How We Taught Our Kids to Read

I just want to start off by saying I have no degree in education and I'm not a teacher. For a few years, I worked for the reading team at LeapFrog Enterprises, which had a dedicated learning team of people who DO hold PhDs in education. I learned a lot from them about how kids learn to read, which was more helpful than I imagined it would be when it came time to teach our own children. (I wish I'd had the opportunity to work on a math team, too!) This stuff worked for us, but I know there are lots of different approaches. 

Here's how we went about it, step by step. For the record: the steps are mostly here to enable me to write a somewhat organized blog post. We weren't totally rigid about what we were introducing or anything, like "today is the day we learn vowel teams!" We just did things in order from easy to hard as well as we could. (I'm going to mention some old school LeapFrog products, but no one is paying me to do so. I just happen to think some of them are pretty great.)


The first step was teaching the kids that letters make sounds and the sounds make words. If you're not confident that you're covering all the sounds that letters make--for example, vowels-- there's an excellent (IMO) LeapFrog video called The Letter Factory:

This video is like magic. I can't explain it. Something about the combination of music, visuals, and letter sounds really worked. 

We also spent time sitting on the floor in front of the refrigerator and playing with Fridge Phonics:

Children can hear the sounds the letters make on their own by pressing the letter, but I think we really got more educational value out of it by sitting there and asking what sounds the individual letters made, and sometimes asking if they could think of a word that started with that sound. Once they knew the letters and their sounds, we'd use the magnetic letters to spell easy-to-decode CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words. More on those later.

There are hundreds and hundreds of alphabet books out there, and we read those, like everyone else. One I remember particularly is the I Spy Little Letters book, which for a long stretch there was part of a nightly bedtime reading ritual.


An activity I'd do with the kids that *I* found fun, too, was with just scrap paper and a pen. I'd draw a "secret picture" and cover it with my hand. Then I'd get them to try to figure out what the secret picture was by sounding out letters. For example, I'd draw a little cartoon cat and cover it with my hand. Then I'd spell it out one letter at a time. I'd write a "C" and ask, "What does the C say?" Then I'd write an "A" and ask, "What does the A say?" Then I'd write a "T" and ask what it said, and then I'd have them say the sounds all in a row: C-A-T and then, ta-da! I'd show them the picture. They'd get tired of it after 4-5 pictures, usually.

(Confession: I started out using "BAT" as an example here, but cats are much easier to draw.) (I also immediately put on hand lotion after taking the first picture with a hand that looked like a withered chicken foot.) 


After the kids had learned the letters and their sounds, we introduced them to CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words. These are words that are the easiest ones to sound out, the Dr. Seuss kind, i.e.: cat, hat, fan, ham, pit, pig, log, pot, jet, net, wet, pup, cup, etc. (At first we avoided r-controlled vowels in otherwise easy words like "car" and "far" and "fur" because the r changes the sound the vowel makes.) 

We did things like read Dr. Seuss books and have the kids sound out a word here and there. I don't mind saying this can get pretty mind-numbing.



One activity we did with those magnetic Fridge Phonics letters was to spell a word like CAT, and then swap out the first letter to see what other words we could make using the "at" ending. It felt so marvelously educational that even doing that with a child for a few minutes made me feel like a rock star. 

There's a nice little Dora the Explorer app called Dora Hops Into Phonics! that features games like that. We used it on the iPad.


Once they had a handle on sounding out CVC words, we slowly worked on the sounds the R-controlled vowels make (the way ur sounds in fur, the way the way or sounds in for, etc.). If you simply Google "r-controlled vowels," you'll find all kinds of word lists and information about them.

We introduced blends (two letters together, like the "st" in stop, the "pl" in play) and digraphs (two letters that make a different sound when put together: th, ch, wh, sh). There are probably a ton of LeapFrog toys that work on those two things, but I know there's an activity that uses digraphs in this Tag Book:  

There's a spread where the reader matches digraphs to words, for example the digraph "th" to the word third.

Around this time we also worked on Silent-E words (or "Magic-E" words). Someone at LeapFrog told me a good way to teach it is to say that an E on the end makes the middle letter stand up and say its name, the way the "a" says "a" in cane, or the way the "e" says "e" in here. 

Here's an old Between the Lions song about Silent-E:


I really liked these sets of Montessori readers called Miss Rhonda's Readers:

New readers can read a whole book and feel accomplished. I had favorites (Run Crab). You can buy the set here:

There are tons of great easy readers out there. I suppose if you are new to the game and haven't started with easy readers you may not have heard of MO WILLEMS and ELEPHANT AND PIGGIE, aka the best easy readers ever.


You're welcome.

Other good ones:

Big Egg by Molly Cox is another good one for kids who are really just starting to read.

Dragon Egg by Mallory Lochr we read several times. It seems like all our reading was egg-themed, but it wasn't, I swear.

Good Night, Good Knight by Shelley Moore Thomas stands up well to rereading, too.

There are too many good easy readers out there to name them all, I suppose. I probably shouldn't have even tried making a list. I think I'll just stop here.


There are so many things to introduce, and I know I'm not covering everything, since of course a lot of reading with a kid is crossing those bridges when you come to them. Some of the concepts I can remember specifically teaching are double vowels like the "oo" in moon, or the "ee" sound in teeth. 

Vowel teams like ou, ea, ie, etc. are tricky because there are so many exceptions. The "ea" in head sounds a lot different from the "ea" in bead.

This is an image from that Between the Lions song.

This is an image from that Between the Lions song.

 There's another somewhat helpful Between the Lions song about vowel teams, "When Two Vowels Go Walking," that someone on the Learning Team recommended to me. I might have sung it once or twice during reading time. It's here:

When I couldn't find enough easy reader books on a topic my kid loved, I'd sometimes write up my own and use clip art or look around online for accompanying images. As long as you aren't publishing it, it's a-ok! That way, if there's a vowel team like "ou" you're working on, you can write a "book" about a Cloud that can Shout Out Loud! or whatever. 

Here's a list of sight words that I'd sometimes include in the "books," too.


I love our local library. Libraries are the best. For both kids, the summer they were 3 years old, we signed them up for Summer Reading at the library. They don't have to be reading on their own to do it! It's a nationwide thing that everyone can do! The kids earn credit for every 15 minutes they read on their own or every 15 minutes an adult reads to them. After a certain number of hours of reading, they get a prize. We made a big deal about coloring in the squares every day.

A teacher at our kids' school recommended, a website that has all kinds of literacy materials. I think it's pretty great. Our youngest really liked the stories under the "I'm Reading!" tab. Some of them have little animations here and there.  Sometimes the promise of a screen is more appealing than a book (as I can personally attest! Thank goodness that was the season finale of The Magicians!), but SURPRISE LITTLE FRIEND this is in fact SNEAKY READING.

Another activity I did a lot was I'd sit one of the kids on my lap at the computer and have him or her "write" (dictate) a story. I'd type it out, and he or she would also choose pictures to go with it-- MS Word clip art or occasionally Google images. I really loved this. The stories were often hilarious. Some of them we're keeping forever. Here's one the two wrote together:

Now that the kids are older, we only read to them for 15 minutes per day, and then they read on their own for 45 minutes before bed. (It's not the only time they read, but it's the only scheduled time.) They're pretty independent readers now. The challenge at this point is finding books at the right reading level for them. If the books are too hard, the kids lose interest, but they often WANT to check out those harder books because the COVERS ARE SO COOL.  I recently discovered this useful website:

This last line is my wrapping-up sentence.


"If You Liked" Reading Lists for Grown-Ups

Last week, someone on Facebook asked for a reading recommendation, and I wrote a list of titles so long I had to stop and ice my knuckles.  

No, not really. In fact, I just barely TOUCHED that comments section. Then a couple days ago, I saw the librarians at our library have posted the kind of "If you liked ____ , you might also like ____!" lists I sometimes find helpful. I thought: I will make some of those, too! It will be fun, oh so fun, and no one on Facebook need suffer if they aren't interested! So here we go:



THE COVE by Ron Rash

The Cove is part mystery, and has a kind of gothic feeling to it. It takes place in North Carolina during WWII, and follows a brother and sister who have been shunned by their community because the neighbors think the family is cursed. 



MR. SPLITFOOT by Samantha Hunt 

This novel is creepy and unpredictable. The plot line switches between the childhood of Ruth and Nat, two foster children who meet in a less-than-ideal group home, and a later era, when Ruth is on a strange, fraught journey with her niece, Cora.  


Ward does this thing where she gets four or five different lines of tension pulling the reader through the story. The setting is rural Mississippi, just before Katrina strikes. The characters are sympathetic and interesting. 

THE OUTLANDER by Gil Adamson

This novel is set in 1903 in the American west. I’ve never rooted so hard for a murderess.




STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett

This novel follows Dr. Marina Singh, who travels to the rain forest in Brazil to investigate the death of a coworker conducting research there.  


EUPHORIA by Lily King

This story is set in the 1930s. It’s about three anthropologists living near New Guinea and studying the native tribes there. The anthropologists uncover the secrets of the tribes they study, and the secrets of their own lives are revealed, too. The love plot line is heartbreaking and believable.

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

The structure of this story is unusual--it follows the life, or lives, really, of the main character, Ursula Todd. In the book, her life starts over and over again; when events or mistakes lead to the end of her life, it begins anew and an alternate path unfolds. The ending is one we’ve all wished for at one time or another.





WOOL by Hugh Howey
It’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story about human beings who live in an underground silo.



A post-apocalyptic story that moves along at a clip. It's about a girl who is . . . different. I liked the ending.

THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin

This novel has a rapid, tense, they're-coming-to-get-you story line. Perfect vacation book. At least, for people who like to read about a dark, monster-ridden, post-apocalyptic world during their vacations.



This story follows a surgeon named Dorrigo Evans and his company of soldiers who suffer in a Japanese POW camp. Portions of the novel also take place in Australia before and after the war.


MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes

This is a book about the Vietnam war, and I don’t think it could have been written if the author hadn’t experienced it himself. The descriptions are vivid. It kept me up at night.

NOTHING TO ENVY by Barbara Demick

This title is different from all the others on this list so far because it is nonfiction. This book follows the lives of citizens of North Korea who begin as true believers and end as defectors. They give accounts of the incredible and terrible circumstance of living in North Korea. It seems impossible that a regime such as this should exist in modern times. 



The range of topics Orozco covers --from temporary office workers to presidents in exile--is impressive and interesting. I'm a fan.

THE TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders

This is a rare thing: a short story collection, with each story so good it is hard to put down.  There are some dystopian stories, some more traditional, all from really interesting points of view. I also laughed aloud now and then, speaking of rare. 

10 Holiday Gift Ideas for Kids, Namely: Books

I always feel good about giving the kids books for Christmas--hours of fun available to them once the holidays have ended. The recommendations below are not my personal favorites, but the kids'. I'm basing this list on series or single books that have been most popular with our children.

Note: I'm linking to Amazon here because that makes it easy to be consistent, but I also think it's pretty cool to support local bookstores if you have that option. 

1. THE AMULET SERIES by Kazu Kibuishi

This will be my number one recommendation because it's been such a sensation at our place. If you have not heard of this GET READY. We checked book one out of the library, and had to purchase the rest because the kids couldn't wait for them to become available. My seven-year-old has reread these graphic novels multiple times in the last couple months. My husband just finished them and agrees they're really good. I've read book one so far.  The illustrations are gorgeous, and the story is --thus far-- terrific fun. 

Publisher recommended age range 8-12 years, grades 3-7.

2. The Zac Power series by H. I. Larry

This series features a boy spy named--as you may have guessed--Zac Power. Our 7-year-old likes "the exciting parts" of books. These stories seem to deliver, which I suppose shouldn't be surprising, with titles like "River Rampage" and "Frozen Fear." The books had a months-long run as Favored Series earlier in the year, though recently Amulet has eclipsed all else.

Publisher recommended age range 8-11, grades 2-6.

3. The Captain Raptor books by Kevin O'Malley

The 5-year-old in residence here has loved both Captain Raptor and the Moon Mystery and Captain Raptor and the Space Pirates. He loved them when he was three. We waited a year for him to forget the books, then checked them out of the library once more, and he loved them all over again. I'm not sure I need to say more than DINOSAURS IN SPACESHIPS.

Publisher recommended age range 5-8 years (oops!), grades K-3.

4. The Princess in Black books by Shannon Hale

It might be hard to find a parent of a K-3 student who hasn't heard of The Princess in Black, but just in case! This book was a hit last year with our then-first-grader, and she's read the subsequent books with enthusiasm, too.

Publisher recommended age range 5-8 years, grades K-3.

5. The Franny K. Stein books by Jim Benton

My brother-in-law recommended this series to us because his kids had enjoyed it. Our second grader read them all, and would read more if they were available!

Publisher recommended age range 7-10 years, grades 2-5.

6. Blackout by John Rocco

I read this picture book to both children when they were younger. It's a rare pleasure to find picture books one enjoys rereading. We all--adults and children-- liked this one.

Publisher recommended age range 4-8 years, preK-K.

7. Buddy and the Bunnies in: Don't Play With Your Food! by Bob Shea

A picture book about a bunny-eating monster. Perhaps my favorite of the Bob Shea oeuvre.

Ages 4-7, PreK-K.

8.  The Sideways Stories from Wayside School series by Louis Sachar

A friend recommended this series to me because her own children liked it. We've been listening to the audio book version of this series in the car, and the stories are fun and frankly bizarre.

Ages 8-12, grades 3-7.

9. The Heroes in Training Series by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

It's hard to choose just one based-on-Greek-gods series to name here. They were trending with our elder child last year: Heroes in Training, Beasts of Olympus, Goddess Girls. These I believe were the most consistently reread.

Ages 6-9, Grades 1-4.

10. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

This is a personal favorite of mine, but our older child read it recently for her book club and couldn't put it down. It's about a girl who goes on a quest to try to find out how to get things to grow on Fruitless Mountain near her poor village. On the way she meets a dragon and has many adventures. This one is quality storytelling. 

How to Have a Fantastically Fun Kids' Book Club Meeting

I have real ideas to share about book clubs further down, but my first suggestion is: Write a book, have your daughter's book club read it, and then have a ridiculously good time talking to a bunch of bright, engaged, adorable readers.

If you're considering starting up a book club for your kids, I can recommend it. Lucky for me, a friend initiated ours. We often have a craft set up for the kids that's associated with the book. For Horus, the host provided several crafts--the kids made mummies from Popsicle sticks and white yarn and (I think) googly eyes. The children also decorated bookmarks with bat & mummy stickers, and they even had little wooden coffin "sarcophagi" to paint! 

When the book club read a Magic Tree House book, we printed out blank comic strip pages so the girls could make their own comics about it or write different stories about the characters. They also enjoyed stringing their own bead necklaces.

After discussing a Beasts of Olympus book we went out to the driveway and the club drew an obstacle course with colored chalk. I can't even express how cool it was watching these children drawing details they remembered from the book--mythical beasts to dodge, the river Styx to jump, etc. 

Here's a link to a few more ideas. Have fun!


Illustrated Early Chapter Books

Lately I've become very familiar with a certain type of book: the illustrated early chapter book. I'm happy to see more and more books of this sort becoming available. Everybody's different, and I know what appeals to my kids may not appeal to others, but here are some of the titles that worked as early transition books from picture books to chapters. 

The Dragon Masters series written by Tracey West and illustrated by Graham Howells. Dragons,  adventure.  This is a good one. Both my son and daughter enjoyed it.

The 13-Story Treehouse written by Andy Griffiths and illustrated by Terry Denton. Funny, silly, terrific. There are more, if your kid likes it!

The Gumazing Gum Girl: Chews Your Destiny written and illustrated by Rhode Montijo. Superheroes and bubble gum. My kids read it more than once.

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny written and illustrated by John Himmelman. I personally enjoyed these stories. One included a paper-folding craft to make a Bunjitsu Bunny. It was easy enough even for me and my 5 year old.

Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe by Noah Z. Jones. Funny fairy-tales very unlike the classics. For example, the first book is entitled, "Moldylocks and the Three Beards." You heard me.


Finally, I want to plug my all time favorite book to read aloud to the kids.  My Father's Dragon. I recommend getting the book this minute for story time tonight.



Read These! An Excellent Run of Middle Grade & YA

I've read a number of terrific Middle Grade and YA books these past few weeks. Here are some standouts:

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry This is an Agatha Christie-esque middle grade mystery with a comedy-of-errors bent. I found this funny, fun, and fresh, and looked forward to reading it until I finished. Thumbs up.

Doll Bones by Holly Black. I didn't know there was such a genre as middle grade horror, but after reading this, I'm glad there is! Spooky, fun, and very well paced, I enjoyed this much more than I anticipated.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. This classic middle grade fairy tale still entertains! I found it particularly creepy how a human could hold a goblin at bay by chanting a rhyme, but that it was difficult to do so when one was scared. Brrrr. 

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson. This is YA fantasy by a well-known fantasy writer (whose books I've enjoyed in the past). The novel involves a group of people called "rithmatists" whose 2-D chalk drawings come to life. Part fantasy, part murder mystery, entirely enjoyable.