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My Two Year Old Got Hooked On Phonics

When my son was in nursery school he raised his hand to get his teacher's attention.

"Yes, Daniel?"

Daniel pointed to the word "Conneticut" written on the blackboard and said, "You spelled Connecticut wrong." She looked at the board and realized he was right.

"Daniel, how did you know it was wrong?" asked the perplexed teacher.

"It's because I have a young and powerful brain!" Daniel triumphantly replied.

His teacher contacted me by phone shortly thereafter, told me what Daniel had said, and asked me how he could possibly know about the misspelled word."

I told her that when he was almost two years old, I started to teach him how to read.

She was full of more questions. "Why did you bother to teach him to read? Surely he would have learned how to read in school at the developmentally appropriate age."

I had no idea what she meant by a developmentally appropriate age. All I knew is that Daniel turned into a superb reader so he must have been ready to read. "Maybe yes, maybe no," I replied. As I see things, reading is too crucial for his success in school and in life to leave to chance. That's why I did the job myself. His education, I hope you understand, is ultimately my responsibility. Don't you agree?" All I heard in reply to my question was a muffled grunt.

She continued with a noticeable edge to her voice. "Who taught you how to do it? You must be a teacher."

"Nah...I am a CPA and no one taught me ...all I did was teach him the alphabet, the sounds the letters make, and oh yes, I made sure he had tons and tons of practice. It was all really very simple. Honest, his brain did most of the work."

By the shrillness of her response, I was sure she was about to deliver a cow. "YOU REALLY TAUGHT HIM PHONICS WHEN HE WAS TWO YEARS OLD?!" She said the word phonics like it was three day old road kill. This was my first indication that there was a problem somewhere with our schools and phonics. It would not be until many years later that I'd learn about the bizarre things going on in reading instruction at our schools.
* * *

I remember the evening I made that fateful decision as though it were yesterday. "I'm going to teach Daniel how to read to me!" I hollered to my wife who was watching television in the next room. Daniel was standing on his bed, and probably wondered what his silly Daddy was yelling about. He didn't know then, nor did I, how much those few words would eventually change our lives. Suddenly Daniel's bed became a classroom and I became his first teacher. From that day on, things in our family would never be quite the same.

My lack of teaching experience never bothered me a whit. I never created lesson plans and took every lesson one day at a time. I simply relied on old-fashioned common sense and trial and error to chart my course. This was nightime learning fun between my son and me. As it turned out, my total ignorance of current early teaching methodology was of crucial importance to my later success. For example, my ignorance kept me away from developmentalism. This idiotic philosophy says that it's wrong to teach preschoolers how to read because in some way, it would damage them. Had I known about this, I never would have taught my son how to read and I would have missed what was the most joyful experience of my life.

The lessons began . . .

To start, I began to teach Daniel the basic building blocks of reading -- the letters of the alphabet and their sounds (phonics). That turned out to be the wisest possible beginning. A friend gave me Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever which has the alphabet on the first two pages. In the most entertaining ways possible, I taught Daniel the alphabet, both lower and upper case. We practiced and reviewed the letters on those first two pages for several months, literally branding the alphabet and their sounds into Daniel's long-term unforgettable memory. Another great aid in teaching him the alphabet was the alphabet song. I must have sung it with him a million times and he enjoyed it every time. Unlike adults, little kids love repetition.That's how they learn best.

And so it went. Every day I added a few new letters and constantly reviewed letters previously learned. I somehow knew that he had to learn the alphabet and their sounds as well as he knew his own name and constant practice and review (drill and practice) was the best way to do it. If there was any one key to my success, it was certainly constant long term repetitive practice.

When I learned that educators speak of drill and practice in disparaging terms, I began to understand why we have a reading problem. How could anyone be against long term practice?
I learned quickly that I must not bore him, so I played lots of fun learning games. I laughed and smiled a lot, celebrated Daniel's triumphs and showed genuine enthusiasm for his progress. In other words, I joined Daniel in his world. It would have been ludicrous for me to expect Daniel to come into my boring and stuffy adult world. To make things even more interesting, I rarely dwelled on any subject too long. I might start a lesson with a five-minute conversation about the "B" sound and then ask Daniel if water is a liquid, gas or solid. After that, I might ask him to show me four fingers on his left hand or even what the ancient Greek Democritis is noted for (he coined the word "atom."

As the weeks of nightly instruction continued, I discovered, much to my delight, that this teaching business was not a chore. Instead, I found myself eagerly looking forward to the lessons. I was enjoying myself enormously and I was fascinated by the speed of Daniel's progress. I hadn't yet grasped how amazingly fast little kids learn. Of particular enjoyment were our Socratic like learning conversations. "Daniel, do you know that everything in the world is made of little bitty things called atoms?" The subjects of these conversations varied. Since my two year old had the whole world to learn about, almost anything that popped into my head was of value. Needless to say, he reveled in all the one on one attention I lavished on him.

One of my neighbors who is a teacher warned me not to pressure him too much to learn or he might burn out. I told her that she had the culprits mixed up. I told her, "Once Daniel got a taste of the fun lessons, he pressured me for more and more learning time. He became utterly relentless!" What started out as fifteen minute lessons soon became forty minutes or more.
Then came the little words . . .the most commonly used two and three letter words. We practiced them until he knew them instantly by sight. Count among them: the, I, a, you, is, to, me, he, it, was, can, if, in, are, on, of, and maybe fifty more.

Amazingly, after about four or five months, when the alphabet with their related sounds and the little words were firmly in his long term unforgettable memory, my son, not yet two and a half years old, started to read - really read, not just parrot words he'd memorized. He was able to decode long words simply by sounding out the letters. Was I proud!

Daniel considered reading just another game played with his Daddy. He thought it a challenge when I said those oft-spoken words, "sound it out." As a result, after learning phonics, he'd try to read anything. Since no one told him that words like plethora, obtuse, lethargic, and bellicose, and erudite were big words - college level words - he'd tackle them too by sounding them out. Daniel read every word in the Best Word Book Ever at least a hundred times. "How about the Take Turns Game, Daniel?" I would turn to any page in the book and Daniel would start reading. He read three words and then I did the same. Or, Daniel would read a full sentence and I would read the next one. Taking turns reading aloud made Daniel want to read - he just had to keep up with his Daddy. Little kids, I soon learned, are intensely competitive and adore winning.
I did not limit his reading material to his kid's books. We also read the newspaper, street signs, license plates, recipes - anything in print. Daniel wasn't fussy. Being a CPA, I was especially proud after he read the first page of a 1040 tax return. "Hey Daddy, what does adjusted gross income mean?"

Daniel made lots of mistakes and so, to protect his ego, I invented the mistake game. This game enabled him to catch me making a mistake. I reasoned that if Daniel saw that his Daddy could make a mistake and not have a snit, he'd learn to accept them. It worked.

Daniel Let's play the mistake game.

Me Okay, you go first.

Daniel What sound does CH make?

Me Shhhh

Daniel You made a mistake Daddy. Try again.

Me Are you sure I made a mistake Daniel?

Daniel Yes Daddy. A CH makes the CHA sound.

Me You're right! Gosh, are you smart!

One of our favorites was the "DO IT" game. In order for him to understand that there is a reason for reading, a message to be understood in everything written. I would print a message on a piece of paper such as "close your eyes and jump up and down." If Daniel read the instruction and started jumping up and down, I knew he was reading for comprehension - the only reason for reading. He never lost that game.

Some spelling instruction systems say that it is all right for a child to invent his or her own spelling, that sooner or later kids will learn the correct spelling. I didn't buy that invented spelling nonsense. I thought it better for him to learn how to spell correctly the first time around than to unlearn the incorrect spelling later.
* * *

Final results? After investing about 30-40 minutes a night for about two years, the results were quite gratifying. Daniel entered kindergarten reading and spelling at the fourth or fifth grade level. But even more than that, when he was four I had him tested by an educational psychologist who told me Daniel had a genius level IQ of 148.

Some people tell me that Daniel could read because he was born super-gifted, unusually bright, a genius. I'd sure like to think that is true, that he inherited my brainy genes, but I know better. Daniel wasn't born a genius with anything that millions of other children across the world do not possess. What I did, however, was to make him use it. I did not teach my son how to read to make him smart. At the time, I had no clue about the interesting byproduct of early readng. Learning how to read exercised his brain which acted like a brain growth catalyst.and made him very smart. The realization of what my teaching had done to my son's intellect fascinated me to no end. I had literally created high intelligence! This was sure a lot more interesting than mindlessly filling out tax returns. Why didn't I go into education instead of accounting?
* * *

Soon enough, I became an educational gadfly. I began to put on seminars at continuing adult education centers and even went on radio talk shows to spread the message that we can make our children very bright and there was no longer any excuse for school or reading failure. Parents can prevent that . . . that we parents must get involved in the educational process . . . that we are or should become our children's first teachers.

Not everyone, I learned to my surprise, was enthralled with the promise of much higher intelligence for their children. I was suddenly at odds with most of the educational establishment who wanted nothing to do with early reading instruction. At first I naively thought educators would embrace my ideas. Was I wrong about that! Because they thought of me as a home schooler in disguise, the educators despised everything I stood for.

Educators spend much of their time dissuading parents from early reading instruction. They use words like hot housing, developmentally inappropriate, elitism, parental pressure, let kids be kids, and other such self serving nonsense. For the longest time I could not understand why these educators are so steadfastly against early reading. What can be more harmless than parents teaching reading to their tots and toddlers? Even more than that, they seem to downgrade or ignore the vast importance of high intelligence, as if intelligence does not really matter. They call themselves developmentalists. Watch out for and avoid them like the plague.
The following is an exercise that will tell you why one reason why educators despise very early academics. Think of twenty poor inner city black kids who were all taught to read as I taught my son. Picture them all entering the same kindergarten class. See them all carrying the newspaper or their favorite computer manual. See the teacher who is all prepared to teach these kids the alphabet with wooden blocks. All the kids are already reading at the fourth grade level. Seeing the disaster before her eyes, what is the teacher to do? Whatever she does, she knows she must throw out the blocks as well as her old timetables. A whole new world was before her eyes.

So what would finally happen? After innumerable meeting and conferences, her peers and the powers that be in education would have no choice but vastly smarten up the curricula and adjust to the children's amazingly high intellects. The kids nor their parents would accept anything less. This is how our tots and toddlers will eventually change our educational system.

Finally, let me end this on a positive note. My thoughts are not focused on my son's accomplishments. Instead I think about the joyous learning times he and I spent together. Sadly I think about the fact that such times can never be repeated. Frankly, I envy those parents who have read this article and decide to live that teaching adventure. They will never regret it.

By Marsh Kaminsky