At a recent homeschooling conference, many parents stopped by our booth to ask questions and, sometimes, to challenge the idea that there is a viable approach to reading instruction that is not based in a highly sequenced and regimented phonics package.
As I spoke with several apprehensive parents, I found myself asking, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, "So, what curriculum DID you use when you taught your child to talk?"
Of course, they all smiled and gave the same answer. No one uses a package curriculum to teach young children the basic elements of our spoken language! The vast majority of children learn to talk very fluently by the time they are 3 years old through a total immersion yet casual process that seems to come naturally to loving parents/grandparents/caretakers of preschool children.
Think about this for a few minutes. A baby, in the womb, can probably hear her mother speaking and, even though there is absolutely no comprehension taking place, the fetus becomes familiar with her mother's voice. She can, most likely, hear other voices and sounds as well. After the trauma of birth, the child is comforted by those familiar voices. Soon the baby begins to associate sounds and maybe even words with important events...like taking nourishment from her mother, and being embraced by loving family members. She learns that the sounds she makes can cause the desired reactions from the adults in her life. It's a give and take world!
Without going through every stage in her development through infancy and toddler-hood (we do go into more detail in our book), I think you can see where I am going with this discussion: the child, through a very simple hypothesis testing approach, soon discovers how to get what she wants through speech, and how the language of others is guiding her to an understanding of the basic yet important concepts about life. A young child is hard wired to learn language. The natural language-learning process is very efficient and effective.
Now contrast this with a fictional mother who, from the child's earliest days of her newborn's life, thinks she needs to use a packaged speech learning program designed for infants. The creators of this hypothetical curriculum caution the user that the program's scientifically-based sequence MUST follow the prescribed order of learning to a tee to maximize the benefits. This packaged speech learning program comes with cutesy phoneme people and trinkets to be used as rewards when the child "says it just right" during each daily lesson.
Of course this is silly, but I use it to demonstrate an important idea: your child learned to talk through total immersion in a speech-rich environment.
The best thing you can do as your child is learning about print is to immerse her in print.
Respond to her questions about books, and enjoy lots of fun stories together. Play with magnetic letters and printed words in increasingly purposeful ways (we show you how). At a reasonable point in time, these fun, casual experiences can morph into more purposeful and directed reading lessons...without losing the joy that comes with sharing books and other print-based resources together.
In short, it may not be as "natural" as learning spoken language, but a learning to read process that has real books as the core of the approach is a very doable, enjoyable, and successful way to teach a child to read.