Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

C-A-T spells cat, but it might as well be written in Spanish or Greek for beginner readers who don’t understand how the letters work together—yet.

Teaching a child to read can be one of the most exciting times in your homeschool adventure, or it can be one of the most frustrating. Each child has his own learning style, and while one might pick up on reading quickly, it might take another child months, or longer. The waiting and wondering of “when will they ever get this?” can be frustrating, not only for you, but for your child as well.

When my oldest son was 2 years old, he could name the ABC’s and tell you a word that began with each letter. Much to our surprise, when he was 3½ years old he opened a Dick and Jane book he received and started reading it!

Fast forward a couple of years: His younger sister and brother were not anywhere as close to reading the same book at that age. Did I do something wrong? Is something wrong with them? No. Rather, there were certain things that over time, without my realizing it, had helped my son learn to read—without my trying to teach him.

Begin With the Basics 

Before a child can learn to read, he needs to have a firm grasp on the letters and letter sounds. One learning tool I highly recommend is a large foam ABC puzzle mat, which enables children to see the letters, feel them, trace them, and sit and stand on them. Another inexpensive option is lap-sized ABC foam puzzles, often found at dollar stores.

Many games can be played with these mats, and they aren’t just for toddlers. Let’s explore options for reinforcing knowledge of the letters and the sounds they make.

Sing the ABC Song. Begin assembling your puzzle mat, and as you join the pieces together, sing the ABC song. You might be singing slowly, but singing the letter as you place it on the floor will begin to establish a relationship between the letter name your child hears with the letter he sees.

Once your puzzle mat is pieced together, hold hands with your child and begin to sing the ABC song with him once more. As you sing each letter, step onto the relating letter on the puzzle. So now, not only is the child beginning to learn the alphabet in sequence by singing the song, but he also is visually seeing the differences between the letters as his feet move—each time he hears the name of a different letter.

Learn Letter Sounds. After your child learns to identify the letters, you can begin introducing the sound each letter makes. Standing on your puzzle and starting with A, say the letter name, followed by the sound, and end by speaking a word that begins with that letter. Example: “P, (p sound), panda,” or “C, (c sound), cat.” Be sure to use words that your child relates to. With our son, we used words such as dog, truck, fire truck, etc.

Name that letter! A fun game you could play is for you to say a word and have your child listen closely to distinguish the first letter sound. For instance, when you hear a fire truck race by, you might call out excitedly: “I hear a fire truck! What letter does fire truck start with?” 

Walk through your house on a “Sound Mission.” Beginning with A, talk about the sounds A makes and then try to find at least three items that begin with the letter A. Note: This letter has more than one sound, so choose one of the sounds and try to find objects that start with either the short vowel sound (e.g., apple, applesauce, alligator) or the long vowel sound (e.g., apron, acorn, ape). After the child demonstrates his ability to correctly identify one of the letter’s sounds, then introduce the second sound made by that letter, in order to avoid confusion.