Friday 4 May 2012

Post 1 of 7: Charlotte Mason Reading. Stage 1, The Alphabet & Visualization

My dear children, being 7, 5, and 3 years old, are all in various stages of learning how to read and write!  As I've taught them with various methods, I've discovered that Charlotte Mason's holistic method really is best.  She combines phonetic work with using living books to make reading interesting and fun to children.  However, her methods are not readily apparent to someone who is reading through her works quickly, since pieces of them are in various places.  So I've decided to create a series of posts covering the various stages of the learning to read & write process, in hopes that they will help someone in addition to just me!  

(Feel free to leave comments, especially if they shed further light on Charlotte Mason's methods or purposes behind what she was doing!)  

STAGE 1:  Learning the Alphabet

Charlotte Mason has a wonderful description of a child’s beginning stages of learning to read!  Let’s break it apart phrase by phrase so we can catch all of her important points and nuances.  (To read the whole paragraph, click here and scroll down a little to “The Alphabet,” page 201)

All Quotes taken from Charlotte Mason Homeschool Series Volume 1,  pg 201 - 202

“The Alphabet.”––

When:  - when a child is interested, often before age 2
“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;”
~ Note:  All of the activities in this first step could take a few years.  No rushing!  In fact, rushing could be very detrimental to what you are trying to accomplish. 
- “There is no occasion to hurry the child”

Atmosphere:   - as a Game ONLY
“and there is nothing against it so long as the finding and naming of letters is a game to him.”

Caution:  - No pushing or showing your child off!!!
“But he must not be urged, required to show off, teased to find letters when his heart is set on other play”.

Goal:  Child knowing both form (mental visualization) & sounds (phonetics) of all the letters, and connecting the two in his brain.  
“if the alphabet be taught to the little student, his appreciation of both form and sound will be cultivated.” 
How:  1 Letter at a time:
“There is no occasion to hurry the child: let him learn one form (letter) at a time. 
FAQ:  Does it HURT to start the child this early?  No!  
“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“

Steps of Learning the Alphabet:

1.  Kinesthetic/ Visual Models of the ABCs:
-  Obtain plastic refrigerator magnets for your child to play with, in both upper and lower case.  (Leap frog has nice sets - Word Whammer contains lower case, while Fridge Phonics contains upper case.)
-  “As for his letters, the child usually teaches himself. He has his box of ivory letters...  big and little, and knows them both.”

2.  Encourage association of each letter with the first sounds of words.   
-  “and picks out p for pudding, b for blackbird, h for horse, ”
- Key Point:  This is part of Charlotte Mason's holistic view of learning to read.  It is important to connect the letters to an aspect of language that the child recognizes.  Favorite words will illicit an "I get that!" delighted response in the child when she realizes the sound this letter symbol makes is a linguistic part of her favorite things.  
-  Here is where those ABC books you received as shower gifts will come in handy!  Or search your local library for a beautiful one.  If you are a member of AmbleSide_Year0 yahoo group, you can access a beautiful printable Alphabet Book here.  
-  Do NOT confuse the primary sounds a letter makes with some words which start with letter blends called phonograms.  For example, c says hard “k” and soft “s” sounds.  Pick words which start with those sounds, such as cat and ceiling.  Do NOT use a word that starts with a ch, like church.  Ch is a separate phonogram, and needs to be taught by itself.  (see note at the very end of this post on phonograms).  
3.  Learn both Name and Phonetic sound of each letter. 
 "The baby of two will often be able to name half a dozen letters” (emphasis mine)
-  “and picks out p for pudding, b for blackbird, h for horse,” (phonetic sounds)
-  TIP:  Focus primarily on the phonetic sounds, but make sure your child learns the names, too.  
-  For a listing of the phonetic sounds the letters of the alphabet make, see the beginning of this document from Don Potter’s website:  The Alphabet Code and How it Works.  The only thing missing in this article (at least for the 26 letters) - Y as a vowel makes the same sounds as I (and sometimes long E at the end of a word), and S can also make a Z sound at the end of a word.  (Note:  Don Potter has a lot of great resources, but please do not confuse his methods with Charlotte Mason’s.  I do not believe she would have endorsed all of his suggestions, though many are good.) 
-  Ask your child, “What letter does your name start with?  Juh Juh Juh John?” etc.  Names of family members, favorite toys, & other items of special interest will catch your child’s attention and make fun play for him.   
-  Encourage your child to pick out, from among his letters, the letter that makes the appropriate sound for the word at hand.  ("Can you pick out the letter that starts the word, 'Apple?' /a/, /a/, /a/?")
-  Try to teach all of the sounds the letters can make.  Some vowels make 3 different sounds!  But remember, at this stage in the game we're sticking mostly to letters that begin words.  Your child might not be ready for letters in the middle or end of words yet. 

4.  Begin "handwriting" lessons!  

A.  Timing:  Note that handwriting in sand is recommended by Charlotte Mason as a game for children as young as under 2!!  Because of this, I believe Charlotte Mason intends the following "handwriting" to be done simultaneously with letter learning.  (V. 1 pages 207-208) - "Our children learn their letters without any teaching. We always keep by us a shallow table drawer, the bottom covered half an inch deep with sand. Before they are two, the babies make round O and crooked S, and T for Tommy, and so on, with dumpy, uncertain little fingers. The elder children teach the little ones by way of a game.  The sand is capital! We have various devices, but none so good as that. Children love to be doing. The funny, shaky lines the little finger makes in the sand will be ten times as interesting as the shapes the eye sees."

 B.  Primary Goal of handwriting at this age:  Child’s ability to VISUALIZE letter in his mind’s eye!
-  “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”
-  It’s important to note:  The child must be able to visualize a B just from you writing in the air, leaving no physical trace of the letter behind.  This is a KEY power to cultivate!  For more information, read Nanci Bell’s Seeing Stars.
-  This visualization will be used heavily in Charlotte Mason’s beginning reading lessons.  

C.  Secondary Goal:  To connect visualization with the phonetic sound the letter makes.  
-  This is not included in Charlotte Mason's writing, but is confirmed in more recent research.  (such as Nanci Bell in Seeing Stars, and successful reading programs like Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and Spell to Write and Read
-  To this end, please have your child say the phonetic sounds of the letters as they write.  

D.  Familiarize Yourself with the correct strokes for forming print letters.  
-  Teaching your child the correct strokes now (see steps E & F) will prevent him from forming bad habits, which are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to break later.
-  Learn the steps YOURSELF so that you can teach them to your child.  
-  I suggest Handwriting Without Tears for learning stroke sequence.  Check out Handwriting Without Tear’s Kindergarten Teacher’s Guide.  It’s inexpensive, and full of great ideas both for large motor handwriting activities (which you are allowed to use now) and small motor activities (which you should wait until your child is 5 or 6 to begin).  
-  A good free resource is:  Petersen Directed Handwriting’s Ebooks.  Go to this website, and scroll down to E-Workbooks for Print Writing.  Step 1 should be sufficient to familiarize yourself with the strokes.    

E.  Start with Capital, Print letters, IN THE AIR
-  For some reason, Capitals are the most natural to little kids - by instinct, these are the first letters most children write on their own (I’ve seen this in my own 3 kids; Note I haven’t researched this, this is my opinion.)  
-  “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."
-  Notice that Air Writing requires only LARGE motor skills.  Small motor skill writing (pencil & paper) is inappropriate at such a young age.  

F.  Move on with Lower Case letters, IN SAND if in the air is too difficult.  
-  “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.”
-  Note that SAND could be used with Capital letters if they are too difficult to visualize in the air. 
-  After SAND is mastered, move on to AIR WRITING for Lower Case letters.  

5.  Other games are appropriate at this time, for handwriting, phonics awareness, naming letters, letter recognition, & visualizing letters “in your mind’s eye.”  
-  “But the devices for making the learning of the 'A B C' interesting are endless.”
-  For more Large Motor handwriting ideas, check out Handwriting Without Tear’s Kindergarten Teacher’s Guide.  (I recommend this guide because it will serve you for a few years, not just in preschool.)  

6.  SUMMARY OF PROCESS for learning 1 letter (make sure your child can do this for each letter of the alphabet before he/she moves on to Word Building): 
-  Visual Game: Find The Letter on a Page (both lower & upper case)
-  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.”
-  Phonetic sounds:  Associate with objects he knows
-  “Let him say d for duck, dog, doll, thus: d-uck, d-og, prolonging the sound of the initial consonant,”
-  Phonetic sound finally memorized without the aid of words:  
-  “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.
-  Air writing/ Visualization:  Child should finally be able to write the letter in upper & lower cases in the air.  (Sand writing may have to precede this).  Have your child say the sound it makes as he writes it.  
MOVING ON....  The next steps.  

Charlotte Mason’s next step in the literacy process is Word Building.  Read about it here

Also, handwriting will be discussed further at the First Grade level.  Charlotte Mason has more suggestions! 


  1. I found your site via Ambleside Yahoo Groups -- thanks for sharing :) I look forward to reading more.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Jennifer. Thanks so much for sharing. I was happy to see your reference to the Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) program. I began using this program with my nearly 5 year old when he turned 4 and we love it. It is highly recommended by a friend of mine who is a pediatric occupational therapist and we will continue to use this program throughout our writing journey. My OT friend is also huge on developing large motor prior to fine motor skills, which you allude to well in your post. I think this is a critical element to grasp before jumping into actual writing in order to avoid development of bad habits that are later hard to break. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, Dawn!

      Yes, I feel the same way that you do - that bad habits should be prevented by large motor handwriting instruction when a child begins to show interest.

      I did not set out to promote this view point per say, but when I saw that Charlotte Mason really did have a place here for early handwriting instruction (she includes it in the same section as learning the ABCs!), I realized that the two fit together very well. As long as you're going to be working with your child on Air Writing anyway, you may as well do it correctly!

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. This is a great summary. Our children are similar ages (although mine are 7,6 and 3yo twins, so there's been a bit of a gap). I agree very much on the air writing. It's a wonderful way to learn shapes and strokes before they start trying to write on paper on their own. I wish I had done it with the older kids--I'm still trying to cure my 6yo of starting at the bottom.

    On the phonograms, though, I think it's best to wait and introduce them either in context of word building or when the sight reading lessons begin. Otherwise it's too much and it's too abstract. I also think they belong to a later developmental stage, closer to actual reading, as they require understanding that a thing can have more than one function, not the simple sound/symbol match that is appropriate for preschool learners. My older ones learned most of theirs off cereal boxes, actually. O:-)

    1. Thanks, "Queen of Carrots!"

      Your comment about the phonograms is great. I think I tend to agree with you. Notice my mention of it was sort of tentative - an "I'm not sure where it fits in yet." I think you're right that they'll probably fit in better with late word building or early "real" reading lessons.

  4. I very much appreciate your blog and all the hard work you put into this post. My two boys are ages 3 and 2. However, my oldest son has Fragile X Syndrome which causes significant developmental delays... so I have been teaching him the same "lessons" as my two year old and it is going very well (what an answer to prayer!). They are both thriving under the Charlotte Mason Method and your blog has been a great resource.

  5. Jennifer- this is an awesome post and very helpful. My dd's are 8 and 5, and my 8yo was already reading before I started CM. The "teaching them to read" has always felt a little overwhelming. After reading your post, I think I finally understand why its helpful for kids to write letters in the air/sand. I look forward to reading the next post :)

    1. Kirsten,

      I'm glad this post was helpful for you! Yes, I am only just beginning to understand the importance of visualization & how air writing & sand writing are very helpful to children in developing the skill. If you think about any word that you read, you probably can picture it in your mind as well as hear it in your head. Many children who have reading difficulties have problems specifically with this one area - connecting the visual image of the letter with it's sound. These are the "building blocks" of learning to read.

  6. I think my comment got lost after the captcha, LOL. Here it is again:
    This is great, Jennifer. Is there any chance you could add an image (perhaps picture of child writing in sand) to make it Pinterest-friendly? I want to share the series! (if that's okay by you)

    1. Hi! You're other comment didn't get lost - I moderate them before they post & I didn't have much time this weekend. Sorry!

      I'll try to add an image soon! Thanks for your interest! It's fine with me if you share it.

      :) Jen

    2. OK, I finally had time to add an image! Hope it's helpful!

      :) Jen

  7. Just found these posts. Thank you so much for putting them together! So helpful!

    I do have an idea for the "box of letters." I got a set of Montessori wooden letters from There is a set of capital and a set of lowercase, plus you can get storage boxes for each. They are NICE! My 3yo and 6yo absolutely love them, and my older 2 wish they had learned to read using them. :) Now I finally have some ideas of what to do with them!

  8. The information you've provided here is exactly what I've been searching (long and hard) to find in one complete and easy to understand place! Thank you!