Does my son need to know the letter names to be able to read?

Dear Carrie

Does my son need to know the letter names and sounds to be able to read? 

I have a son who will be 7 soon. We have been working on letters and their sounds since he was 3 years old. We have used Leap Frog videos, Reading Eggs, Star Fall, online games – but he doesn’t retain them at all. He knows how to spell his name which has two E’s and two T’s.  However, if I ask him to write those letters, he doesn’t remember them. This is true for most letter names. Last night I was pointing to letters on the keyboard and asking him what they were. I would point to the T, and he would say “E”.  So, then I would point to the E, and he would say “E”. It was this way with most of the letters. At this point, I have no idea how to help. He knows his letter sounds. But, what if he doesn’t know his letter names? I guess my question is, does my son need to know the letter names and sounds to be able to read?


“Ms. Stumped on Letter Names and Sounds”

Dear “Ms. Stumped on Letter Names and Sounds,”

Children do not need to know letter names in order to read. So, I would focus more on learning the letter sounds instead of the letter names and letter sounds both. Learning both names and sounds can be a challenge to keep straight! Of course, later it helps to know the letter names in order to spell, to copy, to alphabetize, and to use the dictionary. However, to read only the sounds are needed.

Using a formal curriculum will help systematically teach letter sounds.

Next, I am wondering if your child has had any formal curriculum that actually teaches the letter sounds and reviews them on a daily basis? The reason I ask is that all of the online options and videos you mentioned are great, but in order for the sounds to really stick (for quite a few kiddos), many different senses are needed to be employed and much practice is needed. This doesn’t mean that drill, drill, drill is the needed method. It just means that regular practice with the sounds in a variety of ways will make all the difference.

Once you begin phonics, keep going and don’t take breaks.

Once your kiddo starts to pick up the sounds you keep on going, making sure you are not pausing and taking breaks. Phonics is one of those things that once you begin, it helps to keep some steady practice going until kids really grab on. We took the last three summers off with my last little guy during the process of teaching him phonics. I cannot tell you how much I regret that! It was at a time when he really needed to keep on going, but I was just so busy writing that I lost steam with the phonics.

Commit to working on phonics 10-15 minutes daily for five times a week.

So, one thing that I would encourage you to do is either commit to really beginning phonics (and learning letter sounds) formally. Then, know you’re in it for the two-year haul until most of the phonics is learned. Or, wait until you are ready to be more committed. I am not saying that you need to commit vast quantities of time to phonics daily, but I am saying that 10-15 minutes daily (5 times a week) is needed on a regular basis to truly see progress.

Phonics instruction requires teaching and interaction.

Phonics is one of those areas that also requires a teacher. It requires interaction and the teacher and child sitting together and sharing the words, books, letter sounds. It is work, but it pays off. We did The Reading Lesson here in a stop and start fashion that really set us back. After we finished it completely, I had to pull out an old phonics program I had here and go almost completely through that simply to build fluency and to review (because we had stopped The Reading Lesson over two different summer breaks on two different years, which made remembering everything really tough for my little one).

Consistency is key!

I could have probably gone back through The Reading Lesson all over again. However, I just didn’t want to redo it all again. So, I share this to let you know that amount of teacher time spent steadily teaching phonics can make a big difference. I am convicted of that anew, and I did not take phonics off off ever again with my youngest! He progressed, but I could see that if I’d taken another summer off all of his slow but steady progress would have been lost…again. With my older three, I was much more consistent early on in teaching them phonics. What a difference that made!

It is also possible that your son has this as an area of struggle for other reasons. We won’t know that for sure right now unless you have already devoted several years steadily teaching him phonics five times a week with no progress made. So, I would recommend choosing a phonics program and sticking with it! Then, let’s see what happens next!


Should I go back to teach skills my struggling reader may have missed?

Dear Carrie

Should I go back to teach skills my struggling reader may have missed?

I’ve homeschooled for three years and have a 9 year-old doing Bigger Hearts. This is our first year with Heart of Dakota, and I love it! My son has unfortunately always struggled with reading. He just seems to have missed something. Previously we used first grade MFW phonics and then Time for Learning. My son reads slowly. Sometimes he sounds out words and sometimes not. He runs his finger underneath the words but passes the next word before finishing the previous word. Fluency is not there, but he does comprehend well. He read as far as Prairie School in HOD’s Emerging Reader’s Set. I do all of Bigger Hearts. Sometimes I do R & S English orally and sometimes written. He loves writing in cursive and always does well on his spelling words. We do the writing on the Science lab, and he LOVES our read-alouds!

Last year, he scored at a reading level of 2.4 on the Peabody Test, and that was at the end of the 2nd grade. I also own Sing, Spell, Read, Write and thought I’d try that. Looking ahead to Preparing Hearts, I don’t think he’ll be able to read what he’s supposed to read. I’m just worried that I missed something starting with Bigger Hearts and that whatever I missed won’t get covered in Preparing. So, here is my question! Do I need to go back and teach whatever I may have missed not doing prior to Bigger Hearts? If I do need to go back, do I do that now? We are in Unit 20 of Bigger Hearts, and summer will be here soon. Carrie, I respect and appreciate your opinion and look forward to some help. Hubby and I are at a loss.


“Ms. Please Help Me Decide If I Should I Go Back to Teach Missed Skills ”

Dear “Ms. Please Help Me Decide If I Should I Go Back to Teach Missed Skills,”

Thanks so much for taking time to share about your son. From what you’ve shared, I’d say that it is possible that your son has never actually gotten to the 2nd grade phonics-instruction level. What I mean is that by doing MFW 1st grade and then switching to Time4Learning, it is pretty likely that your son got a solid introduction to typical first grade skills, but may not have gotten through all the phonics he needs to know in order to read well. In actuality, phonics instruction typically runs through K, 1st, and 2nd grades (increasing in difficulty and adding sound combinations as you go). Kiddos often don’t need to take all three years to go through all needed sounds, but they do need to go through all the needed sounds and know them before “graduating” from formal phonics instruction.

Your son may have missed typical ‘2nd’ grade level phonics instruction.

With this in mind, as your son changed phonics programs mid-stream, he probably missed the typical “2nd” grade level of phonics instruction. Since you own Sing, Spell, Read, Write, you could go from the beginning of that program (skipping much of the writing and doing the singing, spelling, and reading or whatever pieces help him learn and practice using the sounds). Just make sure to go through all needed sounds to the very end of the program. Or, if that feels too lengthy (which to me it would, since it is a full K-2nd grade program), you could instead choose any 2nd grade level phonics/reading program and take him through just that level for the rest of his phonics instruction.

There are many second grade level phonics programs to choose from to get the skills he missed.

There are many second grade level phonics programs to choose from to get the skills he missed. However, I’d lean away from those that will bog you down with a lot of writing (and spelling). Instead, just worry about getting the phonics down. He’ll need more than just drilling the sounds, as he’ll actually need to read controlled books or stories that practice those new sound combinations. This is why it would be good to have a second grade program for that. Bigger Hearts will cover your needed writing, copywork, spelling, and English skills. So, you’re truly looking for a reading only type program and only for the last chunk of sounds more typical to 2nd grade.

Reading Reflex is an excellent resource to go back and help with missed reading skills too.

Another thing that you could look into is a book called Reading Reflex. It is helpful in making sure kiddos have all the sound pictures/phonograms they need to read well. It takes a different approach than a purely phonetic approach, but we used it during my school teaching days for third/fourth grade to help kiddos who were struggling as readers, and it does work.

Third/fourth grade is a common time for children to first need glasses, so I’d make an appointment to rule this out.

I would definitely get your son’s eyes checked too. Third and fourth grade are the most common years for a child’s eyesight to take a turn and for him/her to need glasses, and this often gets missed. This could be another huge factor in your son’s reading. I’d make an appointment for him as soon as possible to rule this out.

Keep moving forward in Bigger Hearts, but work only on reading when you take your summer break.

Next, I wouldn’t stop your daily pace in Bigger Hearts. It sounds like your son is handling all of the other areas well except for the reading. I’d just keep going doing a day in a day. I know you’d mentioned you will be on your summer break soon. I would work on only reading for the summer. Then, in the fall, I’d pick Bigger back up where you left off. Don’t worry about Preparing Hearts right now. Kiddos can change so much over time, and even if you took no summer break from Bigger, you’d still have a minimum of 14 weeks left (which is 4 and 1/2 months, or half a calendar school year). With any kind of a break, you’re 6 months away from finishing Bigger now. That is a long time in the world of kids!

A Few Thoughts on the Emerging Reader’s Set

Finishing at a 2.4 Reading Level would put him at the beginning of the Emerging Reader’s Set. If he made it all the way to Prairie School, that’s quite good! That is where many kiddos begin to hit a bump in the road, as the text gets longer and harder and the pictures begin to go away. One thing that has helped my kiddos at the Emerging Reader’s Level is to practice reading their pages to themselves (reading it aloud) before they come and read to me. This gives them confidence, allows them practice time to sort out their words they’re not sure of, cuts down on missed words, and makes their reading time with me more enjoyable.

When you finish your formal tour through phonics, I’d pick the Emerging Reader’s Set up again. You may have to back up to get him reading more confidently in the Emerging Reader’s Set, so you’ll have to weigh how far you want to back up. Also, it would be good to add in any of the extra books suggested for each week. These are great for practicing missed skills more on a similar reading level.


Eight Easy Tips to Help Little Ones Get Ready to Read

From Our House to Yours

My first easy tip to get little ones ready to read is simply to do Little Hands to Heaven with them!

During our summer break, I loved working with just my littlest one. I had more time, and I needed to be with my little one anyway. So, why not help him get ready to read? My first go-to way to get my little ones ready to read was always to simply do Heart of Dakota’s Little Hands to Heaven (LHTH) with them. Using LHTH, I taught my sons a sound and an action for every letter. I used the fingerplays, flashcards, and letter activities to help my sons commit their letters and sounds to memory. Everything was neatly tied to the Bible theme for the week too! I only spent 15-30 minutes a day doing HOD’s Little Hands to Heaven. Half-speed took 15 minutes. Full-speed took 25-30 minutes. Easy-peasy, productive, and an awesome way to help little ones get ready to read!

My second easy tip to get little ones ready to read is to have them watch the Leap Frog DVDs.

All of our sons enjoyed watching the Leap Frog DVDs. The first DVD is called Letter Factory, and it does a great job of teaching letters and their sounds! This was by far my favorite DVD for getting my little ones ready to read. The second DVD is called Talking Words Factory. This one is a little more grown up, as it moves on to words. I didn’t have my kiddos watch this until they had the Letter Factory down pat. There is a third DVD called Let’s Go to School. I didn’t have them watch that DVD; we were homeschooling. No need to hype up a classroom setting! However, I loved the first two DVDs! They were inexpensive, 30 minutes long, and available everywhere.

My third easy tip to get little ones ready to read is the ‘finger slide.’

Once children know their letters and sounds well, I like to teach them the ‘finger slide.’ I begin by always putting my finger under the sound being read, and I don’t slide it to the next sound until they read it read right. Then later, I put my finger under the word being read, and I don’t move it on until the word is read right. Then still later, I put my finger at the start of the line, and I don’t move it on to the next start of the line until the sentence is read right. This is an easy visual queuing system. I like how I can use this finger slide method in a progression, as my kiddos learn to read!

My fourth easy tip to get little ones that are a little older to read utilizes a markerboard.

Once children have begun to read small words, I like to have a handheld markerboard nearby. When they are trying to sound out a word, I simply set the book aside. Then, I pull out my handheld markerboard. I begin to jot the word they are working to sound out in large letters in black marker in the middle of the markerboard. I jot the word they are struggling with one sound/chunk at a time, having them say them for me. For example, if the word was “glass”, I’d write…

gl (pause for him to say it) a (pause) ss (pause)

Then, I would slide my finger under the whole word to signify it’s time to blend it all together. They loved this! I remember one time I forgot the markerboard. My little one came to a word he was stuck on, and after a few tries, he said, “MOM – where’s the markerboard? I’m waiting.”  Toe-tapping, arms crossed on chest. Too cute! Anyway, it’s easy, it works, and they only need help like this occasionally.

My fifth easy tip to get little ones that are a little older to read is to give them a chance to “practice” first, without me.

For some of our sons, having some time on their own to sound out each word without me next to them helped. It gave them a chance to “practice” without me watching, and it helped them not to feel so put-on-the-spot.  When I tutored, I would sometimes have little ones that were overwhelmed by books. If they were not sure about reading from a book, I would just write each word on a markerboard one at a time and do the lesson like that, with me referring to the manual just for my own information. One word on a markerboard is much less intimidating than a page. It also doesn’t seem like a page is being repeated, even if it is a repeat of what was done yesterday. After practicing on markerboard, they were then often ready to read the book and did so quite happily and successfully!

My sixth easy tip to get little ones that are a little older to read uses a loud voice and/or a rubberband.

Once little ones are sounding out words, they often forget the first sound by the end of the word. For example, they might sound out c… a… t… quite slowly, and then quickly say the word is ‘tan.’ Or, they might sound out t… e… n… slowly, and then quickly say the word is ‘net.’ This happens because they have not learned to ‘hold’ the sounds in sequence in their mind. They remember the last sound the best, as they just said it. They might even vaguely remember the middle or first sounds. However, they jumble their order and pronounce their final word with the last sound first. This is very common and usually nothing to worry about!

An easy tip to help them with this is to simply say the first sound the loudest. I would model this, sometimes saying it louder while gently cupping my hands around their ear as I said it (i.e. C… a… t… – Cat! Though the first sound obviously isn’t always accented (i.e. in a two-syllable word), this tip works to help emphasize the ‘holding’ of the first sound first and foremost in their mind. One more idea that worked for my sons was to use a rubberband to stretch as we were saying each sound and then snap it back when we blended it.

My seventh easy tip to get little ones that are a little older to read is simply to try the BOB books.

Have you heard of the BOB books? They are inexpensive, funny, and excellent for beginning readers. We went through these as we did our phonics, starting about in the middle of our phonics, when I knew my sons would be successful with them. The first set begins with CVC words in a pattern. These books are inexpensive and available online and at most book stores.

My eighth easy tip to get little ones that are a little older to read is to give rewards. 

Giving rewards, just little ones, for small gains at first is motivating to little ones learning to read. For example, I might have a jar and every time my son reads a word properly for the day, he gets a mini marshmallow or chocolate chip or skittle or whatever. He may get 10 if he reads 10 words properly. Maybe every 10, he would get a sucker too. Or, if you don’t believe in this type of reward, you can give a sticker for each, and when he receives 10, let him do something special with or on his own (i.e. build a lego tower or watch a short video). Rewards really did make a difference early on in our sons’ reading progress. We found after awhile, we could just drop them, and then reading itself was the reward.

I hope some of these ideas help, but mamas of little ones, keep pressing on! It WILL click, and though it takes time, it is so worth the time and effort to get there!

In Christ,

Customize Your Children’s Reading with Heart of Dakota

From Our House to Yours

Customize Your Children’s Reading with Heart of Dakota

I have three sons I’ve taught to read using Heart of Dakota’s guides. Though they have all progressed through the guides in order, I’ve always loved I can customize their reading. This has been wonderful! I have been able to choose the reading and the pacing of that reading to fit each child best. So, while they each progressed through phonics, the Emerging Reader’s Set, and Drawn into the Heart of Reading, their reading was customized to fit them each the best.  Because reading instruction is not tied to a guide’s daily plans, unit themes, or months/seasons/holidays, it can easily be customized without getting your child off-track in your main Heart of Dakota guide!  Let’s see how!

Customize Your Children’s Phonics

With Heart of Dakota, phonics is not tied to any other subject area. The Reading Lesson (TRL), Reading Made Easy (RME), and Sound Bytes are all phonics programs Heart of Dakota recommends. However, any phonics can be used with Heart of Dakota. Phonics is recommended to be done during Little Hearts for His Glory (LHFHG) and/or Beyond Little Hearts for His Glory (Beyond). So, you can customize by choosing which phonics program to use, by choosing when to begin, as well as by choosing how many years to do phonics. You can even further customize your children’s phonics by choosing to use the download or not with TRL. Likewise, you can customize by choosing to use the workbooks or not with RME. So, lots of ways to customize your children’s phonics!

Customize Your Children’s Emerging Reader Set

The Emerging Reader’s Set (ERS) is the next step up in reading after phonics. The ERS provides a carefully planned out list of interesting, well-loved books that gradually increase in difficulty. A schedule for reading these books and engaging questions written specifically for each book is included in both Beyond Little Hearts for His Glory (Beyond) and Bigger Hearts for His Glory (BHFHG).  This 14-book set begins with one of two children’s Bibles. The Early Reader’s Bible is the easier reading level, and The Beginner’s Bible is the harder reading level. Supplement titles of books are also listed for each unit to match the ERS progression. So, customize your ERS by choosing to use it with Beyond or BHFHG, by choosing which level of Bible to use, and by choosing whether to use the supplemental titles or not!

Customize Your Children’s Independent Reading 

Drawn into the Heart of Reading (DITHOR) is the next step in reading after the ERS. DITHOR is a reading option in Beyond Little Hearts through Missions to Modern Marvels (MTMM). So, you can customize when your children begin DITHOR. There are three different DITHOR Student Book levels: 2/3, 4/5, and 6/7/8. So, you can customize your children’s level of instruction and amount of written work. There are multiple levels of book packs, including Levels 2, 3, 4/5, 5/6, 6/7, and 7/8. So, you can customize your children’s level of reading. There are also girl and boy interest book packs for levels 4/5, 5/6, and 7/8. So, you can further customize your children’s reading by interest.

There is also a Sample Book Ideas list. As any book can be used with DITHOR, this list gives a dozen or so choices per level per genre. You can customize the books your children read using this suggested list.  Or, you can choose ANY book, using what you have on hand or using your library! Just make sure the book you choose matches the genre you are teaching. If you choose your own books, you can also customize the reading pace. Choose either to read one, two, or three books to read over the 15 days of reading each genre. Now, that’s a LOT of awesome ways to customize your child’s reading!

In Christ,

“A Helping Hand” Between Phonics and the Emerging Reader’s Set

Dear Carrie

“A Helping Hand” Between Phonics and the Emerging Reader’s Set

My 6 year-old son is four pages from finishing The Reading Lesson! We are so excited! However, he still has struggles with reading. I’m not sure about having him move into the Emerging Reader’s Set (ERS). He gets frustrated REALLY easily when he has to sound out a word and gets it wrong. Then, he just starts randomly guessing words that might fit the picture. He tried reading the first story in the Early Reader’s Bible and missed about 5-6 words. Should I dive into the ERS – but take it slowly? Or run through another phonics program quickly? He already has BOB books and a few other books, but he definitely doesn’t have a love for reading just yet. It doesn’t help his little sister is reading almost everything in the house. He just needs a helping hand between TRL and ERS! What do you suggest?

“Ms. Please Offer a Helping Hand Between Phonics and the ERS”

Dear “Ms. Please Offer a Helping Hand Between Phonics and the ERS,”

I’d be glad to offer a helping hand here! We had a similar situation with our fourth little guy after finishing HOD’s The Reading Lesson (TRL). This was a new situation for me. My other boys pretty much took off after phonics and were ready for the Emerging Reader’s Set (ERS). This was not the case for my fourth son!

Things That Probably Didn’t Offer a Helping Hand for My Son

Looking back, there were probably a few things that didn’t offer my son a helping hand. I had stopped over the summer with phonics instruction (two different summers) while using The Reading Lesson, simply because I was so busy writing. I know this took a toll on my last little guy’s readiness when he finished phonics. He also had tubes in his ears, which we had taken out in the summer (due to fluid in the tubes). So, I don’t think he was clearly hearing sounds either. With my years of teaching spent helping kiddos learn to read, I knew all kiddos were different as to how much “phonics” they truly need and how much time it would take them to grow into being able to read real books. So, all of these things were definitely playing a role too in my little guy’s readiness to read.

Placing ‘real’ books in a special shoebox and reading nightly from them was the best ‘helping hand’ for my son!

The thing that really helped get my little one excited about reading (which I somehow forgot along the way) was to place “real” books that are very easy and that he could read without struggle in a shoebox and have him read to me or his Dad nightly from the box. I also realized that we had not been reading aloud picture books to my last little one very often (like we did for our other boys). So, we read one book to him that was a hard picture book nightly, and he read one book to us. This helped his enthusiasm for the written word to grow too.

Though Bob books fit practice-level-wise, he was beyond them maturity-wise.

My little one had the Bob books and all of the other “little” readers in his room, but he wasn’t excited about them. He thought the stories didn’t make sense. Truly, he was beyond them maturity-wise, even if they were good reading practice level-wise. My other boys liked the Bob books. In fact,  my oldest son loved them! But, the older boys in our family read them when they were much younger. The Bob books were not the “helping hand” he needed. Once I took note of what my little guy could truly read without difficulty, I realized we had quite a ways to go in building fluency.

Backing up to easier readers for awhile was a ‘helping hand’ that built confidence!

He didn’t need another phonics program, he just needed a helping hand by having time with me (or dad) reading the really easy readers to build confidence. So, we backed up to the super easy readers for awhile. For example, we headed back to the “Shared My First Reading” “My First I Can Read Books” (which come before the Level 1 readers). These would be books like the easier “Biscuit” series and the “Mittens” series. We also used some Level 1 and above books, but they were the easier looking ones.

Little ones can be overwhelmed by too much text on a page, so simpler books give a ‘helping hand’ to fill that gap.

For example, some other books that worked for us were Mouse Soup, Wake Up Sun, Oscar Otter, Sir Small and the Dragonfly, Why Benny Barks, Grizzwold, Sammy the Seal, Danny and the Dinosaur, Pie Rats Ahoy, Hiccups for Elephant, My Dog Talks, Thomas and the School Trip, Clifford and the Big Leaf Pile, The Lion and the Mouse, the easier Little Critter books (like When I Get Bigger, Just Me and My Puppy, Merry Christmas Mom and Dad, All By Myself, The Trip, etc.). While these specific titles are in no way needed, I share them to get you thinking that often our little ones are overwhelmed by too much text on the page, and they are missing the thrill of reading a cohesive story with beautiful pictures. So, these books give a “helping hand” to fill that gap.

By placing easier books in a special box, we are setting apart books that will be enjoyable to read.

As they read the easy books, they gain confidence, the sounds are reinforced, and they begin to enjoy reading. By placing books they can read in a box or a cube, we are setting apart those that will be enjoyable for the child to read without so much work. My little one started taking his box in the car to read on the way as we went places. He started reading with his box next to him in his bed. Soon, he began to take his box downstairs to read when he had free time. Then, he asked for more Biscuit books and more Mittens books and read them all when they came. I was thrilled that he was enjoying reading and wanting to read. In a couple of months, he was was more prepared and ready for the ERS. I’m glad we took a couple of months to build skills to begin strong.

How to Give a “Helping Hand” When Sounding Out Harder Words

When he didn’t remember a sound, I tried to have him sound it out, or I restated the rule… remember “ou” says… When he read bigger words, I’d cover up part of the word with my finger(s) to show the word in manageable chunks. Then, I’d have him read each part and put it together to make the whole word. When he guessed, I’d repeat what he said, and ask, “Does that make sense?” I tried not to let him get frustrated and to make the reading fun!

This ‘helping hand’ strategy of placing books in special box could be applied to many different ages!

I think this ‘helping hand’ strategy of placing books kiddos can read into a box or a cube just for them is one that can be applied to many different ages. It sets apart books that really can be read by the child at whatever stage of reading he/she is at and keeps them from frustration with books that are way too difficult. I also try to remember that our Heart of Dakota school books push the kiddos into higher level material, so it is good to keep the free reading books easier. No one likes to be pushed to peak performance all of the time. Some things should be easier! Try these giving a ‘helping hand’ tips and see if it helps your little one!