How Our Twin Three-Year-Olds Learned to Read

Malachi at 38 months adjusted age.
Right before this picture was shot, he asked me:
"Mama, what is 'pee-saw-rus'?" trying to read "Phosphorus" off this element block. 

Here's a typical day in my life:

We wake up in the morning and eat breakfast. Malachi reads the front of the food packages: "They're 'made with real honey,'" he says of the Honey Grahams. "It has '2 grams of protein,'" remarks Jaden, reading the Nutrition Facts off another package.

Then we go to preschool. Malachi discerns that today is his seatmate's birthday because she is wearing a shirt that says "Birthday Girl." Then, he glances at the wall and starts to get upset because he's pretty sure it's April but the calendar still says March. We fix the calendar and move on to painting. All the other kids pick "purple" or "blue." Malachi reads the top of all the canisters before selecting "Wine Grape" over "Sky Blue."

After preschool, it's time to go to the library. Jaden points out all the "Exit" signs, reads the time on an analog clock and enters my phone number into the check-out computer. Malachi and I pick out a fairly long ABC book by Rosemary Wells and settle down for the Read to the Dog program. By the letter C, I wait for him to read the letter before I read the rest. By the letter M, I wait for him to read the bolded words in the alphabet story. From the letter T on through the rest of the book, he READS THE ENTIRE THING ALL BY HIMSELF. Even complicated, multi-syllable words. (The dog was not all that impressed, but I sure was.)

It's even getting to the point that I have to shield my text messages from them or they will read them!

Need I remind you all that these boys are 3 1/2-year-old preemies, one of whom had significant brain damage?

Jaden is a remarkable 3-year-old reader by anyone's standards. Unfortunately for him, he often gets judged by his brother's standard which is off-the-charts. I haven't formally tested either of them, but I would guess that Malachi can probably read at a second-grade level. Seriously.

So how? How come my kids read so well?

First and foremost, I believe this household's attitude about reading is what has led to their success.

No. 1: They LOVE to read, especially Malachi. Reading is Malachi's second-biggest joy in life (the first being his love of numbers, which will have to wait for another post). If screen time is off-limits, his next choice will almost always be a book. This love of reading is something I don't think I or any of their other caregivers can take credit for. At this point, we couldn't stop them from reading if we tried.

No. 2: Malachi in particular pays a lot of attention to words. When confronted with text — say a new street sign or a poster on the wall, Malachi will stare at it for as long as it takes to figure it out. This is something deeply important to him and probably largely due to his cerebral palsy. He is often stationary when other 3-year-olds are in constant motion. He has also received an enormous amount of brain-body work through the Anat Baniel Method. (In fact, I'm pretty sure that all our efforts to teach him physical movement are going into academic prowess! Oh well, maybe he'll be able to repay us for these costly lessons after he graduates MIT — ha!)

No. 3: Psychologically Malachi and Jaden take a lot of pride in being able to read. They feel confident and powerful about reading. They know they are impressing adults when they read. For Jaden, too, he wants to be able to do what his brother does and so pays much more attention to reading than I think he would without Malachi. Psychology is an important component to learning that I think is often over-looked in test-based school environments.

No. 4: When they read, it is usually silly. We laugh many times a day about written words, either their content or their funny font style. For example, the last couple days, we've had an inside joke. Malachi will say: "This is how you Sonic," in a funny voice because one time he read a graphic slogan off the side of a Sonic restaurant cup and thought it was hilarious. That joy — that spike of dopamine — cements in those neural pathways. This is what I try to tell our conventional therapists all the time — when done right, learning is FUN, it's not hard work. It is also what might be considered "WRONG"! When Malachi says: "ThisishowyouSoonnnk," it is barely understandable. He thinks it's funny to say it all wonky and is laughing so hard that it comes out even wonkier. That's OK! I don't make him say all the words out correctly, because he's having fun and that's what matters most.

OK, now I will let you in on some of my secret teaching tools. Without the above psychological and emotional components, these would be pretty much worthless, so remember that it's not about this or that trick!

Jaden's first word was "cat." Malachi's first word was "mama" ….and his second word was "cat." So anyway, cats featured prominently in our early conversations. When I discovered that they could recognize all different colors and sizes of cats, cartoon cats, pictures of cats, etc., etc., as all belonging to the "cat" category, I figured that they could recognize letters because they are a much simpler and less variable shape. By the time they were two years old, they knew most of the alphabet and numbers up to 10. This was not something I drilled into them; I would just point out letters and numbers throughout the day just like I would point out trucks and dogs and airplanes. (They still love telling me what aisle we are on in the grocery store.)

From there, Malachi and Jaden's grandmother really took the reins. She read to them a lot and bought cool flashcards and exciting books. Their favorite books were:

  • The Fun with Phonics series by Sue Graves, including Jen the Hen, Bug in a Rug, and Fat Cat. These books all have a wheel to turn showing how changing the first letter of a word makes a rhyme, such as fat, cat, rat, mat, etc.
  • The 24-book series My First Steps to Reading by Jane Belk Moncure. Each book in this series personifies a letter as a little kid who then goes around putting things with his or her letter into a box.
  • The BOB Books boxed sets, starting with Bob Books, Set 1: Beginning Readers, by Bobby Lynn Maslen. These very short and simply illustrated books were a huge hit. Right around when the boys turned 3, Malachi wanted these read to him over and over and over again. 

Now that they are almost 4 and read everything, everywhere, they are starting to get into punctuation. They find it immensely funny when my husband reads a story and says the punctuation out loud, such as: "It was a dark and stormy night period. The wind was howling exclamation point!"

This morning Malachi told me: "I want to sit in your lap, dot-dot-dot." Then we opened an Easter package from their Nana:

"What do you think is inside the egg?" asked their dad.

"Money, question mark?" asked Malachi as it jangled open.

"Money, exclamation point!" confirmed Jaden.

JJ reading "The Hungry Caterpillar" to Malachi. from Shasta Kearns Moore on Vimeo.

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Looking for a meaningful gift? Dark & Light: A Love Story in Black and White is a beautiful and insightful board book available here. All profits go towards my son's medical needs. 


  1. As a bookworm myself who works in a library, I applaud Malachi and Jaden on their awesome reading skills! I love it when the little ones have such an interest in reading. Rosemary Wells recently published a new picture book called "Yoko Finds Her Way" (yes, I read it) and it is a sweet little story about how Yoko, a cat, finds her way through a crowded airport by reading the signs! The boys might get a kick out of that, so if you haven't already, check that out! :)

    1. Nice! Thanks for the suggestion! We'll look for it on our next trip to the library!


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