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When it comes to teaching phonics, one of the very best resources is also one of the oldest! Webster’s Speller not only teaches fluent, advanced spelling but also teaches reading, from a basic to an advanced level. It was used to achieve high levels of fluency, and it is especially useful when combined with the New England Primer, another old resource, or McGuffey’s Readers, a very popular set of vintage schoolbooks. It can be tricky, though, to use these excellent vintage texts to teach from. And it can be especially tricky if you don’t know how to teach phonics. Once you know how to use Webster’s, though, you can probably teach anyone to read!
Teaching Reading Preparedness
The first step in teaching phonics is to make sure that your child knows about reading! You do need to know how to teach phonics, but it won’t do you much good if your child doesn’t know to pick up a book when he’s bored. There are four things you can do before you begin phonics: read aloud to your child, develop his fine motor skills, help your child be aware of the sounds in words, and teach the alphabet. While your child learns these things, up until about age 6, you don’t really need to focus on how to teach phonics. These four things lay the groundwork for being a fluent reader.
Read to your child every day. This sounds like trite advice, but it is one of the most important things you can do for your child’s literacy. A child who is read to every day WILL learn to read eventually, so even if you do nothing else for your child to teach them to read, please read to them!
Try to read lots of rhymes. If you are not comfortable with poetry, start with Dr. Seuss’s beginner books, like Green Eggs and Ham, or Dr. Seuss’s ABCs. Also, read a lot of classic books. The 1000 Good Books List and The 20th-Century Children’s Book Treasury are good places to start. And, of course, reading the King James Bible (or listening to it and other classics as audiobooks) is a great way to expose your children to rich language and a full vocabulary!
Finally, children learn what they see. If you want them to keep reading, turn off the TV, put down your phone, and read a book! Fluent readers usually come from houses that are full of books! If your children see you reading, they are more likely to read as well.
Fine Motor Skills
Another thing to do every day is work on fine motor skills. Sensory education is important for a lot of reasons and fine motor control comes from using hands for things other than swiping a screen! Get your children playing in the dirt! Outside time and an old-fashioned sandbox are great for this. A sand-and-water sensory table as another good toy. Learning to control big muscle movements is also helpful; try a swing, monkey bars, or a balance beam.
Inside, let the child use play clay, or learn to cut with scissors. Also, try some fingerplays! Classics like The Eensy-Weensy Spider and This is the Church increase control and dexterity. Another old-fashioned way to encourage dexterity is to play Cat’s Cradle! (Does anyone else remember string games and string figures? Or is that just me?) Eating with utensils, coloring, playing with Legos, dressing and undressing dolls — anything that your child does that requires using their hands and fingers in a controlled manner builds fine motor skills.
Phonological and Phonemic Awareness
The final important thing is to make sure your child understands that words are made up of different sounds. Start by teaching them about syllables — clapping or marching once for each syllable in a word (Dinosaur names are good for this! Ty-ra-no-saur!) This is especially helpful if the child mispronounces words or sounds, or has hearing difficulties.
Once they can hear and identify the different syllables, begin teaching them to hear all the different sounds in the syllables (these are the phonograms). For example, fish is a one-syllable word, but it has four sounds: f-i-sh. (Reading aloud, rhymes, and singing will also help to emphasize syllables and sounds!) You can make this into a game — finding all the sounds, or making sounds and asking them what that word is.
The last step in preparing for reading is alphabet mastery. First, teach the alphabet, using the alphabet song and flashcards. I like to start with an alphabet page and point-and-sing the song together. Then, I move to flashcards that show cursive and print letters. (A fun game at this point is “Memory” with matching cursive and print, or upper- and lower-case letters. I also add flashcards for the digits 0-9 in here, too!) Eventually, they can recite the whole alphabet so fast that they can do it in half a minute! At that point, they have mastered the alphabet.
I also teach cursive along with the alphabet, using the McGuffey’s script alphabet. I love the McGuffey Readers, and I use them for all of my children’s language arts. The revised editions are in the public domain and are quite easy to find in digital form. At the end of the Revised Primer is an Alphabet page and a set of slate work exercises that teaches the lowercase letters. I use these, then after they have learned them all, they begin practicing the whole alphabet and working on the capital letters.
They learn to be comfortable with saying every letter, and at the same time they learn to form every letter. When they can write the lower-case alphabet (connected) in cursive at the same speed that they can say it, they have total alphabet fluency. And at this point you actually need to know how to teach phonics.
Teaching Phonics & Phonograms
I start phonics after they have alphabet fluency. I often use flashcards, but you can also use your alphabet page that you used for fluency. Point to each letter (or hold up the card) and have your child tell you the name of the letter. Then tell them what sound it makes. (Don’t forget to teach the rule that, “Q is always followed by U, and together they say /kw/.”) Cycle through the alphabet this way every day. (Don’t forget to keep practicing writing the alphabet as well!)
Eventually, they will be able to tell you the sounds without prompting. At that point, you can start teaching them multi-letter phonograms: ch, sh, th, ng, and ph. These are important because most of them are fairly common, and all of them change pronunciation dramatically from their single sounds. Most of the other multi-letter phonograms can be taught along with their spelling/pronunciation rules later.
Teaching children to blend sounds is the next step. This is a tricky part of teaching phonics and can take a while. You can do this with Webster’s syllabary, which begins with long vowel sounds first, a departure from modern methods.
Begin by explaining the rule, “When a syllable ends with a vowel, the vowel is long.” (Or, “The vowel says its name.”) Then write the first letter of the first syllable (“b”), and say, “The name of this letter is . . .” (Let the child answer, “B!”), “And it says . . .” (Let the child answer, “/b/”). Next, write down the “a,” and go over the name and the long vowel sound. Then, say, “B and A together say /bay/,” moving your finger from left to right to show how to blend. Keep doing this with all the letters, until you have made all the long vowel (open) syllables from the syllabary.
When you get to “C,” remember to teach the rule, “C says /s/ before E, I, and Y.” Also, teach the rule for “G,” “G sometimes says /j/ before E, I, and Y.” When you get to “Q,” remind them of that rule, as well.
After open syllables, move on to the short vowel (closed) syllables. “When the vowel is at the beginning or in the middle of the syllable, it makes its short sound.” Continue practicing blending from left to right, and working on the rules. YOU CANNOT STRESS CORRECT READING DIRECTION TOO MUCH! You also cannot practice syllables too much. Once they are comfortable with how the syllables are formed, begin sounding out the syllables, and asking them to say them back to you or write them as dictation. After you teach them in order, teach them randomly or in corresponding closed/open pairs.
After You Teach Phonics
Syllables are the last step in phonics. After syllables, it is all about learning to read and comprehend words. From here, you can use Webster’s Speller in different ways. You can use it for spelling, reading, and grammar, and use the Bible as the basis of your homeschool English program. Or, you can combine it with the New England Primer or the Scottish Psalter to practice syllables before starting the Bible. You can also combine it with the McGuffey readers to make an entire K-12 reading and spelling program, and if you add Harvey’s Grammar, you have a whole English program. Use it to teach grammar, or use it only to teach spelling. It is a very versatile book!
Once my child has memorized the syllabary (I don’t rush this; it can take up to 2 years!), we move to the next stage of reading. The child begins working on the lists of words in Webster’s. At this point, we begin to work on the McGuffey Readers, so every day there is a spelling lesson, cursive copywork, and reading aloud. This becomes the main focus of their early learning.
Until age 10, the student will continue to have daily read-aloud time, a spelling lesson, and the McGuffey’s Readers’ lesson. They will also learn to read polysyllables, first by spelling them, then by reading them. They will practice reading by reading the McGuffey’s lesson aloud, and reading the Bible (I consider the King James Bible to be the pinnacle of written English. If you can read that Bible, you can read anything written in English.) aloud every day. This covers all four parts of language arts: speaking, listening, writing, and reading. They also learn reading comprehension by learning to answer the 5W story sequence questions to narrate the lesson back to me. That covers all of their language arts until age 10. After age 10, each area of language arts has its own scope and sequence.
I hope this helps you know how to teach phonics and teach your child to read. The foundation of learning is literacy. Once your child knows phonics, cultural and scientific literacy is at his fingertips. The best thing you can do for your child is teach them to read, write, speak, and listen, using phonics.