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How I got Little Bun to read and do math by the age of 3

So a little bit of background, Little Bun is 5 at the time of this writing, and in brief:

English – He reads my emails out loud, he understands instructions in his activity books on his own and he can spell pretty well, but longer words like Christmas, he needs help with. He is at a Grade 2/3 level right now.

He can understand about 75% what he is reading too, not just read the words, but get the message. He practices reading comprehension and word problems on emails my mother writes to him and from activity books.

Math – He can do addition and subtraction with 2-digits in his head, he can do simple (up to 12X) multiplication and division in his head, and for long multiplication or division, he does it on paper.

He knows all of his squares up to 12, he knows simple fractions, can do BEDMAS with simple operations, decimals we are working on, knows basic geometry, and we will be doing easy algebra next after he masters long division and decimals.

To get him there, this is what I did.

PLEASE. NOTE. This is just what I did, it doesn’t mean it will work on every child, and that it is the best strategy. I am only talking about what I did and if it works for you too, great!

So before we begin….

Do not force them to do anything

I never made him study or do anything on a schedule at any age, at any time.

I just suggest things, and sometimes he suggests new games like – Mommy, let’s do the long division game!

If he wants to stop, we stop. I don’t force him, I don’t yell at him, I repeat, I show him the same concept over and over again, and I test him to see if he understood it or not, but I NEVER force him to sit down and do it.

Understand that each child is different

My child is introverted, quiet, he doesn’t like a lot of stimulation or action, and is overwhelmed by it. Just like we are. Maybe he inherited it.

He likes to read, he asks a lot of questions, he is very curious and playful, and your child is too, but to some level. Do not compare children to each other but play to their strengths as individuals – the same way it is done with us as adults.

My friend tried playing with number cards with her daughter (same age) and she couldn’t care less about it. *shrug* Don’t force them.

Make it a game

It is fun. I make math fun, I am genuinely excited about it, I love discovering new things in books, and many books make it so easy to learn that I wish I had them as a child.

But make it fun. Funny gestures, funny noises, etc.

He even came up with a Stuffed Animal Math Journey game on his own, where the animal had to go through checkpoints and to make it through he had to do math, score “bonus” points by getting the answer quickly, and hit “high scores”.

ALL OF THIS WORKS. He loved doing equations to get his stuffed animal to the finish line.

Children are sponges

Their brains until about the age of 5-6 is so open to new concepts and learning that you can teach them ANYTHING and they will pick it up.

I heard this from two math teachers, and I immediately started when he was 18 months because I wanted to see where it could go – couldn’t hurt right?

I was blown away by how much he picked up, and now he has advanced beyond what I ever thought was possible.

They can truly absorb all sorts of concepts, and math is the best time to be introduced at this age so that they are unfettered by what they know of numbers.

I thought he would just know his alphabet and count to 100. This child is doing simple fractions now and once we master that, we will do some basic algebra or geometry (which he already has learned a little)…


Flash Cards

I made my own flash cards in French and English, for each alphabet letter in uppercase and lowercase letters in fun colours with pictures.

A – Abeille (Bee) and A – Apple for instance.

You can find a whole set from Mr. Printables that I used as a model.

I did not take their cards specifically, because I wanted other words for certain letters in either language, and so I made my own, and printed them at Staples on thick white paper so they would be durable.

I’d ask him to find the matches for each of the letters, A with A, and then using flash cards to spell out titles on books.

So he’d look at GOODNIGHT MOON, and say:

G – Giraffe

O – Octopus

O – Octopus

D – Dog

M – Moon

… etc.

He used those flash card words to identify them with each of the book title letters. This was interminably long, because each time we’d read a book, he’d painstakingly “spell” the titles.

But it’s okay, it worked for him.

Sound out the letters

This is apparently an outdated form of teaching, but I found it helped him see what the word would sound like if he sounded it out.

You know, A for “AHHH”, B for “BUHHH”…

They don’t do this in schools any more, and kids are supposed to look at the word as a whole and know/memorize it, but it is helpful for larger words for him to know what it might sound like.

It has now become natural for him to sound it out, but not with “buh buh kuh kuh” sounds, just with seeing the syllables in the word as a whole, if that makes sense.

You also read much faster if you read the whole word at once rather than spelling it out.

Free-Spelling Cards

Later, as he became more advanced, I found a game in a thrift store for $3, and wrote my own letters in the back in fun colours with a sharpie so that he could free spell his own words, sentences, etc.

He spelled this at .. age 3 ? And we didn’t have enough for DADDY, so he told me to go to the store to “buy more Daddy”. LOL.

Slowly going through books

By about age 2.5 he was reading

From there, we started reading books that were easy, mostly Eric Carle-style books, and I would tap each word slowly, read it out loud, and encourage him to recognize words.

I’d say – The cow jumped over the ..?? … and I’d pause. If he didn’t respond within 10 seconds, I’d say – MOON! .. M-O-O-N spells MOON!

By about age 2, he was spelling at the back of the car, telling me D-O-G spelled DOG. I almost crashed the car when I heard his baby voice tell me different spellings of words!

By the age of 3, he was fully reading on his own with baby books. We did shared reading – I’d do one page, he’d do another.

He still preferred me to read the book, and was having a little trouble with comprehension with new books/words, but practice makes perfect and I’d ask him – did you understand what the book was about? My goodness look at that silly cat! .. and I’d explain the book to him, and then we’d read it again and he would absorb more of the words and their meanings.

By about age 4, he was reading slightly harder books on his own, but then he started understanding what he was reading – not just reading it or pronouncing it, but getting what the message meant.

Each time we came across a word I wasn’t sure he’d know, I’d explain it in another way. He once read: Out of Exile on my playlist in the car, and I launched into a monologue about Exile and what that word meant – not being allowed to come back (that was the gist of my explanation).

Later, I used it on him and told him – Little Bun! If you don’t behave, you’re going to be exiled!!! … and he seemed to “get” what that word meant.

I do this with all words I think are tricky. I explain everything. I talk until I am hoarse, and I am always using new words, explaining, etc.

He asks me sometimes what words mean and I try my best to explain it to him, using real-life examples.


For math, we started with him playing on the iPad with my partner. He is the one who kicked off his love for numbers with the Calculator app of all things.

Little Bun LOVED seeing numbers pop up on the calculator, and soon my partner had him saying numbers by the age of 2 or so.

I found little matching number cards at a thrift store for $1 that looked like fun. I used them to teach him numbers, put them in order,

Same thing – I made a game out of it. I made him put numbers in order, and by the age of 2.5 he was recognizing numbers into the hundreds of thousands.

I’d stack down 3627 and he would say: three thousand, six hundred, twenty-seven.

I repeated over and over again this game (it was fun, not forced), and even up to the hundreds of thousands but he had trouble recognizing the invisible comma between the groups of 3 numbers.

By age 3.5 he was doing simple addition with my partner on the calculator, which I then mirrored and reinforced.

We did addition first, then subtraction.

He was using his fingers a lot between the ages of 3-4. He still sort of reverts to it, but now at age 5, he is doing subtraction in his head with the tens and ones.

You can give him any number like 35 minus 15 and he can do it in his head now.

Use Visual Methods and add funny gestures

I had a very visual method to teach him math, using paper, and crossing out numbers, etc. I tried to show him with circles, with little pictures, anything.

For addition, I’d teach him to add the ones first, then carry the tens over.

For subtraction, I’d teach him to try and subtract the ones first, then borrow from the tens.

Very basic, simple, fun stuff. I’d add in funny gestures like: UH OH! We don’t have enough ones to subtract! What should we do?

If he made mistakes, I’d correct them and reinforce it with more examples so he learned it properly.

We moved from one digit addition and subtraction to two-digit, then three-digit, then 4-digit until I was satisfied he got it.

After he did that, we moved on to simple multiplication and division.

Again, one-digit, then two-digit, etc.

Multiplication, he straight up memorized them. There is no other way.

He wanted to move on to division because he thought multiplication was too easy and it got to the point where I told him he had to memorize his multiplication COLD before division, because the two are fact families.

So, he studied when I went to work. I know this because he practically slept with his Usborne Times Table Book.

Try cute concepts like Fact Families

He likes the concept of ‘families’ and ‘fact families’ and now, will occasionally give me an answer in the form of a riddle.

If I ask him: What is 20 plus 5?

He will answer: The answer is 5 squared!

(Yes he also memorized all the squares up to 12.)

I tell him that division is the opposite of multiplication, and he loves the idea of how all the numbers fit together in one big puzzle.

Break down the numbers

With long division, I showed him how to divide it out, and multiplication how to multiply it out and look at the numbers by breaking them down.

25 is two tens and one 5 for instance, and I’d work with him to puzzle it out.

I’d say: What is two times 25? What is two times 5? Add those two together! That’s your answer.

Now we are currently on fractions and decimals…

He just did this page by himself when I was at work.

Please note his super cute addition of the 3/3 = 2/2 line, to show that they are BOTH one whole fractions. <3

This is quite easy for him now, and I am going to start doing larger fractions and making him break it down with division or to build it up to a common denominator and do some addition or subtraction with it.

I also taught him BEDMAS – Brackets, Exponents, Decimals, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction, and that DM = equivalent operations, and AS = equivalent operations.

I gave him simple BEDMAS equations to puzzle out and he loves them because they challenge him.

My book & app recommendations

This whole right side? ALL LITTLE BUN.

I used a mix of books and iPad apps.

Say what you will about screen time, those apps are amazing. Kids love them, they’re fun, interactive, and he learned SO MUCH from it.

When you make learning fun, kids want to do it. If you make learning boring, a chore, and something you have to do, that stresses everyone out and achieves nothing except make the child hate learning… and school.

For activity books, I find Sylvan Learning to be the most fun, with colours and interesting problems, ideas, etc.

For smaller books that are easier to carry or tote around on vacation, you can look at the FlashKids set which is fun, but repetitive to the point of boredom (for me anyway) and without colour.

Lastly, for general fun learning:


If you want to see his entire library of books, the full book list of what is on our bookshelves is here.

These apps I found helpful for English:

  • Endless Monsters – they have alphabet, Spanish, numbers, the whole range – they are SO MUCH FUN and cute.
  • Mobile Montessori – Again also has numbers and shapes, etc.
  • Mindsnacks – Lots of languages, English and French are well done, fun games to play with but the pictures can be a bit strange – they’re photos rather than created images for the app (and odd but not creepy ones at that sometimes), so.. be forewarned it may not be as buttoned up as you expect…


Hands down, this Usborne trio set on math has been transformational. I know Little Bun is a bit unusual, but he really really really loves these 3 books on math. He also goes wild for this Computers and Coding one (I learned a lot too.)



  • Sarah

    Tried to comment yesterday, but it looks like the internet are it, boooo.

    I thought I got the idea for “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” (which is how we taught our son to read at 4). Though daycare had already taught him letter sounds and counting.

    We have been slower at math- just takes longer to click. I had a teacher friend complain about her 1st graders knowing multiplication only by rote, so I’m trying to focus on the foundations. Never thought to try fractions!

    Who knows how much any of this helps. Like you, I’m trying to make learning fun. Are you still going to try to put him in kindergarten, or jump to 1st grade?

    • Sherry of Save. Spend. Splurge.

      Ooo I didn’t know that existed! I ought to check it out.

      I honestly just made math fun. And I started with foundations like you said — these are “groups of 2”, and these are “groups of 4″… a lot of the iPad apps I used have really helped in this regard to show me how they make it fun for kids and I expanded on that. 🙂

      I am putting him in kindergarten, he needs socialization and it is actually better that he is starting later because he knows how to write a little, read, do math, and will feel confident / smart amongst the classmates and not so stressed/worried he doesn’t get it. I read that somewhere with boys that they develop slower in that regard and that intimidation factor at that age can be crucial

      Who knows if it is true but I am hoping it will give him self-esteem and confidence to start in a new school with kids…

      I am trying not to get him to memorize everything by rote… but multiplication is the foundation of division so he has to know it, and has been good at it, although he defaults to his Times Tables book 🙂

  • Gail

    You are a natural teacher! What you are doing could help any child to some degree. Schools where I have taught and where my kids and grandkids have gone DO use the letter sounds with a few sight words to supplement. It seems, here in the parts of the U.S.where we have lived, to have come full circle. With your instincts and his mind Little Bun will stay on top of school always.

    • Sherry of Save. Spend. Splurge.

      Thank you, this means a lot coming from you! I have my mother to thank as well for helping me be a ‘natural’ teacher, and I just see what works for him and that’s what I go with. If it doesn’t seem to sink in, I try another tactic.

  • Steveark

    While there isn’t much evidence that learning math and reading early leads to later academic success I think there is tremendous evidence that learning to love learning does lead to much later success. My mom taught me to love reading at an early age and I became a voracious reader through my teens. This has given me a huge vocabulary, a misspelling and typo radar system and the ability to write well. Even though I went into the technical world as a chemical engineer the communication skills I learned were so valuable in allowing me to rise through the corporate ranks. Like all engineers I was a math wizard as well but it was my reading, writing and presentation skills that allowed me to advance and enjoy my career so much. My mom kept it fun like you, what a gift in life that has been. It’s a little mind bending seeing how you are so much like her in setting your child up for a life of positive opportunities!

    • Sherry of Save. Spend. Splurge.

      Thank you very much. I don’t care so much about the advancement in reading and math, as children catch up VERY QUICKLY and he will be at a disadvantage when he starts as he is a year “behind” (we kept him out of the first year of school), and will have a bit of adjusting to do.

      I just wanted him to enjoy reading, learning, and being curious – the way I was as a child. I wanted him to have a sense of confidence and independence that YES he is reading and doing the math question correctly, and doesn’t have to keep asking me for help. He even does activity books on his own when I am not around, and shows me his work (75% pass at this point.. but trickier concepts like math with time are elusive).

      The reading I will say, has helped immensely. I remember being an early reader with my brother teaching me, and without that core knowledge, I couldn’t have gone through so many books and found learning so easy because I wasn’t struggling with words or comprehension. Even today.

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