Learning to Read

Lately the children in the Oak class (2–4 years old) have been excited about the Unifix cubes—little plastic cubes of various colors that can be connected in a stack or a line. Older children often use these for learning about patterns and simple arithmetic. But last week in class they became an impromptu lesson on reading.

Several children were sitting around the table building little towers, saying, “Look what I built!” I wanted to see if anyone would engage with the idea of patterns, so I built a simple ABAB tower and said, “Look what I built! Blue green blue green blue green blue green!” I pointed to each cube, from bottom to top, as I went. “What do you think comes next?”

“Green!” said the child next to me. Oh well, I thought, not quite ready for patterns. That’s okay. I dutifully stuck a green on the end. But I laid the stack down in front of her and said, “You read it this time. I’ll point.” I started at the left and pointed to one cube at a time, and she said, “Blue, green, blue, green, blue, green, blue, green, green! Hooray!”


“You did it!” I said. “You point this time! Start on this side.” She went again, using her own finger to slowly go from left to right. At the end she added more cubes, of random colors, and went again. And then added more cubes, and went again.

Across the table, another child said, “I want to try!” I showed her where to start, and she pointed down the line, naming each color. Plenty of mistakes along the way, but that wasn’t the point. The first child came and sat next to the second, watching carefully all the way through.


I had hoped this would be a math lesson, about patterns. But it turned out to be a lesson on literacy. These children were practicing reading—matching a visual sequence to a series of spoken words, matching each symbol to its idea. They were practicing reading left-to-right—in this playful setting, “Start here” was the only instruction I really had to give. And I deliberately use the word “reading,” both when talking to the children about it and in writing about it now, because that really is what they’re doing, and we should all see it that way. (I also use the word “reading” when, for instance, a child pages through a book looking at their pictures; at 3 years old, that’s reading too.)

A literacy lesson wasn’t what I’d planned—but it turns out that when you expose children to engaging, open-ended materials, opportunities present themselves literally all the time. That’s what this whole “learning through play” thing is all about.

To switch from reading to writing, see last week’s anecdote.


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