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.