Teaching Little Kids to Read

With all the hubbub out there about little kids reading, it’s hard to make sense of how/when you should start. Should you work hard to get them reading in preschool, or should you wait until they are ready? Should you use a workbook, a DVD series, or just keep sounding out their favorite story? All of a sudden, the most basic of academic skills has become a market and something requiring a special masters degree.

Plus, the pressure is on. Experts have made us afraid that if kids don’t have the reading edge by age 3 or 4 that they will be behind in school, they won’t love to learn, or they won’t get into the most elite schools. And, to make matters worse, it seems like everyone else is doing the right thing except you. The people who stress early reading (before age 5) have all kinds of supportive claims… Kids’ wiring for language begins early, kids’ appetite for knowledge will grow if they can read, it’s safer for kids to be able to read, it’s fun, it boosts IQ, it helps them become better writers. But an early reader is usually a sign that your child is a more visual learner, not a genius. And love of learning can be fostered in many ways, not just early reading. Usually the drive to teach very young children to read is a parent- or expert-directed pressure tactic. Plenty of average and late readers disprove the concerns. Reading early is wonderful and helpful, but if there is any correlation between early readers and Ivy League educations, it is probably the parental drive factor, not the Teaching Baby to Read videos.

On the other hand, there is a reactionary camp that advocates the hands-off approach when it comes to children reading. Waiting until the child is ready, or shows signs of readiness (“What does this say?”), is the prime factor. Some kids do well with this philosophy and pick up reading all on their own. But sometimes it takes until they are 10 years old! The good in this approach is that the child usually comes to love reading intrinsically because they were internally motivated and because the reading matter suited to older children was more exciting/informative. But not many parents or schools are content enough to wait until their child is 8 or 10. Reading is usually the essential skill being grown in the early grades.

So you really want a balanced approach: one that honors the research behind kids getting a good linguistic start in the early years and one that flexes for individual needs and styles. In my home, I have a 3, 4, and 5 year old who are all interested in reading, are at different stages in the game, and have three very different learning styles. Here is what I’ve gleaned so far…

STEP ONE: ABCs

Step one is learning the alphabet. With all the alphabet toys out there today, you can’t go wrong in picking one. Usually the most obnoxious toy is the one your child will love most. And even though that means you can’t be in the same room with it, it is the one that will teach your child the ABCs the best. Leap Pad makes a number of ABC toys, and so does Fisher Price. People argue over whether the traditional ABC song teaches anything, but just teach it anyway. Most one and two year olds love singing it, and it is good for them to have it in mind later when they need to know alphabetical order.

Be sure that when you teach ABCs, you do it both in both visual and auditory modes. Your child should be able to answer “A” when you ask, “What letter is this?” And she should be able to point to the “A” correctly out of other letters when you ask, “Where’s the A?” Also, you should drill with both capitals and lowercase. Lowercase is more important since most letters in sentences are lower, but try to pair “Aa” together whenever possible, such in those letter banners with pictures (i.e. an apple next to “Aa”).

Your child, if he is a visual learner, will probably pick up the ABCs before 2 years old. A doer or watcher may not pick it up until 3, and even then with some occasional errors. Visual learners pick them up faster because they are attuned to the fine physical differences in the printed letters; they are often more detail-oriented.

STEP TWO: Phonics

Step two is learning the sounds that each letter makes. When it comes to reading, it doesn’t matter so much that the child can tell you the letter name of “A” as much as they know that “A” says “aaaah.” Don’t worry that “A” can say a million different things depending on the word. Just teach the short vowels in the beginning because most three-letter words have the short vowel (and because just saying the letter “A” will later make them see that “A” can say “ay” too). There are a number of good phonics tools out there; our kids loved the Leap Pad video “The Letter Factory” the best. Get some letter magnets for your refrigerator and quiz them often. Write their names or different words and ask them, “which word starts with the “nnnn” sound?” Don’t be afraid to overemphasize alliteration, such as in Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers. Boys in particular love to be silly over the sounds of letters, and being overly emphatic about the sounds will help them drill because it’s funny =)

And be sure that when you teach the phonics, you do it in both visual and auditory modes. Your child should be able to answer “buh” when you show them a picture of B and ask, “What sound does this letter make?” And they should be able to answer “buh” when you ask them (without showing them a letter), what sound does “B” make? And they should be able to do the reverse… “What letter makes the “buh” sound?”

Eventually the goal will be to have them circle the letter “B” on a worksheet when they see a picture of a bucket. Or to be able to circle the bucket when the worksheet asks them to circle things that begin with “B.” Most preschool and kindergarten workbooks sold commercially have a lot of these exercises. With all the permutations, they are the most important exercises in the reading process.

Your child, if she is a visual learner, or verbally oriented, will probably pick up all the phonics between 3 and 4 years old. A doer or watcher may not pick it up until between 4 and 5 because they can’t understand how a visual mark “A” can make a SOUND (aaah). That is an irrational concept, even though it is easy and natural for verbal/visual people to make. So the best thing to do with a slow phonics learner is drill every day, just light-heartedly with common objects… “What thing in this room starts with “vvvv?” or “What letter makes the “vvvv” sound in my vvvvacuum?”

STEP THREE: Blending

Step three is teaching the child to blend phonics together, which is the trickiest part of the reading process. You might have a toddler who picked up both the ABCs and phonics quickly. But getting them to recognize that you can string the sounds together, such as “bah, beh, bih” and then “bat, bet, bit” is more difficult… probably because they have to slightly precipitate what letter comes not just first but second, in order to blend it into the first. Plus they have to get the mouth working with the thought. It’s a big step to look at the “b” in “ba” and see “bah” instead of just “bb” or “buh…aa…”

I have found that it is easy to start with a word like “no” in order to get this point across. “Up” also works, and you can contrast that with “cup” (and “no” with “not”) in order to show them the role of the different letters being added. Kids often learn “STOP” on the stop sign very early, as well as their names (unless they have a really long, complicated name). Just have them keep staring at these types of words and practicing until they get the revelation. When they get it, you’ll know! This is the point you really can’t force… they have to get it on their own.

A verbal child can pick this concept up between 4 and 5, which is why kindergarten is the normative time to start reading skills; auditory learners may pick it up even faster than visual learners. But non-verbal kids (especially kinesthetic learners) can take longer. Mainly because their brain does not pick up on the fine visual and auditory details of letter/sound decoding. They learn things more holistically and experientially, and they process out of their own experience (internally) rather than through pictures or noises coming to them (externally). These learners make up the minority of a preschool classroom (maybe less than 15%) so they are often misunderstood or marked as possible learning disabled, late blooming kids. But in reality they just need more exposure and experience to get the idea of combining sounds. It isn’t that they are less intelligent or even less language-saavy; they might be your brightest child and have a way with spoken language. But the heavy-duty visualness of the reading task makes more sense to a child who learns visually and less to a child who is a watcher or doer (you can’t easily “watch” or “do” letters). Give them time and try different types of letter games that are more hands on (play doh, stencils) or auditory (the BINGO song) to see if it triggers the revelation.

*Update: My third son learning to read has been a classic kinesthetic learner, and I have found the “Explode the Code” workbooks to be very helpful in teaching him how to blend.  Mostly because the workbooks progress very slowly and do tons of writing work with three letter words; the physical component of writing the letters while sounding them out helped him understand how two letters go together to make their own blended sound.  Not all kids are ready for handwriting at 3 or 4, but if they are (and you think it will  help), it’s worth trying.  With my son (he’s three and a half) I haven’t made a big deal about how bad (or big) his handwriting is.  Right now he’s having fun and starting to spell.  He’ll have a lot a more fine motor control when he’s five, as my other two boys did.

STEP FOUR: Reading

Once your child is blending phonics together, they are ready to start reading three-letter words. Don’t underestimate the power of memorizing words or word families, such as bad, bag, bat or sat, set, sit; the more practice they get seeing words, the more they will pick up reading. Try to pick words that are phonetically spelled, and don’t mix vowel sounds like “bad” and “bar”. Just keep it simple like Dr. Seuss and make your own lists with pencil and paper so they can see them (especially if they are visual learners). Hang them on their wall so they can see them while going to sleep and waking up.

Once they have three letter words, go to four letters and start teaching them complex phonemes like “-ck” and “sp-“. In my experience, silent -e words are a harder concept and should be saved for several months after they can read regular four letter words. But from this point on, with several months of practice, they can turn into real readers very quickly. My kindergartener took five years to learn how to blend (although he was an early ABC-er), but he went from a preschool reading level to at least a second grade level in just one summer once he was sounding out well. This was because he practiced reading (himself) every day. Once he started being able to self-correct as he was reading (“GOWNE? oh, GONE”), and use context clues to guess, he climbed the ladder quickly. There was very little pushing on our part, except encouraging him to try the longer words himself.

Also, in my opinion, there is no need to stick to primary readers once they are past blending three and four letter words together. My kindergartner went from Dick and Jane to Danny the Dinosaur to the Berenstain Bears in the course of about a year. And my other four year old started immediately with his nursery rhyme book (very difficult words in there if you think about it) because that’s what he really wanted to read.  We did Dick and Jane a little bit for about a year before he understood “ruh…uh…unnn” made “run.”  But he was really motivated by the challenge and subject matter of a couple higher-level books, so we let him be.  My third little boy, as I mentioned above, was very into writing and simple spelling words at age 3.  (But my four year old wasn’t able to handle handwriting until he turned five.)  Every child is different.  Use what works.  But I have noticed that all my little children still in the formative stages of reading–if they have an idea of what they are actually reading about–are often able to decode the words which bend the rules (i.e. “dickory”, “mind”, “train”).

I am not saying your child will become an avid reader at six, but the development of 5 to 6 year old is able to allow pretty good reading if they are able to master the basics of blending.

Conclusion:

Teaching your kids to read has become a highly controversial—and feared–subject. But there really isn’t anything to be scared about. You can do this! Generally, because 75% of preschoolers are visual and verbal, a child learns the basic rudiments of reading during his fourth year and the skill of it during his fifth. This is a good guideline, and you should use it to guide your own education in the home. But try to avoid the extreme positions of feeling like your child has to master reading by kindergarten or, conversely, writing off reading as only necessary when he feels ready himself. Forget the Baby Reading videos, even though it looks so cool. But don’t wait to teach phonics until your child loves books or tries to figure them out on their own—that might be the fifth grade! Get them immersed in language at an early age, and practice the ABCs and phonics by the time they are 3 and 4. When they are ready developmentally, between the ages of 4 and 6, you can start blending with them and expect their first “reading” to occur. There is a tremendous  difference between a four and a six year old, though, so while the pressure may be on from experts and schools, honor the individual needs and style of your home and child.

If the child is not reading by the end of first grade, or by age 7, it is probably a good idea to seek a tutor and expert opinion on what the problem might be. But don’t forget that there is always grace to cover any mistakes! If something isn’t working, stop for awhile and go back to it later. Maybe you’ll get a new idea to help it make sense. Maybe your child just needs some more time. Eventually, they will learn to read and that chapter of your life will be over. Then you can work on what they are reading, what they like, their comprehension skills, and how motivated they are.  Remember the early years are not a set-in-stone prediction of what will occur! They are important, not deterministic.   Of course everyone wants their kids to get things early, and there is certainly argument for continuity between early skills and later achievements. But there are also forceful and important arguments for discontinuity; there is room for mistakes and new strategies. So don’t doubt yourself. Just dive in and have fun.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Little Kids to Read

  1. i agree with you,i also give my child read even she just age 1,but she loves reading,i buy book for her,and tech her flash card,as you said teach her phonics,so she can learn t o read it.i get more info from your blog now,so i can teach her more,i hope can always keep in touch .

  2. Hello, Thank you for your insight and sharing your struggles to make things easier for the rest of us and our kids.
    My 4 year old is interested in reading and loves books ,needs his books twice a day before his naps( his way of unwinding I guess).His Dad or I read to him as of now though he knows his ABC big and small with phonetics( from school).He has memorised most of the pages in his picture dictionary and each time we read aloud to him he selects the alphabet he wants to be read to.
    In addition both my husband and I read so I guess our son has picked up the need to do so.
    Much regard
    Lalita

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