Book Review: Head Start with the Book of MormonBook Cover

When I think about the curricula available to evangelical homeschoolers, I instantly become guilty of several of the deadly sins. Oh, if I were a young earth creationist, the riches that would be mine! But instead I’m stuck patching together my own science curriculum every year. So I was excited to see this book, which uses the Book of Mormon to teach reading and basic math skills.

Of course, early reading and math skills are not of interest just to homeschoolers–many parents will want to teach their children these things before the little tykes darken the kindergarten door. Other parents may need to remediate older students who aren’t keeping up in the classroom. So there is a potential for this book to have a much wider audience than just LDS homeschoolers.

To be technical, the method used in this book to teach reading is probably best described as phonemic awareness followed by whole language, with a small amount of phonetic decoding thrown into the mix. I’m not a proponent of anything but straight phonics (presented in an interesting, developmentally appropriate manner, with lots of quality children’s books read aloud). I think the research available (as well as my personal experience of producing two proficient readers) supports this method for most children, but I also recognize that opinions vary and that other parents might choose an approach such as the one outlined in this book and it might work just fine for them.

Even in that case, however, I think parents using this method is at risk of holding back their child because the book combines reading and writing skills. Many children, especially boys, will be able to read words long before they will have the fine motor control to write those words. Perhaps in a classroom setting there is a need to tie writing to reading so that the teacher can evaluate the student’s level of proficiency, but there is no need for this at home, so I would recommend that anyone using this book do handwriting separately, if at all. (And be aware that if you follow the author’s advice to allow your child to form the letters in any way they want, you will probably incur the wrath of the K or 1st grade teacher who decides to break the child of the bad habit of ‘incorrect’ letter formation.)

I’m also a little unsure about the idea of using the Book of Mormon. On the one hand, it may allow the parent to increase efficiency by combining reading and scripture study. On the other hand, I’m not sure the spiritual impact of scripture reading can be had in full if you are struggling through every other word. Perhaps reading instruction would detract too much from the spiritual instruction.

To sum: I think this program would be effective in teaching most children to read, although I don’t think it uses the best methodology for teaching reading and therefore may hinder some children. In general, I think the book Phonics Pathways and many, many early readers from the library is a better method. But this book is nonetheless a viable option for parents who want to teach their children to read.

I would, however, strongly discourage all parents from following the math curriculum in this book, which consists of having the child memorize numerals from flashcards and then finding those numbers in the Book of Mormon (i.e., verse numbers, chapter numbers, etc.) I think rote memorization of numbers will reap a dreadful harvest because it ignores two crucial elements of early mathematics education: one-to-one correspondence and place value. If you want to give your preschooler a leg up in math, then play “store” with household objects and coins, measure water into various containers, count anything you find, read library books on math topics (an excellent list can be found here), but please don’t ask your child to memorize 27.

That said, I’m pleased to see an LDS author create curriculum that is easily implemented by parents and takes seriously our spiritual heritage, even if I would have preferred a different execution.

30 comments for “Book Review: Head Start with the Book of MormonBook Cover

  1. July 26, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Interesting, Julie, thanks. I’ve always been interested in methods for teaching reading — who knows why, since I’ve never really had much of a chance to use any. (True confession: I once wrote a series of reading lessons — straight phonics — for teens and young adults, based on the Star Trek universe. If I make that public confession, it can’t be used against me for blackmail, right?)

    Are there other books that use Mormon scripture or history for homeschoolers?

  2. Julie M. Smith
    July 26, 2007 at 10:29 pm

    Ardis, I’d love to see those Star Trek lessons!

    I’ve come across some LDS curriculum from time to time, but never anything that clicked with me enough to try using it.

  3. m&m
    July 26, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    On the other hand, I’m not sure the spiritual impact of scripture reading can be had in full if you are struggling through every other word.

    Not sure about this, although I understand the concern. I think one of the things that helped me learn and comprehend and even speak Spanish was laboring through the Book of Mormon. And interestingly, as I labored, I gained things that I wouldnt’ have gained otherwise. I just wouldn’t underestimate the possibility that this could end up being a good thing.

    Unless, of course, the child simply hated it and all that it did was create a negative Pavlovian connection with the BoM.

  4. Eve
    July 26, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    “True confession: I once wrote a series of reading lessons — straight phonics — for teens and young adults, based on the Star Trek universe. If I make that public confession, it can’t be used against me for blackmail, right?)”

    Ardis, I love it! You are absolutely brilliant.

  5. Ray
    July 26, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    Personally, I’ve always been critical of much of the Mormon-focused marketing that I see, particularly those things that don’t have a direct relationship to spirituality and seem to be created simply to help members spend money in a way that makes them think they are supporting Mormonism in some way. That’s a pet peeve, however, so I might be over-reacting.

    I use the Book of Mormon in our family scripture study time to help my young children learn new vocabulary and critical analysis skills – but I would never (and I mean never) use it as an introductory reading tool. As Julie said, learning to read can be difficult and painful for many children – and I don’t want my children to associate reading the BofM with pain and frustration. When they read it, I want them to focus on meaning and interpretation, not on phonics, phonetic awareness, and grammar – especially since the grammar is not classically proper English grammar.

    In this case, Mormon children don’t learn to read (physiologically) any different than children of other faiths (or lack of faith), so why create materials that approach learning to read from what inevitably ends up being a compromise of best practices? Given Julie’s review, that probably should focus on the math instruction more than the reading instruction, but an mis-application of anything usually is a bad thing.

    There’s my shy two cents’ worth.

  6. Julie M. Smith
    July 26, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    m & m,

    Your comment does a really good job of expanding my thoughts on the matter: children who have difficulty reading may disdain the scriptures, while other children may associate the positive feelings of accomplishment associated with learning to read with the scriptures.

    I also meant to refer to the Church’s program for teaching literacy in the original post; you can learn more about it here:,17884,7453-1,00.html

    I understand that it is designed for adults; I don’t know whether it would work well for children.

  7. Ray
    July 26, 2007 at 10:46 pm

    m&m, there is a BIG difference between a child learning to read for the first time and a fluent reader learning a second language – someone who understands clearly the benefits of learning that language and who has chosen intentionally to accept the difficulties involved.

  8. Melinda
    July 27, 2007 at 12:33 am

    I’ve been studying methods for teaching reading this summer because my niece has been struggling with reading. I’m tutoring her. The phonics book I picked up was, “Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It.” Phonics is good, but it overreaches in some areas and learning phonics confused my niece in some areas. For example, the book (and spelling worksheets my niece brought home from school) taught the rule “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” We’ve had a real chore to get her to unlearn that rule and read words like “sweat” and “fraud” correctly. She also picked up the idea that letters only made one particular sound. She spelled ‘the’ as ‘tha’ and ‘nut’ as ‘nat’ because of the vowel sound in ‘what.’ Another phonics thing that has confused her is blends, like ‘st’ and ‘br’. She’ll chunk sounds and read ‘sting’ instead of ‘sing’ and ‘brought’ instead of ‘bought.’ We’ve had to work hard on visual perception, on reading just the letters on the page rather than trying to recognize the whole word at once (not phonics, but another thing that came home on her worksheets that has been disastrous when she’s combined that idea with blends).

    It’s been fascinating to unravel how she’s tried so hard that she’s confused herself. She’s definitely a case of just needing a different teaching method because she’s never had problems with motivation (other than the discouragement of noticing she can’t read as well as her friends). We’ve settled on using the Phonographix reading method described in “Reading Reflex” by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness. It teaches phonemic awareness and decoding with a multi-sensory method and without phonics rules like the “two vowels” walking rule and others. I’ve enjoyed watching her “light bulb” moments as a concept clicks for her.

    Her handwriting is still pretty atrocious. She writes from the bottom of the line up, rather than top of the letter down. I don’t know if the teachers just let her make letters any way she wanted to, or if she rebelled after she got rid of those kindergarten handwriting sheets with the arrows on the letters. I’ve decided there’s a lot to be said for teaching children to write the letters in one specific way, but it’s not a battle I’m going to fight with her.

    It’s been enough work for me as the teacher to learn a method to teach reading that I doubt I’d try to learn a second teaching method unless a child really needed a different approach.

  9. July 27, 2007 at 1:18 am

    Julie, thanks for this post. I love your reviews!

    Ardis, I don’t think I can blackmail you, but I can bug the dickens out of you for as long as it takes until you make your Star Trek lessons available to me (just ask Julie how relentless I can be!).

    So cough them up already.

  10. m&m
    July 27, 2007 at 2:15 am

    m&m, there is a BIG difference between a child learning to read for the first time and a fluent reader learning a second language – someone who understands clearly the benefits of learning that language and who has chosen intentionally to accept the difficulties involved.

    That doesn’t mean that all children will make a negative association though. I don’t think there is “one right answer” on this one.

    But FWIW, I also have my reservations about too much Mormon marketing. Still don’t know where the line is between appropriate and not though.

    Julie, also just wanted to say thanks for the review. And Ardis, I agree with Idahospud. “Cough them up already.”

  11. Peter LLC
    July 27, 2007 at 2:43 am

    “The phonics book I picked up was, “Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It.””

    That’s a good place to learn both phonics and polemics.

  12. Matt W.
    July 27, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Julie, since you are insterested in this sort of Curricula, I wondered if you are unaware of Grant Von Harrison’s “Teaching your Children To Read Using the Book of Mormon”. You can read more about it here. Grant’s fairly well known for his “drawing on the powers of heaven” and “anynone can baptise” books, and also for his rumored work consulting on the missionary guide.

  13. July 27, 2007 at 9:15 am

    The Star Trek lessons were pre-computer (early ’80s) and are on paper in one of the many boxes in my closet. We’ll have a party to search for them.

    I can’t remember for sure, but wasn’t it one of the “Why Johnny Can’t” sequels that described the author’s teaching his grandson to read, with word lists in the back illustrating the sequence of letters/sounds that author taught? Whichever book that was, I used as the basis of my Star Trek lessons — I listed all the names and space words I could think of, then added them to the author’s lists in the appropriate places (you might as well practice on “Kirk” along with “bird” and “tribble” instead of “griddle,” no?), then wrote short sentences featuring those words in the patterns used by the published model, then simple three- or four-sentence stories about or conversations among the characters. I never had a chance to use them to see if they worked, but I had in mind the kind of boys who were in my high school classes who spent their time drawing aliens or space ships blowing up planets instead of reading.

    If I were doing that today, instead of Star Trek I would probably try to do it with names and words from Mormon history or scripture stories.

  14. Adam Greenwood
    July 27, 2007 at 9:22 am

    Is ‘anynone can baptise’ a freudian slip?

    Don’t worry, stranger. I’m smiling when I say that.

  15. July 27, 2007 at 9:26 am

    Melinda, I heart your niece. Phonics made perfect sense to me and I think my mother’s phonics drills are what made the difference between my reading and the poor reading of many of my elementary school classmates (we were taught look-and-say at school). Even so, when it came to the seemingly arbitrary rules that we just had to memorize, I tended to over-think, like your niece.

    I misspelled the word as “achEIvement” in the 5th grade, and remember the humiliation of the teacher laughing at me when I defended myself by saying “i before e, except after c.” She thought I was joking, but I was serious — nobody had ever said that that rule applied only when “i” and “e” immediately followed “c” so I thought that rule must apply to “achievement” too. I didn’t understand (then) why the teacher laughed, I was frustrated, and it was another year or two before I caught on. Bless you for trying to help your niece through those struggles!

  16. Jonathan Green
    July 27, 2007 at 9:37 am

    The von Harrison curriculum doesn’t actually result in notable reading improvement, but children do learn to associate their current reading level with intense feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

  17. Julie M. Smith
    July 27, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Melinda, bless you for helping your niece. I hope you won’t think that the way she learned (which sounds truly awful) is the only way that “phonics” can be taught. (I also confess that everything that I’ve found that works requires one-to-one instruction for 40 minutes/week and therefore isn’t realistic for kids in a school setting, so I have no easy answers.)

    Matt W., thanks for that link even though it scared me (and made me laugh). I guess that fact that Adam and Eve chose to use the scriptures to teach their children to read (when, of course, they had so many other books available to choose from) really seals the deal, doesn’t it? That said, I scanned a few pages of the actual curriculum and it didn’t look nearly as bad as the article that you linked to–unnecessarily complicated and long, maybe a little intimidating to parents, but not that bad.

    Ardis, that story is hilarious (although I’m sorry your teacher laughed at you).

  18. July 27, 2007 at 10:26 am

    Ardis, that story is hilarious (although I’m sorry your teacher laughed at you).

    I’ve recovered from the shame, but not from the obsessive determination to know how often the rule is wrong:

    I before E except after C
    Or when sounded as A as in “neighbor” and “weigh.”
    And except “seize” and “seizure” and also “leisure,”
    “Weird,” “height” and “either,” “forfeit,” “their,” “neither.”
    And “financier.”

  19. Julie M. Smith
    July 27, 2007 at 10:33 am

    English is such a bizarre language. It is a miracle anyone ever learns to read or spell correctly.

  20. Melinda
    July 27, 2007 at 11:27 am

    Ardis, yes, the book with the word lists in the back you mention in #13 is one of they “Why Johnny Can’t” books. And translating it into Star Trek is just priceless! But I won’t be really impressed until you come up with a series of phonics-based instruction to learn Klingon.

    Our school district’s webpage states that the district doesn’t use one specific reading curriculum, but lets teachers develop their own blend of phonics and whole language ideas for each class. I don’t think that’s such a great idea. Of course, the books I’ve been reading are written by the experts who have designed curricula for the classroom and think their curriculum ought to be used exclusively. But it does make sense to use just one method to teach reading rather than mixing up several methods. I’m not all that impressed with our school district.

    My niece does need a lot of one-on-one time for instruction. Some kids learn well in large group settings, and some kids don’t. She’s one of the ones that doesn’t. One of the major advantages of homeschooling is that your child can’t get by without learning to read well just because she tries hard and has a good attitude. My niece was getting As in language arts because of her good attitude, even though she was reading a year and a half below her grade level! Because of her good grades, we didn’t find out about her problem until the end of third grade. If the teachers had given her grades that reflected her knowledge instead of her attitude, we would have known at least a year earlier about her difficulties.

    My niece was willing to work with me this summer because her mom said she wouldn’t have to do worksheets if she’d meet with me. About a week ago, I slipped and referred to one of the pages I’d made for her as a ‘worksheet.’ “No,” she corrected me, “my mom said I don’t have to do worksheets this summer.” I immediately apologized. Then I watched the wheels in her head go round and round. “Hey!” she burst out. “This is even worse than worksheets! This is like summer school! My mom put me in summer school!” She was aghast. Fortunately, she’s still working. I guess she decided summer school isn’t so bad.

  21. Julie M. Smith
    July 27, 2007 at 11:39 am

    Melinda, if you need some ideas for non-worksheet worksheets:

    (1) window markers (also called glass markers) and write everything on a glass window or door
    (2) smallish white board and markers
    (3) treasure hunts (she has to read the clues and follow them to find the ‘treasure’ that you hid for her–the clues can contain whatever words/skills she needs work on)
    (4) “the phonics game” (if you have ceramic tile on the floor, use those as the game board–if not, improvise. Write the words on flashcards. She gets to take a step forward when she reads it correctly. After a certain number of steps, she gets a few chocolate chips or whatever.
    (5) Open your word processor and write out the lessons there and do them on-screen with her.
    (6) Tactile things: string dipped in glue, pieces of spaghetti, beans, etc. to form the words.

  22. m&m
    July 27, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    If you dont mind answering, what is your thought on the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons?

    English is such a bizarre language. It is a miracle anyone ever learns to read or spell correctly.


    Your 18 was a classic.
    And I will come help you look through books for the Star Trek Papers.

  23. Melinda
    July 27, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    Thanks for the suggestions, Julie. Her favorite game so far has been “sound bingo”. She insists on playing all the way to blackout instead of stopping at bingo.

  24. Ray
    July 27, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    BTW, I was a classroom teacher, then I made my living for almost 10 years in instructional technology focused on early reading (pre-K through 2), so I have tried very hard to avoid getting into a discussion of best practices. My advice to everyone who helps someone learn to read is to study learning modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.), evaluate the child in question, then look for programs or tools that are designed to address that child’s dominant modality. A quick Google search on “learning modalities” will yield plenty of results, and a direct question to the Curriculum Director should produce sources – if that CD is more qualified than a box of bricks.

    For years, classroom instruction favored auditory learners – those who could learn from the classic lecture style. Currently, there has been an over-shift toward project learning – which is great for some kids, but lousy for the auditory learners. In math, memorization of facts used to be the primary method. Now, there has been an over-correction to word problems. Balance is achieved (or acheived?) in few classrooms, where teachers have so much to do that they end up picking one modality to the exclusion of others. Generally, teachers gravitate to their own dominant modality – sometimes without conscious thought or intent.

    That’s my contribution to practical solutions. Know the child and pick something designed with that child in mind. There are plenty of good things available at this time; don’t try now to create your own. (Any district that encourages teachers to create their own curricula . . . I don’t want to finish that rant – since I would use words like idiotic, weak-willed, gutless, crapola, malpractice, insurrection, etc.)

  25. Ray
    July 27, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Sorry; Curriculum Director of your local school district. I knew what I meant.

  26. Julie M. Smith
    July 27, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    m & m, I know people who have used 100 Easy with great success, so I think it is a viable option. I preferred Phonics Pathways because it seemed cleaner and simpler to me and didn’t require the child to learn something that they would later unlearn.

  27. July 27, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    Yep, we’re a 100 Easy Lessons family–our book is very tattered but the kids are readers. The learn-and-unlearn parts that Julie refers to are visual cues like putting the line over a vowel to show that it is long, or hooking together a t and h to indicate that together, they make the “th” sound. As the lessons progress, the cues are phased out, and by the end of the book, none remain. So I do recommend the program. I can’t speak to Phonics Pathways because I have never looked closely at it–what we have has worked so far, but with two more kids to go, I don’t rule out any future changes.

  28. m&m
    July 28, 2007 at 2:09 am

    Thanks, Julie. I’m glad you thought it was good (I respect your opinion a great deal in these matters) since I’ve already used it. I used it more as a guide, though, rather than a strict program to follow. I gave up writing and just worked out of the book directly, and didn’t focus much on the writing part for the kids either. If for no other reason, I loved it because of what it taught me about how to teach (e.g., did you know D says “d” and not “duh”?) and good concrete things for them to work on.

  29. Julie M. Smith
    July 28, 2007 at 9:23 am

    Well now I can add Idahospud and m & m to my list of people who have used and enjoyed it!

    For anyone interested in teaching a young child to read, I’d recommend either Phonics Pathways, 100 Easy, or the Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Reading. I think the differences between the three are more a matter of style than substance and any one of the three should produce a competent reader.

  30. Liz
    September 22, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    “When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking” is not a legitimate phonics rule and I am surprised anyone still uses it. “The ABC’s and All Their tricks” is a great phonics reference book, and any Spalding based program will teach phonics in a way that makes sense. Our language is not just arbitrary. I have taught all three of my kdis to read and several other children from church. My favorite program is from the Riggs Institute although it is designed for classroom use more than one on one. I just adapted it.

    Simply waiting until kids are older and want to learn to read and make the whole process faster and less painful. One of my children learned to read at age 8 and the other two at age 10. The older read at adult level within 2 years of learning to read. My daughter started stealing my Wall Street Journal to read when she was 12 and she was one who started to read at 10. Some kids develop slower than others, this is not a sign of disability or lack of intelligence. The kids I taught to read were late-bloomers who had been traumatized by school. Once I worked with them they did just fine. They were simply not ready when the subjects were introduced.

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