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Open Features: My Two-Year-Old Got Hooked On Phonics

Marsh Kaminsky brings a hugely inspirational account of how he taught his young son to read and spell.

Imagine a world in which every parent followed Marsh's lead!

When my son was in nursery school he raised his hand to get his teacher's attention.

"Yes, Daniel?"

Daniel pointed to the word "Conneticut" written on the blackboard and said, "You spelled Connecticut wrong." The teacher looked at the board and realized he was right.

"Daniel, how did you know it was wrong?" asked the confuseded teacher.

Daniel triumphantly replied, "It's because I have a young and powerful brain!''

His teacher contacted me by phone shortly thereafter, told me what Daniel had said, and asked me how he could possibly know about the misspelled word.

I told her that when he was almost two years old, I started to teach him how to read.

She was full of questions. "Why did you bother to teach him to read? Surely he would have learned how to read in school at the developmentally appropriate age."

I had no idea what she meant by a developmentally appropriate age except it sounded like educational jargon. All I knew for sure is that Daniel turned into a superb reader so he must have been ready to read. "Maybe yes, maybe no, I replied. As I see things, reading is too crucial for his success in school and in life to leave to chance. That's why I did the job myself. His education, I hope you understand, is ultimately my responsibility. Don't you agree?"

All I heard in reply to my question was a muffled grunt.

She continued with a noticeable edge to her voice. "Who taught you how to do it? You must be a teacher.''

"Nah...I am a CPA and no one taught me ... all I did was teach him the alphabet, the sounds the letters make, and oh yes, I made sure he had tons and tons of practice. It was all really very simple. Honest, his brain did most of the work.

By the shrillness of her voice, I was sure she was about to deliver a cow. YOU REALLY TAUGHT HIM PHONICS WHEN HE WAS TWO YEARS OLD?! HOW COULD YOU?"

She said the word phonics like it was three day old road kill. This was my first indication that there was a problem somewhere with our schools and phonics. It would not be until many years later that I'd learn about the bizarre things going on in reading instruction at our schools.


I remember the evening I made the decision as though it were yesterda. For no reason I ever figured out, I yelled to my wife in the next room,. "I'm going to teach Daniel how to read to me!"

Daniel was standing on his bed, and probably wondered what his silly Daddy was yelling about. He didn't know then, nor did I, how much those few words would eventually change our lives. Suddenly Daniel's bed became our classroom and I became his first teacher. From that day on, things in our family would never be quite the same.

My lack of teaching experience never bothered me a whit. I never created lesson plans and took every lesson one day at a time. I simply relied on old-fashioned common sense and trial and error to chart my course. This was nighttime learning fun between my son and me. As it turned out, my total ignorance of current early teaching methodology was of crucial importance to my later success. For example, my ignorance kept me away from developmentalism. This idiotic philosophy says that it's wrong to teach preschoolers how to read because in some way, it would damage them. Had I known about this, I never would have taught my son how to read and missed what was the most joyful experience of my life.

The lessons began . . .

To start, I began to teach Daniel the basic building blocks of reading -- the letters of the alphabet and their sounds (phonics). That turned out to be the wisest possible beginning. A friend gave me Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever which has the alphabet on the first two pages. In the most entertaining ways possible, I taught Daniel the alphabet, both lower and upper case. We practiced and reviewed the letters on those first two pages for several months, literally branding the alphabet and their sounds into Daniel's long-term unforgettable memory. Another great aid in teaching was the alphabet song. I must have sung it with him a million times and he enjoyed it every time. Unlike adults, little kids love repetition.That's how they learn best.

And so it went. Every day I added a few new letters and constantly reviewed letters previously learned. I somehow knew that he had to learn the alphabet and their sounds as well as he knew his own name.If there was any one key to my success, it was certainly constant long term repetitive practice. When I learned that educators speak of drill and practice in disparaging terms, I began to understand why we have a reading problem in America.

I quickly learned that I must not bore him, so I played lots of fun learning games. I laughed and smiled a lot, celebrated Daniel's triumphs and showed genuine enthusiasm for his progress. In other words, I joined Daniel in his world. It would have been ludicrous for me to expect Daniel to come into my boring and stuffy adult world. To make things even more interesting, I rarely dwelled on any subject too long. I might start a lesson with a five-minute conversation about the "B" sound and then ask Daniel if water is a liquid, gas or a solid. After that, I might ask him to show me four fingers on his left hand or how many ears he has.

As the weeks of nightly instruction continued, I discovered, much to my delight, that this teaching business was not a chore. Instead, I found myself eagerly looking forward to the lessons. I was enjoying myself enormously and I was fascinated by the speed of Daniel's progress. I hadn't yet grasped how amazingly fast little kids learn. Of particular enjoyment were our Socratic like learning conversations. "Daniel, do you know that everything in the world is made of little bitty things called atoms?"
The subjects of these conversations varied. Since my two year old had the whole world to learn about, almost anything that popped into my head was of value. Needless to say, he reveled in all the one on one attention I lavished on him.

One of my neighbors who is a teacher warned me not to pressure him too much to learn or he might burn out. I told her she had the culprits mixed up. I told her, Once Daniel got a taste of the fun lessons, he pressured me for more and more learning time. He became utterly relentless! Because of his demands, what started out as fifteen minute lessons soon became forty minutes or more.

Then came the little words, the most commonly used two and three letter words. We practiced them until he knew them instantly by sight. Count among them: the, I, a, you, is, to, me, he, it, was, can, if, in, are, on, of, and maybe fifty more.

Amazingly, after about four or five months, when the alphabet with their related sounds and the little words were firmly in his long term unforgettable memory, my son, not yet two and a half years old, started to read - really read, not just parrot words he'd memorized. He was able to decode long words simply by sounding out the letters. Was I proud!

Daniel considered reading just another game played with his Daddy. "How about the Take Turns Game, Daniel?" I would turn to any page in the book and Daniel would start reading. He read three words and then I did the same. Or, Daniel would read a full sentence and I would read the next one. Taking turns reading aloud made Daniel want to read - he just had to keep up with his Daddy. Little kids, I soon learned, are intensely competitive and adore winning.

I did not limit his reading material to his kid's books. We also read the newspaper, street signs, license plates, recipes - anything in print. Daniel wasn't fussy. Being a CPA, I was especially proud after he read the first page of a 1040 tax return. Hey Daddy, what does adjusted gross income mean?

Daniel made lots of mistakes and so, to protect his ego, I invented the mistake game. This game enabled him to catch me making a mistake. I reasoned that if Daniel saw that his Daddy could make a mistake and not have a snit, he'd learn to accept them. It worked.

Daniel Let's play the mistake game.

Me Okay, you go first.

Daniel What sound does CH make?

Me Shhhh.

Daniel You made a mistake Daddy. Try again.#

Me Are you sure I made a mistake Daniel?

Daniel Yes Daddy. A CH makes the CHA sound.

Me You're right! Gosh, are you smart!

Another favorite game was the "DO IT" game. I invented it to teach Daniel that there is a reason for reading, that there is a message to be understood in everything he read. I would print a message on a piece of paper such as "close your eyes and jump up and down." If Daniel read the instruction and started jumping up and down, I knew he was reading for comprehension - the only reason for reading. He never lost that game.

. Some spelling instruction systems say that it is all right for a child to invent his or her own spelling, that sooner or later kids will learn the correct spelling. I didn't buy that invented spelling nonsense. I thought it better for him to learn how to spell correctly the first time around than to unlearn the incorrect spelling later.


Final results? After investing about 30-40 minutes a night for about two years, Daniel entered kindergarten reading and spelling at the fourth or fifth grade level. But even more than that, when he was four I had him tested by an educational psychologist who told me Daniel had a genius level IQ of 148.

Some people tell me that Daniel could read because he was born super gifted, unusually bright, a genius. I'd sure like to think that is true, that he inherited my brainy genes, but I know better. Daniel wasn't born with anything that millions of other children do not possess. I did not teach my son how to read to make him smart. At the time, I had no clue about the interesting byproduct of early reading.

Learning how to read exercised his brain which acted like a brain growth catalyst and made him very smart. The realization of what my teaching had done to my son's intellect fascinated me to no end. I had literally created high intelligence! This was sure a lot more interesting than mindlessly filling out tax returns. Why didn't I go into education instead of accounting?


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