First Reading Lessons

First Reading Lessons

When Barbara and I made the decision to homeschool, we agreed that we would divide the teaching activities between us. I felt an overall sense of responsibility for the education of my children, so I intuitively chose the subjects that I felt (at the time) were either the most important or the most difficult. The year was 2003, and the one subject that seemed to be both the hardest and the most critical was reading. So I signed up.

At that time, I was just exploring Charlotte Mason, so I did not take the time to deeply study her recommended approach to reading lessons. I glanced at it, but the advice seemed antiquated. (Ivory letters?[1] Seriously?) I didn’t trust it, so I instead reached for more “contemporary” resources. I jumped in and plowed through with my firstborn until I was convinced that he could read. Any difficulties he experienced along the way I naturally assumed were his fault. I had not yet grasped the dictum of John Amos Comenius: “if the boy does not learn, whose fault is it save the teacher’s?”[2]

It was not too long after my firstborn was comfortably reading on his own that I got started with my daughter. In my wisdom, I thought I would start her at an even younger age. I followed more or less the same approach this second time around. My copy of Home Education was getting dusty, but soon enough my daughter was reading … and narrating too. She seemed to be born to narrate, recounting stories and ideas and assuring her father that “a child’s mind is able to deal with its proper food.”[3]

When it came time to teach my third child to read, my perspective was maturing. I was becoming more patient, and I was better understanding the personhood and individuality of my children. When my third did not pick up reading at the same pace as his older siblings, I found a delight in gently adjusting my pace to match his emerging capabilities. I found freedom in the perspective articulated in a 1955 Parents’ Review article:

There are, however, many slow by nature to grasp mathematics or grammar—what is the teacher to do about them? Keep the work relevant, suited to the child’s power of understanding. Give him a programme easier than that of his Form; easy enough for the confidence to return which Miss Mason wanted, and give him a sense of mastery—and, no doubt, with it the assurance that this teacher can teach after all! Or let the French Dictée chosen be easy enough for some to get it all right, and none to feel defeated and silly; for that is to offend against their integrity.[4]

I resolved not to offend against my son’s integrity. I slowed down until every step of the way he had a sense of mastery. The journey was a bit longer, but every step of the way was sweet. By the time I had released him to tackling books completely on his own, I had not just a new reader in the family; I also had a new special friend.

From my experience teaching three quite different children how to read, I found that the “contemporary” method I had used did not really provide all the tools I needed to address the complex sensory, cognitive, and emotional elements of learning how to read. I had to fill in the gaps on my own by experimenting and by improvising. And I will never be able to unwind the mistakes I made along the way—or the consequences of those mistakes.

It is with the benefit (and humility) of experience that I returned to Home Education to take a fresh look at Mason’s advice on first reading lessons. Was there more to it than “ivory letters”? As I studied, my appreciation began to grow. After carefully analyzing all the components of Mason’s approach to reading, the awareness began to dawn on me that here indeed was the full set of tools required to address the sensory, cognitive, and emotional elements of learning how to read. They were there all along, if only I had had eyes to see (and a heart to trust) those words fifteen years ago.

Charlotte Mason’s Home Education underwent fairly significant changes between its first edition in 1886 and its fourth edition in 1905. Mason’s first guidance on reading may be found in “Lecture V—Lessons As Instruments of Education,” on pages 135-143 of the first edition. That section corresponds exactly with Part V, Section IV of the fourth edition of Home Education (the version that we generally use today). Found on pages 199-207 of our Home Education, the structure of this original content from 1886 is as follows:

  1. When children should learn to read
  2. Learning the letters
  3. Word-making exercises
  4. Sight reading lessons
  5. Assessment of the method

These five items are broken into paragraphs as follows:

  1. When children should learn to read
    1. It is an open question 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.” (Note that the 1st edition only says “seven.” The “six or” was added in the 4th edition.)
      (¶ 1, 4th ed. p. 199, 1st ed. pp. 135-136)
    2. A description of the plan that had been used by Susanna Wesley. The child began formal reading lessons with great ceremony the day after his or her fifth birthday.
      (¶ 2, 4th ed. pp. 199-200, 1st ed. p. 136)
    3. A wish that other mothers would keep records like those of Susanna Wesley.
      (¶ 3, 4th ed. p. 200, pp. 1st ed. pp. 136-137)
    4. The “notion of the extreme difficulty of learning to read is begotten by the elders rather than by the children.” When tears are “shed over the reading lesson…, the fault rests with the teacher.”
      (¶ 4, 4th ed. pp. 200-201, 1st ed. p. 137)
  2. Learning the letters
    1. Learning the sight and initial sound of the letters.
      (¶ 5, 4th ed. p. 201, 1st ed. pp. 137-138)

      1. Ivory letters
      2. Making letters “in the air”
      3. Drawing letters in the sand
      4. Learning “the sound of the initial consonant”
    2. Teaching the letters intentionally from a very early age.
      (¶ 6, 4th ed. pp. 201-202, 1st ed. p. 138)

      1. Directed by the parent
      2. Delight-driven:
        1. “Whenever his box of letters begins to interest” the child
        2. “But he must not be urged, required to show off, teased to find letters when his heart is set on other play.”
      3. As early as age two.
  3. Word-making exercises
    1. Exercises in making simple words by varying the opening consonant at the start of a syllable with a short vowel such as at. For example, bat, cat, fat, hat, etc. These are done with standalone words, not with “actual sentences.” No indication is given of how old the child should be when these exercises should begin.
      (¶ 7, 4th ed. p. 202, 1st ed. pp. 138-139)
    2. When the previous exercises have become “easy,” move on to word-making with a syllable with a long-vowel such as ate. For example, late, pate, rate, etc.
      (¶ 8, 4th ed. pp. 202-203, 1st ed. p. 139)
    3. Move on to word-making with syllables ending with a digraph such as ng or th. “This is not reading, but it is preparing the ground for reading.”
      (¶ 9, 4th ed. p. 203, 1st ed. p. 139)

      1. Visualize the words being made in these exercises: “Accustom him from the first to shut his eyes and spell the word he has made.” Although “Reading is not spelling,” the habit of visualizing words as a whole is “to be acquired from the first.”
      2. Note that in the 4th edition, this paragraph is split, with a new paragraph beginning at “Accustom him from the first…” This division obscures the fact that in the original manuscript, the habit of visualizing words was to be formed as part of the word-making exercises.
    4. The reason to develop this habit is that the vagaries of English spelling require us to recognize a word as a single discrete symbol rather than as a string of separate phonetic symbols. Nevertheless, the formation of the habit of seeing “whole words” as discrete symbols should proceed in parallel (“side by side”) with the process of learning phonetics (“the powers of the letters”).
      (¶ 10, 4th ed. pp. 203-204, 1st ed. pp. 139-140)
  4. Sight reading lessons
    1. The “first lesson” begins with the first two lines of a nursery rhyme such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Make sure the child can read each word individually before reading the full two lines. No indication is given of how old the child should be when these exercises should begin.
      (¶ 11, 4th ed. p. 204, 1st ed. p. 140)
    2. Suggestions of suitable materials for early sight-reading lessons. Prose is generally preferred to poetry. Twaddle is forbidden.
      (¶ 12, 4th ed. pp. 204-205, 1st ed. pp. 140-141)
    3. Continuation of the first reading lesson. The child should hunt for the newly-learned words on “two or three pages of good clear type.” The lesson “has occupied probably ten minutes.”
      (¶ 13, 4th ed. p. 205, 1st ed. p. 141)
    4. The “next ‘reading at sight’ lesson” begins with a hunt for familiar words (presumably from the first reading lesson), followed by learning the next two lines of the nursery rhyme. Practice visualizing words by asking the child to spell one of the new words without the text before him or her.
      (¶ 14, 4th ed. pp. 205-206, 1st ed. p. 141)
    5. The child will understand the reading without an explicit focus on reading comprehension by the teacher.
      (¶ 15, 4th ed. p. 206, 1st ed. pp. 141-142)
    6. Insist on careful pronunciation during these sight-reading lessons.
      (¶ 16, 4th ed. p. 206, 1st ed. p. 142)

      1. “Every day increases the number of words he is able to read at sight,” and over time the lessons become longer.
      2. With this method, the pace is good, as the child will learn 2-3 thousand words in a year.
      3. Note that in the 4th edition, this paragraph is split, with a new paragraph beginning at “‘But what a snail’s progress!’”
  5. Assessment of the method
    1. This method is living. There is “interest and liveliness,” as opposed to the “deadly weariness of the ordinary reading lesson.” The “ordinary reading lesson” offends the child by an “abuse of his intelligence.”
      (¶ 17, 4th ed. pp. 206-207, 1st ed. pp. 142-143)

That was the complete Charlotte Mason method for learning to read as of 1886. The key components were all present, however, there were a few ambiguities:

Q1: Is there anything from Susanna Wesley’s example that Mason wants parents and teachers to follow?

Q2: At what age should the “Sight reading lessons” begin? Is it the same for all children? Is it related to Susanna Wesley’s program of starting at age 5?

Q3: In the “Sight reading lessons,” how are the children supposed to learn each word? What is the exact mechanic of this activity?

Q4: At what age should “Word-making exercises” (item 3) begin? Is it an extension of “Learning the letters” (item 2), which begins as early as age 2? Or is it to be connected with the “Sight reading lessons”?

Q5: In the “Word-making exercises,” how should the parent or teacher choose which stems to use for these exercises?

Perhaps to remove these ambiguities, Mason returned to the topic of reading in the very second issue of The Parents’ Review in March, 1890. The article was entitled “The First Reading Lesson,” and appeared on pages 128-133 of the volume. When Mason revised Home Education for the fourth edition in 1905, she incorporated the text from this article as Part V, Section V. She kept the title the same (“The First Reading Lesson”), but added a new subtitle: “Two Mothers Confer.” She also added this footnote:

It is so important that children should be taught to read in a rational way, that I introduce two papers (by the writer) which have appeared in the Parents’ Review, in the hope that they will make the suggested method fairly clear and familiar.[5]

This reprint from The Parents’ Review occupies pages 207-214 of our edition of Home Education. The hasty reader of Home Education might assume that page 207 continues the five-point logical sequence begun in Section IV (pages 199-207). However, that assumption is incorrect since Section V is actually the contents of a standalone article written four years after Section IV. Rather than being a continuation of Section IV, it is actually a recapitulation. This can be seen from the structure of this section:

  1. Introduction (“Two Mothers Confer”)
    (¶ 1-2, 4th ed. p. 207, PR1 p. 128)
  2. Learning the letters
    (¶ 3-4, 4th ed. pp. 207-208, PR1 p. 128)

    1. Drawing the letters in the sand
    2. Begins “Before [the babies] are two”
  3. Sight reading lessons
    1. A defense of sight reading (recognize a word as a single discrete symbol rather than as a string of separate phonetic symbols)
      (¶ 5-16, 4th ed. pp. 208-211, PR1 pp. 128-130)
    2. The first reading lesson begins precisely at age 6 (on the child’s birthday).
      (¶ 17-18, 4th ed. p. 211, PR1 p. 130)
    3. The only prerequisite for the first reading lesson is that the child “know his letters.”
      (¶ 19-20, 4th ed. p. 211, PR1 pp. 130-131)

      1. No “small readings” allowed before the first official reading lesson.
      2. Following the example of Susanna Wesley, “the first reading lesson was a solemn occasion too.”
    4. Preparation by creating separate tiles or cards with the words from the first reading.
      (¶ 20-21, 4th ed. pp. 211-212, PR1 p. 131)
    5. The first part of the actual first reading lesson, using the word tiles.
      (¶ 22-27, 4th ed. p. 212, PR1 p. 131)
    6. The second part of the first reading lesson, reading the actual text.
      (¶ 28, 4th ed. p. 213, PR1 p. 132)
    7. Assessment of the first reading lesson.
      (¶ 29-34, 4th ed. p. 213, PR1 p. 132)

      1. Creating the word tiles is troublesome.
      2. The words learned are retained.
    8. The duration of the first reading lesson.
      (¶ 35-36, 4th ed. p. 213, PR1 p. 132)

      1. A half-hour.
      2. The child’s high degree of interest tempted the teacher to make it longer.
  4. Word-making exercises
    1. Insistence on the importance of phonics. “I cannot be satisfied that a child should learn to read without knowing the powers of the letters.”
      (¶ 37, 4th ed. pp. 213-214, PR1 p. 132)
    2. The solution is “word-building” exercises.
      (¶ 38, 4th ed. p. 214, PR1 p. 132)

      1. The exercises are scheduled in with reading lessons: “we have alternate days—one for reading, the other for word-building.”
      2. Word-building exercises help make the overall reading program “living”: “that is one way to secure variety, and, so, the joyous interest which is the real secret of success.”

Interestingly, the Parents’ Review article ends with a paragraph that was omitted from the fourth edition of Home Education:

“I suppose the ‘word-building’ would be, practically, spelling with you? But you must tell me about that another day. Anyway, I shall try your plan, but shall keep the children up in the sounds of the letters all the same. Thus, they will have ‘two strings to their bow.’” (PR1, p. 133)

This quote confirms that when Mason speaks of “spelling” in the context of reading lessons, she is referring to word-making exercises.

In the fashion of a true recapitulation, this second section on reading covers the same five points as the first (albeit in a different order):

  1. Learning the letters
  2. When children should learn to read
  3. Sight reading lessons
  4. Assessment of the method
  5. Word-making exercises

Furthermore, the recapitulation answers four of the five questions left unanswered by the 1886 exposition of the method:

Q1: Is there anything from Susanna Wesley’s example that Mason wants parents and teachers to follow?

Yes. Mason endorsed three elements from Susanna Wesley’s example (4th ed. p. 211, PR1 pp. 130-131):

  • Beginning reading lessons on (or the day after) the child’s birthday.
  • Associating the first reading lesson with ceremony and solemnity.
  • Resisting the urge to begin reading lessons before this important milestone.

Q2: At what age should the “Sight reading lessons” begin? Is it the same for all children? Is it related to Susanna Wesley’s program of starting at age 5?

Sight reading lessons should begin at age 6. In this instance, she departed from Susanna Wesley’s example (4th ed. p. 211, PR1 p. 130).

Q3: In the “Sight reading lessons,” how are the children supposed to learn each word? What is the exact mechanic of this activity?

The detailed approach, involving the use of word tiles as well as clean text, is fully explained (4th ed. pp. 212-213, PR1 pp. 131-132).

Q4: At what age should “Word-making exercises” (item 3) begin? Is it an extension of “Learning the letters” (item 2), which begins as early as age 2? Or is it to be connected with the “Sight reading lessons”?

Mason provides a critical clue in the recapitulation that answers this question: “we have alternate days—one for reading, the other for word-building” (p. 214, PR1 p. 132). Since Mason was quite explicit that reading lessons do not begin till age six (4th ed. p. 211, PR1 p. 130), one must assume that word-building exercises also begin at age six. Otherwise how could they be on alternating days? Furthermore, Mason explicitly states that the only prerequisite for the first reading lesson is that the child “know his letters” (4th ed. p. 211, PR1 pp. 130-131).

Q5: In the “Word-making exercises,” how should the parent or teacher choose which stems to use for these exercises?

This question is left unanswered by the first recapitulation. However, the article ends with a promise that this final question will be answered soon: “I suppose the ‘word-building’ would be, practically, spelling with you? But you must tell me about that another day” (PR1, p. 133).

That “other day” came in July of 1891 when Mason provided her third and final installment in her series on teaching reading. It appeared in the second volume of The Parents’ Review and was entitled “First Reading Lessons” (pp. 463-468). Interestingly, the title of the article was under the heading, “Parents and Children: A Sequel to ‘Home Education.’” Most of the chapters in Parents and Children appeared as articles in The Parents’ Review before they were compiled into Mason’s second book in the Home Education Series. Evidently, Mason intended to include a chapter on reading in Parents and Children. However, six years later when volume 2 was published, this article was not included.

In fact, “First Reading Lessons” would not be included in any of Mason’s books until the 1905 fourth edition of Home Education, when it was included as Part V, Section VI (pages 214-222). Renamed “Reading by Sight and Sound,” it was placed immediately after “The First Reading Lesson” from 1890. There is no hint in the text of Home Education that this is the beginning of a second Parents’ Review article. However, the knowledge of its origin helps the modern reader understand that this is actually a second recapitulation of the original five points about reading; it does not directly follow Sections IV and V in a single logical sequence.

The structure of this third and final exposition of reading lessons is as follows:

  1. Learning to read is difficult
    1. Writing in 1891, Mason does not seem quite so optimistic as in 1886 when she wrote, “this notion of the extreme difficulty of learning to read is begotten by the elders rather than by the children” (4th ed. p. 200, 1st ed. p. 137). Mason’s more sober assessment is now, “how contrary to Nature it is for a little child to occupy himself with dreary hieroglyphics.” Nevertheless, “let us do what we can to make the task easy and inviting.”
      (¶ 1, 4th ed. p. 214, PR2 p. 463)
    2. Reading is neither science nor art, and is immensely complex.
      (¶ 2, 4th ed. p. 215, PR2 pp. 463-464)
  2. Summary of Charlotte Mason’s method to learn reading
    1. The approach includes both sight reading and word-building. Mason for the first time here explicitly connects the two: “That he shall be able to build up new words with the elements of these [words that he shall know at sight].”
      (¶ 3, 4th ed. pp. 215-216, PR2 p. 464)
    2. The approach becomes living by connecting the arbitrary symbols of words and letters with ideas of interest.
      (¶ 4, 4th ed. p. 216, PR2 p. 464)
    3. Even word-building exercises must always be based on real words and not be a context-free technical activity.
      (¶ 5, 4th ed. p. 216, PR2 pp. 464-465)
  3. Sight reading lessons
    1. The first reading lesson. As with the first recapitulation, the assumption is that “Tommy knows his letters by name and sound, but he knows no more.” The first reading selection this time is “I like pussy, Her coat is so warm,” instead of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or “Cock Robin.”
      (¶ 6, 4th ed. p. 217, PR2 p. 465)
    2. The logistics of making the word tiles.
      (¶ 7-8, 4th ed. pp. 217-218, PR2 p. 465)
    3. The first part of the actual first reading lesson, using the word tiles. This directly corresponds to 4th ed. p. 212, PR1 p. 131.
      (¶ 9-10, 4th ed. pp. 217-219, PR2 pp. 465-466)
  4. Word-making exercises
    1. The first word-making exercises.
      (¶ 11, 4th ed. p. 219, PR2 p. 466)

      1. It is explicitly described as “Tommy’s Second Lesson.” This had been previously known only by implication from 4th ed. p. 214, PR1 p. 132: “we have alternate days—one for reading, the other for word-building.”
      2. It is also called a “spelling lesson,” directly connecting it to the word-making exercises of the 1886 edition, where these exercises were also referred to as “spelling” (4th ed. p. 203, 1st ed. p. 139).
    2. Detailed description of word-making exercises.
      (¶ 12-13, 4th ed. pp. 219-220, PR2 pp. 466-467)

      1. The stems to be used for the exercises are taken directly from the reading of the previous day (in this example, the stem -oat is taken from coat).
      2. Only real words are used in the exercises.
      3. New sentences are formed with the assembled words.
    3. Unknown words are handled by “counters,” creating “an appetite for learning.”
      (¶ 14, 4th ed. p. 220, PR2 p. 467)
    4. Additional word-making exercises.
      (¶ 15-16, 4th ed. pp. 220-221, PR2 pp. 467-468)

      1. Stems are taken from the sight-reading lesson.
      2. Exceptions are noted but not explained: “we let it grow into him gradually, after many experiences.”
      3. Newly constructed sentences must always make sense.
    5. New words are recorded in a notebook.
      (¶ 17, 4th ed. p. 221, PR2 p. 468)
  5. Assessment of the method
    (¶ 18, 4th ed. pp. 221-222, PR2 p. 468)

    1. Lessons do not strictly alternate between sight reading and word-making. If there is no suitable “stem” to use from a sight reading lesson, then another sight reading lesson may be followed the next day.
    2. The method is a living way:
      1. It “whets our appetite for knowledge.”
      2. “[The child] has courage to attack all ‘learning,’ and has a sense that delightful results are quite within reach.”
      3. “There is no stumbling, no hesitation from the first, but bright attention and perfect achievement.”
      4. “His reading lesson is a delight…”
      5. The method is contrasted with a “dreary grind.”

This second Parents’ Review article confirms the prior answer to question four:

Q4: At what age should “Word-making exercises” (item 3) begin? Is it an extension of “Learning the letters” (item 2), which begins as early as age 2? Or is it to be connected with the “Sight reading lessons”?

Again, Mason indicates that the only prerequisite for the first reading lesson is that the child knows the individual letters, not how to combine them. She writes, “Tommy knows his letters by name and sound, but he knows no more” (4th ed. p. 217, PR2 p. 465). Furthermore, by using the term “spelling lesson” (4th ed. p. 219, PR2 p. 466), Mason directly connects this exercise to the word-making exercises of the 1886 edition, where these exercises were also referred to as “spelling” (4th ed. p. 203, 1st ed. p. 139). Note again that the paragraph split in the 4th edition on p. 203 obscures the fact that the habit of visualizing words was to be formed as part of the word-making exercises, a fact made clearer by the paragraph structure of the 1st edition on p. 139.

And lastly, this second Parents’ Review article answers the final question left open from 1886:

Q5: In the “Word-making exercises,” how should the parent or teacher choose which stems to use for these exercises?

The question is now answered. The word-making exercises should be based on stems drawn from the prior day’s sight-reading lesson (4th ed. pp. 220-221, PR2 pp. 467-468).

With this second recapitulation of the method, the Charlotte Mason educator has all that he or she needs to implement the method. Mason collected the three descriptions together in the fourth edition of Home Education, and as far as I know, never returned to the subject.

Now that we understand that Sections V and VI of Home Education are later recapitulations of Section IV from 1886, we can easily see how the three sections align into a single coherent method:

1886 1890 1891
Learning the letters and sounds

  • Starting around age 2
  • Delight-based
4th ed. pp. 201-202

1st ed. pp. 137-138

4th ed. pp. 207-208

PR1 p. 128

4th ed. p. 217

PR2 p. 465

First reading lesson: sight reading

  • Starts with ceremony at age 6
  • Structured but living
4th ed. pp. 204-206

1st ed. pp. 140-142

4th ed. pp. 208-213

PR1 pp. 128-132

4th ed. pp. 217-219

PR2 pp. 465-466

Second reading lesson: word-making

  • Organically inter-connected with sight reading lessons
  • Reading lessons continue, roughly alternating on a daily basis between sight reading and word-making
4th ed. pp. 202-204

1st ed. pp. 138-140

4th ed. pp. 213-214

PR1 p. 132

4th ed. pp. 219-221

PR2 pp. 466-468

Charlotte Mason wrote in Parents and Children that “there is no subject which has not a fresh and living way of approach.”[6] Indeed, finding the “living way” for any given subject is one of the primary tasks of the Charlotte Mason educator. In pages 199-222 of Home Education, Charlotte Mason has outlined a complete “living way” to teach reading that addresses the complex sensory, cognitive, and emotional elements of learning how to read. However, the modern reader must read these pages carefully, understanding that they were not written at one time as part of a single logical progression. Rather, they were written as three separate and independent pieces in 1886, 1890, and 1891, covering the same underlying method, but with different points of emphasis and explanation.

There are so many living elements of this method that it is hard to catalog them all. Here are a few:

  • The approach with the younger child (below age 6) is completely delight-driven and is always a joy. The child is never pressured or pushed beyond his or her limit.
  • The first reading lesson is presented as an honor to the child, a kind of rite of passage, rather than a burden or a duty.
  • Living books are always used for every reading lesson.
  • All word-building exercises are tied to living books and real words that symbolize compelling ideas.
  • The lessons are never rote or dreary, but are always engaging and fun.
  • The method is alive to the reality that the English language simply cannot be learned by phonics alone.

Charlotte Mason wrote in 1886:

There would be no little books entitled “Reading without Tears,” if tears were not sometimes shed over the reading lesson; but, really, when that is the case, the fault rests with the teacher.[7]

I am a homeschooling father who taught three children to read. My great regret is that there were tears (at least at first). I thought the contemporary resources had the answers and so I used them. I didn’t trust a Victorian British educator who talked about “ivory letters.” Little did I know that this educator knew the secret of all education: it is to find the “living way,” the way that invites the Living Educator, the Holy Spirit of God. Her way is a timeless way and I believe is the answer for the 21st-century educator. If I have the blessing of someday teaching a grandchild to read, for me the first step will be to obtain a set of ivory letters. And that will begin a road of delight for student and teacher.

Endnotes

[1] Home Education, p. 201.

[2] Laurie, S. S. (1892). John Amos Comenius(p. 93). Syracuse: C. W. Bardeen.

[3] Home Education, p. 232.

[4] Richards, V. (1955). “The Parents’ Union School,” in The Parents’ Review, volume 66 (p. 128). London: PNEU.

[5] Home Education, p. 207.

[6] Parents and Children, p. 278.

[7] Home Education, 1st ed., p. 137.

11 Replies to “First Reading Lessons”

  1. Thank you for clarifying! I have wanted to more closely follow Mason’s method for first reading lessons for my third child as well,but felt so confused as to the practical details of it. This helps so much!

  2. What a wonderful gift!! Grateful for this clear, comprehensive post on the specifics of Miss Mason’s first reading lessons! Merry Christmas to you all at charlottemasonpoetry.org

  3. Thanks for clarifying how the different sections were written at different times. It helped to understand those few comments that seemed to contradict each other. I taught my first child to read before discovering CM. She picked it up easily. I tried the CM way with my second, but after a year, I had to find a different curriculum. His dyslexia couldn’t handle learning to read “out of order” so to speak. He needed a more methodical program that explained the rules better. I am thankful the readers are still high quality and not twaddle and it still follows a lot of her suggestions (alternating between letter building and reading for example). He is making slow steady progress with no tears. I don’t say this to disagree with you, but just to comment that though I think her method will work for the average child, I believe it might need to be modified in certain situations like mine.

  4. Wow this explanation was wonderful! I followed somewhat the CM way to teach my first son to read. It was followed very imperfectly but he picked up reading without much problem. Now I’m getting ready to teach my second to read, his 6th birthday is this Saturday and I wonder how important it is to start reading leassons on or right after the 6th birthday. His formal lessons will start in mid January when we’ll go back to school here. Should I just try to get his first reading lesson going right away or wait until I have everything in place? Or, if you’d like to have a chance to teach another child to read you can take my son on that Art 🙂

    1. Mariana,

      I am glad you found this article to be helpful. I certainly would not cut short your preparations. There is a nice ceremonial aspect to starting right on the birthday, an aspect highlighted by Susanna Wesley and echoed by Charlotte Mason. But I am sure there are other ways to make the first reading lesson a solemn and delightful occasion when you are ready to start in mid-January.

      Blessings,
      Art

  5. Thank you so much for all of the work that went into this! It’s so helpful! I still feel unsure about the timing of the word-building exercises as there seem to be contradictory phrases in the volumes/articles. The quote that “Tommy knows his letters by name and sound, but he knows no more” certainly seems to suggest he hasn’t done any word building exercises prior to beginning formal reading lessons, and I would certainly agree with a quote from a little earlier in that chapter which says “It is possible to read words without knowing the alphabet, as you know a face without singling out its features.” But I’m having trouble reconciling that with these statements: “Exercises treated as a game, which yet teach the powers of the letters, will be better to begin with than actual sentences.” And “This is not reading, but 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.” In the “First Reading Lessons” article from volume 12 of The Parents’ Review, it seems to suggest even more that at least some basic word-building exercises occurred before formal reading: “At length the day arrives when this [learning the letter sounds] becomes so easy that it ceases to be amusing, but he may be considered too young yet for the necessary effort required in learning to read. He can now be introduced to the new and quite as delightful game of word making. . .” And then “But so far, all we have considered is merely by way of preparation, and though he is able to recognize a good many short words when he sees them, he has not yet attempted to read at all. But it is high time now that the child should set to work and really learn to read. . .” She goes on to describe the sight-reading lessons we are familiar with, as well as reiterating the word-making lessons. So this has me thinking, perhaps simple word-making lessons begin before formal lessons, to teach the long and short vowels and give a general familiarity with the idea of a word, continuing on when sight-reading lessons begin with more complex words like the “arrow” “sparrow” “barrow” example. Thoughts on the possibility of this?

    1. Noel, I believe that interpretation would be inconsistent with the set of three documents taken as a whole. As I state in my article:

      Mason provides a critical clue in the recapitulation that answers this question: “we have alternate days—one for reading, the other for word-building” (p. 214, PR1 p. 132). Since Mason was quite explicit that reading lessons do not begin till age six (4th ed. p. 211, PR1 p. 130), one must assume that word-building exercises also begin at age six. Otherwise how could they be on alternating days? Furthermore, Mason explicitly states that the only prerequisite for the first reading lesson is that the child “know his letters” (4th ed. p. 211, PR1 pp. 130-131).

      If word-making is introduced before formal reading lessons, then it would take away the new and special nature of half of those lessons. Also it would have the child practicing word-making outside of the context of any meaningful literature for months or even years. That does not seem like a living way to me.

      1. In 1901, ten years after the publication of her “First Reading Lessons” article in Vol. 2 of the PR, the PNEU held its 5th annual conference, as recorded in Vol. 12 of the PR. The “first business of the morning” was the reading of an article written by Miss Mason herself titled “Education is a Life.” In the final paragraph, by way of introduction to those papers being read immediately following her own, Mason wrote: “I will not detain you longer, because a few former students of the House of Education are about to put before you some examples of how we try, however imperfectly, to make education a science of relationships – in other words, how we try in one subject or another to let the children work upon living ideas.” One would assume, based on that introduction by Mason, especially including the use of the term “we”, that we are about to get an inside look at what is being taught to students in Mason’s House of Education. At the very least one would assume that those conference attendees would have expected they were getting PNEU-sanctioned information. The first of these papers, by Miss E. Armitage, is titled “First Reading Lessons”. She says: “I feel that before considering so important a question as how the child is to be taught to read, we should first have some idea of what preparation he has already had.” She starts with the alphabet, the baby’s alphabet book and his box of letters, and the tray of sand we are familiar with. Then she states: “At length the day arrives when this [learning the letter sounds] becomes so easy that it ceases to be amusing, but he may be considered too young yet for the necessary effort required in learning to read. He can now be introduced to the new and quite as delightful game of word making. . .” Then the description of the simple word-making game, very similar to that described on pg. 202 of Home Education. Followed by: “But so far, all we have considered is merely by way of preparation, and though he is able to recognize a good many short words when he sees them, he has not yet attempted to read at all. But it is high time now that the child should set to work and really learn to read. . .” Then she goes on to describe the first reading lessons: the alternating sight and spelling lessons, also very similar to what we find in Home Education. Now when Mason revised the fourth edition of Home Education which was published in 1905, she included her own article but not the one by Miss Armitage. Perhaps this is telling, or perhaps as the author of the book she preferred to include her own article, or perhaps she didn’t think Miss Armitage referenced anything not already included. I don’t know. Because Mason did not open the House of Education until 1892, a year after the publication of her own “First Reading Lessons” article, we must assume that any teaching Miss Armitage received occurred after the publication of that article. This leaves us with one of three options: 1) There was unchanging continuity of thought from the publication of the 1891 article through to the 1905 edition of Home Education that word-making should not begin before formal lessons, but Miss Armitage presented her own, differing, viewpoint on the subject (maybe Mason didn’t know the content of Armitage’s paper, or maybe she did and she didn’t mind). 2) There was unchanging continuity of thought from 1891-1905 that did allow word-making games as preparation for formal lessons, as presented by Miss Armitage, and the 1891 article and Home Education had not intended to communicate that it strictly wasn’t allowed. 3) At the time of the publication of her article in 1891, Mason did not believe in allowing word-making before formal lessons, but she changed her mind and expected it as preparation for formal reading and therefore Miss Armitage was faithfully representing what she had been taught during her time in the House of Education, but then sometime in the four years from 1901-1905 Mason changed her mind again to return to her original position of disallowing word-making prior to formal lessons and therefore included her own paper from 1891 in the fourth edition in order to make that clear.

        1. Noel,

          Thank you for your detailed analysis of Miss Armitage’s article in PR12. First I want to point out that her article rules out your hypothesis that “perhaps simple word-making … [continues] on when sight-reading lessons begin with more complex words like the ‘arrow’ ‘sparrow’ ‘barrow’ example.” When Armitage describes the formal reading lesson on p. 500, she uses very simple words: “bed, fed, ned, led”: not at all the complex words we would expect if formal reading lessons included only “advanced” word-making.

          A “Notes of Lessons” by Dorothy Brownell for Class 1a (PR14 pp. 847-848) reinforces this point. Entitled “Word-Building,” it describes a formal reading lesson, and the word-making exercises are again very simple: “bed, fed, ned, led.” This is not at all of the “arrow, sparrow, barrow” variety we would expect if all children were expected to have had word-making exercises prior to formal reading lessons.

          While you offer three possibilities of how to resolve the interpretive difficulty, I believe there is a fourth option. The key, I think, is found on p. 495 of Armitage’s article: “At length the day arrives when this becomes so easy that it ceases to be amusing, but he may be considered too young yet for the necessary effort required in learning to read.” I take this not as an absolute, normative statement, but rather as a contingent one. In her narrative, I think Armitage is saying that some children may get bored and want more games. Armitage makes it clear that even in this case, accelerating formal reading lessons is not an option. But she apparently suggests that word-making games could be offered as a stopgap while the child waits.

          I suspect that the reason this fourth possibility did not occur to you is because you are thinking in terms of allowing and disallowing. For example, in your comment you write, “[perhaps] Mason changed her mind again to return to her original position of disallowing word-making prior to formal lessons.” I would not say that Mason ever disallowed word-making games. In fact, I would say that Mason perhaps never disallowed any learning activity that was initiated by the child.

          The question is not what is permitted but what is normative and what is expected. I still hold to Mason’s clear black-and-white statement that “Tommy knows his letters by name and sound, but he knows no more.” So many parents today are afraid of their children falling “behind” and so they rush into lessons too soon. It was a mistake I made, and I hope others may learn from it. If your child is terribly bored and you offer him or her word-making games, I won’t judge you. Another option is you could take him or her outside to play.

          Respectfully,
          Art