By Kristen Kinney-Haines

Learning to read may appear natural and, therefore, easy to teach. Yet it’s one of the most difficult tasks any child will take on; and homeschooling parents must cover some important foundational topics along the way. The National Reading Panel has identified these skills as phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

A great deal of research* suggests students who have mastered two main critical skills—good phonological awareness and letter naming—will have little difficulty learning to read.

Getting Started
Early reading instruction begins with pre-K and kindergarten students and should focus on these two main skills. Phonological awareness, the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words, includes several skills; some are easy, and some are difficult. Children demonstrate phonological awareness when they identify words that rhyme, break words into syllables or count the number of syllables in a word, and change the first sound in a word (the onset) to make a new word.

Phonemic awareness—the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds within a word—is the most difficult skill to develop as part of phonological awareness. How many sounds are in the word chap? What are the three sounds in the word chap? Change the first sound in the word chap to /t/. What’s the new word? Change the last sound in the word tap to /g/. What’s the new word? Change the middle sound to /u/—what’s the new word?

The great thing about phonological awareness activities is that they are auditory (listening) tasks and can be done anywhere—they don’t require gimmicks or gadgets, or anything visual at all. Playing word games with your student or child, for example, is a fun way to practice phonological awareness.

Students also need letter naming knowledge. This means they can look at a letter, identify it, and find (or write!) a letter when given a letter name.

Kindergarten and first grade students should practice phonics. Homeschooling parents can:
· Help students learn how letters and sounds go together to make the words we say, read, and write.
· Start with basic consonant-vowel-consonant patterns (words like dog, tap, hit, cup, etc.), and move on to digraphs (sh, th, ch, etc.).
· In first grade, work on consonant blends and long vowel patterns.
· Work on learning sight words. Sight words are words that typically don’t follow the spelling patterns early readers know. In order to read stories, sight words are taught—words such as and, the, said, friend, and so on.

Ready For More
Once students have the ability to read short, decodable stories, it’s time to focus on fluency. Fluency is the ability to read quickly and smoothly. When students have fluency, they expend less mental effort on figuring out words and more mental effort thinking about the story and developing comprehension and vocabulary. Homeschooling parents can help students master these final key reading skills in several ways:

· The best way to improve fluency is to read and read some more. Students should spend at least 20 minutes per day reading grade-level text in order to fully develop their fluency.

· Vocabulary is something that can be taught early on, and expanded as children move through the grades. Talking about words in books you read aloud to your pre-K and kindergarten students is a great way to get started. Explicit vocabulary instruction can start in first and second grades, but it’s most valuable when tied to texts the students are reading.

· Basic comprehension can be developed in pre-K students by talking about stories you read aloud to them. Choose high-quality literature, including classic fairy tales. Talk to your students. Who was this story about? Tell me something that happened in the story. What was your favorite part of the story? In kindergarten, you can talk about the characters in the story, the setting, the problem the character faced, the way the character solved the problem. This continues on in first and second grade, adding more and more details at each grade. For example, move from who are the characters to who is the main character, or from simply identifying the characters to discussing the traits of each character, and why the characters said or did the things they did.

Teaching your child to read can be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll share. It doesn’t have to be an intimidating task if you focus on the basics. Many high-quality programs have been created for parents to use with students at home, including K12’s PhonicsWorks and Language Arts programs. K12’s series of language arts mobile apps can serve as teaching tools as well. But the best way for children to become good readers is to simply read and read often.
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Dr. Kristen Kinney-Haines, director of primary literacy, has worked with K12’s Phonics and Language Arts programs since 2001. Dr. Kinney-Haines is responsible for the creation and development of MARK12 Reading, K12’s first remedial product, as well the second generation of K–2 Language Arts and Phonics. Previously, she taught kindergarten and first grade in Upstate New York and K–3 special education in Northern Virginia.

Dr. Kinney-Haines holds a bachelor’s degree in education from the State University of New York at Geneseo, a master’s degree in reading from Nazareth College, and a Doctorate of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from The George Washington University.

* National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction; Marilyn Jaeger Adams’ 1990 book “Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print”; Susan Hall and Louisa Moats’ 1998 book “Straight Talk About Reading: How Parents Can Make a Difference During the Early Years.”