My four-year-old read his first Bob Book with Beth almost a year ago, but somewhere along the way he started throwing fits (with Beth or me) when it came time to sit down and read. His favorite ruse is to yell, “I can’t read it!” when looking at a page he has read repeatedly in the past.

Eventually, he settled into a pattern: either he flew through a Bob Book because he had it memorized, or he refused to even try. I suspect that when he looked at a sentence full of words, the stress of it just made his little head explode. The same was true with the piano: he would gleefully play three or four notes I showed him, but trying a full verse of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” devolved into pounding keys with flat palms.

Flash cards are probably not the ideal for building a love of reading, but I needed to change something. If my theory was right that a page full of words was overwhelming my son, narrowing it to one word at a time might help. I don’t want drawers full of cards for kids to scatter about, so I used our tablet.

I have a flash card app called Anki, which lets you load up lists on the computer and then sync them to the tablet. Every time you practice a card, you mark how well you did: repeat (red), hard (yellow), good (green), or easy (blue), and the app judges how long to wait until it shows you that card again based on your history with that card. The explanation is complicated, but using it is fairly easy, as it handles the repetition each day.

For the list of words, I got the first four Bob Books and entered every word in all four books into the flash card deck. I doubled up by doing each word with lower-case and upper-case starting letters, since my four-year-old is still learning the differences. Once he could get through that stack of words, I had him read through the actual Bob Books, one per day. Then I added all the words from the next four books, and so forth. The app lets you set how many cards per session (I use 20), and it focuses on the cards that need the most work.

Two or three weeks in, it turns out that my four-year-old enjoys doing flashcards on the tablet, which means we can spend about ten minutes a day on reading without him throwing any fits. He doesn’t have the Bob Books memorized anymore, but by the time we get to a given book he knows all the words well enough that he doesn’t get too stressed. He always insists, “Get an easy book!”, and my plan is that each book should already seem easy by the time we get to it.

Meanwhile, my two-year-old is learning his ABC’s using a couple of different alphabet books that we love. Beth was reading him these books since he was born, so he has most of the alphabet down. I’m trying Anki to see if it helps him fill in the gaps of Z, Y, V, Q, and the like. I took phone pictures of every page from Now I Eat My ABSs, and copied them into an Anki deck for him. So far he’s not improving much, but I don’t push too hard. He asks to do his flash cards whenever he sees his brother doing it, and he has fun going through the deck and pushing the red or green button depending on whether he remembers the letter. We’ll take it easy and see what happens.

Any homeschooling parent will know exactly why I’m sticking with this method: it turned a fit-throwing school subject into a non-fit-throwing school subject for my son. But it also doesn’t involve off-loading the work completely to a reading app and hoping it teaches my son. Rather, it’s a technology that takes something I want us to do together and makes it easier.

I suspect my four kids may not all like flash cards equally, but we will see. I expect I will use Anki a lot in the next sixteen years.

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