Think of something your parents taught you as a child that you have felt (or would feel) confident teaching your own children. Maybe how to do the laundry or to cook an egg; how to knit; how to brush your teeth; how to throw a baseball; how to ride a bike; how to drive a car or navigate by public transport. We feel qualified to teach these things because they were taught to us in a natural, organic sort of way. But what about teaching our children how to read? I would guess that not many of us actually remember how we were taught how to read, besides the fact that it probably happened in school. I have a vague memory of wearing headphones in a dark, quiet lab where I would listen to letter sounds. Perhaps because we don’t remember many of the details, we might think that reading instruction is better left to the “professionals”.
I’ve had the privilege of teaching 4 of our 5 children how to read and I must say that there are few lightbulb moments greater than when reading finally “clicks” for a child; knowing that they now hold the keys to learning whatever they want. The reality is that learning to read doesn’t happen overnight, but much like the skills above, it can happen in an organic, natural sort of way for our children.
Preparing the soil for learning to read
1. Read: It may seem obvious, but in order for your home to be one filled with thriving readers, there must be a culture of reading and stories modeled by parents and siblings. Children need to have easy access to reading material and will be motivated to do what they see others enjoying. They need to hear stories being read aloud (If for some reason you are unconvinced or unaware of the benefits and power of reading aloud to your children, read The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon). We regularly max out all of our library cards and have loads of books in bins and on shelves ready to read. We hit the charity shops trying to find new treasures. While in the US we participated in summer reading challenges where the prize was a free book!
Over the years, as I have made much of books and reading, my kids have also come to love sitting with a good book. I suggest subscribing to Sarah MacKenzie’s Read Aloud Revival Podcast for some great inspiration about how to build this culture in your home.
2. Be informed and inspired: A few books that I have recently enjoyed while being at the very beginning stages of teaching our youngest to read are A Nurturing Way to Teach Your Child to Read , The Read-Aloud Family, and The Enchanted Hour. They are easy reads (or listens) and are filled with both formal and informal ideas to use with your children. You will come back to them often.
3. Play games that foster an awareness of letters and phonemic principles (see resource list below).
4. Sing Songs that incorporate letters and their sounds (see below) and be prepared to have them stuck in your head for days!
5. Print out or bookmark the pre-reading checklist to have an idea as to whether or not your child might be ready for more formal instruction. Here they are in a nutshell:
- Motivation to Read
- Print Awareness
- Letter Knowledge
- Phonological Awareness
- Listening Comprehension
For an explanation of these concepts go here.
6. Lastly, read, read, and READ some more! Fairy tales, poetry, picture books, nursery rhymes, etc. Not sure what you should be reading to your children? Here are a few booklists to get you going at All About Reading and the Read Aloud Revival. Basically you want to find books that tell good stories and/or develop phonological awareness (like rhyming words in poems or nursery rhymes).
Watering the seeds of curiosity
As soon as I see signs of motivation to read, I begin to be a bit more intentional with my guidance. Our youngest has been into writing “notes” to people lately (because she sees her older siblings doing it). She will write some “letters” then ask me what it says. The other day she told me that fish was “gr-, gr-, gross”. She enjoys playing Go Fish ABCs and other games with her daddy. These are all signs that she is curious about letters, sounds, words and how they work together.
Important Insight: Kids will be ready for formal instruction when they are motivated to learn. This means that some will be motivated at 3 (if, for example, older siblings are reading and writing) and others not until 5, 6 or older (when they realize that they need to be able to read in order to learn about a particular topic). When we push reading instruction too early, there is a good chance our children will see it as a chore and not as a delight.
Once you see that your child is ready for more formal learning, their name is a great place to introduce the idea that words have value because they carry meaning. I can tell my daughter that “Camille” is a very important word because it means YOU! The great thing about beginning any formal reading instruction with your own children is that you don’t have to worry about tests, benchmarks, or standards. It is simply a time to enjoy watching your child’s mind expand.
If you are on a strict budget:
- Print out the placement tests at All About Reading and use them as a checklist of sorts to guide your formal instruction.
- Watch the First Step Reading videos with your child and practice the concepts taught.
- Watch Youtube channels devoted to phonics like: Preschool Prep Meet the Phonics Series
If you can afford it, (and I believe it’s worth investing in because it’s one of the greatest gifts you could possibly give your child):
Purchase a simple phonics curriculum. Think of it as another tool, not something to be followed at all costs . Find something in your budget, and stick with it. My kids have gone through the Sing, Spell, Read and Write curriculum which is probably considered “old school” by now, but it worked for us. We never completed every bit of it. Because my objective was to help my kids learn to read, we spent very little time on the “spelling” and “writing” aspects of the curriculum. Your child may love the process of copying letters and words and may spend much more time doing so than mine did. With our youngest, we are experimenting with Jolly Phonics since we are currently living in the U.K. Depending on where you live, you may need to considering shipping costs of these programs.
Important Insight: If you use an online phonics program like Reading Eggs, ABC Mouse, or Khan Academy Kids you will need to closely monitor children as they work. If yours are like mine, they will end up playing games, watching videos, or listening to “Do you know the Muffin Man” a million times instead of learning phonics concepts. This is why I prefer a “hard copy” curriculum that includes leveled readers that contain good stories.
Pruning the branches of growth
Continue to work with your child, providing him with reading material that varies between:
1. Material that he can read fluently with no assistance.
2. Material that is just out of his reach that he will need some guidance with.
3. Material that is too difficult to read, but lovely to listen to. Think about the books that you read or listen to for pleasure. Perhaps your vocabulary is very sophisticated, but in my case, there are usually a handful of words that I see or hear that I’m not familiar with. It doesn’t keep me from enjoying the story or the content of what is being shared in a non-fiction book. The same applies for our children. They are never too old for a read-aloud or audiobook and will be learning the elements of story (as well as grammatical structure, vocabulary, content, etc.) as they listen.
What if my child is not progressing?
If you find that formal lessons turn into a source of frustration, pull back. Return to reading aloud, songs, videos, or whatever else it was that ignited your child’s interest in reading. When you do return to formal instruction, take it slow so that your child does not feel any pressure.
If you sense that your child may have a specific reading challenge like dyslexia you may want to read more at Homeschooling With Dyslexia or contact a local reading specialist.
As you commit to the hard, but rewarding task of inspiring a love of story and learning in your little ones, I wish you an abundant harvest of delighted readers for years to come.
ABC Bingo (there are many variations of this one)
Dobble– practicing associating words with a symbol
“I spy…something that starts with the letter….” Can be played anywhere.
Books for you:
Books for the kids:
Action Alphabet by Dr. Jean (to go along with the YouTube song)