Time of Teaching to Read, an Open Question.—Reading presents itself first amongst the lessons to be used as instruments of education, although it is open to discussion whether the child should acquire the art unconsciously, from his infancy upwards, or whether the effort should be deferred until he is, say, six or seven, and then made with vigour. In a valuable letter, addressed to her son John, we have the way of teaching to read adopted by that pattern mother, the mother of the Wesleys:—
The Alphabet.—As for his letters, the child usually teaches himself. He has his box of ivory letters, and picks out p for pudding, b for blackbird, h for horse, big and little, and knows them both. But the learning of the alphabet should be made a means of cultivating the child’s observation: he should be made to see what he looks at. Make big B in the air, and let him name it; then let him make round O, and crooked S, and T for Tommy, and you name the letters as the little finger forms them with unsteady strokes in the air. To make the small letters thus from memory is a work of more art, and requires more careful observation on the child’s part. A tray of sand is useful at this stage. The child draws his finger boldly through the sand, and then puts a back to his D; and behold, his first essay in making a straight line and a curve. But the devices for making the learning of the ‘A B C’ are endless. There is no occasion to hurry the child: let him learn one form at a time, and know it so well that he can pick out the d’s, say, big and little in a page of large print. Let him say d for duck, dog, doll, thus: d—uck, d—og, prolonging the sound of the initial consonant, and at last sounding d alone, not dee, but d’, the mere sound of the consonant separated as far as possible from the following vowel.
Let the child alone, and he will learn the alphabet for himself: but few mothers can resist the pleasure of teaching it; and there is no reason why they should, for this kind of learning is no more than play to the child, and if the alphabet be taught to the little student, his appreciation of both form
and sound will be cultivated. When should he begin? Whenever his box of letters begins to interest him. The baby of two will often be able to name half a dozen letters; and there is nothing against it so long as the finding and naming of letters is a game to him. But he must not be urged, required to show off, teased to find letters when his heart is set on other play.
Word-making.—The first exercises in the making of words will be just as pleasant to the child. Exercises treated as a game, will be better to begin with than actual sentences. Take up two of his letters and make the syllable ‘at’: tell him it is the word we use when we say ‘at home,’ ‘at school.’ Then put b to ‘at’—bat; c to ‘at’—cat; fat, hat, mat, sat, rat, and so on. First, let the child say what the word becomes with each consonant to ‘at,’ in order to make hat, pat, cat. Let the syllables all be actual words which he knows. Set the words in a row, and let him read them off. Do this with the short vowel sounds in combination with each of the consonants, and the child will learn to read off dozens of words of three letters, and will master the short vowel sounds with initial and final consonants without effort. Before long he will do the lesson for himself. ‘How many words can you make with “en” and another letter, with “od” and another letter’ etc. Do not hurry him.
Word-making with Long Vowels, etc.—When this sort of exercise becomes so easy that it is no longer interesting, let the long sounds of the vowels be learnt in the same way: use the same syllables as before with a final e; thus, ‘at’ becomes ‘ate,’
and we get late, pate, rate, etc. The child may be told that a in ‘rate’ is long a; a in ‘rat is short a. He will make the new sets of words with much facility, helped by the experience he gained in the former lessons.
Then the same sort of thing with final ‘ng’—‘ing,’ ‘ang,’ ‘ong,’ ‘ung’; as ring, fang, long, sung: initial ‘th,’ as then, that: final ‘th,’ as with, pith, hath, lath, and so on, through endless combinations which will suggest themselves. This is not reading, but it is preparing the ground for reading; words will be no longer unfamiliar, perplexing objects, when the child meets with them in a line of print. Require him to pronounce the words he makes with such finish and distinctness that he can himself hear and count the sounds in a given word.
Early Spelling.—Accustom him from the first to shut his eyes and spell the word he has made. This is important. Reading is not spelling, nor is it necessary to spell in order to read well; but the good speller is the child whose eye is quick enough to take in the letters which compose it, in the act of reading off a work; and this is a habit to be acquired from the first: accustom him to see the letters in the word, and he will do so without effort.
If words were always made on a given pattern in English, if the same letters always represented the same sounds, learning to read would be an easy matter; for the child would soon acquire the few elements of which all words would, in that case, be composed. But many of our English words are, each, a law unto itself: there is nothing for it, but the child must learn to know them at sight; he must recognise ‘which,’ precisely as he recognises ‘B’, because he has
seen it before, been made to look at it with interest, so that the pattern of the word is stamped on his retentive brain. This process should do on side by side with the other—the learning of the powers of the letters; for the more variety you can throw into his reading lessons, the more will the child enjoy them. Lessons in word-making help him to take intelligent interest in words; but his progress in the art of reading depends chiefly on the ‘reading at sight’ lessons.
Reading at Sight.—The teacher must be content to proceed very slowly, securing the ground under her feet as she goes. Say—
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,”
is the first lesson; just those two lines. Read the passage for the child, very slowly, sweetly, with just expression , so that it is pleasant to him to listen. Point to each word as you read. Then point to ‘twinkle,’ ‘wonder,’ ‘star,’ ‘what,’—and expect the child to pronounce each word in the verse taken promiscuously; then, when he shows that he knows each word by itself, and not before, let him read the two lines with clear enunciation and expression: insist from the first on clear, beautiful reading, and do not let the child fall into a dreary monotone, no more pleasant to himself than to his listener. Of course, by this time he is able to say the two lines; and let him say them clearly and beautifully. In his after lessons he will learn the rest of the little poem.
The Reading of Prose.—At this stage, his reading lessons must advance so slowly that he may just as well learn his reading exercises, both prose and
poetry, as recitation lessons. Little poems suitable to be learned in this way will suggest themselves at once; but perhaps prose is better, on the whole, as offering more of the words in everyday use, of Saxon origin, and of anomalous spelling. Short fables, and such graceful, simple prose as we have in Mrs Gatty’s Parables from Nature, and, still better, in Mrs Barbauld’s prose poems, are very suitable. Even for their earliest reading lessons, it is unnecessary to put twaddle into the hands of children.
But we have not finished the reading lesson on ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star.’ The child should hunt through two or three pages of good clear type for ‘little,’ ‘star,’ ‘you,’ ‘are,’ each of the words he has learned, until the word he knows looks out upon him like the face of a friend in a crowd of strangers, and he is able to pounce upon it anywhere. Lest he grow weary of the search, the teacher should guide him, unawares, to the line of paragraph where the word he wants occurs. Already the child has accumulated a little capital; he knows eight or ten words so well that he will recognize them anywhere, and the lesson has occupied probably ten minutes.
The next ‘reading at sight’ lesson will begin with a hunt for the familiar words, and then—
“Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky,”
should be gone through in the same way. As spelling is simply the art of seeing, seeing the letters in a word as we see the features of a face—say to the child, ‘Can you spell sky?’—of any of the shorter words. He is put on his mettle, and if he fail this time, be sure he will be able to spell the word when you ask
him next; but do not let him learn to spell or even say the letters aloud with the word before him.
As for understanding what they read, the children will be full of bright, intelligent remarks and questions, and will take this part of the lesson into their own hands; indeed, the teacher will have to be on her guard not to let them carry her away from the subject.
Careful Pronunciation.—The little people will probably have to be pulled up on the score of pronunciation. They must render ‘high,’ ‘sky,’ ‘like,’ ‘world,’ with delicate precision; ‘diamond,’ they will no doubt with to hurry over, and say as ‘di’mond,’just as they will reduce ‘history’ to ‘hist’ry.’ But here is another advantage of slow and steady progress—the saying of each word receives due attention, and the child is trained in the habit of careful enunciation. Every day increases the number of words he is able to read at sight, and the more words he knows already, the longer his reading lesson becomes in order to afford the ten or a dozen new words which he should master every day.
A Year’s Work.—‘But what a snail’s progress!’ you are inclined to say. Not so slow, after all: a child will thus learn, without appreciable labour, from two to three thousand words in the course of a year; in other words, he will learn to read, for the mastery of this number of words will carry him with comfort through most of the books that fall in his way.
Ordinary Method.—Now, compare the steady progress and constant interest and liveliness of such lessons with the deadly weariness of the ordinary reading lesson. The child blunders through a page or two in a dreary monotone without expression, with imperfect enunciation. He comes to a word he does
not know, and he spells it; that throws no light on the subject, and he is told the word: he repeats it, but as he has made no mental effort to secure the word, the next time he meets with it the same process is gone through. The reading lesson for that day comes to an end. The pupil has been miserably bored, and has not acquired one new word. Eventually, he learns to read, somehow, by mere dint of repetition; but consider what an abuse of his intelligence is a system of teaching which makes him undergo daily labour with little or no result, and gives him a distaste for books before he has learned to use them.
 Southey’s Life of Wesley.