4 Moms 35 Kids: teaching little ones

This is part 10 of our 4 Moms 35 Kids series.  Visit 3 other moms of large families to see …

Teaching the little people.  That’s what we planned to talk about this week.  Well, to be quite honest there’s one particular little person who is eating up all my attention right now: the one with his bum buried in my spleen.  Oops – I used a masculine pronoun.  Does that mean something?  I almost went back and corrected it to reflect the girl that I’m fully expecting, but I’ll let it stand.

See?  I’m digressing even before I get started.  Good luck discerning a train of thought on this post, especially with all the contractions I’ve had over the past 2 days.  But I’ll try, really I will.

Homeschooling little ones – we’re not just talking about keeping them out from underfoot while the big ones study, although that may be a very nice side effect.  I want to share encouraging tips on how I ensure that my little people are actually benefiting from home education, preparing for more rigorous academics, and generally exercising their gray matter so that we don’t become the poster family for mandatory government education.  That’s what you want to hear, right?

You may or may not be surprised to learn that my little ones lead a rather leisurely life when it comes to academics.   We’ve never had a 3yo who could read; depending on how you define reading, maybe we’ve never had a 5yo who could read.

I did try to start early with our first, Deanna, because I recognized right away just how brilliant my firstborn was.  She has always had what I consider to be a near-photographic memory, so I don’t think I was crazy to break out the alphabet flashcards when she was 20 months old.  She loved them, and within 10 days she had learned all the names of the letters and their respective sounds.

But when we tried to combine them, she just wasn’t ready for the concept.  I wasn’t too disappointed.  I could wait until she was 2 to teach her to read.

We kept trying regularly, but her 3rd and 4th birthdays came and went, and still she just didn’t get it.  We dabbled in a few reading programs, but  none really clicked with us.  Memorizing was easy for her, but the concept of combining the sounds of the letters into meaningful words was outside of her comprehension.

I began to worry a little that I just might not be capable of teaching a child to read, but I worked on educating myself.  I read Ruth Beechick’s 3 R’s, and Cynthia Tobias’s The Way They Learn.

Finally, a few months after her 6th birthday, she got it.  Almost overnight, she began to read.  By the end of the year, she had read all 9 Little House books, C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, a bit of Tolkien, and hundreds of other books.  She was unstoppable.

I learned a lot while teaching Deanna.  I learned that you don’t need a program to teach a child to read – most just caused us frustration and/or unnecessary “busy time.”  I learned that developmental milestones don’t always come on a schedule.  I learned that every child has a different learning style, and working with that child’s learning style makes for a far more relaxed learning process.  I learned that you can start very young and spend 4 years teaching a child to read, or you can wait and do it in 4 weeks.

As our other children arrived and celebrated birthdays, some expressed an interest in learning very early.  We didn’t discourage this – but we also didn’t press them when the interest waned for a season.

Most of our children begin to read between the ages of 6 and 7, reaching what I call the point of fluency around 8 or 9 – this is when they can look at a book and the book reads to them.  When they open a book, they hear words in their head rather than seeing letters that must be decoded.  A few didn’t read or reach that point of fluency until even later.  So far, all have become voracious readers in their own time.

Wait – there’s supposed to be a point here, isn’t there?

My point: our goals for little ones differ somewhat from our goals in teaching the big ones, but not as much as you might think.  We want to instill in them a love of learning, not just pour their little heads full of facts.  We do this not by giving them busy-work, but by including them in our lifestyle of learning – yes, in ways that keep them from derailing the older children’s studies, but not just by sending them away.  Er – not always…

We read to them – beginning with the Bible, but certainly not ending there.  We give them mind-stretching games and activities.   Yes, we occasionally let them watch an educational video, but we don’t stop there.  We cook with them.  We do laundry with them. We read to them some more. We talk to them, and listen when they talk.  We include them in discussions with the older children and adults.  We send them out to play, and when they bring back flowers we sit down together with a field guide.

Depending on what day you ask and exactly how you word the question, my little ones might tell you that they do school every day, or they might boldly assert that they never do school. I used to find this alternately gratifying and mortifying, but I feel differently now.  I like it this way.

Were you hoping to hear more about the nuts & bolts of teaching the younger children?  Try my post about Phonics the Cheapskate Way.

Upcoming topics:

  • May 27 – Teaching big kids: what changes? What do they need that little ones don’t and where do you need to give more freedom.  How do you make the transition?
  • June 3 – Putting it together. How does it work?

Past topics:

  • March 18 Live-blog day, in which all 4 of us live-blog a real day in our home.  Find out what we really do all day.  It’s our own reality show, just for you.  Who needs TV?
  • March 25 – Outings with only little ones.  Mom’s rules of order, and how notto become the poster family for birth control.
  • April 1 – A baker’s dozen for managing the food budget: budgeting in the kitchen to feed a crowd.
  • April 8 – Menu planning, how we plan (or don’t plan) to feed our hungry crewmates.
  • April 15 – Cooking from Scratch.   What we make from scratch and what we would like to make from scratch.
  • April 22 – Cooking for a Crowd.  The big linky!  We shared our own recipes, and you shared yours.
  • April 29 – Extreme Homeschooling, where I try to stir up trouble but you all are much nicer and more agreeable than some of the readers I had a few years ago.
  • May 6 – Picking a curriculum, method or tactics that work for a large family (part 1).
  • May 13 – see above, part 2


  1. Thanks for this. My kid are 6, 4, 3, & 1. People always ask me what curriculum I use and it still feels weird to say things like “Nothing specific, we’re pretty relaxed. I mainly focus on reading to my kids and involving them in my daily activities.” And I usually get strange looks from that. Honestly, I’ve felt peer pressure to use a more formal curriculum, but for us it just never made sense to me.

    It’s funny you mention the early reader. My six-year-old still pretty much struggles to read each word, but my four-year-old was starting to figure out words at three and pretty much reads on sight now at four. That has actually been a blessing for me with my six-year-old, because I know good and well that I did not “teach” my second oldest to read, which helped me realize that I wasn’t going to “teach” my oldest to read either.

  2. Sounds like us! 🙂
    Mama to six here…

  3. I’m so glad I read this! (I didn’t get to it until this morning). I had read about people whose kids learned to read at 2 or 3 years old and wondered if I shouldn’t teach my daughter to read. Then I would think of things like a friend of mine told me of how she learned to read at age 4, became a voracious reader, and then burned out on school for several years sometime around age 9, because she had done too much too soon.

    My oldest is now 3 1/2. I have never done any formal training with her at all. I once took some words and wrote them on flashcards and in about 15 minutes taught her to sight read several of them, then to read them laid out in sentence form. She learned them, but I didn’t stick with it, because I didn’t want to overwhelm her. I think sometime this summer (or fall) I want to do what you did, teaching her the letters and sounds. She knows some letters, and can count in two languages, and I know when she’s ready she’ll take off with it. Thanks for the encouragement!

  4. This resonates with me. I was reading entire books at 3 without having ever been instructed in reading and I think I brought some of those expectations into parenting. Now Elizabeth is 5 and it has all suddenly clicked…she’s learning dozens of words a day. They really know their own time schedule. I just need to listen to my own kids better sometimes.

  5. I have a question. Where is the line between little and big, when do you do more “formal” type schooling? Just wondering what age, thanks

    • Janet,
      More formal schooling comes at different ages for different children, based on maturity, ability, interest level, etc. We usually settle into a good routine by 8 or 9 years old, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of busy-work or table time. It just means that school has become a conscious part of their daily schedule by that age, whereas they might not have realized they were really doing school regularly before that.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I taught myself to read at a fairly early four. I didn’t need programs. My mommy read to me, and then I got tired of needing her around every time I wanted to hear a story, so I did it myself. 🙂

    I could read road signs (not just “stop”, I’m talking towns, and detour signs and other long phrases) at a late two. it tickled my relatives.

    I have been working for the census, and I drove by a nearby town’s high school today. They had an electronic sign that scrolled words, and advertised something that was being held in the “aduitorium”. I was mortified.

  7. We want to instill in them a love of learning, not just pour their little heads full of facts.

    You said that so much more concisely and eloquently than I did. 🙂

  8. Stephanie says:

    Loved what you said about milestones not always coming on time. Our #2 son had PT for his first year and some speech issues, so I thought I’d cut him some slack and not force the reading issue (see, who’s the slacker here). He took matters into his own hands, and taught himself to read. By the start of kindergarten (age) he was reading well past 2nd grade level. Further, he took it upon himself to teach his 5 year old sister to read 2 years later (guess I was still being a slacker). It was a great object lesson for me about not fitting them into boxes.


  1. […] Just in time for Father’s Day, enter to win a Grill Daddy!This week the 4 Moms continue talking about homeschooling by discussing teaching younger children.  Visit the other moms for their perspectives: Connie – Keep up with live updates about the labor and birth of Connie’s eighth baby. Deputy Headmistress KimC […]

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