I have warm, fuzzy memories of teaching each of my four children to read. I can remember holding up flash cards for my oldest when he was three years old, drilling those phonics until we were both exhausted. I remember how he struggled to blend consonants and vowels together, so I taped letters to the cars of his Thomas the Tank Engine set to visualize how you connect the sounds to make one sound, exaggerating my pronunciation as he looked at me like I was crazy.

I realize now that I was, indeed, crazy.

I remember my four-year-old daughter standing beside my desk, sounding out sentences I had printed for her to read. She was proud of her accomplishments, though she couldn’t tell you what she had read by the time she got to the last word. Again, I was crazy.

Then there was the little Sweetie Pooh who just wanted to cuddle. He’s the one who finally got it through to me that reading takes time, for there was no rushing the love bug on my lap who would bury his face in my shirt in exasperation when he couldn’t recall a single sound he’d learned the day before. That’s when I finally learned the lesson and put the phonics away for a year or two until he was mentally and emotionally ready for it all.

So that’s why I have treasured memories of reading together with my youngest, snuggled in the recliner under blankets and piles of Bucky and Dr. Seuss and Frog and Toad.

It’s a shame, when I look back, to realize how long I had to homeschool my children before I could learn how to homeschool my children! If I didn’t have a sense of humor about it—and enough of that to pass down to them too—it would be tragic. But we all laugh about it now.

The process of reading is relatively simple for most children: learn sounds, learn to blend sounds, learn to sound out words, learn “special sounds” or blends, read and comprehend sentences. But the journey from start to finish isn’t what we expect. The easy stuff is hard, and the hard stuff isn’t that big a deal.

Looking back now, I’ve discovered several lessons about teaching reading that really surprised me.

1. There is a lot more involved in learning to read than I expected.

It isn’t like learning how to sort by color, or memorizing the days of the week, or even learning how to count to twenty. Learning how to read involves many skills we adults now take for granted.

For instance, the child must recognize that letters are different, that each letter stands for a different sound, that some letters stand for more than one sound, that these sounds are blended together to make even more sounds, that letters look different when handwritten or printed in different fonts, and that all these letters and sounds go together to make words and sentences that tell a story that people should remember.

It’s so much to remember, it can be overwhelming for young learners.

2. Children learn to read at their own rate.

It has little to do with intelligence or learning aptitude or upbringing or quality of education. The child simply must be ready to learn! We accept that when it comes to a child learning to walk, or saying his first word, or even feeding himself, but when it comes to reading, we’re so tempted to point to the calendar and declare It’s time! Start reading now!

I laugh so hard at my attempts to teach my three- and four-year-old children how to read fluently. And bless their hearts, they really tried admirably. But while they squeezed out simple words and paper pamphlet stories bravely, they didn’t begin reading fluently and independently any faster than the two boys I let take their time. All I did was create months and years of more work for all of us.

So while I’m a huge proponent of reading, I am no longer a fan of “teach your three-year-old to read” programs. There are so many things early learners should be learning well during those formative years. When they are five or six or seven, they will be mature enough to enjoy the process of reading so much more.

3. Learning styles become apparent during reading education.

I thought my oldest son was cheating when he begged me to read his early readers aloud to him before he tried. But now I see what he was trying to tell me: he learns by listening better than by looking, so he was searching for auditory clues to guide him. My middle son gave me a big education on learning styles when he started phonics; anything I said or showed him bored him to tears. But if I held him in my lap and traced his fingers over the letters I showed him, he was captivated and retained the lesson. I didn’t know what learning styles were then, but later I realized that my young children were desperately trying to educate me about how they learned best.

4. Reading aloud to students is very important.

We take for granted how important it is to read because we use that skill constantly. Young children, though, have lived their entire lives without reading and don’t have a desperate need to work hard to read—until we show them what they are missing.

I don’t think it’s possible to read aloud to our children too much. Picture books, Bible stories, fairy tales, biographies, histories, and classic literature open up a world of imagination, longing, aspiration, and information that our students can’t dream of until they hear it.

5. Reading aloud to older students is still important.

It is so tempting to put read-aloud time aside when students are reading and studying independently. There are so many subjects, such busy schedules, so many activities that crowd it all out. But we need to fight for read-aloud time for our older students and teens too. Enjoying books together, even listening to audiobooks, helps solidify the taste, discernment, culture, and continuing education of the entire family.

6. Students still need reading help as they grow.

I made the mistake of assuming that once my students were reading independently and doing well in their subjects, they didn’t need any more reading assistance. I was wrong. Our older students and teens still need help reading aloud with proper expression and gaining reading comprehension. We can help by asking them to take a turn reading aloud to the family, by asking discussion questions over their reading selections, and by pointing out difficult vocabulary words and asking them what they mean.

7. All children can enjoy reading.

I used to think that reading was just something introverted visual learners enjoyed, that other students couldn’t enjoy and benefit from reading regularly. My own children proved me wrong. While auditory learners will probably prefer to listen to audiobooks or read aloud (even to themselves), and kinesthetic learners will remember what they read if they are exercising while they read or listen to books, they will still benefit from good books. When we help our students find how they read best, we set them up for a lifetime of learning.

Whether you are teaching your first student to read or your fifth, you will likely learn valuable lessons through the process. If we stay as teachable as our children, we’ll make those warm, fuzzy memories right along with them. 

This article was published in the March/April 2016 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine.

Lea Ann Garfias provides simple solutions for today’s homeschool mom in her book Homeschool Made Easy, available on Kindle. A homeschool grad and homeschooling mom of four, Lea Ann fuels her roles as author, professional violinist, choir director, and soccer mom with a whole lotta coffee. Connect with her at www.lagarfias.com.