Saturday, September 15, 2007

Charlotte Mason Reading Lessons

Reading lessons should not begin until the child knows his letters thoroughly and ideally until some beginning word building work has been done:

Volume 1, p. 202

Word-making. The first exercises in the making of words will be just as pleasant to the child. Exercises treated as a game, which yet teach the powers of the letters, will be better to begin with than actual sentences. Take up two of his letters and make the syllable ‘at’: tell him it is the word we use when we say ‘at home,’ ‘at school.’ Then put b to ‘at’– bat; c to ‘at’–cat; fat, hat, mat, sat, rat, and so on. First, let the child say what the word becomes with each initial consonant to ‘at,’ in order to make hat, pat, cat. Let the syllables all be actual words which he knows. Set the words in a row, and let him read them off. Do this with the short vowel sounds in combination with each of the consonants, and the child will learn to read off dozens of words of three letters, and will master the short-vowel sounds with initial and final consonants without effort. Before long he will do the lesson for himself. ‘How many words can you make with "en" and another letter, with "od" and another letter?’ etc. Do not hurry him.

Word-making with Long Vowels, etc.–When this sort of exercise becomes so easy that it is no longer interesting, let the long sounds of the vowels be learnt in the same way: use the same syllables as before with a final e; thus ‘at’ becomes ‘ate,’ and we get late, pate, rate, etc. The child may be told that a in ‘rate’ is long a; a in ‘rat’ is short a. He will make the new sets of words with much facility, helped by the experience he gained in the former lessons.
Then the same sort of thing with final ‘ng’–’ing,’ ‘ang,’ ‘ong,’ ‘ung’; as in ring, fang, long, sung: initial ‘th,’ as then, that: final ‘th,’ as with, pith, hath, lath, and so on, through endless combinations which will suggest themselves. This is not reading, but it preparing the ground for reading; words will be no longer unfamiliar, perplexing objects, when the child meets with them in a line of print. Require him to pronounce the words he makes with such finish and distinctness that he can himself hear and count the sounds in given way.

And then some spelling work:

Volume 1, p. 203

Early Spelling.–Accustom him from the first to shut his eyes and spell the word he has made. This is important. Reading is not spelling, nor is it necessary to spell in order to read well; but the good speller is the child whose eye is quick enough to take in the letters which compose it, in the act of reading off a word, and this is a habit to be acquired from the first: accustom him to see the letters in the word, and he will do without effort.

If words were always made on a given pattern in English, if the same letter always represented the same sounds, learning to read would be an easy matter; for the child would soon acquire the few elements of which all words would, in that case, be composed. But many of our English words are, each, a law unto itself: there is nothing for it, but the child must learn to know them at sight; he must recognise ‘which,’ precisely as he recognises ‘B,’ because he has seen it before, been made to look at it with interest, so that the pattern of the word is stamped upon his retentive brain. This process should go on side by side with the other–the learning of the powers of the letters; for the more variety you can throw into his reading lessons, the more will the child enjoy them. Lessons in word-making help him to take intelligent interest in words; but his progress in the art of reading depends chiefly on the ‘reading at sight’ lessons.


Now we are ready to read.

1) Pick a text–something meaty but not too too hard. Some of the classic children’s poetry works well for this, especially shorter selections like Christina Rossetti or some Robert Louis Stephenson selections. The Treadwell readers or A Primary Reader by E. Louise Smythe may also work well for this.

2) Identify a handful of probably new words in the text (or for the first lesson just take the first few words since they’ll all be new).

3) Write one of the words on a board, then tell him what it is, and have him really look at it.

4) Erase the word, then put out a bunch of cards with different words on them. Six of the cards should have that word on them, and he needs to find them all.

5) Do the same thing with each of the other words.

6) Then have him spell the words using letter tiles or magnet letters or something similar. Write the word (if he can’t remember it), then have him study it, and then erase it. Then he spells it with his letters.

7) Then take the words one at a time. Write the word on the board. Then under it write, one at a time, other words that have the same ending but a different beginning (like "cloud", "loud", "proud", etc.). As you write each one, have him tell you the word.  (Use a rhyming dictionary to help you make your list ahead of time–but only use words with the same spelling.)

8)  Write the words in a column on the board, in any order.  Have him arrange the word cards in the same order, then have him read them.

9)  Have him arrange the word cards in columns of his own devising and have him read down the column, then rearrange and do it again.

10)  Then you make sentences by dictating the words to him and he looks for the cards and arranges them into sentences. That gets easier as you learn more words, because you can use any cards from previous lessons too. CM suggested leaving blanks when you need a word that you don’t yet know, which helps to pique the child’s interest in learning more words.

11)  Dictate the actual text from the reading and have him create it with the word cards.  Have him read the text from the word cards.

12)  Have him read the text from the book.

Now, there’s more to it than that. You can get it all (or most–you’ll get more if you comb through Parents Review articles) if you go carefully through the Volume 1 sections on reading and just jot down notes about what CM says to do.

Also, you don’t do all those steps in the same lesson. Keep it to 15 minutes at a time.
Notice how that simple process covers sight reading (and paying attention to the actual word rather than guessing), spelling, and phonics.


Here’s the part about the Twinkle lesson:

Vol 1 p. 204

Read the passage for the child, very slowly, sweetly, with just expression, so that it is pleasant to him to listen. Point to each word as you read. Then point to ‘twinkle,’ ‘wonder,’ ‘star,’ ‘what,’–and expect the child to pronounce each word in the verse taken promiscuously; then, when he shows that he knows each word by itself, and not before, let him read the two lines with clear enunciation and expression: insist from the first on clear, beautiful reading, and do not let the child fall into a dreary monotone, no more pleasant to himself than to his listener. Of course, by this time he is able to say the two lines; and let him say them clearly and beautifully. In his after lesson he will learn the rest of the little poem.


Then this:

Vol 1 pp. 205-6

But we have not yet finished the reading lesson on ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star.’ The child should hunt through two or three pages of good clear type for ‘little,’ star,’ you,’ are,’ each of the words he has learned, until the word he knows looks out upon him like the face of a friend in a crowd of strangers, and he is able to pounce upon it anywhere. Lest he grow weary of the search, the teacher should guide him, unawares, to the line or paragraph where the word he wants occurs. Already the child has accumulated a little capital; he knows eight or ten words so well that he will recognise them anywhere, and the lesson has occupied probably ten minutes. The next ‘reading at sight’ lesson will begin with a hunt for the familiar words, and then–

"Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky,"

should be gone through in the same way. As spelling is simply the art of seeing, seeing the letters in a word as we see the features of a face–say to the child, ‘Can you spell sky?’–or any of the shorter words. He is put on his mettle, and if he fails this time, be sure he will be able to spell the word when you ask him next; but do not let him learn to spell or even say the letters aloud with the word before him.


What I described above is more like the Cock Robin lesson, starting on p. 212:

Now for the lesson. Bobbie and I are shut in by ourselves in the morning room. I always use a black-board in teaching the children. I write up, in good clear ‘print’ hand,

Cock Robin

Bobbie watches with more interest because he knows his letters. I say, pointing to the word, ‘cock robin,’ which he repeats.
"Then the words in the box are scattered on the table, and he finds half a dozen ‘cock robins’ with great ease.

We do the same thing with ‘sparrow,’ ‘arrow,’ ‘said,’ ‘killed,’ ‘who,’ and so on, till all the words in the verse have been learned. The words on the black-board grow into a column, which Bob reads backwards and forwards, and every way, except as the words run in the verse.

Then Bobbie arranges the loose words into columns like that on the board.

Then into columns of his own devising, which he reads off.

Lastly, culminating joy (the whole lesson has been a delight!), he finds among the loose words, at my dictation,
‘Who killed Cock Robin
I said the sparrow
With my bow and arrow
I killed Cock Robin,’

Arranging the words in verse form.

Then I had still one unmutilated copy, out of which Bob had the pleasure of reading the verse, and he read it forwards and backwards. So long as he lives he will know those twelve words."

When we have mastered the words of the second verse, Bob runs through the first in the book, naming words here and there as I point to them. It takes less than a minute, and the ground is secured."


Then in the Little Pussy lesson we see a more complete picture, from p.218:

Steps.–And now, we begin. Material: Tommy’s box of loose letters, the new ‘Little Pussy’ box, pencil and paper, or much better, blackboard and chalk. We write up in good big print hand ‘Pussy.’ Tommy watches with interest: he knows the letters, and probably says them as we write. Besides, he is prepared for the great event of his life; he knows he is going to begin to learn to read to-day. But we do not ask anything yet of his previous knowledge. We simply tell him that the word is ‘Pussy.’ Interest at once; he knows the thing, Pussy, and the written symbol is pleasant in his eyes because it is associated with an existing idea in his mind. He is told to look at the word ‘Pussy’ until he is sure he would know it again. Then he makes ‘Pussy’ from memory with his own loose letters. Then the little bag containing our two lines in loose words is turned out, and he finds the word ‘Pussy’; and, lastly, the little sheet with the poem printed on it is shown to him, and he finds ‘Pussy,’ but is not allowed yet to find out the run of the rhyme. ‘Coat, little, like, is, her, warm, I, so,’ are taught in the same way, in less time than it takes to describe the lesson. When each new word is learned, Tommy makes a column of the old ones, and reads up and down and cris-cras, the column on the blackboard.

Reading Sentences–He knows words now, but he cannot yet read sentences. Now for the delight of reading. He finds at our dictation, amongst his loose words, ‘Pussy–is–warm,’ places them in ‘reading’ order, one after the other, and then reads off the sentence. Joy, as of one who has found a new planet! And Tommy has indeed found a new poet. Then, ‘her-little-coat-is-warm,’ ‘Pussy-is-so-little,’ ‘I-like-Pussy,’ ‘Pussy-is-little-like-her-coat,’ and so on through a dozen more little arrangements. If the rhyme can be kept a secret till the whole is worked out, so much the better. To make the verses up with his own loose words will give Tommy such a delicious sense that knowledge is power, as few occasions in after life will afford. Anyway, reading is to him a delight henceforth, and it will require very bad management indeed to make him hate it.

Tommy’s Second Lesson.–Tommy promises himself another reading lesson next day, but he has instead a spelling lesson, conducted somewhat in this way:

He makes the word ‘coat’ with his letters, from memory if he can; if not, with the pattern word. Say ‘coat’ slowly; give the sound of the c. ‘Take away c, and what have we left?’ A little help will get ‘oat’ from him. How would you make ‘boat’ (say the word very slowly, bringing out the sound of b). He knows the sounds of the letters, and says b-oat readily; fl-oat, two added sounds, which you lead him to find out; g-oat, he will give you the g, and find goat a charming new word to know; m-oat, he easily decides on the sound of m; a little talk about moat; the other words are too familiar to need explanation. Tommy will, no doubt, offer ‘note’ and we must make a clean breast of it and say, ‘No, note is spelt with other letters’; but what other letters we do not tell him now. Thus he comes to learn incidentally and very gradually that different groups of letters may stand for the same sounds. But we do not ask him to generalise; we only let him have the fact that n-oat does not spell the symbol we express by ‘note.’ ‘Stoat’–he will be able to give the sounds of the initial letters, and stoat again calls for a little talk–another interesting word. He has made a group of words with his letters, and there they are on the black-board in a column, thus


He reads the column up and down and cris-cras; every word has a meaning and carries an idea. Then the loose words he knows are turned out, and we dictate new sentences, which he arranges: ‘I-like-her-goat’; ‘her-little-stoat-is-warm,’ and so on, making the new words with loose letters.

Unknown Words–Now for a new experience. We dictate ‘Pussy in the boat.’ Consternation! Tommy does not know ‘in’ nor ‘the.’ ‘Put counters for the words you don’t know; they may soon come in our lessons,’ and Tommy has a desire and a need–that is, an appetite for learning.

Like Combinations have Different Sounds.–We deal with the remaining words in the same way–’little’ gives brittle, tittle, skittle: Pussy, is, I, and her, give no new words. ‘Like’ gives mike and pike. ‘so’ gives no, do (the musical ‘do’), and lo! From ‘warm’ we get arm, harm, charm, barm, alarm; we pronounced warm as arm. Tommy perceives that such a pronunciation is wrong and vulgar, and sees that all these words are sounded like ‘arm,’ but not one of them like ‘warm’–that is, he sees that the same group of letters need not always have the same sound. But we do not ask him to make a note of this new piece of knowledge; we let it grow into him gradually, after many experiences.

By this time he has eighteen new words on the blackboard of which to make sentences with the nine loose words of ‘Pussy.’ Her skittle is little, her charm is brittle, her arm is warm, and so on. But we take care that the sentences make sense. Her goat is brittle, is ‘silly,’ and not to be thought of at all. Tommy’s new words are written in his ‘note-book’ in print hand, so that he can take stock of his possessions in the way of words.

Moral Training in Reading Lessons–The next day we do the last two lines of the stanza, as at first. These lines afford hardly any material for a spelling lesson, so in our next lesson we go on with the second verse. But our stock of words is growing; we are able, as we go on, to make an almost unlimited number of little sentences. If we have to use counters now and then, why, that only whets our appetite for knowledge. By the time Tommy has worked ‘Little Pussy’ through he has quite a large stock of words; has considerable power to attack new words with familiar combinations; what is more, he has achieved; he has courage to attack all ‘learning,’ and has a sense that delightful results are quite within reach. Moreover, he learns to read in a way that affords him some moral training. There is no stumbling, no hesitation from the first, but bright attention and perfect achievement. His reading lesson is a delight, of which he is deprived when he comes to his lesson in a lazy, drawling mood. Perfect enunciation and precision are insisted on, and when he comes to arrange the whole of the little rhyme in his loose words and read it off (most delightful of all the lessons) his reading must be a perfect and finished recitation. [Spirited nursery rhymes form the best material for such reading lessons. A 'Delightful Reading Box' has been issued on similar plan to the 'Pussy' Box, whose one fault is that the verses are a little dull. But this 'Box' should be of great use]. I believe that this is a practical common-sense way to teach reading in English. It may be profitable for the little German child to work through all possibly dreary combinations of letters before he is permitted to have any joy in ‘reading,’ because wherever these combinations occur they will have the sounds the child has learned laboriously. The fact that English is anomalous as regards the connection between sign and sound, happily exonerates us from enforcing this dreary grind. [It is desirable that 'Tommy' should not begin to 'read' until his intelligence is equal to the effort required by these lessons. Even then, it may be well to break up one into two, or half a dozen, as he is able to take it].


  1. Hi Kathy!

    What a helpful post on the reading process! I can't believe no one else commented on it yet. (In 4 years!) Thanks for spelling it out.

    :) Jen

  2. In their defense, I should point out that I moved these posts from the previous blog platform I was using, so the comments (if any) didn't move with them. And I'm not sure how many people even read the posts over there! lol Not that I'm sure many read them now either. . . :-)

  3. Bookmarking this post... in fact, I think I'll print portions of it out if you don't mind? Very helpful, thank you so much....

  4. I am so glad you posted this link in ao forum year 0 thread. I was just reading through some of the parents' review articles about beginning to read and saw that you had added this link. I am very glad to have your discussion of it here. Thanks!