12 DIY activities for emerging readers (plus three free online resources!)

Little Pookie surprised me the other day by walking up to his letter cards on the wall (as mentioned in my literacy activities for pre-readers) and pointing to “c” then “o” then “t”–which were not posted in that order on the wall—and saying their sounds. When I asked him what that made, he said, “Cot! Like I had at Grandma’s!” While my older two did this same thing—spontaneously sounding out words—it took me off guard coming from Pookie because he STILL can’t tell all his letters apart. (I know, he’s barely three-and-a-half, but the older two had them down by two or two-and-a-half!) Nonetheless, since he has pleased-ly been looking for words to sound out since then, I guess it’s time to haul out my early literacy activities. In honor of this auspicious occasion (what’s more exciting than your kids learning something new and difficult?!), here’s my go-to list of activities for early readers–in no particular order.  I hope someone finds them useful!

  1. Word Bingo – I made my own bingo cards with simple—and similar-looking—words. Including words like “pen,” “pin,” “hen,” “win,” “hat,” “hit,” etc. forces new readers to look closely at each letter of the word, ensuring that they are not simply guessing based on beginning or ending sounds or the shape of the word. And who doesn’t like playing Bingo?  I’ve made four sample PDF WordO Boards you can download–two with simple, three-letter words, one with initial blends and one with ending blends.  (By using the “cover all” rule, you can practice more words, and they won’t notice if you make the card 4×4 for a shorter game.  Otherwise, lengthen your traditional row/column based game by making your board 7×7.)
  2. Surprise Words – Early readers are typically thrilled with their new ability, eager to display their prowess. I’ve had great success at encouraging their skill by leaving words around the house for them. A pair of words spelled on the fridge with their letter magnets has a seemingly irresistible pull, drawing the new reader over to puzzle out their meaning.
  3. Word Families – This was a little silly, but it was fun. I paged through some magazines and cut out people, arranging them into families of various sizes. I then glued each person onto an index card and wrote a simple word on each card. Each family had one word ending (or “rime”), so the kids could match the families based on which words rhymed. (Matching rimes rhyme!) For example, the “At” family had hat, cat, fat, bat, and sat in it. The “Ig” family consisted of pig, big, and wig. Matching the words to their families allowed the kids to see that words that were spelled the same often sounded the same and also allowed them to work on their fluency at reading common letter combinations.
  4. Name Match – Hunt around your house for a variety of small objects with easy-to-sound-out names: a cup, a hat, a pen, a doll, a toy dog or cat… Write the name of each object on a piece of paper, and see if your child can match the object to its name.
  5. Spelling Stories – This is a fun activity to do if you have letter blocks or magnets. I would start to tell the kids a story, stopping every sentence or two to spell out a new word for them to read. So, for example, a story might begin like this:

    Once upon a time there was a [spell out “cat” for child to read]. Now this [point to “cat” again] was a black-and-white stripey [point to “cat”] whose name was [spell out “Sam”]. One day our [cat] friend named [Sam] was going for a walk in his neighborhood. It was a lovely spring day, and he was enjoying the warm air and the smell of damp earth. Suddenly, in the middle of the sidewalk, [Sam] spied something. It was small and [spell out “red”].

    You get the idea. The more suspenseful or silly the story, the more eager your readers will be to participate, so keep the comedy going and the intrigue high!

  6. If you're not feeling artsy, use clipart and print your puzzles on cardstock.

    If you’re not feeling artsy, use clipart and print your puzzles on cardstock.

    Spelling Puzzles – I owe this idea to the authors of Reading Reflex, a book I happened to get from the library as my older kids were learning to read. They suggested creating word puzzles. I used blank index cards laid horizontally. I wrote each word, spacing the phonemes so they could be cut apart. On each card, I also had a picture to match the word. Then, I cut the card so the picture was on one slice, and each phoneme had its own slice. Using the picture as their clue, my kids were able to assemble the matching word by sounding it out. Be careful that your words are decodable for early readers! You can begin simply, with three-letter words, and progress to words with beginning and ending blends (like “clap” or even “plant”).

  7. Word Building Games – Drawn from a vaguely-remembered activity I assisted with as a fourth grade classroom aide during college, this word building helps kids to focus on each sound of a word. In order to play, you create a list of words that are all one letter different. Then, gather your necessary letters and tell your child the first word. After that, make sure they only change one letter—don’t let them build from scratch! Leaving the word intact forces kids to distinguish the precise difference from one word to the next. If you want to add difficulty, you can have them add a fourth letter to their words or change two letters at a time.
  8. Partner Reading – For early readers, the act of reading is exhausting. Each letter must be translated into a sound, each sound remembered as the next one is added, and the whole string of sounds blended together to create a meaningful word. That’s a lot of effort! For this reason, my early readers delighted in partner reading. As I read aloud to them, I would choose a word or two per page that could be easily decoded. Even contributing “and” or “it” to the story can be satisfying for newbies; as a child becomes a stronger reader, he can be in charge of every “the” in the story, or simply assigned to more and more words per page. This method also serves to eliminate the need for early-readers, which my kids (and I) found stilted and painfully boring.
  9. Add magnets to make this a fun fridge activity or take it on-the-go with a magnetic tray!

    Add magnets to make this a fun fridge activity or take it on-the-go with a magnetic tray!

    Spelling Cards – I made a series of cards with a picture on one side and a corresponding word on the back (on cardstock, so the word doesn’t show through!). My kids enjoyed trying to puzzle out how to spell each of the words with letter magnets, checking themselves by looking at the back of the card. Once again, I started with simple three-letter words and increased the difficulty as they became more adept.  I’ll have to see if I can find the file to upload for this one…

  10. Treasure Hunts – This was definitely a kid favorite—they still enjoy treasure hunts! If you haven’t ever done one, it’s simple: Select a treasure to hide. (Ours was often our afternoon snack, but anything will do.) Hide your treasure, and then hide a clue to finding the treasure. Hide another clue and another…and then give your child the last clue you write. So, for example, you give your child a clue that says, “On Sue’s bed.” On her bed, Sue finds a paper that says, “In the tub.” In the tub is a paper which says, “On the T.V.” There she finds a clue that reads, “In a pan.” Finally, she discovers her treat inside a pan in the kitchen cupboard. These are great for rainy days, especially if you make sure to keep the kids running to opposite sides of the house (or upstairs, then down, then back up) with their clues. As your kids get better at this, you can make more complicated clues or find more devious hiding spots to increase the challenge.
  11. Labels – As your reader gains more competence at sounding things out, you can increase their reading vocabulary and phonic knowledge by posting labels on things around your house. “Lamp” may be a fairly simple word to sound out, but lots of words—like “light” or “knife” or “coat”–can spark helpful conversations about how letters work together, giving your kids a boost into more complex phonics. Besides, the more words your child has puzzled out and sees regularly, the more words they will be able to read easily in stories.
  12. Internet Resources – The internet has a wealth of resources on every topic, but here are a few of my favorite freebies for use with kids at the beginning of their reading journey.
    • Starfall – While this website has a plethora of varied content (and at a surprisingly reasonable rate), the learn-to-read material is available for free. After you have mastered the individual letter sounds (doable via interactive animations and short games for each letter on one portion of the site), you can move on to the phonics section. There, short, animated phonics storybooks, games, and songs gradually teach more phonemes. These were too intense for my kids at the very beginning (Reading four words per page for five pages in a row!? Whew, exhausting!), but may work better for older (or more patient? More motivated?) readers. Even so, my kids enjoyed some of the more difficult stories once they were more competent readers, and they have silly seasonal stories with fun interactive features. In addition, the site has more content for kids who are at higher levels of reading competence.
    • Progressive Phonics – This website has dozens of truly silly leveled readers, available for free download. Begin with the Alphabetti books for a young reader still working to distinguish every letter, or start with the Phonics Beginner books if your child is already confident in all their letters and sounds. The best part of these books (besides the stories that will have your kids giggling) is the fact that they are made for partner reading, with kids reading only the big, red words on each page—perfect for beginners! Many of these books also have matching downloadable activities, if you’re looking to extend the lesson.
    • Teach Your Monster to Read – This super-cutely-animated website—free of charge via the Usborne Foundation—is perfect for your just-learning reader. Letter sounds are taught via games—your customized monster has to herd sheep into the correct pen or choose the correct letter for each sound to rescue the princess. From there, you move on to sounding out simple words. While the super-sensitive mouse in-game and the fact that each activity has to be repeated three times (with slight variation) to move on were initial deterrents, the gradual addition of more game options and the fun animations kept my kids going. One minor drawback here is the British accent of the narrator. This might cause confusion for some (For example, “o” ends up sounding more like “aw” than the American standard “ah”), but my kids adjusted okay. (Perhaps it’s because we’ve had to get used to wrapping our ears around southern accents!)
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childhood transitions: not worth the agony

I agonize over every aspect of my kids’ lives. I think expending so much energy makes me feel like a better parent somehow, as if my agonizing makes a difference.

One of the elements over which I agonize is transition. After all, transitions are times of upheaval in my kids’ lives, so surely they will go more smoothly if carefully orchestrated—right?

When my oldest was just over two, I had my first clue that my planning amounted to diddly-squat. I had been intending to take away his pacifier for quite some time, but he loved it so, and I hadn’t had the heart to take it away yet. On top of that, he was getting awfully big for the crib, and I figured potty training was also on the horizon. With three major changes upcoming in his little life, I spent hours plotting the timing and execution of each.

Pipie was the first to go. I had been preparing for this time by telling my son that Pipie was pretty old, and things that were old tended to break. One night, he discovered that Pipie was “broken,” having acquired a small hole in the tip. After pondering this with some vexation, he popped the pacifier in his mouth, decided he didn’t notice much difference, and snuggled up for sleep. Each night thereafter, Pipie was just a little more “broken,” until there was not enough of Pipie to fit in Peatie’s mouth anymore. On that final night, he simply held the pacifier in his hand and dropped off to sleep a bit more slowly. That was it.

However, midway through the pipie-breaking process, Peatie randomly asked to sleep in his big-boy bed. Somewhat nonplussed by this unexpected request, I agreed. For the next week, he would switch back and forth between bed and crib; after he selected the bed for nap and night for three whole days, we disassembled the crib. Thus ended transition two, occurring nothing like I expected.

But that’s not all! At the tail end of his bed transition, I noticed that his diaper was dry for long stretches during the day. I started taking him to the potty, and lo and behold he was able to pee on command. After several days of completely dry diapers, he and Teddy were graduated to undies. He had something like three accidents in the first week, and that was all. A few weeks later, he was staying dry at night, as well.

You would think that after a pretty epic experience like that one, I would have learned that kids are sometimes perfectly ready for the transitions that are coming their way. That would be far too simple and logical, though. It would call into question the merit of my agonizing. And so I continued.

Now on my third child, I’ve had this point hit home once again. This spring I agreed that Pookie’s Pipie really DID have to go (we let him keep it extra long both because he was such a poor sleeper and because we suspected we’d be moving cross-country—which we did). In addition, Pookster needed to learn to be more independent—most importantly in dressing himself and taking ownership of the pottying process. Finally, Peatie had been hopefully hinting that the spare bedroom wasn’t getting much use now that Grandma moved near us, and he’d really love to have a bedroom of his own. Can I tell you how much I agonized over all of this?

Within six weeks, all of these transitions—as well as a couple bonus ones—occurred pretty much naturally. Looking back, I’m amazed at how much change happened so smoothly in such a short time.

Are life changes like potty training and ditching the paci really more-or-less maturity- and developmentally-based, much like learning to ride a bike or read?

Are life changes like potty training and ditching the paci really more-or-less maturity- and developmentally-based, much like learning to ride a bike or read?

And yet, I’m not sure why I’m so surprised. I’ve read that children’s development happens in waves—sharp growth followed by a plateau. I’ve observed that all of my children will make great strides in an area (vocabulary development, fine-motor skills, imaginative play, reading, number sense) within a short amount of time and then seem to plateau—or even lose a bit of ground, moving on to work on a different area of development. I suppose these life changes coincide with some area of development, perhaps in the area of maturity, and we as parents know when these transitions typically occur and think we need to plan for and direct them more than we perhaps truly need to.

What do you think? Do you feel like your child was ready for transitions like potty training or other markers of independence, or did it take a lot of effort on your behalf to initiate them? Do children have a certain periods during which they are ready to learn certain things or cope with changes—something like Montessori’s “sensitive periods”?

why i love homeschooling (part 3)

Back from a long hiatus–brought on by preparing for, going on, and recovering from vacation–I’m here to bring you the third and final installment of this three-part series on my love of homeschooling.  If you haven’t already done so, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2!

The Public Works employees were great about explaining how everything worked!

The Public Works employees were great about explaining how everything worked!

Want to know yet another thing I love about homeschooling? The freedom. Weekday open house at the Public Works Department? We were there, learning how wastewater is treated and being coached on how to operate the various pieces of heavy machinery used around town. Picture-perfect day? We packed a picnic and went wading in the creek, chasing minnows and catching a few tadpoles to take home and observe. Kids want to learn to sew? Hey, that’s a worthwhile skill, so we headed to a hobby store for some fabric and designed our own simple project in our ample free time—though we could have easily counted it as “work.” Oldest obsessed with writing stories and wants to make them into books? I set him free in a word-processing document on the computer and let him discover what those red and green wiggly lines mean, how to change his font, why typing “4” when searching for an image to insert will also give you a picture of the food pyramid. We have time to pursue our interests, to follow our own rabbit trails, and to make room for those times when the best thing is to throw the plan out the window for the day and embrace whatever surprise has come our way.

It’s not just academics, either. Is your kid in a growth spurt, suddenly eating double portions of everything? At home, you can easily offer more to fill that ravenous stomach. Is your child a picky eater, or so social he’s likely to forget to eat? At home, you can ensure balanced intake for his growing body. No need to come up with lunches that won’t leak or go bad, no need to worry about your kid hiding her yogurt because the other kids will tell her she’s a baby eating baby food (this actually eliminated several of the healthy foods my nieces would initially bring in their lunches—no applesauce, yogurt, baby carrots…); at home your kids can eat whatever you are willing to offer.

Kid wants to wear a superhero costume all day? Fine, there’s no dress code at home except the one you set. Want to go on vacation in September, since that’s Dad’s slow time at work? Pick your week and head out—your schedule is your own. Child works best when listening to music? Pop in some earbuds or haul in your CD player and have at it! Doing your learning at home frees your family from so many restrictions that schools find necessary in order to manage large groups of diverse students.

Homeschooling also distills the purpose of “school.” When I was growing up, I was made fun of for being nerdy—ridiculed for any mistake I made (“Hey, look!  Miss Perfect got that one wrong!”), laughed at for my extensive vocabulary, and generally excluded from social circles until the pond got bigger in high school. I don’t want that for my kids. I don’t want them to worry about what their peers will think of their performance, to fear making mistakes or equally dread being too good at something. I don’t want them to judge themselves by what reading group they are in or whether they are pulled out for the Resource Room or the Accelerated Learning Lab. I want them to be excited about learning, to worry only about doing the best they can, and to see academics as one facet of life rather than a definition of who they are.

Homeschooling is not easy, nor is it perfect, but I’ve found a lot to love about it. Perhaps you’re a homeschooler who loves it, too. Maybe you’ve lost your love and are looking to regain it. You might be considering homeschooling, still weighing pros and cons, or just reading with curiosity about a lifestyle different from your own. You may not share my passion, but I’m sure you can understand my sentiment. After all, don’t we all want to provide the best opportunities for our kids?