Sounding Out

Here we go again. Another school year has begun.

As we are a homeschooling family, I once again find myself diving into a daily routine of phonics worksheets, read-aloud assignments, writing practice, grammar, history, religion, mathematics, and science. I am fortunate in that my husband takes on those last two. But the others? They are all mine.

Especially the reading.

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Many a kindergarten or first-grade teacher will tell you that there is a certain thrill in the process of teaching a child to read. That is true enough. After weeks and weeks of the mind-numbing drill of letter sounds, sounding out, and phonetic rules, it can be amazing to watch the system finally “click” for a child as his eyes open up to the joys of reading.

Before that epiphany, though, a teacher and her student are mired quite surely in the rules, the sounding out, the practice, and the drudgery that is phonics.

A fellow homeschooler and mother of many once confessed to me that each time she finds out she’s expecting a new baby, her only negative thought is, “I’m going to have to teach phonics again!”

In our house, after weeks of reviewing vowel sounds, sounding out, and mastering blends, my son Stephen finally read his first sentence not too long ago: The pig sat in the mud.
It was an eye-opening event for both of us.

Early on, Stephen was entirely focused on individual letters and the sounds they make. Then he put those sounds together to make words. At great long last, his painstaking, patient work finally paid off. The sounds came together to make words, and the words came together to make a sentence — a real sentence that expressed a complete thought: The pig sat in the mud.

What joy! What revelation! What satisfaction! Not only for the student, but for the teacher, too.

I sometimes feel that my day-to-day life has a lot in common with the painful process of learning to read. It’s easy for me to get lost in the tiny tasks that fill my days: Change this diaper. Fold these clothes. Chop these vegetables. Sweep this floor. Grade this math work.
With my attention on these smaller tasks alone, though, I risk losing sight of the whole picture of my motherly vocation. All the little things a mother does in a day are necessary parts that make up a whole, just as learning letters and sounding out m-u-d was a necessary part of Stephen’s first sentence.

The little things are only important because of what they mean when they come together. Sweeping a floor is just sweeping a floor until it is understood as one small part of a higher calling, a vocation even.

On some days more than others, homeschooling can feel like just another “have to” when I long for more time to myself. I find it necessary to pause regularly and make sure I’m reading the sentences. Only then will my focus change from the little parts to the complete thought and the whole story.

When I focus only on the reminders about schoolwork, the time it takes to teach and to grade papers, and the mess our “learning” leaves in the dining room, I am missing the point. I see letters and sounds instead of a complete thought and the whole goal, which is the raising and education of souls for heaven.

Yesterday, after an afternoon spent outdoors playing soccer in the field and “house” in the woods, my gang headed inside for cleaning up. I washed Daniel’s fat fingers in the sink while the stove pre-heated for dinner. Then I pressed his fresh face against my own, listened to the older kids laughing and wrestling in the next room, and reveled in the fact that I get to spend entire days with these kids I love.

I get to watch them grow and learn and discover the world. I get to help them along every step of the way. Not have to — get to.

There is plenty of drudgery and work involved in the running of this household. But we’re not just sounding out words here. We’re writing novels.


  • Danielle Bean

    Danielle Bean, a mother of eight, is Editorial Director of Faith & Family. She is also author of My Cup of Tea: Musings of a Catholic Mom (Pauline 2005) and Mom to Mom, Day to Day: Advice and Support for Catholic Living (Pauline 2007). Her blog is a source of inspiration, encouragement, and support for Catholic women of all ages and life stages.

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