Why teaching my 3 year old to read is a lot like training my horse…

I started teaching Elle to read by getting letter magnets and putting them on a cookie sheet. We have been having Letter Time most days of the week for a couple months now. Letter time only lasts 5 or 10 minutes and she lets me know when she’s done. At this point she knows most of the consonants and we’ve started working on the vowels. I teach her the sound each letter makes and connect it to a word, like “H says ha, ha, as in happy.”

I’ve noticed that memorization is okay, but she learns much faster when she can use the letters in some way. We’ve started making simple words like cat and dog. For cat I say, “Elle, find the letter that says ca, ca” and she will pick out the C. Then we do the same thing for each letter. She really gets into this and she especially likes making people’s names. After we make the word, we sound out each letter and then put it all together. She’s learning the basics of sounding out words and taking the first steps toward reading. We’re not talking about phonetic rules yet, just getting the concept that you put sounds together to make a word.

I would not say that she is reading yet, because she needs me to guide her through the process, but she is getting the idea of HOW to read. My goal is to have her reading simple words by the end of the summer, and I see no reason why she won’t be able to do it.

Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that, in teaching her to read, I use a lot of the same principles as I use when I’m training my horse. The first one is to keep it short. Horses and kids both have fairly short periods of intense concentration and I don’t push their limits. Second, I don’t accept sloppy work. I can tell the difference between a good try and a lousy try and I can tell when my horse is doing his best but lacks the strength or coordination to execute a movement. It’s the same with my kid. I can tell when she’s trying hard but doesn’t quite get it yet. Another good strategy is to always end on a positive note. If my horse is having trouble understanding what I’m asking and getting frustrated, I ask him to do something he already knows (like trot and then halt nicely). Once he does it right, I pat him and hop off. We always end with something that builds his confidence. With Elle it’s the same. We always end Letter Time with something she’s done correctly. She gets a high five and lots of verbal praise and she feels good about herself and her ability to learn.  

Finally, patience cannot be underestimated. Learning something new is difficult and there is nothing worse than being rushed or made to feel stupid. I realize that I have high standards and can be very critical. I force myself to be very positive and patient with my kids and my horse. I want them all to learn from me and respect me, not dread our work sessions. It’s paid off with my horse by bringing home blue ribbons in the show ring. It will pay off with my daughter when she becomes a reader.

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