How to teach your child to read

IMG_1828How to Teach Your Child to Read

by Anne E Thompson

  If you want to teach your child to read, as a primary school teacher, I am tempted to say, “Don’t!” There are lots of things, like tying shoe laces, identifying birds in the garden and cracking an egg into a cup, which are easiest taught at home and which you will do so much better than a teacher! When done badly, it is actually possible that you might delay your child’s reading or cause problems that can take years to undo.
However, as a mother, I know that teaching your child can be rewarding and fun and we want to do it. This article therefore aims to give you some helpful hints on the sort of things that you might do at home with your child. It also lists a few of the problems that can arise if done badly.

  Firstly, the most important thing that you can do is read and let your child see you reading. Children are great imitators and if they see both their mother and their father reading, then they will want to. You can read anything: books, newspapers, recipes, instruction manuals. What is important is that your child sees you reading. Young children who never or rarely see their parents read are less likely to want to themselves because it does not seem important. They are at that stage where they think everything you do is wonderful and will want to copy. (Unfortunately, this stage does not last long. By the time they are teenagers they will think everything you do is wrong, so make the most of it!)
You also need to have lots of reading material in your home. This does not have to be expensive, join the library or visit jumble sales and buy some cheap secondhand books. If children see their parents reading and if there are books in the home, it is a natural step for them to pick up a book and turn the pages. It does not matter if they are only looking at the pictures or saying words that are not in the book, the first stage of learning to read is ‘playing’ with a book for pleasure.

  You also need to read to your child. Sit them on your knee and read them a story. They will learn that reading is something pleasurable, that can be done in a relaxed manner and will also start to internalise written language. This can be done at any age (some people even advocate reading to your unborn baby!) It will help your child learn to read as naturally as they learn to speak. Much of reading is to do with prediction (which I will explain in more detail later) and if they have heard, “Once upon a time…” a few times it will help them later when they are decoding for themselves.
Let your child see that you turn the pages one at a time and read the words from left to right, top to bottom. Even before they can read, they will start to copy this behaviour.
If you are a working parent, it can be hard to find time in the day to read with your child. However, it really is important. Try to set aside the same time each day and make it part of the rhythm of the day. It does not matter if it is every day while you eat breakfast or last thing in the evening when they are in bed. Read to them! It is as important as cleaning their teeth!

  Do not rush into ‘proper’ reading lessons with your child. There is an age whereby a child is physically too young to learn to read. The human brain is a wonderful organ and it takes about 21 years to be fully developed. Different parts of the brain have different functions and control different things. It develops from back to front and inside to outside. You would not sit your child in the drivers seat of your car and tell him to drive – if nothing else you can see that he is not tall enough to look out the windscreen and his legs are not long enough to reach the pedals. Learning to read also needs physical development, but it is harder to gauge because we cannot see that a child is not ready.
There is a substance called myelin, which I do not fully understand (I am a teacher, not a neurologist!) which is essential for a child to be capable of reading. It somehow enables the eye to carry symbols to the brain and for the brain to then decode them into language.
Now, if a child is ‘forced’ to read before they have developed sufficiently, they will use different parts of the brain to decode symbols (the brain is very clever, if it cannot use one pathway, it will make a different one.) This can then cause problems later and they will have to ‘unlearn’ what they are doing, which is very difficult. For this reason, some countries will not begin to teach reading in schools until a child is aged seven and they can be confident that the brain is sufficiently developed.

  However, some children are ready to read long before then – which is why you are reading this article! My daughter learnt to read when she was aged three. One son learnt when he was four, the other was not ready to learn until he was well over five and had started school. There is no correlation between when they learnt to read and their long term academic success. It is not an indication of intelligence, it is an indication of physical development. So do not get involved in competitive mum talk! You may just as well be proud of your child’s hair colour as the age they learn to read!

  It can be difficult to know when your child is ready to learn to read. I do not have a foolproof method, so will simply share my own experience.

  Firstly, I watched my children. As children develop, they are able to use and control their large limbs first (Swaying an arm to hit a baby mobile) then their smaller limbs (holding something in a fist) then their fine motor skills develop (playing with a thread of cotton and holding it with a finger tip and thumb.) Fine motor skills give an indication of how your child is developing.

    Secondly, I played a game with them to discover if they could recognise a symbol. I wrote lots of random letters on a piece of paper (or could be shapes) and wrote one at the top. Then I said, “This is an ‘a’, can you point at the other ‘a’s on the paper? If they could consistently match letters/shapes, I would begin trying to teach reading.If they did not seem to be learning, I stopped and tried again in a few months.

  So, what do you actually do to teach your child to read? I think that you need to understand the different components of reading and give your child experience in all of them. Education is constantly changing and the methods of teaching and testing reading ability seem to change from decade to decade. However, you are a parent, not a teacher, so you do not have to worry about current policy, you can just give your child a varied reading experience and discover what works for you. Here are some ideas which I suggest you muddle up and use in any order as often as you can. Just be sure that every activity is fun.

  Reading is very similar to listening. To listen, you hear sounds, your brain sorts the different sounds into words and you derive meaning. When reading, you see symbols (which in english are letters, grouped into words) which the brain then deciphers into meaning. When you listen, you do not hear every word. Much of your understanding comes from the tone and the context and what you feel makes sense. The same is true of reading. When you read you do not look at every letter – you do not even look at every word if reading fluently and quickly. Again, you use the context and what is logical to make sense of what you have read.

  Context is very important. You can even ‘read’ things that make no sense because you will use your understanding of how language works to fill in the gaps. So, if you read:
“Judy loved to blimp. Every morning she went blimping. Whatever the weather, rain or shine, Judy could be found blimping away. When she thought back over her year, Judy realised she must have ……… a thousand times.”
If you are a fluent reader, you will probably decipher the last sentence as “Judy realised she must have blimped a thousand times. This is with you having no idea what the verb ‘to blimp’ means!
You can teach your child to use the context of what is being read by asking them to predict the end of phrases. Ask them to read with you and when you read “Once upon …” let them read “….a time.” Sit so your child can see the words, you read the story but leave some gaps where there are ‘obvious’ words and let your child say them. This is developing their prediction skills and their ability to use the context of what is written. Later, when they are reading on their own, they will also use the pictures as part of the context that helps them decode the text.

  Another part of reading is word recognition. There are words which we hardly need to look at, we know their shapes so well. I would teach word recognition as a separate activity to reading. There is, in my view, a real danger that children will focus too much on individual words and not enough on the meaning of the text. We want our children to become fluent readers, not people with amazing memories who can remember thousands of words.
One good way to teach word recognition is to cut up some cardboard and write some simple words on it. Then play a game of ‘pairs’ or ‘bingo’ with the words. Then, when you are reading to your child, if you come to one of the words that they have learnt you can stop and let them read that word. Reading then becomes a shared activity, with you reading most of the story and them filling in any words they have learnt to recognise and any that are obvious from the context. Gradually, they will read more and more of the text themselves.

  Children need to see lots of words and several different types of text. If they are cooking, help them follow a simple recipe. If you have time, write out a recipe for them, if nothing else they will learn lots of imperative verbs. (Imperative verbs are bossy verbs, like ‘put’, ‘fill’, ‘place’.)
Some people make word cards and place them around their house, so every coffee table, kitchen appliance, door, etc is labelled. I expect that this does help children to recognise words (however, I personally would not want to live in that house, so I never did that with my own children . Plus my children were quite inventive, so would probably have switched the labels around, thus confusing the youngest!)
Magnetic letters on the fridge are a fun way for children to practice making words. Do check them though, one of my children wrote lots of misspelt swear words. He thought that as he’d never heard me say them I would not know what they were! It was funny, but slightly embarrassing when visitors came.

  Another part of reading is phonics (the sounds of letters.) A fluent reader rarely uses phonics unless they are introduced to a new word. It slows the flow of reading and is fairly inaccurate. Most people do not say the pure letter sounds, so ‘l’ becomes ‘le’. If you sound out ‘le’ ‘o’ ‘o’ ‘ke’ ‘e’ ‘de’ it is very unlikely you will decipher ‘looked’! However, it can be useful in giving children a clue about what a word might be.
Again, I always taught phonics as a separate lesson to reading. It is a natural part of a spelling lesson and when children have internalised phonics they will use them very naturally when reading. If they are directed to ‘sound out’ words too often then they start to focus all their attention on individual letters and all meaning of the text is forgotten. It is possible to say all the correct words and not actually derive any meaning from the text. If given some german to read, I can probably say all the words correctly but will not have any idea what the text is about. Unfortunately, some children learn to read like this. They are able to say the sounds of the letters to form words but the words never seem to touch their brain, to have any real meaning. They have to listen to themselves speaking to understand what the words mean, which obviously slows up their reading and is not what they should be doing.
A good way to teach initial letter sounds is to play “I spy”. You can use either letter names or letter sounds (your child needs to learn both) and they will gradually build up a good knowledge of words that begin with the same sounds. You can always write the letter on a piece of paper, so they also begin to recognise the shape.
I often told “The Magic Pens” story (see under children’s stories at anneethompson.com) It is best told rather than read and I would tell it to the class whilst writing the relevant words on the white board. The children always, unprompted, would join in with chanting the lists of words, which made a fun way for them to learn phonics. Also, as the initial letter is a different colour, it helps dyslexic readers. It was a great time filler when waiting to go for lunch or assembly and the children always enjoyed it, especially if we included some naughty words like ‘bum’! It can be extended by the teacher returning to the classroom in the morning and making a sentence with the words, such as : “Kit wanted to sit but a nit bit her so she had a fit.” You can do the same activity at home. If you write a sentence with the words, put it on the fridge and your child can return to them throughout the day and read what was written. Obviously, change the letters used each time, so the child begins to build up a good knowledge of letter blends. You can also start with initial sounds, such as ‘br’ or ‘ch’ and change the story accordingly.
{Incidentally, I have only ever told the Magic Pen stories in a classroom. If you try them at home, please let me know if they are still fun and if the child joins in! }

  Your child also needs to be reading books. Proper, child friendly, story books. It does not matter if they cannot initially read every word, they need the opportunity to explore them and to practice reading. Try to find some simple books that have very repetitive language. Read the story to your child a few times first (Yes, they will remember the words, that is okay, reading uses memory!) If there is a word they cannot read, just tell them. Do not tell them to ‘sound it out’, that takes all the fun out of reading. If they are asking you for help,that is excellent, they are showing that they understand the text has meaning and they want to know what it says.

  Do not ever be tempted to buy the books from the school reading scheme. Your child’s teacher will be using them to both teach and as a diagnostic tool to assess your child’s progress. If your child has read them at home, they will give an unrealistic performance (which the teacher will be aware of) and will also be bored with them and not want to read them again at school. It is hugely unhelpful and will slow their progress. If your child’s teacher wants the child to practice the school books at home, they will be sent home for you to borrow.

  Do not force a child who does not want to read to begin learning. I home-schooled one of my children when we were living abroad and I found reading a real tension point. It really mattered to me that he should read fluently and he decided he did not want to learn. (This is the child who every day picked up his pen by the wrong end and told me he could not remember which way round it went! Some children need more patience and prayers than others….) I did teach him eventually – mainly thanks to finding some simple books about a dragon who had a pet cat that pooped everywhere, which appealed to my son immensely! However, he never enjoyed reading. Even as a teenager, he would pay his younger brother to read to him the books set by his school while he did something ‘more interesting.’ I do not know if his personality means he would never have enjoyed reading or if my daily frustration with his four year old awkward self somehow left a lasting impression. If I could turn back the clock I would tell myself to stop trying, have a rest and start again in six months time.

  On a similar vein, do let older children choose their own books. Another mistake I made was when my daughter, who had read fluently from a very young age, was about eight. I decided that she should be reading books that would extend her and gave her lots of the child classics (The Railway Children, Little Woman, that sort of thing.) She just wanted to read simple tales of magic and princesses! After a while, she stopped reading for pleasure completely. She did, after a year or so, begin again but I had made the mistake of taking the fun out of reading. It has to be fun. If children enjoy reading, they will always read. We might enjoy reading Dickens, but we need a few novels in between time too.

  Your child will learn to read at his/her own pace. Just as some children learn to walk as early as ten months of age and others are well over a year, so some children acquire reading skills very quickly and others learn more slowly. Try not to worry and absolutely do not start comparing with other children! You have been given a very special role in raising your child, let them develop at their own speed, they are not like anyone else. If they seem completely disinterested in reading, stop trying to teach them (but do not stop reading to them) and enjoy other experiences instead. If there is a problem, your child’s teacher will alert you but probably your child is just not quite ready to start learning yet.

  Watching your child learn to read is hugely rewarding and very exciting! I hope that you will both enjoy the experience and it will be special activity that you share.

More articles, stories and poems at: anneethompson.com

6 thoughts on “How to teach your child to read

    • I wrote everything on the website anneethompson.com
      I have not written any bilingual books (the only other language I speak fluently is mandarin and my grammar is terrible!) Are you teaching a bilingual child to read? I have taught bilingual children and could write some ideas if that would be helpful.

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  1. Pingback: How to teach your child to read | Anne E Thompson

  2. Pingback: How to teach your child to read | Anne E Thompson

  3. Hi, Anne! I have a seven-year-old who is JUST starting to enjoy reading. As a writer and avid reader it took a lot of mental wrestling to be patient and allow him to fall in love with a book, rather than try and make him love it. I’m gradually seeing the flicker of true interest as he gains fluency. But as you point out, there’s no secret formula. He loves stories, has empathy for others, and identifies with the characters we read about together, for this I am grateful. Thanks for the post!

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