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I Taught A Princess How to Read: Important Lessons Learned When Tutoring Royalty:

By Mrs. Gail Hawkins, Oahu Private Tutor, 2013 (published by The Partnership for Reading)


I had the jitters about teaching a princess how to read. This was the most important tutoring assignment of my 40-plus professional tutoring career, requiring extraordinary preparation. I had a three-week assignment to tutor a 5-year old Kindergarten child.

My best effort needed to come forth to realize the child's Christmas wish to read before Santa's arrival. The Princess earnestly told her parents that she intended to "try really, really, REALLY hard!" to read. Two of her friends were already reading. This child started tutorials believing that reading would be a long, arduous journey. The tutoring assignment was a challenging mandate. At 3 years old, The Princess announced she could read. At the end of each story she pointed to the last two words on the page and said, "The End."

The parents reported that she was a non-reader. The child blankly stared at the words "is, bat, and am." I recall her perplexed look when confronted with two and three letters that were supposed to make a word. Her confusion reminded me of my assignment in Japan years ago. I didn't have the basic Japanese reading skills to shop for food at the grocery store. I was a non-reader in Japan, age 27, just as The Princess, age 5, was a non-reader in her American Kindergarten class.

Reading books at bedtime was a nightly ritual. The bookshelf held cherished books given for birthdays and holidays. The Princess knew books were a magical, mystical world of stories with beautiful pictures. Clearly, this was a tutoring assignment that demanded success.

I learned valuable lessons when I taught The Princess to read. This little girl was honored with her great grandmother's name, (my mother). Mom was christened in Sweden in 1910, named after a European royal princess of the era. Little Princess Margaret Sofia Hawkins, (a.k.a. Maggie), is my granddaughter. Maggie's father is our son.

December 5, 2012 was the highlight of my tutoring career. Maggie read her first words at her first lesson! It is unique when a non-reader reads at the first tutorial. I usually plan three to four preparation lessons to teach basic phonics. Her Kindergarten class did enough preparation for her to immediately plunge into literacy.

The magic happened. The word "at" became "bat, fat, Nat". The word "am" became "ham, jam, Pam, bam!" At first, she didn't realize she was reading. This phenomenon is normal. The child's demeanor usually demonstrates that they are reading with calm yet hesitant word attack skills. At this initial stage the parent stands behind the child so their amazed expression doesn't worry the beginning reader. It is common to see parental eyes widen or tear as mom sees "the magic" happen. Dad's eyes often twinkle as he enthusiastically pumps the tutor's hand in appreciation for observing the special moment.

We went to the library the last day of my tutoring assignment. Imagine my unbridled joy when Princess Maggie picked out books that she could read! Her arms were full of titles like Ted's Shed, Frog on a Log, and Shark in the Park. With trepidation, I asked the librarian how many books could be taken home. I blurted out that my granddaughter began reading December 5th. She could now read every book in her arms. The date was December 29th. The kindly librarian winked at me and said, "Maggie, you may take as many books home as you can carry out of the library and here is a big bag for you!"

Santa brought toys, books, American doll clothes, and craft supplies this year. This Christmas will be remembered because Santa's elf also brought Maggie's secret wish. She now has the ability to read phonetic books to herself and her parents.

You may soon embark upon the Beginning to Read road with Mrs. Hawkins. Parents will experience memorable emotions when seeing "the reading light bulb" click as a jumble of letters suddenly morphs into words, phrases, and sentences.


What I Have Learned About Teaching YOUR Princess, (or Prince), How To Read:

By Oahu Tutor, Mrs. Gail Hawkins (brochure published by The Partnership for Reading)


1. You will realize your child is reading before the child is aware of the ability. They are overly absorbed in the process of putting sounds together. You realize the child is reading. At this point, the child is unaware that they are actively reading. Why? The child doesn't know that they have started to "break the code." A 5-year old doesn't immediately associate the ability to read until they string words together. Rarely will a child announce "I can read!" after decoding individual words. The realization happens when reading phrases or sentences.

The parent and tutor need to be calm and patient when hearing those first words. Treating the initial word reading by cheers, "hi-fives", & celebration hugs is counterproductive. It makes the child worried about misreading future words. The child is inclined to back away from reading because they don't yet understand that they have the necessary skills. Controlling your enthusiasm helps the child make faster progress.

2. Reading, from a child's perspective, is often not perceived as fun. In Kindergarten and First Grade reading is the child's job. It requires concentration, slow responses, and a noticeable depletion of mental energy.

Parents go to work. Some days the work is harder or more tiring. What parent can honestly say that every workday has been fun? Children also go to work, at school, 5 days a week. Some school days are easier than others. Some days tutoring lessons are more difficult.

3. It is normal when your child reads their first stories and can't remember what they just read. They are exerting the maximum amount of energy to crack the reading code. Comprehension suffers. Parents sometimes panic when the story can't be retold or basic comprehension questions answered. Expect that the child won't remember the story message. Within a short period of time, the child is reading with greater accuracy and speed, (called fluency). Along with the increase in fluency is increased comprehension. Fluency happens first. Comprehension happens second.

4. Guessing at words by looking at pictures is not reading! Cover the pictures when first reading the page, (like the Mr. Bob series and other beginning phonics books with pictures). Let the child read 2 short sentences first. Then uncover the picture. This method becomes a game.

Maggie was told that "reading" words with picture clues is not reading. She negotiated to look at the pictures first. I deviated from my usual methods. I wanted to please her. I knew I made a mistake when she read "The pup is in the house" instead of "hut". She was reading the picture and not the word. Be patient. Give the child time to sound out words, one sound at a time if necessary. Just because they read "bat" three words ago does not mean that "bat" will be an easy word to decode again.

There is usually a lack of voice expression. They are struggling with word attack and can't pay attention to the thoughts. Your body language, demeanor, interest about what will happen next in the story will have long-term rewards.

Try this technique. I ask to read a sentence so I "can have a turn." We have a rule that I get to read one of the sentences on the page. The child selects the sentence the tutor or parent reads. Children have an amazing ability to judge their reading energy level. This method gives a needed rest for the beginning reader. Some days Maggie assigned me the longest sentence. Some days she didn't want me to read any sentences. A professional tutor recognizes different energy level patterns during tutorials. The parent will also start to see the ebb and flow of mental energy. The result is that reading sessions last a little longer and are more enjoyable.

5. Quality vs. Quantity. Reading individual words is never a speed race for the beginning reader. An adult's natural reaction is to speed up the process by giving hints. I discourage you from saying the sounds, mouthing the formation of the sounds, or quickly reading the word in question. If you do these hints, you'll see that the child will start looking at your face instead of the word to get the answer. Your whispered answer won't be with them in the classroom. Allow the child the luxury of time to retrieve the sounds independently.

When working with my granddaughter I had to force myself to listen to the advice I have given others. It takes an understanding of the reading process to be able to use a strong dose of patience, allowing the child to read at their own slow pace. Your methods will soon give self-confidence. It is empowering when they can decode WITHOUT parent hints.

6. One MUST make mistakes in order to learn. Children do not like to disappoint themselves or their parents. They need to understand that mistakes are a normal part of reading. Mistakes happen while learning to read. How do you handle reading errors? Tap your finger above the missed sound in the word. No verbal correction is usually needed. The child knows that it is time to look at a specific letter sound/s again. The tapping method takes one lesson for a comfort level to begin. It is non-threatening. The tapping procedure can be used for most of the early elementary years. I also use the tapping procedure with grades 4, 5, and 6 when teaching prefix and suffix identification.

The Two Most Important Lessons Learned When Teaching Royalty to Read:

By Oahu Tutor, Mrs. Gail Hawkins (brochure published by The Partnership for Reading)


First, every 5 year-year old I teach should be treated like a prince or princess. They are embarking on the most important educational journey of their young life. The responsibility should be taken seriously and creatively to capture the enthusiasm and attention span for the age. Research documents that early reading success and independence leads to higher reading levels in the middle school years.

The second primary lesson learned is that every parent I counsel should be given the time and opportunity to learn appropriate methods applicable to their child's learning style. Parent instruction is different for each couple and should progress at the parent's learning curve. Children learn at their own personal pace. Parents also have an ebb and flow of understanding during my nine session Beginning to Read program.

Parents are the King and Queen of their family kingdom. Their duties will continue long after the tutor leaves the assignment. Parents often worry about "doing the wrong thing", incorrectly teaching the sounds, or have trouble remembering suggested methods for the home. Parents will also initially feel insecure about their ability to be an equal partner in the reading process. The tutor's job is to teach the parents how to teach their child. The methods will be used long after the child "graduates" from tutoring.

Communication is the key ingredient in a successful conclusion of the Beginning to Read program. The joy of tutoring is seeing the teamwork of child, parent, and tutor. It is a triangle of work, enthusiasm, and careful planning. Soon the triangle shape will change. The tutor is ready to leave your employment. Upon graduation, the parent is a "Reading King and Queen in Training". During

the transition, when the team reduces to parent and child, my phone number is available for follow-up questions or concerns.

My final thought to you is that the greatest early educational gift given to a child is a firm phonetic reading foundation. It is the cornerstone of future academic success for spelling, writing stories, and gathering information. A child learns to read then reads to learn. The mind of a Kindergarten child is ripe for exploration and fast acquisition of reading skills if appropriate methods are used. The lessons I learned teaching Princess Margaret Sofia Hawkins to read will be remembered as I continue my reading tutor career with your child.

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