The Magic of Learning to Read

Written by Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool and founder of Steady Mom

A note from Jamie: One year later, we’re much further along our reading journey! Fun to look back and see how far my kids have come–we all need that reminder from time-to-time, don’t we? This post originally published on January 24, 2011.

We were rounding a corner during our morning walk, when my six-year-old son paused to glance at a sign in someone’s yard.

“Look, Mommy. It says: SLOW. KIDS AT PLAY.”

This from a child who has never had a formal reading lesson. With a sharp-as-a-tack memory, Jonathan adds to his sight word vocabulary daily, learning to read without realizing he is.

My seven-year-old daughter is another story. Her knowledge of sight words isn’t her strength. But her grasp of phonics is much better.

When Jonathan doesn’t recognize a word, he asks Trishna to sound it out. When a word is too complex for her abilities, she asks him if he knows what it is.

And all the while my five-year-old tags along, still coloring in zigzags and ecstatic to have learned how to write the first letter of his name.

Three children. Three personalities. Three styles of learning.

Each one legitimate, valued, incredible.

From the very first Dick and Jane or Bob book they open, or the passing sign read aloud–we as parents are on the brink of something amazing. We’re witnesses to magic.

Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, wrote that “to learn to read is to light a fire. Every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.”

It comes in different ways, at different times, for different kids. And in spite of peer pressure from homeschooling friends or the traditional system, there is no one right way to learn to read.

You may sit down with your child and work through 100 Easy Lessons. You may have a child who is completely uninterested in the process or even highly resistant. You may be an unschooler adamant about not forcing things too soon.

No matter who you are, no matter which approach you choose–make sure you slow down. You’ve been given a great gift–a front row seat to wonder, freedom, beauty.

Enjoy the magic.

It seems that anyone who has been homeschooling long has a reading story to share. How did your child learn to read? Did you have a magical moment when things seemed to click, or was it more of a gradual process?

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She is the co-founder and editor of Simple Homeschool, where she writes about mindful parenting, intentional education, and the joy found in a pile of books. Jamie is also the author of a handful of titles, including her newest release, Give Your Child the World.


  1. we did Sonlight and my son was so tongue tied w/ those You Can Read It books – -he hated when I went to get them each morning. So I switched to 100 Easy Lessons and it just did not click. So I put it all aside for 6 months and we didn’t touch reading curriculum – at all!! Then when I picked it back up – we were doing 5-10 pages a day it went by so fast. He just wasn’t ready to start reading. And we would have miserable if I forced it. Now almost 8yrs old – he reads 9-12yr chapter books on his own.
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  2. Watching my daughter learn about language definitely is magical! I remember her excitement the first time she recognized the letter B, the first time she wrote one, the first time she sounded out a word, and when she recently finished off the first set of Bob books. With each milestone she is getting more and more excited about learning to read, and it’s been so much fun to watch. I’m curious to see if she continues in this gradual style or if there will be a “lightbulb” moment when she really takes off flying.
    Michelle @ The Parent Vortex’s latest post: Weekend Links

  3. We are having a blast with my 5 year old. He LOVES books, and is now starting to read. We have been using My Father’s World curriculum for a few months. Using the phonics-based approach, I get to watch the lightbulb go on as my son sounds out words, blends them together and reads them on his own. I made a list of all the words he could read for me in one sitting. He read 19 words without blinking an eye and was so excited! I’m sure he could have done more, but I would like to have him add to that number (these types of things motivate him) so he can see his progress. He is doing it, not me, and it is just thrilling to be apart of this process 🙂

  4. My six year old is just starting to express interest in reading on her own. She’s always loved to read, but we could have spent many painful hours pushing it had I not received advice like this a few years ago. It has opened eyes to the magical side of learning!

  5. i love the hugo quote about the spark. i definitely see that in my 5 year old. if she struggles with a word she gets discouraged quickly (she’s a little perfectionist, i can tell), but once i make her slow it down and go letter by letter i definitely see that spark in her and once she gets it she’s so proud of herself and wants to go on to the next word. i have a feeling the lesson of it’s-ok-if-you-don’t-get-it-the-first-time it’s going to be a tough one for us :).
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  6. We have been homeschooling for 18 years with 7 children, and so the reading experiences have been varied. We have had some who easily learned and some who I thought would be adults when they learned. Thankfully, I was wrong and they are all avid readers now. I think the main thing is just to know it will happen. And the last thing we want is to make them hate “reading” before they are able to read–the method/schedule we use must not make them nuts! 🙂
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  7. My little chef is just getting reading – no easy readers for him… he sits behind me while I work and sounds out: v – e – g – e – t – a – b – l – e b – r – o – t – h… and r- a -i – s – i – n – g a – g – e – n – t…very cute!!! I am loving it for the fifth time… I would say start when they keen and then wait till they are ready, sometimes they are keen before they are ready I just start fresh again when they are ready. And they are all very different my fastest reader so far was reading chapter books by four and my slowest reader so far took until eight to be comfortable with chapter books. Also reading is not a measure of intelligence… so often I hear: “My child is so clever he could sound out the alphabet at three.” Or “My child will never make it, she’s six and doesn’t get the alphabet at all.” Kids get there in time and really for sparkly kids it isn’t about if they can read or not – I think it is more about reading to them, even long after they can read…

  8. Oh, I just posted this weekend about my Six Year Old all of a sudden starting to read whole books out of nowhere! I was so happy!
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  9. My story is a story in progress…I have a almost 9 year old who basically began reading on her own by the time she was four. All areas of language arts come easy for her. My other daughter, who is almost 7, has almost zero interest in reading. She says she can’t do it. She says this, though, before she even tries to read anything. She’s given herself away on occasion by reading signs or billboards, so I know she knows more than she wants to admit. I think she would just rather do active or creative projects than try to read a book. She is much more physical and energetic than her sister. My husband worries about her slow progression in reading and I have always been a reader, so it’s hard for me not to worry also. We’ve been taking a break from phonics lately. Now after reading this, I feel less guilty about it, but I can’t help but wish there were some sparks for her. I know she is capable – I just have to remind myself to be patient!

    • Andrea,

      Our 8 year daughter is just like your 7 year old. Loves to be read to but doesn’t do it herself, though I know she can if she tries. She definitely would rather be active or do creative projects. She is very kinesthetic and is developing herself in others ways that her sister is not. Ironically enough she loves to write! So she “writes” pages and pages. And then I translate her phonetic spelling into something readable so she can share it with the world.

      • I’m in the same boat with my soon to be 8 year old twins, Andrea. My daughter picked up a book and away she went. My son just does not want to. He is like your daughter says he can’t but I have seen him read things to himself. Both of my kids are active, but my son loves to work with his hands. We play a lot of games with reading in it. Have you ever heard of “Games for Reading” by Peggy Kaye? I use that book for ideas it has helped a lot, plus just reading to the kids all the time.
        Rana’s latest post: Size Does Matter

      • My 8 year old is like this too. Plays book after book on tape, begs me to read to her and loves to write stories, but no interest in reading on her own. She says she can’t read, but she can. The funny thing is, we thought she’d be a natural because she was quicker to pick up on the phonics and rhyming and would shout out the words as her big sister was trying to sound them out. She’s very much an Auditory learner.

  10. My 3 children are all learning so differently. My first child (11 yrs) picked up phonics really well and took off with reading at age 6 after (75 or so) of 100 easy lessons.

    I wrote about our learning to read adventures here:

    My second child, now almost 10 is learning to read very slowly. And we don’t push him, what would be the point in that? The magic would be lost. But his brain obviously works very different from his older sister. He might even be a bit dyslexic but we see no point in labeling him. We just practice in a warm, loving environment and each day he gets a little better. This practice time is initiated by him by the way. He seems better with whole word recognition.

    Third child is just along for the ride. She’s 8 and can read if she really wants to but mostly choses… not to!

    Accepting all of my children equally in this regard is tricky since I love to read! Shouldn’t they just all follow suit?

    It’s especially hard when you start to compare your children to other families. Families who study latin and grammar and all sorts of subjects simply not accessible to non-readers. I try not to compare because I love my children just as they are and they have unique talents and gifts that we are choosing to let them develop and focus on. But it’s still hard sometimes.

    • I agree Renee about not comparing, That is a hard one with me. Especially when you have members of the family outside of your home saying why isn’t he reading yet? Your cousins are doing this or that. I try not to let that affect us, I think what helps is knowing we are not alone in our quest for our little ones to learn to read if they are going a bit slower than what some consider “normal”. I think of your family and a couple of other families that I know and tell myself “See if her boy can take his time and do it at his own pace, why should I push my son it will come in time”.
      Rana’s latest post: Size Does Matter

  11. My five and half year old LOVED the Bob books! She also responded well to the Ordiniary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading. The Seton “fill in the blank” Phonics book left her cold, so we stopped using it. The joy of home school is that you can tailor it to fit your child. This is a real break through for me because I am such a rule follower. I think I have learned more than my kindergartener this first year of home schooling.
    Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith’s latest post: The Perfect Balance

  12. This has been one of the hardest parts of homeschooling for me. I go between worrying about my almost 6 year old not learning to read to being in a panic and pulling out every piece of “learn to read” curriculum we own. Not fun for either of us. I’m so glad to read the comments from other homeschooling moms that let me know I’m not alone in my struggle.
    Dee’s latest post: January 20

  13. I love reading so I’ve worked very hard at creating a culture which celebrates reading in our home. Both of our daughters (20 mos & 3.5 yrs) love books. They both love to “read” to themselves. My oldest is at a pivotal point where she’s very curious about words & letters & doing it herself. What’s the best way at this age (3 almost 4) to support their curiosity?
    Carla’s latest post: 2011- The Year of Consciously Creating My Legacy

    • Just keep doing what you’re doing! Nothing formal is needed – exposure and pointing out letters/sounds when they are interested is plenty.

      Great job!

  14. Lovely post! I’ve enjoyed the journey with my three “big” kids as they learned to read and am looking forward to the time when my 3 y/o starts. We don’t use any curriculum or anything like that, just games and lots of reading together. It’s such a magical time!
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  15. I love to read and was an early reader so it was very frustrating to have my firstborn son not wanting to read and having difficulties with it. I tried different programs until I read Jim Trelease’s book The Read Aloud and realize that I could still give give the benefits of reading by reading aloud. Then he was 7.5 years old when he said “he wants to learn to read” and combined with a program that a homeschooler recommended for later readers Rocket Phonics- he took off. Wow. It thrills me when he and my younger son say they like to read…

  16. I will never forget, one time my four year old was laying on her bed with one of my marriage books and I thought it was so cute she was pretending to read it. After a while of kind of tuning her out, I realized she was actually reading it! I was shocked 🙂 I put the little pre-k readers away that day and she’s never looked back!
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  17. This was a very timely post for me. My oldest is reading now. And my husband and I are being careful not to push too hard, too fast. But, oh, it’s so exciting when he sounds out a word and just GETS it. I wish I could bottle that glow forever.

  18. We’ve always read a lot to our 2 girls and now our 4yo is “reading” books to her sister (18mos). The little one will even “read” her favorite pages to us. The 4yo knows her letters and most of the sounds and is learning what letters start different words. She’s so excited when she figures out a new one! She can also spell her and her sister’s names and recently learned to spell “Jesus”. I pointed to the word “Jesus” on a coloring page one day in church and her eyes lit up when she realized what the word was. I wouldn’t miss these moments for anything!

  19. My 4 1/2 year old is being taught how to read in a Montessori classroom-with a lot of help from me at home. Montessori teaches children to “write” words using the moveable alphabet long before they ask them to read a book. I love this method! It allows the child to always have success and it allows the teacher to see at a glance where the child needs more practice. For my child, it was lots and lots of work with vowels before everything finally clicked and when it did, it was amazing. In early December, she excitedly told me at pick-up that she was now one of the readers and had a phonetic reader in her cubby to prove it. In a little over a month, despite breaks for Christmas, illness, and snowdays, she is flying, Most importantly, she loves reading and she’s proud of herself-may she always be!

  20. Oh, I agree – it is a miracle unfolding right there on our laps!
    I wrote about this magic here:Partnered Reading – Moments I Treasure.
    My youngest child is the most determined learner-reader and I am confident that despite it being harder for her to learn to read than for the others, that she’ll read! All my children loved to move on to real books and she can’t wait for her turn! Once they reach this stage, half the main work of our educating them is done!
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  21. Our 7 year old is just starting to read “real” books and it is so great to see him put all that training into practice. I have used several different curriculums and we both like The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading. It is very easy to use and the pace seemed to be just right for him. Finally I started checking out piles of readers from the library and we read one everyday. I’ve even found him reading on his own or to his siblings! A dream come true!!!
    With my love of reading and too much outside pressure to have him reading, it has been difficult to be patient but I love seeing him so proud of himself when he finishes another book.

  22. This is a great post. I worry all of the time, because my daughter who will be 7 in May can’t fully read yet and doesn’t like to write at all. I think the main thing is to not compare to other kids. Which is so hard to do, when one cousin taught himself to read and another cousin who is younger, can read on her own and writes so beautifully. However, like other posters have said..she excels in other ways. Her imagination is amazing.
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  23. Thanks, I needed that. I have been worried about my six year old, he can’t read EVERYTHING. I have been putting more pressure on him to read instead of just looking at pictures. You brought the gift of reading back into perspective, thanks.

  24. I just posted about our unschooling journey to reading. The post is here. Sending blessings to all!

  25. I tried to use ‘Teach you child to read in 100 lessons”. I think her issue was that when we started she already knew the stuff they were teaching. She got bored with it really quickly. I told her it would get harder and she needed to do this stuff first, but she didn’t care and it was a fight. My sister is a 1st grade teacher and told me about She uses it with her public school kids and they love it. I bought it ($20 for 1 child) and it’s online. My daughter loves it. She can’t wait to do it in the morning. It ‘tests’ them their first time so they are placed in the lessons they need to be in. My older girls do school on computers, so I think she feels like ‘the big girls’ when her work is on the computer. So thankful I found something she’s excited about! All kids are definitely different 🙂
    Nicole’s latest post: A slight pause in time………

  26. My two little readers both had a magical moment when it just “clicked”–seemingly overnight they were reading REAL books. I was proud, they were thrilled: it was great!

    We’ve used The Ordinary Parents’ Guide to Teaching Reading (known as “the blue book” in my house), co-authored by Jessie Wise. I highly recommend it.
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  27. Thank you so much for this post. My 8 year old was stubborn about reading when she was 5 (she could do it, but fought it), but now she’s a fantastic reader. My 5 year old isn’t stubborn at all, but he’s not catching on so quickly. Reading this post was a good reminder that I’m not racing against anyone, not his sister’s past progress, not some standard ideal, and not his at-school friends. Thanks!
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  28. I am so jealous that you still have little ones to teach reading! My youngest is six and has been reading for a couple of years completely on his own. I still read aloud to my kids, but I would love to be teaching letters and sounds again — that’s one of the funnest parts of homeschool. In fact, I’ve been thinking of reliving those days through writing a preschool curriculum — there is so much great stuff to use!
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  29. I really enjoyed hearing about the big differences between your children when it comes to reading — thanks for sharing! My eldest two learned to read when they were still in traditional school, so I was really anxious about the idea of teaching my youngest, who turns five this May. However, my sister-in-law (who also homeschools) had just finished “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons,” and it worked really well with her six-year-old son Joel. Even though my Elise is four, I thought I would give it a try and just see how she responded. So far, she’s ebbing and flowing with interest — and on the days she’s interested, we do a lesson followed by some fun read aloud time. I have really enjoyed seeing that flash of brilliance in her eyes when she’s getting it! I love knowing that I’m witnessing and will continue to be there for all her big “a-ha” educational moments! It’s such a privilege and blessing to be a part of something so huge like your child learning to read!
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  30. My 3.5 year old wants to read, and although she does great with individual letters and sounds, she struggles to hear the sounds in words (her speech reflects that) so reading is hard enough that sometimes the motivation can’t make up for the effort. It’s probably going to be a long road (long, but i remind myself not hard) for us, but seeing that light go off is so going to be worth it. I still remember randomly one night just shy of a year ago when it first clicked for her that letters grouped together make words that we can say. I can’t wait to see the next lightbulb go off, but I know I have to be patient with this one and let her own curiosity guide her, which does seem to be through writing and spelling first.

  31. I have had struggling learners and when they are reading, even basics, it just thrills and warms my heart! I love it! I have a stubborn 7 year old who has been able to read much of the past two years and is so stubborn and not advancing much…so good to hear other moms have these issues!
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  32. I had 3 avid early readers and 1 who struggled immensely. We tried various programs, I think one that helped the most was 100 Easy Lessons. Once she had some basics down, I knew I just needed to get her reading. Her love at the time was horses. We checked out and ordered from the library every book about horses we could find!
    Eventually she picked it up, but even as an adult she does not read as well and as fast as my other adults kids. All kids are different…
    Living the Balanced Life’s latest post: Why are we SO hard on ourselves?

  33. I really appreciate this post and the follow-up comments because I’m in the process of teaching my five-year-old to read. I’ve been slowing it down considerably too, and this makes me feel more confident with that decision. We did 100 Easy Lessons up until lesson 70, but at that point, he was getting too fidgety and bored by it. I do not regret my decision to not continue with it. So we’ve been doing very short, slow lessons and not every day – just some phonics or early readers. He doesn’t balk at it, but I can tell he doesn’t love it either. So I’m just going to let him go at his pace and encourage it once in a while so that he doesn’t forget what he has already learned. Thanks so much for your post/comments.
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  34. This is such a sensitive thing with many homeschooling families especially if you are being questioned about your methods by friends and family.

    We started with my oldest (5 now) when he was 4 1/2. We got to around lesson 20 in 100 easy lessons and then came the whining and tears. I continued to push him up to about lesson 5o and then………I found this blog. And FIMBY. And a number of others that promoted a more natural way of learning then what I knew from being a public school student.

    I started questioning why they had to learn such and such at such and such age and came to realize that THEY DONT! So I stopped with all “lessons” and just started living life. I read to my children often. Sometimes it is hours a day sometimes it is nothing for a few days, depending on how busy and hectic life becomes (my children are 1, 3, 4, and 5). I did not ask my son to read anything. Occasionally he would ask what a word was on a sign or package or something.

    It was about 6 months since we had left our lessons and it was a hectic bedtime because the kids had been playing in their room and made a huge mess. I said “sorry, I will not read a story tonight because I am going to clean up this room while you lay quietly in bed.” Then my son says “I will. Can I read us a bedtime story?” I was completely taken by surprise. I said sure! He went and picked up a book from a pile of new hooked on phonics books i got at Goodwill a few days before. I never read it to him. And it was a hard one! Probably about 20 words per page.

    He read that book as I cleaned around him trying to pretend that it was the most natural thing in the world when in reality I was probably holding my breath the entire time. He only needed help with about 3-4 sight words. It was amazing!

    I asked him when he learned to read and he said that he had been sitting on the side of the house (it was summertime) and reading in secret. I wanted to cry I was so proud. Definitely a moment I’ll never forget.
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  35. My twins are 5 (about to turn 6 this spring).My daughter could read chapter books when she was 3. At two she would point to words, and I would tell her what the word said. After memorizing hundreds of words, she started to see patterns and could read words without asking anymore.

    Her twin brother doesn’t have that much of an interest in reading. About six months ago, he said he wanted to be able to read. He has known the letter sounds since he was about two, also, but he never took it further than that. Then we sat down with some Bob books because he liked them. He started to read the first six beginning books (just barely sounding out words like Dot, Cat and Hat, but then he said he didn’t want to learn with me anymore. I’m now waiting until he shows more of an interest again. He loves for me to read to him though, and will sit with me for hours on the couch while we read together. That’s the most important thing as far as I’m concerned – that he loves stories and listening to books.
    Christina @Interest-Led Learning’s latest post: Mindmeister: Brainstorming Connections to Your Child’s Interests

  36. Thank you so much for this. My oldest is about to turn six and he is readingon his own without me ever teaching him anything. We just read, read, read, all the time and he just figured it out on his own, like your son. He loves books and that makes me so happy andi don’t want to ruin a good thing! We are reading through the little house books now and he loves them! I can’t imagine any worksheets that could beat our time together doing this. 🙂 I know there will be plenty of time for “school” as he gets older and I just don’t want to push things simply because everybody (everybody!) thinks I’m crazy for not doing a K5 curriculum with him. I really think I’m doing the right thing, but I get frustrated when others can’t understand that I really do know what I’m doing
    and he really is a smart boy. 🙂 anyway, sorry to vent. I needed
    to read this today!

  37. Spot on! Love your blog! Every child learns differently and we should always be cognizant of not judging their accomplishments based on those of others. My daughter was always a voracious reader who consistently challenged herself to the next level. My boys (one of whom is her twin) — not so much! I remember being so worried that she was reading classics like ‘The Secret Garden,’ ‘Little House on the Prarie,’ ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ etc. and my son couldn’t seem to get past ‘Captain Underpants!’ When I mentioned this to a teacher that was evaluating them for me that particular year. She said, with a casual shrug of the shoulders, ‘At least he is reading!’ From that moment on I realized it’s not what they’re reading, as long as they’re reading!

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