How Do You Start Teaching a Child to Read?

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 (for letters or words)
  • Food shopping (practical use of reading)
  • 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

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?

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


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