, the authors have a list of recommended books for the kids to read next. It's a good list, but one other source we added were travel brochures. Anytime we stopped somewhere on a family trip, we'd load up on all the brochures of things to do in the area. My 9 year old is the oldest of the group, she's completed the Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, and the Little House Series each multiple times. Our 8 year old just finished reading the "Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" and just asked me for 100 feet of copper wire....our 6 year old wants to go to Round Rock, TX - his favorite brochure and our 3 year old is on lesson 40... if it were just one kid, I'd say it was just luck. But the book really works. And each lesson takes between 10-15 minutes. If you figure over the course of a year, you're spending roughly 25-40 hours on developing an independent reader, it's a no-brainer.

The problem with children is that we don't have an EEPROM erase function which works. So, every individual is an autonomous experiment of one, with no control and no repeatability: It is impossible to ever answer the question "if I had done this differently, how would things have changed"

I say this, because in matters of learning, the pedagogy, the mechanisms, especially when it comes to the learning of language and written language, is HUGE. Some of it is burned in (Chomsky) and some of it not. Some of it relates to age. Some of it relates to sound vs shapes. Its not simple to say "because I did this, it works for a vietnamese person" because the scripts and intonations and a whole bunch of stuff are different.

How well does it work to teach Chinese to people assuming left-to-right scanning when chinese ideograms can be read up to down? Or how about when its boudustrophon? How many written works assume left to right, and actually make little sense for a right-to-left reader?

In many economies, and I include my own (Queensland, Australia) the whole word vs phonics debate became hugely political. Its riven the early education community: It is now actually quite hard to have a rational conversation about teaching and learning in early childhood now.

Maths ability is similar. Start talking about rote learning and the "times table" and watch people foam at the mouth.

Kids have amazing models of abstraction in part wired in. This is why "I shutted the door" happens: its not because grammatical errors are in the child: its because rational abstractions Shut -> Shutted happen in the model


I'm always fascinated and curious about language learning. We seem to just pick up our native language so easily as we're growing up, but it seems difficult to pick up a new language with the same ease later on.

I don't have kids, and can't remember what my reading ability was at 4 years old, but I thought when I started reading that I started out by identifying individual characters and trying to sound them out piece by piece? I can't imagine that I built my native language using the whole-word system, but at the same time, that may explain all the spelling tests that I used to do.

I have been learning a completely new language (Polish) for a while now, but I started with learning the sounds of the language first (and how to pronounce the written language) which set up the framework for learning words and phrases later on. I couldn't imagine starting off with learning whole-words. That being said, I think once you have the basic framework start up, you naturally move on to whole words, sentences, and eventually become free with expressing ideas.


> We seem to just pick up our native language so easily as we're growing up, but it seems difficult to pick up a new language with the same ease later on.

Easily? It takes many thousands of hours to learn our native language in the first few years of life.

> I started with learning the sounds of the language first (and how to pronounce the written language) which set up the framework for learning words and phrases later on.

That’s not how language acquisition works. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiTsduRreug https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FRKBxLvKmw


Agree, language acquisition is so cool! That we just ”absorb” the language, or even languages, around us at early age is just amazing. Steven Pinkers 1994 book “The language instinct” gives interesting perspectives.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Language_Instinct


Do we really learn our native language more easily than other languages?

It takes several years for children to learn to speak properly, and they are not exactly busy with other commitments.

Maybe if we dedicated a couple of years to another language and did not have to work for a living, prepare our own food, clean ourselves and so on, we could learn any language.


On a side note: Please remember that teaching your kid to read should come from a place of curiosity from the kid itself. There is likely no advantage from learning how to read at an earlier age (than school) [1].

[1]: https://www.otago.ac.nz/news/news/otago006408.html


I’d like to use this opportunity to remind everyone that extrinsic rewards and punishment (withdrawal of rewards is also punishment) kills intrinsic motivation and poisons the relationship destroying trust.

In other words if you want you child to stop enjoying an activity, encourage or reward the activity.

For more, and a ton of research, see the work of www.alfiekohn.com and more specifically Punished by Rewards.


I mean, is this even true? I love programming for example but love it a lot more when I’m being paid a lot of money.

Yes, this is confirmed by study after study after study.

People perform better at tasks requiring deep thought and creativity when doing them for their own sake, instead of based on extrinsic rewards/punishments.


Dan Pink’s TED talk on motivation speaks about this: https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation/transcript?...

Human beings are complex, love doing interesting (to us) things, love being in the flow, love contributing to others and hate the feeling of being ordered around or obviously manipulated into something we don’t like.


I think the previous poster meant learning should be incentivised with rewards; rather than a behaviour forced because the alternative is punishment.

Incentivizing human beings means treating them like the rats and birds Skinner-ian techniques were derived from. But we’re not rats nor birds and thus such attitude is not effective long term. Apart from being condescending, humiliating, degrading and destructive.

Rewarding a child for reading makes them read for the external reward (for someone else) and makes them hate reading even more because of the humiliation and having to go against their own internal compass in order to get something they want.

You may say this prepares them for the “real world” of exploitation but maybe 1, truly successful people find ways to include their internal compass in their daily flow career-wise and 2., a society where almost everyone tolls at the whims and pleasure of a very few ought to be questioned (reference the insane levels of inequality worldwide, having a king emperor is not sustainable).


> Incentivizing human beings means treating them like the rats and birds

Not at all. Incentivising means to motivate. How many people work because they want money rather than because they like to work?

> Apart from being condescending, humiliating, degrading and destructive.

You're being a tad over dramatic :)

> Rewarding a child for reading makes them read for the external reward (for someone else) and makes them hate reading even more because of the humiliation and having to go against their own internal compass in order to get something they want.

The first part might be true in some cases. But the latter part certainly isn't. We might try to take the moral high ground but parents effectively bribe their children on an almost daily basis: "if you eat all your dinner you can have ice cream / chocolate for pudding"; "if you go in the bath now I'll pour extra bubble mixture in"; "if you're a good buy while we are shopping then I'll buy you a magazine / chocolate"; etc. Even just the process of potty training involves giving over-enthusiastic praise every time they use the potty / toilet instead of wetting themselves - effectively rewarding them with gratitude.

Children are wilful creatures and, as much as we promote independence, we still have lives we need to manage with chores and other stuff that isn't always fun. Even as adults we manage that by saying things like "if I tidy the kitchen now I'll chill with a glass of whisky and an episode of my favourite show" or "I'll go for a run 3 times a week then reward myself with an ice cream at the weekend"... etc. I used HN as a reward for some really dull work (eg I'll write 10 sprint tickets then read something interesting on HN).

Suggesting that the whole concept of a reward system is broken is a massive over-exaggeration. True, rewards can be a broken way of encouragement when used inappropriately but lets not throw the baby out with the bath water (proverbially speaking).

> You may say this prepares them for the “real world” of exploitation but maybe 1, truly successful people find ways to include their internal compass in their daily flow career-wise and 2., a society where almost everyone tolls at the whims and pleasure of a very few ought to be questioned (reference the insane levels of inequality worldwide, having a king emperor is not sustainable).

I think you're trailing off into a hugely philosophical tangent and one I don't really agree with. Capitalism is largely driven by financial reward - many of the greatest disrupters did so for financial gain (the whole "changing the world" meme is really a more dignified way of saying "we want this product to make us rich"). So you can work for personal rewards without being exploited.


I appreciate the conversation but don’t have the bandwidth to engage your points. If you’d like to explore the research, check out the resources I mentioned. It’s possible you’ll arrive at a different opinions... different from mine but also maybe different from your current ones.

I dislike the dismissive + condescending label you try to attach to someone you haven’t really met. Labeling while effective, is not clean argument.


> I dislike the dismissive + condescending label you try to attach to someone you haven’t really met. Labeling while effective, is not clean argument.

You need to read back this discussion because I've been anything but dismissive and condescending while you have been using language like "condescending", "humiliating", "degrading" and "dismissive" throughout.

In fact if you do read it back you'd also realise that I'm not even disagreeing with the research per se but rather disagreeing with the extreme tone and ideology you're applying to it. The rest of my post is just real world examples demonstrating that point.


> You're being a tad over dramatic :)

You don’t know me, and trying to frame me as something or other is a technique to dismiss my statements. Ad hominem is not an argument, although it works because human brains are vulnerable to fallacies.

If you are curious about why I used strong words you may ask :)

And, I appreciate the conversation and your clarification.


> You don’t know me, and trying to frame me as something or other is a technique to dismiss my statements. Ad hominem is not an argument, although it works because human brains are vulnerable to fallacies.

You're reading far to much into that statement. It was simply an expression stating "your wording is unnecessarily extreme". A point I stand by. The terms you used go far beyond reasonable judgement.

> If you are curious about why I used strong words you may ask :)

If you're using intentionally provocative wording which requires an explanation then you shouldn't be surprised if people take those comments on face value when you don't supply an explanation.


> withdrawal of rewards is also punishment

It’s a bit more complex than this. I highly recommend the book, has a ton of research and cites a lot of the experiments. It’s truly fascinating.

>Please remember that teaching your kid to read should come from a place of curiosity from the kid itself.

So much this. My son was content to led mom and me read to him for a long time. On a recommendation from a friend, we got "Bob Books" (Stages 0-3) and it opened the world of reading to him. There was a natural progression, it made it seem easy to him, and he developed immense pride in being able to read more and more challenging material.

Fast forward a couple years, and interest in reading was waning and getting him to read at all was difficult until we found a series of books that he loved (gothic mysteries by John Bellairs) and that kindled his love of reading. We went from no reading to staying up late to read just one more chapter. He now stays on the lookout for interesting new books.


What about the advantage of your children knowing to read? I mean I was taught how to read in preschool well before I showed interest, and it let me be interested in books. I don't care if there's no 'advantage'. It gave me personally a few more years to enjoy reading, which is enough.

I first heard of this book on McWhorter's podcast, in a fascinating episode titled Why We Stopped Teaching Children How To Read [1]. Highly recommended!

The book has been fairly useful for my child, who at times doesn't want to do more lessons but at times churns through a dozen lessons at once. Overall, we're very pleased with it!

1: http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley/2017/0...


My child learned to read using phonics. We didn’t use this book though. At some point she asked us what the squiggly black “pictures” in her book were. Once she figured out that we weren’t just making up the stories and that they were there for anyone to read she was motivated. Then reading time basically became sounding out words with her until she could read. We were lucky to have access to a lot of books very cheaply and some good libraries in walking distance which helped.

My kid can read just fine. The problem is that he hasen't learned how to ENJOY reading... that is the hard part.

My sons, who are twins, were similar maybe. They learned all of the mechanics of reading. They could read. They just weren't super into it the way their older sister was. Until I let them log in to World of Warcraft with me when they were around seven. When they realized there was a story to the game that they needed to understand and details to the quests that they needed to follow they suddenly cared about reading, they realized that it was a key that unlocked a lot of really cool things. They because voracious readers from that moment. Obviously there are pitfalls to bringing kids into an online community, if I could have played it locally I would have. But it didn't start out as a plan, it was sort of a whim and when I saw the effect I started to use it judiciously, as another tool in our tool box.

This is what libraries are great for. Kids will get bored reading a book they're not interested in just like adults would. My son was very picky about what he wanted to read and rarely enjoyed the books that I picked out for him. So every week we'd go to the library where he could pick from 1000s of books about literally any subject he wanted to learn. Once he was ready for chapter books we got him a kindle which has an even bigger library. Reading is now his goto activity before bed and during long car rides.

Coincidentally, we started using this same book a week ago with my son. It is FANTASTIC! We've struggled with other methods but this one is working amazingly well. The best part is that my son's motivation to work on reading went from zero to off the charts. He's constantly on me to do more reading!

My wife and I bought a 'Teach Your Kid to Read' book when the first one was a baby. We'd read to the kids every day, encouraging them to read.

It was a great decision. The kids all do well in school, and they all have benefited greatly from early reading. If you have a baby-- do this!


For my daughter it was phonics at school (which seems to be quite common nowadays) combined with reading stories to her daily (about 20 minutes or so). Also took her to library and let her read/select her own books. Seems to be reading fine.

For the child of average intelligence or higher, simply spending time reading aloud while the child looks and listens and eventuate tries to lead is sufficient to teach how to read. It takes hundreds of hours, but it's not rocket surgery.


I learnt to read by peeking over the shoulder of my older brother when he was learning. I guess just being around people that read things aloud is fine.

Time spent listening to hard books is for most children also more marginally useful than time spent trying to learn to read very simple books independently, especially at the earliest ages.

Kids who grow up in supportive and highly literate households are going to learn to read sooner or later, without needing any excessive focus on drills. There’s nothing inherently wrong with spending some amount of time on phonics, but as a minor addition to lots of conversation and reading aloud, not as the main focus.

If primary schools (some of the most extremely progressive ones partly excepted) replaced most of the time currently spent on regimented reading, spelling, and grammar instruction with the teacher just reading a variety of long, difficult (just within reach of the audience) books aloud, it would do wonders for student language skills.


> Time spent listening to hard books is for most children also more marginally useful than time spent trying to learn to read very simple books independently, especially at the earliest ages.

I disagree about introducing hard books, especially at an early age. Young children will simply ignore things they don't understand, they don't attempt to understand it. If they are inundated with words they don't understand, they will simply move onto another activity. My son started reading at 2, but as his reading improved, it was challenging finding books that weren't too hard for him, with the right word density and vocabulary so that he remained engaged in reading.

Now he's 5 and he's reading at a grade 8 level, and still he will ignore some words but now he's old enough to occasionally ask me what a particular word means.


We are talking about listening comprehension, not reading comprehension. Childrens’ listening comprehension is far ahead of their reading comprehension, and improves very quickly when they practice; if their school teacher reads aloud for 1+ hours per day, they’ll get a whole pile of practice.

By “hard books” I mean that school-age students (age 5+) have no trouble listening to real chapter books (say Charlotte’s Web or Matilda) instead of only short rhyming picture books. I’m sure your son could start handle listening to those when he was 3.5, but he’ll still get something out of listening to them at age 6, as will the slowest students in the class.

I don’t mean that we should be dropping Faulkner on a 2nd grade class.


"just within reach of the audience" is very hard when there are 20+ children in a class who have very little in common except age.

If the children were carefully separated by ability it might work.


I'd argue they don't have age in common either in the first years of school - at the beginning of formal schooling in the UK in September, the difference between the youngest child in the class who might only just have had their 4th birthday in late August and the oldest who might have had their 5th birthday in early September just before starting school means that one is almost 25% older than the other. That's huge.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. If kids don’t understand every word or every abstract theme of a book that’s okay. If kids aren’t maximally challenged by every sentence, or if the teacher interjects a definition of a word they already knew for the benefit of less prepared students, that’s also okay. Kids who are a bit ahead or a bit behind will still generally stay engaged if the story is interesting.

The smarter students can just tune out, read ahead, and enjoy the book. That's not too bad.

The other way around is much worse. The slower students get frustrated as they fall further and further behind until they feel it's impossible to catch up and give up.

Unfortunately most teachers teach at the level of the more advanced students, not at the level of the slower students. I don't know if they mean to do this, it might be unconscious, but they definitely do it.


> Unfortunately most teachers teach at the level of the more advanced students, not at the level of the slower students. I don't know if they mean to do this, it might be unconscious, but they definitely do it.

This is almost universally false. They target the least advanced students and let them more advanced students fend for themselves. In the US it's even more pronounced because of teacher evaluation by test scores, etc. Teachers are incentivized to ignore the smarter kids because their test scores are high already, and they get more bang for their buck by raising the scores of the kids at the bottom of the range.


How much experience do you have watching primary school classrooms, library read-alouds, etc.?

I’m talking about e.g. 5–8 year-old students, listening to books that even the best prepared in the class would struggle to read on their own, but even the least prepared have little trouble listening to someone else read.

I feel like we must be talking about different activities here. Children are very engaged listening to a good reader reading a good story. Listening to stories does not cause any substantial proportion of them to “fall further behind” or to “give up”.

> Unfortunately most teachers teach at the level of the more advanced students

This was almost never my own experience as a student in ~17 years of formal education. YMMV.


I distinctly remember that being how I learnt to read. By sounding out the words, I couldn't imagine any other way?

I think the level of "sounding out" can vary. I learned to read "on my own" when I was 3 or 4 by realizing that the story my dad kept reading to me each night had the same exact words spoken on the same page. I realized the words on the page were related, so I would scan ahead and see the symbol "by" coming up, and he would say "by"! I picked out other small words and linked them to symbols and then linked larger sections of words. This ended up like sounding it out, but by word-parts, not by letters. My parents were surprised to learn that I could read when I read aloud a long word on a road sign as we were driving. "Tippecanoe."

With my kids, they did not follow my path and were uninterested in relating words to their sounds as we read books together, so we went with hooked on phonics to solid success, where I first learned rules (as a college educated adult mind you) like the sound of "x" (I had never realized what it was, like "ks" in "ax" - pronounced "ah-ks") and where I learned that a vowel typically says it's name if followed by a consonant and another vowel. I hadn't developed sounding out letters, I only sounded out parts of words in relation to other words I was aware of. I think this could be part of my issues with spelling in school.


Yeah, is this not how people learn to read? Seasame Street was doing it back in the 80s!

I learned to read by watching Sesame Street and other PBS children shows.

"Nothing happened, even though guidelines that govern behavior on the platform explicitly forbid mocking someone’s physical appearance.

Today, Instagram says, the outcome would have been different. More sophisticated reporting tools and moderators would have quickly shut the account down."

--> This is BS. Just two days ago, I came across an Instagram account, which had photos and videos of a friend & with captions making fun of my friend. I reported the account for bullying and got a reply from Instagram that the reported account doesn't violate it's community guideline.

When reporting an account, there is no way to provide a link of the actual account.(from where the bully copied the content)


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