How Do You Start Teaching a Child to Read?

I am speaking from experience here, in talking about teaching kids how to read. I’m in the trenches right now. I have a 7 year old, a five year old, and an almost three year old.

I have been through the initial learn to read process with my older children, and I am currently working at home helping my daughter leran to read.

I’m not a trained educator, but I am a very concerned and involved parent, who wants to give her kids the best start possible. I’m working on daily basis right now to help my children learn to read, and also to improve the reading skills they’ve built thus far.

Teaching your child to read at home can seem a daunting task.

Perhaps you try to read with your child by sitting down with them and opening a book and pointing out the letters and words, but your child doesn’t seem interested or doesn’t seem to improve.

The fact is, and preschool and kindergarten teachers know this, that learning to read is a long process that begins well before a child ever sits down with a book.

To teach your child to read, you first have to understand what reading is. Reading is something that we do almost effortlessly, without even thinking about how it is that our brain through our eyes, takes some squiggles on a page and turns them into information.

child looking at a book

At its most basic elements, the act of reading is actually deciphering a code, that you spend months and years learning to master.

The code is the secret of putting together letters that we have a signed arbitrary phonetic sounds to and an order that makes sense. To teach a child to read, you have to teach a child so many things, you have to teach them that these code squiggles exist, what they mean, and how to put them together, and how to decipher them when you read a book.

And this was something that I didn’t understand in the beginning, when we started the learn to read process. I thought that just reading to them was enough, and that by reading to them, my children would observe what I was doing, and just do what I was doing.

I was wrong….and no surprise when my kids did not learn to read at a young age.

I wasn’t teaching them the them the things they needed to start reading at all.

Teaching the code is the first step

The first step in teaching a child to read is introducing your child to the code.

To the letters.

Some educators will teach children ABCs first, just to figure out the names of each of the letters, to be familiar with them, and to be able to identify them at will.

Some educators will skip the naming part of the letters and instead of telling them the name of the letter, they will introduce the letters to the children as the sound that they make. So instead of calling a, a, they would called a, ah. A child may not learn until much later the actual names of the letters in may only recognize them as the sound that they make.

Once your child has learned that the squiggles, I mean the letters, exist, and that these letters correspond to a specific sound, it is at that point you can start to teach the child to combine the sounds into words. No I’m not going to tell you that you can’t start teaching a child different words, or to combine sounds into words as you learn the sounds.

This is a very fluid process that the child will work on for several years. But if you want to jump straight to deciphering a word, your child is going to struggle because they don’t understand the code and how the code corresponds to the sounds, and how the sounds must be combined to create a word.

man sitting on the ground reading a book to a small child on his lap

Even if you are teaching them the code, you still need to read to them

If you have spent any time online or around other parents, you will know that it is incredibly important to read to your kids. There are many reasons to do this, but one of the primary reasons is to introduce them to language. Children don’t read the words along with us as we read them.

If you take your finger out and show them the words as you read, often they will tell you to stop because the book slows down and the flow of the story is interrupted.

What we are doing primarily when we read to them is introduce them to the sounds, and also to complex words. When a child learns to read, it goes much easier if the child recognizes the word that he is trying to sound out.

If you are reading a child a book about rugby, but the child has never heard the word rugby before and has no idea what rugby is, it is going to be very difficult for the child to sound out the word, and then comprehend what that word is. It will not be any easier for the child in the future when they come across the word rugby to sound it out and understand it.

But if a child has a very large and complex vocabulary by the time they begin the learning to read process, it becomes that much easier for them to sound out words and then comprehend what it is that they are reading.  

To help a child develop a complex vocabulary, you can read lots of books to the child, and you can also involve the child in many different diverse experiences. A child will be much more interested in reading about rugby if he has been to a rugby game, for example.

Reading more complex books to encourage development of language

With my own children, I have been working to encourage and develop their vocabulary by reading books to them that are well beyond their own reading level. My oldest son and I have greatly enjoyed reading The Hobbit together.

If you have read The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, you will know that it is not a book that was written for a six year old. It is a book that was written for adults, and is often taught at the high school level.

The book is engaging enough and moves along quickly enough that my son is very interested in what happens, even if he doesn’t always all the words.

As I read, I make sure to edit out any material that I think is too grown up for him. I also remind him that if I ever say a word that he doesn’t understand, that he should interrupt me and ask what the word means.

I don’t think that he always stops me when he doesn’t understand what the word is because he doesn’t want to disrupt the story, but I am confident that it is something that will get into his head and it will make it easier for him to ask about the word or even understand it without asking the next time the word comes up.

small child looking at a picture book

If you aren’t interested in reading appropriate adult level books to your kids, you can also look for next level readers such as chapter books written for children aged 8 through 12 to read to them to help them develop more complex language.

Here are some examples of books or authors that I have read to my kids in the past few years (editting at times slightly for the ages of my kids):

  • A Wrinkle in Time (Madeline L’Engle)
  • Anything by Roald Dahl
  • Stuart Little
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • The Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Mary Poppins
  • Pippi Longstockings
  • Where the Red Fern Grows
  • Robin Hood (the original work)
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • The Wings of Fire books (Sutherland)
  • How to Train your Dragon
  • The Wizard of Oz

I will also admit that we start books and then sometimes we don’t always finish them. The kids lose interest in grown up books at times, if there isn’t enough action or excitement. I don’t get upset about it, I just move on to something else that will hold their attention and allow me to introduce them to new and more sophisticated language.

Introducing him to sight words

When you search the internet for articles about learning to read, inevitably you will come across worksheets and list of sight words, and flash cards. Depending on the language that you speak, it makes sense to help a child memorize words that are really difficult to sound out.

Sight words are words that most of us don’t sound out at all, and if we did, they would not make any sense whatsoever. Words like could, should, and would, are very good examples of words that should be memorized rather than sounded out.

However I don’t recommend that you teach a child to read solely by memorizing. Some people recommend that you teach the child to guess at the word based upon some of the letters that are in it.

I can’t say that this is a great idea, as the child needs to focus on building their reading skills through deciphering the code, because that is how they will read and attack challenging words throughout the rest of their life.

If they are encouraged to guess at words, they are also being encouraged to skip the actual sounding out of the words and will often get the words wrong and have no skills or ability to figure out how to get it right.

With sight words, we have to help deploy the technique of memorizing the word because sounding it out is basically not possible. But we don’t want to focus on this as being the only way to read. If the word can be sounded out, the child should be encouraged to sound it out rather than memorizing it on a flash card.

In general, it is a good idea to employ lots of different exercises and techniques to help your child learn to read. Through all of this, we want to make reading as fun and as enjoyable as possible.

A child who hates the learning to read process will struggle to enjoy reading as they get older. You can start incorporating fun into reading from the beginning, as you start teaching your child the letters of the alphabet or the sounds of the letters.

two boys sitting in the grass reading a book together

You can also incorporate basic writing skills as well as you are teaching him the letters.

If you can engage lots of different parts of his brain, it is more likely that he will learn the letters and their sounds.

Children can learn reading basics while moving, believe it or not! You can teach your children letters while they are jumping running and climbing. They can learn their letters at the beach or at the park. You can work on letters and sounds while painting or drawing.

There is nothing that says that learning to read has to be done at a desk with a basic books. You can incorporate letters and sounds into songs and musical instruments. Playing rhyming games is helping your kids learn language (and ultimately, to be good readers).

You can sit with your child and muscle through basic learn to read books if you like. But if you really focus on helping your child learn the reading “code” you’ll find that those early readers pose no challenge at all, and your child will be hungry for a greater challenge.

Being able to read the simple word doesn’t mean that they can write it, or spell it

Another thing that you can do to facilitate the learn to read process is teach your child to read a specific word, but then also to spell the word and write the word.

My kid, who was previously completely at the bottom of his class because I had no idea how to help him with his reading, is reading at near the top of his class now.

But I found (somewhat hilariously) that he cannot write or spell about 90% percent of the words that he can now read.

His teacher gave me this idea…she asked me to take a dry erase board and ask him to write the words he was reading (without getting to peak at them). And then I could help him spell them correctly, and further commit those words to memory.

Not just the sound and structure, but also for the spelling and writing components, that would translate to success in other parts of his education.

We have been diligently working through the Fry’s first 100 sight words to learn how to write and correctly spell the words, and he is learning them very quickly.

a child writing with another child watching

Here are some other activities that might not seem like “learning to read” activities that really are:

  • Telling stories (take turns with your child)
  • Acting out stories (encourages the child to comprehend what she has heard and then move her body along)
  • Making books (including writing the story and illustrating it)
  • I Spy in the car (for letters or words)
  • Food shopping (practical use of reading)
  • taking walks (practical use of reading, looking at signs and other objects with words)
  • visiting the local library to choose books
  • playing board games and card games (Uno, Go Fish, Sorry, for example)
  • Memorizing short poems
  • Cooking (reading recipes is WAY important)
  • Field trips to new and different places for child to be exposed to all kinds of new words, ideas, and places
  • Listening to audiobooks

If your child thinks that reading is not fun (or boring)

See what you can do to make it fun! Perhaps you make a small space in your house a super awesome reading space. Put a giant bean bag chair in a corner, and hang a gauzy curtain and some lights. Or tape together some cardboard boxes and make a castle they can hide in.

Look for the most interesting, exciting, action packed books you can find. These might not be high literature (and won’t win any awards), but if they engage your child, then who really cares!

Let your child pick which book you’ll read together. Maybe he picks something you think is too simple, or that is not interesting (like a picture book with little or no words). Just be patient. If you give him a lot really cool options to choose from, eventually he will pick out something a little more sophisticated.

What are your favorite and creative ways to teach your child to read? Let us know in the comments!

Check out these recent Mom Advice Line Posts: Does My Child Have Anxiety? and What’s the Best Age to Take Kids to Disney World?

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