Teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons

17 Replies

I’ve recently been trying to like the book Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons, co-authored by Direct Instruction guru Siegfried Engelmann.

I bought this book years ago, but I confess I’ve never used it.

It just always looked too strange and difficult, with its detailed scripts, funny-looking dots, arrows and diacritics and nothing that looks much like a beginner’s reader or a meaningful writing opportunity. Here’s what the text for learners to read looks like:

Each lesson in the book contains scripts that the parent is intended to say verbatim, and it tells you precisely what to do (touch this, point to that etc.) every step of the way.

In Lesson 4, we come to this:

The vowel is apparently meant to be pronounced as in the word “cat”, not as in the word “ha”. My problem: we don’t have “a” as in “cat” at the end of words in English. It’s a “checked” vowel and must be followed by a consonant. If the letter “a” is at the end of the word, the sound is usually “a” as in “Ma”, “Pa” and “tra la la”. So I’m just not going to teach learners to say “sa” with “a” as in “cat”, sorry. It’s linguistically incorrect.

Also, this book is from the US, where they say “r” after vowels. Here in Australia, we don’t, so I’m not going to teach those bits either.

However, I know that this and other Direct Instruction programs are the ones that have had the best literacy results when tested by large-scale scientific blowtorches, so I’ve always felt a bit guilty about not using them.

I have never been able to imagine getting my students to cooperate for long with these lessons, or wait around for me to check the script, if I hadn’t managed to memorise it before the session (it’s a long book, lesson 100 starts on page 389). I work with some pretty naughty and fed-up kids, and don’t have a lot of lesson-memorising time, and I’m sure you don’t either.

As well as Teach Your Child to Read In 100 Easy Lessons, I’ve been looking at the Corrective Reading Word Attack Basics program, also co-authored by Engelmann. I’ve come to the conclusion that I use much the same logic and strategies, but that I need something that looks more interesting and meaningful, and sticks mostly to normal-looking text.

As you can see from the photo above, the Word Attack Basics program also teaches some non-words, and while I think these are useful for testing purposes, I’m only interested in teaching real words. Most of my learners are already far enough behind on vocabulary, without wasting time learning words they won’t use.

However, I recently went to the Learning Difficulties Australia Annual General Meeting and listened to a talk by Dr Rhonda Farkota about Direct Instruction, which included part of an old video clip of Siegfriend Engelmann asking a bunch of disadvantaged six-year-olds maths questions. They knew an awful lot of maths for such little kids. I wish some of the much bigger kids I know were half as numerate.

Here’s what the video looks like, and if you have a spare 13 minutes, please watch it yourself on Youtube:

This video makes me laugh out loud in places. Engelmann behaves like a cross between a quiz show host and a call-and-response preacher.

The kids sit forward on their chairs, shouting out answers, counting on their fingers and whispering workings-out to themselves under their breaths, and occasionally leaping to their feet to correct his errors on the board.

They squeal, clap their hands and giggle. Don’t miss their answer to his question, “What happens when you think?”, at about minute 9. Priceless.

This is not the dry, repetitive sort of teaching I imagined while reading “Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons”, but if this is how Direct Instruction is delivered, then I think the delivery is part of the secret.

When I imagine Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons delivered at warp speed by a quiz show host-preacher-teacher, it doesn’t seem quite so dull and difficult after all.

So if you’re a parent who isn’t confident about teaching your child to read, and the key things you want are a detailed script to follow plus the knowledge that your program has been scientifically tested, plus you’re prepared to set a cracking pace, overlook things like “sa” and adopt an American accent whenever you see a word-final “r”, “Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons” might be for you.


17 responses to “Teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons”

  1. Teaching a child to read will be very beneficial to them in the future. Thanks for the information.

  2. Debbie says:

    Hi Alison,

    I’m fully aware of the type of results that have been achieved by Direct Instruction guru Siegfried Engelmann but I think we ought to be looking at why this might be.

    Explicit teaching (‘direct’ instruction) of phonics which teaches letters and letter groups as ‘code’ and which teaches the skill of blending will work across various phonics programmes.

    But, the example in the video you flag up is in danger of being misleading of just what is possible for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, the child in the video is really struggling with blending. This would be an example of a child perhaps with reading difficulties as his blending skill is looking like he is struggling.

    If he is struggling, that might also explain why it takes him mother some time to get his attention and he starts off by being a bit wriggly and disinterested. His mother has to keep up a lot of encouragement and praise to keep him on task.

    The hole in my own provision to inform parents and teachers about ‘just what we can achieve through good phonics provision’ is video footage and I’m working on that now – as are others with different phonics programmes but we understand ‘just what is possible and likely’ and it is beyond what we see on this video clip you have flagged up.

    Although the use of diacritics (marks added to letters) and ‘sound buttons’ are part of the Direct Instruction practice which is shown by statistics to be successful, I suggest that we can achieve remarkable success with children without diacritics. Again, I need to flag this up with video footage to demonstrate this.

    We also, I suggest, do not need ‘sound buttons’ in order to get children decoding well and fluently. The letters and letter groups, taught ‘discretely’ (separately) ARE, in effect, the ‘sound buttons’. You point under the letter or letter group, and say the sound – teach children to recognise letters and letter groups in words before they are asked to ‘sound out’.

    In the footage, I note that double consonant letters such as ss have two dots beneath – this would not be a feature of a number of good phonics programmes even if they do use the added ‘sound buttons’. They would put one dot, or a line, under the double ss.

    Further, I note that instead of treating the letter group ee as code for the sound /ee/ as in ‘tree’, again, there are two dots beneath and the diacritic lines – one above each letter e. So, the child is being taught to look for, or depend on, the lines above each single vowel letter to indicate the need to say the sound /ee/ rather than teaching the child to ‘note’ the letter group ee and then say the sound /ee/ in response.

    So, what happens when the diacritic marks are no longer supporting the child? And what happens when the child is presented with ordinary text without diacritic marks?

    I am sure many, perhaps most, children find no difficulty in the transition from saying sounds supported by diacritic marks to saying sounds in response to ordinary text – but I really raise the question as to whether such marks are necessary in the first place – and whether, in some cases, it necessitates transition that is an extra step to ‘unlearn’?

    At no time am I questioning the results achieved by Direct Instruction, but I am questioning whether equal results (and perhaps better still) can be achieved through features in common with Direct Instruction (such as the explicit teaching, the scripting to support the adult, the sheer fact it is ‘phonics’ and applying the phonics skill of sounding out through the word – the ‘blending’ or ‘synthesising’ skill).

    With your linguistic phonics background and knowledge, I wouldn’t be surprised if you, too, think along similar lines to me.

    Right then, the onus is on me, and others, to provide footage to inform parents and teachers of what can be achieved without diacritic support!

    Best wishes,


  3. Jamie says:

    I saw this book was popular and had great reports of great results so decided to buy it. I am teaching my 4.5-year-old using this book. I have to say that I am impressed with how quickly he’s progressing, although I have no other materials or children to compare it to.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend it. We are up to lesson 40 and I have just skipped ahead to check what’s coming up and noted some serious pronunciation issues. Using the diacritics of the book “ōld”, “cōld”, “cōat” and “gōat” all have the same “ō” sound (the same as that in “coat”). In some parts of the USA that would be the case, but not in most parts of the English-speaking world, and definitely not here in Australia.

    So I’m 40 lessons in, my son is used to the teaching process in this book and is doing great, and now I’m faced with the decision of whether to go through the book and correct all the pronunciation mistakes, and to switch teaching materials. Not ideal!

    • alison says:

      Hi Jamie, great to hear that your son is progressing well with Prof Engelmann’s classic book. I’m not sure if there is a UK English version of it, I’m pretty sure there is only the US version, so it contains quite a few things that don’t work in Australian English (the vowels, the sound “r” at the end of a syllable etc). I have one US book that says “daughter” rhymes with “hotter”. Accent variation is one of the things that made me want to make my own resources, that and the fact that we say “ute” not “pickup”, and “truck” not “lorry”, and so on. I have UK books that agree with Engelmann that “old” and “cold” and “hold” have the same vowel as “goat” and “soap”, but here that’s only the case in Toorak and on Sydney’s North Shore, and perhaps some of the posher bits of Adelaide. You could probably soldier on with this book and your son would cope, as Aussie kids are aware of American accents, just tell him that it’s from America where they say things slightly differently when that’s an issue. Or you could switch to something local, there are good resources around but they tend not to be as tightly scripted as Direct Instruction approaches, so they rely on you to have a bit more knowledge and skill. Perhaps you have, not everyone is even aware of the accent issue. All the best, Alison

  4. Diane says:

    When my daughter was 3 years old, she lamented that she wanted to go to school with her sister. I got this book, and in very short time, she was reading very well. By the time she started Kindergarten she was an advanced reader, and not just reading, but remembering what was read, comprehending it, and analyzing the concepts she had read, and much more. These skills resulted in her excelling in other classes, band science, etc. She graduated high school with highest grades and also with an Associates Degree from the local college she attended while in high school. She is now nearly 30 years old and has a little one of her own and will definitely be using the same book she learned with. She remembers her lessons as a 3 year old and credits this book as giving her numerous advantages and successes in life. It also trained her mind for retention, and I must confess, she has an amazing skill of retaining details and recalling them. This is quite important for passing tests, and success in jobs and relationships. I can’t promote this book enough.

    • alison says:

      Great to hear a success story! Early explicit, systematic synthetic phonics gets kids off to a great start, glad to hear your daughter has done so well. Alison

  5. Britt says:

    Thank you for an unedited, real-life look into your lesson. It not only helped me to get a good look at the book, but it also normalized what I have been going through in helping my 5-year-old son learn to read. Everything from having to ask him to get his hands out of his mouth to “stop guessing” are things we go through. 🙂 Thanks again for taking the time to do this, it was very encouraging.

  6. Ruth says:

    FYI that video is not following the Engelmann approach as directed. The child is not continuous blending to sound out the words; instead he’s saying each sound separately.
    One of the main leaps taught in the 100 Easy Lessons book is that sometimes words are *spoken* a little differently from how we sound them out. Examples are “and” or “ant” where the /a/ becomes nasal. That’s why there are supposed to be two prompts: first to sound it out, then to figure out the word.

    • alison says:

      Thanks for clarifying, and also for drawing my attention to this old blog post so I could see that a couple of the pictures weren’t up the right way. Ooops, I think that happened when my webmaster changed over the site to a new editor. Will have to go through the other old blog posts to see if this has happened to any others, when I find time. I’ve taken the video link off the post, as Engelmann was a genius and his programs should be used with fidelity, sorry I didn’t realise it wasn’t being done properly.

      • Ruth says:

        Thanks! I’m sad the video of him teaching math to kindergarteners doesn’t work any more; I would have liked to see it.

        If it makes you feel better re: “sa” that is only in a couple of the early lessons where you are “saying sounds”; by lesson 9 it switches to word reading and everything sounded out from then on is a real word.

        • alison says:

          I’m sorry the video disappeared too, so I just had another look to see if it was somewhere hidden on the amazing internets, and it is, so I’ll reinstate the link. Thanks for the clarification re real words.

  7. Minh Pham says:

    I would like to share that my son (4) is currently on lesson 68 of the book and we are seeing great results. It was a struggle at the beginning to get him interested and focused and we stopped for a few months when he had meltdowns each time he saw the book. After we restarted the lessons two months ago, to my surprise he actually retained much of what he had learned, the lessons became smoother and he become more interested and excited especially once he realized he could READ!

    I found a few YouTube videos which demonstrate how to each a lesson and what the correct way to teach the sounds. Be sure to watch these videos before you begin the lessons to give you extra confident to teach. https://youtu.be/xG4q5_TLHRw

    We will soon transition to normal text form so I’m interested to see how he’ll do but when we look at regular books, he didn’t have major issues reading the words without the aid of symbols so I don’t think he’ll have issues.

    • alison says:

      So great to hear your son has learnt well from this inexpensive, widely-available and well-researched book. The (capital-letter) Direct Instruction resources are really hard to promote in the existing educational culture, as they are interpreted as oldfashioned and didactic, where really what they are is well-organised and efficient, if only people knew how to use them well. It’s a pity children can have meltdowns when asked to use them, as your child did, but I guess the idea of work can trigger them in many children. Video demonstrations of how to use the book are really helpful, though as a speech pathologist, I cringed at the recommended pronunciation of /r/ with rounded lips, as a lot of children mix up /w/ and /r/ and I spend a lot of time telling children NOT to round their lips for /r/. I don’t have time right now to watch all the video links you’ve sent, but will do so, I’m sure they are full of useful information and ideas. All the best, Alison

  8. Gaynor Chapman says:

    My mother Doris Ferry was the NZ expert in phonic. reading in NZ in the 1990s and taught 1500 reading failures from local high SES schools , 1970 t0 2005.. She taught 100 students per week in a one half hour lesson and functioned by teaching parents how to teach their own children to read at home with workbooks,. She was intensely disliked by the NZ education department who ridiculed her and never gave her permission to have students in school hours despite other organisations being granted this status . She succeeded with all other remedial reading programmes ‘ failures. This was the time of the reading wars and the persecution of her students by local teachers featured in a 20/20 national wide documentary. in 1997 . It was the most watched doco. that year.
    My concern is having the system change as fast as possible in NZ to phonics and at the moment less than 10% of schools have structured phonics. Unlike Australia we have a really entrenched culture of balanced literacy because of Dame Clay . One of her admirers is the chief science? adviser to the government! ! Most academics who are pro structured phonics ,unfortunately, with a few exemptions. have only been involved in promoting and teaching it for less than two decades. and are horribly dogmatic about using one pet programme particularly systematic synthetic phonics.
    When my mother died I studied her teaching notes and using these very successfully taught a dozen very difficult dyslexics ..Since I had been a maths tutor for 30 years I have to admit I found learning up all the hundreds of spelling patterns really tedious.. There is a tremendous amount to learn which is quite off putting at first.
    To get back to the topic of”Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons’ I believe this sort of manual is the way forward. As an Australian I wonder i Alison if you are familiar with the old Whicombe and Tomb’s Progressive Readers ‘ and “Phonic Readers’ used in NZ and Australia 1930 to 1950 ? They were what my mother used when she taught in low decile NZ schools in 1930s and ’40s. She had Universal Literacy instilled into her as an ideal and in practice and that is when she learned the skill of involving parents in infant reading. The progressive readers did this. They definitely come under the umbrella of structured literacy. I have made myself an expert of them unlike any academic. Thanks to my mother I know how they were taught.. They had no full teachers’ guide.
    I have complete respect for higher learning and excellent pedagogy being a science and maths graduate but I do believe phonics is a method of teaching little children to read unlike linguistics which is definitely a very worthwhile field of study at a tertiary level . I believe the science of reading is fascinating , the findings are rocket science and are invaluable for’ converting and giving evidence.’ but teaching infant reading should be seen as possible by anyone , if given the right materials.
    Academics have a tendency to practice professional tyranny and promote themselves as the experts. Ideally they should get out into the field and practice Universal literacy in schools to all levels of low decile children and succeed in teaching several hundred dyslexics. You soon find you need all sorts of phonics and other techniques including eg masses of phonic and whole word spelling. A professor of education who visited us said Doris had the most comprehensive phonic collection he had seen.
    My mother taught semi literate parents how to successfully teach their own reading disabled children in only one half an hour a week. This was how it was in the 1930s as well .
    I have examined ‘TYCtTR’ by Engelmann et al and like you and others could find many faults but I believe there should be more cheap productions backed up by videos., like this to get things moving for heaven’s sake.. In essence giving parents trade secrets and control of their own children’s infant reading..Please Alison have a look at the historical readers mentioned . They have many features worth considering and I have tried unsuccessfully to convince structured literacy guys to browse them. According to Timothy Shanahan there is no science of reading yet to support a solo diet of phonic readers,of which all the ‘ phonic fanatics ‘ in NZ seem to have got themselves addicted to .These , currently used .combined with predictable texts is in my opinion disastrous.
    Thank you Alison for your blog sites , I enjoy reading them.

    • alison says:

      Dear Gaynor, wow, how interesting, thanks for all that. I don’t have time right now to go through what you have written, find the materials you mention and give you a proper, detailed response, but I agree in general that phonics is necessary but not sufficient, and that predictable texts are a disaster and teach the habits of weak readers. Must rush off now but will get back to this when I get a moment. All the very best, Alison

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