As a self-proclaimed lover of books, an early childhood teacher, and a new mom, I felt a lot of internal pressure to ensure that my babies loved reading. But, as my oldest began to pick up on letters, sounds, and the function of language, I found myself at a crossroad. I remember how I was taught to read as a kid and I knew how I was supposed to teach reading as a teacher, but I had no real idea of how I was supposed to allow my child to learn to read.
Education and the knowledge of how kids learn have progressed a lot since we were young – much of what we were taught or knew to be true is no longer regarded as such. And though there’s nothing wrong with how we were taught to read, if there are small shifts in our mentality and parenting that can make a large impact on our children’s learning process (and particularly, how they feel about the learning process), why not make them?
Though my instinct as a parent was to encourage, coax, and correct as my son fumbled through joining sounds together and creatively spelling words, I held back. I gave him space. I answered his questions if he asked, but offered no unsolicited advice. We continued to keep our daily read-aloud time the same as we always had – me reading whatever book he chose while stopping consistently for discussion surrounding the content. Before I knew it, one day, I woke up to a reader. I was surprised and proud and humbled, and when my instincts told me to encourage him to keep reading, I backed off again.
In wanting to help him learn, I learned even more. If I provide him with the right environment – one that is rich with knowledge, a safe place to make mistakes, has room to breathe and be, and delights in growth and progress – he would do the learning on his own, in his own time.
To gain more insight into the process of how children learn to read, we reached out to literacy and education experts and learned seven things we didn’t know about how to teach our kids to read.
1. Letter knowledge is not the foundation of reading
We all grew up learning letters before sounds, but as it turns out, that’s no longer considered the developmentally appropriate sequence to learning to read. Tanya Mitchell, Chief Research and Development Officer for LearningRx, the world’s largest personal brain training company, tells us, “Contrary to what many parents believe, letter knowledge is NOT the foundation to reading.”
Reading skills are built on phonemic awareness, such as sound blending and segmenting, she explains. In fact, studies show a 90 percent decrease in reading problems if children are first introduced to sound analysis activities. “In addition to reading to your child, you can also build sound analysis skills by practicing rhyming, which forces the dissection of sounds,” Mitchell says.
“Once kids realize that the sounds make words and that the words mean something, the reading process starts,” adds Ms. Liliana Bautista, Training and Business Development Manager for Wonderland Montessori Schools.
2. Pre-literacy skills set the stage
Experts agree that the skills necessary for reading begin developing way before your child begins to recognize print.
“Matching puzzles together with children is a wonderful pre-reading task to foster reading skills,” says Francesca Lormeus, MS, CCC-SLP, TSSLD/BE, Early Intervention Provider and licensed speech-language pathologist. “As children attempt to match puzzles, they increase their abilities to process information and make connections, which is an important reading skill,” she tells us.
While reading aloud, you can help your child use a similar matching skill with word sounds. “Ask your children to notice words that rhyme, such as ‘mop,’ ‘top’, ‘pop’. Then, ask them to try to think about other words that rhyme. This increases their metacognitive skills, which is another important skill for literacy success,” Lormeus continues.
3. Building confidence is key
When children are learning new skills, they need to feel safe and confident in order to keep practicing. Breaking down learning into developmentally appropriate elements helps to keep tasks simple and fun at any age.
Caitlin Meister, founder/director of the Greer Meister Group, a private tutoring and educational consulting practice in New York City, suggests creating some games based on the skill being learned. For instance, when your child is learning sounds or letters, you can create an alphabet box to collect objects that begin with that sound or letter. “You can find items around your house, in nature, and ask friends and relatives to mail items to your child (kids love getting mail!),” Meister says.
You can use the same idea on nature hunts when you’re outdoors or in the car – collect or point out items that begin with the same letter or sound. Presenting language skills in a simple, fun way helps kids build the awareness and excitement they will need as they progress.
4. Functional literacy is where reading begins
“In early literacy, what is most important is that children understand the different types of literacy that exist,” says Talia Kovacs, CEO of LitLife, Inc, a global literacy consulting firm specializing in joyful literacy instruction, and former K-2 teacher in Washington DC and New York City Public Schools. “When you go to a restaurant you see a page with a list of words. This is a menu, and it has the names of foods available to order and what comes with each food. When you are writing a thank you note, you address it to the person you’re writing to and then sign your name at the end.” All of this is functional literacy, Kovacs tells us. It’s important for children to understand why and how we use language, as they begin understanding letters and sounds.
“I always encourage parents to focus on this type of literacy, in addition to building a child’s love for reading, both of which come before being able to read full words in a text,” she says. Without knowing why words function the way they do, comprehension of written text becomes very difficult for children.
5. Instilling a love for language goes beyond books
Language is much more than being able to read a book – encompasses an entire genre of communication and art forms. “It is crucial to a instill a holistic love of language,” says Judy Smizik, from ADHD solutions program Sparks of Genius. By choosing a variety of genres to read to your child, and by embracing various forms of language and communication – like singing, dancing to music, acting out stories through puppets and theatre – you can engage young students into literacy experiences that are both joyful and stimulating, she explains.
“Art projects, a print-rich environment, and providing developmentally appropriate and decodable books all help to encourage children to become successful readers,” she continues. Let them play and explore, listen to a variety of literature, song, and dance, and work together to create beautiful projects. This gives them the opportunity to develop a strong foundation of phonemic awareness and phonics skills, as well as a love of books.
6. Learning to read is a cooperative act
Parents can create engaging reading experiences that promote literacy through play, not pressure, says Leslie Falconer, CEO of Experience Early Learning, a publisher of research- and play-based learning resources, including the Mother Goose Time preschool curriculum. “Children learn best when they are an active participant in the learning process,” says Falconer.
Inviting your child to identify sight words while you read together is a great way to help them progress towards independent reading. This can be done by pointing to the sight word each time they see it – either with their finger or by using a simple word pointer made by writing the sight word on a craft stick. “Sight word identification is a wonderful way to support your child as they develop reading fluency, the automatic recognition of letters and words,” Falconer continues. “Plus, it’s fun! Think of it as ‘I Spy’ for words.”
Children learn through play, and reading is no exception. Make letter learning into a game that will naturally engage your child, suggests Falconer. Build letter recognition by playing hide-and-seek with alphabet blocks and identify each letter as it’s found. Tape letter flashcards to the walls and go on a letter hunt with binoculars. “Once your child is ready, these games can be played with word cards instead,” she tells us.
What’s important is that you do these things together, bonding with and supporting your child through the process of learning.
7. Don’t rush the process
Children learn academics at their own pace by absorbing experiences that the environment provides, explains Bautista. “Learning to read should be natural and enjoyable,” she says. “This provides the children the opportunity to develop at their full potential.”
One of the biggest things you can do to encourage readers is to be one yourself. “Lead by example,” says Bautista, “explore and show interest in reading.” When your child sees something as important to you, they will regard it as important, too.
“What parents and teachers should refrain from is forcing children to memorize a long list of sight words or read and write before they are developmentally ready,” adds Smizik. Pushing a child to read before he or she is ready can be detrimental to their development, academically, socially, and emotionally. “Children were never expected to become fluent readers in kindergarten years ago,” Smizik reminds us, and that notion is still developmentally inappropriate today.
Children learn to read at their own time, just as they learn most things on their own time. What matters is that they love to do so.