How I Taught My Kid to Read

Children can learn quickly by sounding out words, letter by letter—but somehow, the method is still controversial.

A small child reading a picture book on a bed
Isabel Pavia / Getty

Now that it’s summer, I have a suggestion for how parents can grant their wee kiddies the magic of reading by Labor Day: Pick up Siegfried Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. My wife and I used it a while ago with our then-4-year-old daughter, and after a mere 20 cozy minutes a night, a little girl who on Memorial Day could recognize on paper only the words no and stop and the names of herself and her family members could, by the time the leaves turned, read simple books.

My wife and I are not unusually diligent teachers. The book worked by, quite simply, showing our daughter, bit by bit, how to sound out the words. That’s it. And yet in the education world, Engelmann’s technique is considered controversial.

Engelmann’s book, which he co-wrote with Phyllis Haddox and Elaine Bruner, was first published in the early 1980s, but it was based on work from the late 1960s. That’s when Engelmann was involved in the government-sponsored Project Follow Through, whose summary report compared nine methods for how to teach reading and tracked results on 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. The results, though some critics over the years have rejected them on methodological grounds, were clear: The approach that proved most effective was based on phonics—teaching children how to sound words out, letter by letter, rather than encouraging students to recognize words as single chunks, also called the whole-word system. Specifically, the most successful approach supplemented basic phonics with a tightly scripted format emphasizing repetition and student participation, often dubbed “direct instruction.” As I have previously explained for NPR, the results were especially impressive among poor children, including black ones.

At the preschool at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that Engelmann ran with the education researcher Carl Bereiter starting in 1964, phonics-based direct instruction helped even 4-year-old kids understand sounds, syllables, and rhyming, so that they entered kindergarten reading as proficiently as 8-year-olds. Nine other sites across the country had comparable results. Direct instruction has boosted student performance in a similar fashion since in Houston in the 1970s, and in Baltimore and Milwaukee in the late 1990s to early 2000s.

In 2001, students in the mostly black Richmond, Virginia, district were scoring abysmally in reading—just less than 40 percent of third-grade students passed the state reading test. Four years later, after the district switched to the direct-instruction method, 74 percent of third graders passed it. By contrast, in 2005 over in wealthy Fairfax County, where teachers scorned the phonics-based-reading instruction method (dismissing it as impersonal “drill and kill” is common), only 59 percent of the county’s black third graders taking that test passed it, despite plush school funding.

One survey found that only 15 percent of classes for elementary-school instructors offer lessons in how to teach direct instruction. Many specialists insist that kids learn to read English better using the whole-word method. The idea is that English spelling is so irregular that it’s inefficient to try to teach kids to link how letters sound to how words are written.

Among education specialists, a school of thought has grown up around the idea, espoused by the psycholinguists Ken Goodman and Frank Smith, that people don’t mentally associate letters with sounds—that real reading is a kind of elegant guesswork that relies on context. But researchers have deep-sixed that notion again and again, as Mark Seidenberg showed a few years back in his marvelous Language at the Speed of Sight.

Some educators also believe that teaching reading in the same way to all kids according to a set program is too mechanical for a diverse student body with differing skills and predilections, and that learning to read should come through “discovery” and “exploration.” This approach is often titled “balanced literacy,” in which teachers present a class with general strategies but nudge students to help one another learn to read in “reading circles” or via engaging texts on their own, with occasional check-ins from the teacher. The general expectation is that students will marvel their way into reading via assorted individual pathways. That sounds good, and kids from book-lined homes can often manage under this system, but again, Engelmann’s method has worked on kids of all backgrounds. It’s designed to.

As Seidenberg describes in his book, nationwide the phonics and whole-word camps have clashed over and over again, such that some districts use one method and some the other, with many alternating between the two. Some, of course, combine the approaches. But given Engelmann’s findings, this back-and-forth is like a pendulum swing among doctors between penicillin and bed rest. Penicillin is clinical and one-size-fits-all; bed rest allows for improvisation and feels right.

My daughter’s public-school teachers when she was 4, thoroughly excellent at what they did, nevertheless told me that the school district didn’t consider kids my daughter’s age “ready” to read. It was time for Engelmann’s book.

The process wasn’t difficult in the least; it was joyful. First came learning some sound-letter correspondences, such as the sound “ih” for i. But especially neat was watching the main jump—from p-i-g to understanding that the letters correspond to sounds that you link together into pig. Under the Engelmann method, children start by uttering the sounds in sequence—“p”, “ih,” “g”—and are then asked to “say it fast,” upon which, after some preliminary squeaks and pops, they get to “pig.”

Next, the book shows them words that rhyme: big, dig, wig. This cues them to the fact that words can differ by just one sound, which is crucial in reinforcing that the “ig” part means “ihg” and not a separate “ih” and then a “g.” The book presents letters with some shortcuts—lines over vowels to indicate the long ones, silent letters printed smaller (we called those the “stupid letters”).

What about those words with irregular spellings? The book dribbles them in slowly but steadily. Many of the most common words are irregular—said, I, have, you—and so kids get lots of practice with them in the reading passages. And so my daughter learned to read, within about the stretch on the calendar it would take to watch all of Sanford and Son at a rate of one episode a day.

Did my daughter, as the child of two hyper-literate people with doctorates, have some kind of leg up? I doubt it. Some kids pick up reading with minimal guidance as early as 3; she wasn’t one of them, nor had she given indication of any impending breakthrough. Besides, Engelmann’s book is designed for kids of average intelligence and has worked with legions of them over the decades.

Get Engelmann’s book and try it—you will watch your child discover the ability to read on your lap, via you carefully teaching her how to do it! Then pass the word on.