Friday, February 2, 2018

Homeschool Highlights: How We Taught Our Preschooler to Read

My oldest daughter, known here as Little Miss Muffet, is four years old, and (to my great shock!) she already knows how to read. Because I am asked occasionally (and because I want to remember our method for use with our younger two girls), today I am going to share what worked for us in terms of teaching reading to a preschooler. Your mileage may vary.  

Laying the Foundation

Before we ever even considered any formal reading instruction for Miss Muffet, we did a lot to pave the way. This was partly because my husband and I are both librarians, partly because we were early readers ourselves, and partly because our daughter seems to have a natural inclination for learning and using language. Also, because we always planned to homeschool, there was no reason to wait for the "right age" to get the ball rolling on reading. We just incorporated literacy into our everyday lives. 

These are some of the preliminary things we did before starting formal reading instruction: 
  • Reading aloud. We read aloud to Miss Muffet a lot, from birth, and through her toddler years. We didn't shy away from using big words and explaining their meanings even if she didn't quite understand them the first time. We also used a lot of word books and even an old children's dictionary to introduce new words and to help her learn the alphabet. 
  • Listening to audiobooks. When she stopped napping for a while around age 2.5, Miss Muffet was often put to bed with the audiobook version of a picture book playing in her room. I would give her a copy of the book too, so she could "read" along. She also had a subscription to Highlights High Five magazine for a while, and there is an audio version of that with page-turn signals that she really enjoyed.
  • Labeling the house. We labeled familiar items in our house with little pieces of paper so she could begin to associate letters with words and words with meanings. (She ripped a lot of these down pretty soon after they were put up, but some that were out of her reach are still in place!) We can't say this had a definite impact on her early reading, but it probably didn't hurt. 
  • Writing stories. When she was two, I started having Miss Muffet dictate stories to me about things she did during the day. Then she illustrated them with crayon drawings. This really helped to develop her sense of narrative and reinforced her knowledge of how books work. 
  • Doing a letter puzzle. My mom bought this Melissa & Doug Wooden Magnetic Alphabet Puzzle book for Miss Muffet and she took a strong liking to it right away. After our second daughter was born, Miss Muffet spent a lot of time doing this puzzle independently during times when I needed to be with the baby, and I think it helped her learn to recognize the letters and to begin understanding their sounds.
  • Playing with magnet letters. We spent a lot of time with magnet letters. We played games like The Runaway Letter and taught some of the letter sounds using consonant-vowel-consonant words.
Even if you aren't planning to teach a preschooler to read, I think all of these early literacy activities are fun to do and they still lay that foundation for when your child does eventually learn to read. I also don't think all of them are absolutely necessary. I think it was mainly the fact that literacy was such a part of her everyday life that helped Miss Muffet develop an enthusiasm for reading. (I also think the fact that we don't own a TV may have pushed her toward books.)

Reading Instruction


By the time Miss Muffet was about three-and-a-half, she had a definite interest in reading, and she knew all her letters and some of their sounds. This is when we started formally teaching her how to read. 

We used these resources:
  • The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading by Jessie Wise and Sara Buffington. We bought this book because we knew we'd be homeschooling. My husband started going through the lessons with her in the evenings, and she really enjoyed it and took to it right away. She finished the entire book in about six months. 
  • Hooked on Phonics Readers. We found a used set of kindergarten Hooked on Phonics books at a library book sale and gave them to Miss Muffet one at a time. She would practice sounding out the words and reading punctuation and using proper expression until she mastered the book. Then we would make a video of her reading the book and give her the next one in the series. She loved making the videos and was always thrilled to start a new book.
I really think any set of phonics readers would do the job. Practicing sounding out words in context is the key; I don't think it matters much which phonics books you use to get that practice.  We stumbled upon the Hooked on Phonics ones, and they worked great, but they aren't great works of literature or anything. The purpose of these books is to build up the skills required to read better books. Parents in the library used to complain that phonics readers were boring, but Miss Muffet definitely didn't think so. They were the first books she could read, and that made them very special to her.  


Now that she has basic reading skills, we mostly just make sure to supply Miss Muffet with books to reinforce what she has learned and to keep challenging her. 
  • McGuffey Readers. When we ran out of Hooked on Phonics books, we moved on to these old-fashioned readers. When she was reading the Primer and First Reader, they were a little too easy for her, and she went through them fairly quickly. She is now in the Fourth Reader and things are moving a bit more slowly as we work on strengthening her comprehension skills. 
  • I Can Read Books. Once she was through the first couple of McGuffey books, Miss Muffet was ready to read "real" books with more plot and characterization. The first one she read, with lots of help, was The Fire Cat by Esther Averill. After that, we started giving her different I Can Read titles, and some easy reader books from other publishers' series. Some were almost as easy as the Hooked on Phonics readers; others were intentionally beyond her level so she could be exposed to new words. At this point, she has ready pretty much every I Can Read book up to level 2. Now we try to have her read one I Can Read book that she has previously read and one that is new to her every day after her nap.  
  • Beginning chapter books. To keep challenging her, we have also introduced some beginning chapter books into the mix. Little House on the Prairie and Betsy's Little Star by Carolyn Haywood were her first two. We don't worry a lot about reading level, but my best guess is that she is capable of reading around a third grade level right now, sometimes with some extra help with vocabulary and comprehension. 
I still read aloud to Miss Muffet a lot, and sometimes we read books together, taking turns and pausing every so often to discuss what we've read. She also reads to me, and to her siblings, a fair amount, in addition to reading to herself. You can keep up with her reading journey (and with what her siblings are enjoying) in real time by following my weekly Read-at-Home Kids Reports.


  1. WOW, this is a great post. I have looked up about when young readers learn to read as part of some research and this would have been handy to have.

  2. Thanks! This is really helpful.