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How I Taught My Child to Read for Less Than $1

  • Cathy Steere Contributing Writer
  • Published Aug 29, 2008
How I Taught My Child to Read for Less Than $1

Did you know that the Puritans’ primary objective in teaching their children to read was so that they could read the Bible? Many learned to read using the Bible as their only text!

Compare that to the myriad of reading/phonics curricula available to today’s homeschooling parent. If you’ve been to a homeschool convention, you know what I’m talking about—our options are quite overwhelming! And yet, with all the fancy, well-packaged, and well-researched (not to mention well-priced) methods available to teach our children to read, some parents still find it a frustrating and seemingly hopeless endeavor.

If you are looking for a method that works, or if you happen to have a special needs learner, as I do, then I have some good news for you. I want to share what I did to help both of my boys (one with autism and the other a neurotypical learner) learn to read. The same method worked for both, and the best news is that it was virtually free! The only cost was for a black marker and some white index cards. My motto is “simplicity with consistency.”

My oldest son wasn’t diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum until he was nearly 4 years old. I had a special needs child and didn’t even know it! The amazing thing was that I had already taught him to read by the time we found out about his challenges. I mention this only to show that it wasn’t because we were super-smart or wise about teaching an autistic child, or because we had an extraordinary plan mapped out for our special learner—it just happened in a natural progression. I wish I could say that I taught my son to read using the Bible alone, but that wasn’t the case.

Before we had children, we heard Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, do a radio interview on a Christian show. He inspired me so much that I picked up his book. He cites a report entitled Becoming a Nation of Readers which stated, “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” For this, and for many other reasons he gives, we determined to make reading aloud to our children paramount. We had no idea the importance this activity would have for our son, who, we would later learn, had autism.

I began reading to him several times every day when he was only an infant, propping him up in his baby seat next to me. By the time he was a couple years old, we were spending several hours a day with picture books. It wasn’t until years later that I learned how much this had benefited him. He heard language and associated it with visual cues. Two of the best things he learned, however, were the character lessons of self-control and attentiveness. We all know that if our children can’t or won’t be attentive, their learning, no matter what we are trying to teach them, will be hindered. Reading aloud was the foundation for teaching our son to read.

Because of the regular dose of picture books in our son’s life, learning the alphabet came completely naturally to him. Our son couldn’t talk to us back then, but that didn’t stop us from showing him the letters of the alphabet along with the pictures that went with them. One day, when he was only 2 years old, he sat on the floor, surrounded by library books, pointing to the letters of the alphabet and whispering them to himself. I’m sure he had no idea what they meant or what they were for, but the daily input of this information was captured in his head.

Later, a friend loaned me the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, by Engelmann, Haddox, and Bruner. (Check it out from your local library). Now, before you roll your eyes and say, “But I already tried that and it didn’t work!” let me tell you how we used it. We did not use it the way it was intended to be used. We did not do the handwriting part of the program, we did not labor over each lesson for 20 minutes a day of sitting, and we did not use the book itself for the stories until much later.

What I did do was make flashcards of all of the sounds the book uses. In the front of the book is a list of the 44 letters and blends used in the book, along with a pronunciation guide. I made my letters and blends exactly how they appeared in the book, using a black marker on white index cards.

For five minutes, several times throughout the day, I would show a few of the cards to my son. I pointed to the letter/blend and said the sound. That’s it. I didn’t test him or grill him or make it a deep, serious, “I’m teaching you to read” session. It was just as natural as it had been when he “got” the names of all the letters of the alphabet. We were taking it in tiny baby steps by adding the sounds. It took just one month for him to memorize the list of sounds associated with the letters/blends. I knew when he was ready to move on when I would point to the card without saying anything, and Drew, on his own, would “fill in the blank.”

Next, after I was positive he had all of the letter sounds memorized, I made flashcards of the words used in the book. I wrote them in the exact style the book shows. Decoding a word clicked rapidly for him—it was the natural, next step up. I added new cards to our stack every day.

The key wasn’t so much in the book or method we used: It was in our attitude about the whole thing. Remember, my motto was to keep it simple and repetitive/consistent. I didn’t make it a big deal, I didn’t push him, and I didn’t get upset when he didn’t “get it.” I simply kept giving him short doses of decoding throughout the day. Lots and lots of pure, clean (free of extraneous visual and auditory information) input. I did the decoding in front of him, showing him how to do it over and over in short, quick sessions, until it clicked for him.

My “method” was ultra-simple and ultra-cheap, and it worked! Today, my sons are 13 and 15 years old and are great readers, able to both decode and comprehend what is written. I continue to read aloud to them; it’s my favorite time of the day. And the blessing I get when I see my boys read the Bible makes me think I’m really not so very different from those Puritans of old. 

Cathy Steere is the author of Too Wise to Be Mistaken, Too Good to Be Unkind: Christian Parents Contend With Autism, published by Grace & Truth Books (

This article was originally published in the July/Aug 2008 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more information, and to request a FREE sample issue, visit