Teaching Reading and Phonics to the Older Child or ESL Student

Includes a Review of Reading Horizons

By: Sherri B

If your children are learning to read and write English as a second language (and you feel anxious about how this will effect your children learning English), then I hope that our experience will be of great benefit to you.  I highly recommend Reading Horizons to other families in similar situations (children learning to read and write English as their second language), as well as for children who need extra help in learning to read, for whatever the reason.

Our children are currently in full time local school (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) at the 4th grade level.  They are on level in the local language and have scored very well in their national exams. However, until this year, they were extremely below level in reading the English language.  They were even further below level in spelling English words. We chose not to teach them to read English until they mastered their local language.

When it came time to teach them to read and spell English, we found that very few phonics programs were designed for children who are 9 and older.  Though there are many great phonics programs available, most of the programs are very “babyish.”  After several months of looking and actually talking to the writers of several programs, I chose Reading Horizons.   I cannot even begin to express how excellent I believe this program to be.  Before I share the benefits, I would like to share where we were so you can see how far our children have come.

1.  All three of our children attended schools in other languages prior to their current local language.  They began in one foreign language, followed by a semester of American kindergarten, followed by a year in a different foreign language school, followed by four months back in American home-school, and finally, yet another foreign language school (where they are now).  During the few months that they had “American schooling,” all three of our children learned the English consonants and short vowel sounds.  Beyond that, they knew very little.

2.   Using what little English phonics she learned in her few months of “English speaking” school, playing games, and the phonics she picked up from two of the three other languages she learned, our oldest taught herself how to read English.  However, her spelling was tested at a first grade level.  Despite her inability to spell, her love for reading overcame all the obstacles.  She tested above level in reading English.  So, we had a very strong reader who was unable to spell at age 10.

3.  Our second two children only read in English at a first grade level and spelled even below that (at age 9).

4.  They were very embarrassed by their English and wouldn’t read in front of people or write people emails/letters.

5.  Our children do not have any learning challenges or disabilities of which we are aware (though the program we chose does address them thoroughly, so please do not stop here if you are faced with this challenge).

This past summer and fall semester, we witnessed an awesome transformation in our children.  The Reading Horizons program gave our kids the skills they needed to learn to read, confidence that they can master new words, and as important as any skill, a LOVE for reading.

How the program works:

1.  The program can be easily purchased online as an entire kit.  We purchased the elementary kit though we probably could have gone with the secondary kit.  Reading Horizons staff helped me select the right program for my children.

2. There is a daily lesson taught by the parent/teacher.  The teacher’s manual is very well written, easy to follow, and easy to teach.  The program does address some grammar though we did not use it for that at all.   (Please note that you can teach this program even without prior teaching experience).  If you are purchasing the kit new, there is an excellent online workshop that comes with the program.  In this class the creator of the program teaches you how to teach it; it is very helpful.  However, if you receive a program that is being passed down to you, you can pay for this seminar.  I believe that it is worth the fee.

3.  Each child uses his own white board (chalk board), marker and eraser during each class.  Every student participates through out the teacher’s lesson.

4.  There are daily work sheets that you can copy to accompany the lesson which provide reinforcement for the lesson learned. We actually used none of this for the material covered in the first year of the program, but we did use some for the material covered in the second half.

5.  The children begin by learning the sounds of each letter.  They progress to blends, diphthongs, digraphs, and special vowels and so on, systematically.  Each lesson builds on the previous one.

6.  After they have mastered all the sounds, the program begins to teach the children how to break down the English word by using five basic decoding skills.  The five basic skills carry the children through the entire program.  The child learns to mark the letters in the words with a symbol.  These symbols build on each other and help them PROVE the sound of each letter, followed by the pronunciation of the word.  (Although they quickly learn that English is a language of exceptions.)

The Five skills are:

a. The final consonant in a one syllable word is called a guardian consonant.  A guardian consonant makes the vowel short.

(mat- ‘t’ is a guardian consonant and makes the ‘a’ short.)

b. A vowel in a one syllable word, followed by two consonants (guardians) is short.   (milk- ‘l’ and ‘k’ are guardian consonants and together they make the ‘i’ short.)

c. If a one syllable word ends in a vowel, the vowel will say its name, or will be long.  (so-  the ‘o’ says it’s name.)

d. Words ending in a consonant, followed by the letter ‘e’ have a long vowel sound.    A silent ‘e’ is always stronger than a guardian consonant. (make- silent ‘e’ is stronger than the guardian ‘k’ so the a is long.)

e. Words that have adjacent vowels in the middle speak the name of the first vowel and the second vowel is silent.  (beat-  adjacent vowels ‘e’ and ‘a’ say the sound of the first vowel and the ‘a’ is silent.)

7.  After mastering these five basic decoding skills to one syllable words, children learn how to apply them to multi-syllable words.

8.   Each lesson is followed by a 10-15 minute computer lesson on the skill learned that day.  The program tracks the child’s progress for the teacher.  When you purchase the program, you can choose the online version or the CD version.  (From experience we learned:  If internet is not costly for you, the online version might be best.  Our computer crashed and we lost all the records from our kids’ progress.  We could return to the CD and continue the program, but we had no record of the kids’ scores/progress.  If you choose the CD route, we recommend that you occasionally print the progress report or back up the program.)

9.  The teachers’ supplement manual has daily worksheets, games, additional learning activities and much more.

We experienced the following plusses from this program:

1.  We were able to zip through the first year of the program at lightning speed because the children did have a working knowledge of English sounds.  No need to spend time where it wasn’t necessary.  Some programs did not allow for this.  However, we did NOT skip ANY sounds and we did use the computer portion of the program as a review during this time.  We camped on letters that are the same in the foreign language they learned and English but pronounced differently in the two languages (such as “i”).  We did not move on until the kids knew every sound perfectly.  This took less than a month at 2 hours a day, 5 days a week).

2.  We learned that English words can be broken down into very logical spelling “rules” which are then decoded by the reader.  Phonics became much more ‘logical.’  I am a big believer in Sing, Spell, Read and Write.  The program is excellent.  Our oldest used it for a few months prior to attending the local national school.  However, at age 11, this program just did not work well for her.    Plus, since our kids are older and use logic to approach new topics, SSRW was not addressing the ‘why’ of the spelling rules.  And frankly, the answers to many of the why questions were unknown to me.  Reading Horizons is just the opposite.  It takes a very systematic approach using phonics rules and decoding to help children learn to pronounce words.  I can fairly say that there are very few words (those that follow the decoding skills that they learned) that my kids cannot pronounce now.

3.  The computer program that accompanies the teaching portion of the program reinforces everything learned.  The program also kept a record of each child’s skill mastery (before we lost it).  Progress and additional needed practice can be easily monitored by the teacher/parent.  (On a side note, we learned that it was better to use the mouse rather than a touch pad to do the program.  The program is very sensitive and if the child’s finger even lightly touches the pad in the wrong place, the answer will register wrong, affecting the student’s score.)

4.  The program offers EXCELLENT assistance from the Reading Horizons staff.  They offer seminars that you can attend online.  In addition, appointments can be made with assistants from the company to ask questions, clarify problems that you have, or help with issues that your child has.  I have attended one “History of Phonics” seminar (which was so excellent and full of things I never learned while getting my teacher’s certificate) as well as a private seminar with an assistant/coach at the company.  During this meeting, they helped me address some of the personal issues we were having in our family with learning English phonics.

5.  One purchase of the program can be used for up to five students.  This allows the program to be passed on to other children in the same or different families.  After the 5th child has used the program, there is a small fee to add each additional child, but repurchase of the whole program is not necessary.

6.  The program claims to see progress as much as five grade levels.   I cannot say that we have seen that yet (because I have not had them tested), but I can guarantee that we have seen tremendous progress reading English words and even a GREATER improvement in English spelling.  I now have three readers rather than one reader and two that hate books.

7.  Reading Horizons has an excellent web-site at www.readinghorizons.com.  You can make an appointment with a representative or communicate by email.  They have been a great help to me.  You can also see sample lessons at their site as well as access practice lessons from the CD.

I am a huge fan of this program and highly recommend it.  While we have finished with the ‘phonics’ portion of the program, we are in the final chapter that addresses additional spelling hints, rules, exceptions, etc.    This chapter is even helping me.

I hope you find this helpful.  Be encouraged and press on!  In addition to the speed bumps and challenges of local/national schooling, there are just as many and maybe even more blessings your child is gaining from being in the community where they live.


The Education Café Manager Recommends…

Websites to check out:


Sing, Spell, Read, and Write

http://www.homeschoolreviews.com/reviews/curriculum/reviews.aspx?id=344 (Review of SSRW)

http://www.homeschoolreviews.com/reviews/curriculum/reviews.aspx?id=726 (Review of Reading Horizons)


Other articles on this blog:

Links to Free Books for phonics instruction for older children and adults (some readers for younger children, too)

Reasons for considering National Schools

Challenges expats face when choosing and using a national school

Raise a Bilingual Child (Jump start 2nd language learning)

Children and Language Learning

Trusting God in the Midst of School Challenges


7 thoughts on “Teaching Reading and Phonics to the Older Child or ESL Student

  1. Pingback: Surprised and Delighted! | The Education Cafe

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  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to write all this. We plan to adopt 2 school-age children this year.

  4. Pingback: 2010 in review « The Education Cafe

  5. Pingback: Links to Free Books to Assist in the Learning of Phonics: Especially for Older Children and Adults « The Education Cafe

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