How to teach your child to read

How to teach your child to read

Father reading with child

Be warned: learning to read, like learning to walk or talk, seems to make parents tense, anxious and determined to compare their progeny favourably with others'. So before you start trying to teach your child to read there are some key facts (as a little preliminary tension-deflater) you should know from the off

  • There's learning to love books and there's learning to read books. If you can get the first one sorted, the second will follow much more easily.
  • Reading with your baby is the best place to begin. By making books easily available to play with, chew on and read together you'll give your child a head start on their reading journey.
  • As your toddler grows she may start taking an interest in letters and words. You can help develop their pre-reading skills by reading rhyming books and playing fun word games.
  • When you feel they’re ready, you can work with your child to learn the phonetic sounds and develop an understanding of blended letter sounds.
  • As they begin reading at school — you can help by learning about the methods their teachers are using at school, talking about the meaning of the books they’re reading and setting aside regular time to read together.
  • Content is everything. Many a child is put off reading by content that is boring or inappropriate so try to find books your child will love.
  • Don’t forget reading readiness varies enormously from child to child, but, by and large, they all get there in the end.

Reading with your baby

If you have been sharing books with your child from babyhood, they will already know that the same pictures or sounds can be visited again and again within a book. They will also know that it feels good to sit in a loving embrace and to have the enjoyment doubled by sharing a book. For them, looking at books is never a chore or a forced activity. This child has a head start.

You don't need to stick to the text (such as it is) when you're reading books with your baby (which is just as well or you'd both die of boredom). Feel free to go 'off piste' and warble on about the pictures you're looking at (“Look at that cat! Big, black cat! Just like Granny's cat. Big, furry, cuddly cat.”) At this stage, it's all about the sing-song sound of your voice and the connection between books and pictures and sounds and fun.

Before you even think of buying a new book for your toddler, you need to repetition-proof it very carefully. This is the age of 'Again, again!'

Make sure at least some of your baby books are accessible, preferably in a toy box with other sources of fun, so your child can look at (and suck and chew) them whenever the whim strikes. Chew-friendly books are the best bet here. Look for ones with different textures to touch, feel and crackle or squeakers to press and shiny 'mirrors to stare in and giggle at.

As your child gets older and her understanding grows, you can move on to slightly more complicated picture books , with a tad more text to read (hurrah!) and even the outline of a little story. Look for simple, colourful illustrations and toddler-friendly subjects: mainly animals, vehicles, animals doing toddler-type stuff, vehicles doing toddler-type stuff and, of course, toddlers doing toddler-type stuff!

Oh, and intricately designed pop-up books are all very lovely but they will stay rip-free and sticky-fingerprint-less for about ten nanoseconds; wipe-clean board books really are the way to go for now.

Girl with iPad

Pre-reading skills for a preschooler

Don't be tempted to get the flashcards out. However keen your child is on books, however keen you are to get your child reading for herself (and there really is no rush, remember), there are some 'pre-reading skills' your child needs to grasp first.

By now, they should have 'got' that books have a front and a back, and that a book progresses page by page. Next on the agenda is understanding that words on the page are read from left to right, and that the different shapes of the letters inside these words are what helps you figure out what to say as you read the book aloud to them. Of course, you don't actually need to teach them this; they'll just absorb it if you keep sharing books with them. Point to the words as you read them, moving your finger along the line. Look at the pictures and try to work out what the story may be about.

During or after reading, talk about what the story was about, what they liked and didn't like and so on. These are all very important pre-reading skills.

Look for books with bright, funny illustrations and clear, uncomplicated text. Stories with strong rhymes are especially good: they help your child absorb the rhythm and structure of sentences and sharpen up the listening skills she'll soon need to pick up on different initial letter sounds. Rhymes also encourage anticipation, a key pre-reading skill; try stopping before you finish the rhyme to see if they can fill it in for you (“Rain, rain, go away. Come again another…?”).

Teaching your child to recognise sounds and letters

If you feel your child is ready, you could also start talking to them about the letter sounds – building on what they've probably already starting to learn at preschool. Find a nice ABC book and look at some of the letters together. Start with the letter her name begins with, and take it from there – let your child dictate the pace you go at (or not!). And pronounce them phonetically: “a” rather than “ay” and “buh” rather than “bee”, as this is the way they will learn them at preschool and school. If you're not sure how to pronounce them, download the Phonics tool from BBC skillswise to hear the sounds.

We 'fish' those foam letters with a small net out of the bath: it's a great game. I put about ten letters in, and say, 'Where is m?' and my son fishes it out.

You could also try putting magnetic letters on the fridge door or buying foam letters to float about in the bath. Once they know some letter sounds well, you can 'spot' the letters when you see them on street signs and food labels, as well as in books (“Look, yuh for yoghurt.”) You could also think up some other letter-sound games to play together, from good old I Spy to more modern, splashy stuff…

“We 'fish' those foam letters with a small net out of the bath: it's a great game. I put about ten letters in, and say, 'Where is m?' and my son fishes it out. We also play I Spy and this game where I say, 'This word starts with the 'a', and it's a fruit, it's red and crunchy' and he has to guess what it is. I don't really want him to read before he starts school, but I would like him to 'want' to learn to read and have an interest in letters and sounds and numbers.”

“My son knew the sounds for all the letters in the alphabet well before he started school. But it was never forced and that is the important thing. We just had fun playing games and spotting letters.”

If your child's still keen for more (and, again, there's no rush), you could have a go at helping them blend letter sounds together to make a simple vowel-consonant word: so, “a” and “t” makes “at” or “o” and “n” makes “on”. “Say 'a' and 't', then say it again, faster and faster, until the sounds run together and the penny, in theory, drops.” You could also find some simple letter-sound activity sheets from websites like Twinkl or try phonics apps like Jolly Phonics and Reading Eggs to reinforce this idea.

Helping your school-aged child learn to read

Boy reading on his own Once your child starts school, they will be taught not only the basic letter sounds (each one usually with its own rather snigger-worthy accompanying action) but also the more complicated ones, such as “sh” and “ch” and “ai” and “oi”. They'll bring (sometimes crashingly boring) reading books home, along with, at some point, a set of “key words” to learn by heart.

They may take to this all like a duck to water or may need stacks and stacks of your help and encouragement not to lose heart.

It can be hard for those who see their (often months older) classmates outstrip them fast – especially if there are a few who have come into school already able to read. “My son's a summer-born and was only just four when he started school. He was definitely slower than most of the others at 'getting' the whole idea of reading. I started to think he was destined to be bottom of the pile for ever. It was quite hard not to get a bit worried about it.” As a teacher, I can say neither early reading nor late reading has a bearing on the intelligence of a child.

The key thing to holding your nerve here (and therefore helping your child hold theirs, too) is remembering that no two children learn to read at the same speed and pace. Some zoom off from (literally) the word go and then slow down; some plod along gradually; some stutter at first and then speed up – with all sorts of variations in between. And, whatever Smug Mum of Speedy-From-The-Off Reader may imply, there's no great connection between speed of learning to read and speed of brain cells in general.

That said, there are, of course, loads of things you can do to help nudge your little bookworm-to-be onto a slightly faster learning-to-read track.

Learn what they're learning

Many teachers do a little talk (or write a letter) to explain to parents the method(s) they're using to teach children to read. (If your child's teacher doesn't do this, ask them for some pointers.) The favoured method du jour is (some form of) Phonics – decoding words by sounding out all the different letter sounds they contain. Try to bear this in mind when listening to your child read at home: if they get stuck on the word “dog”, for example, it's probably more helpful to say, “Let's sound it out: d-o-g” than “It begins with d and sounds like frog”.

Look at the cover first

Because, odds are, it'll have a picture on it that sets the scene (“Oh, it's a book about a dog”). And, more than likely, the title will contain the most difficult word in the book (“This book's called My Dog Wellington”). Prepped with that information, anyone would find the book easier to read.

Give them time to look at the pictures

Ever since they were a baby, your child has known that there are clues to the story in the pictures. So, let them have a good old look at those before they tackle the words for themselves.

Talk about the plot

Check they’re understanding what they're reading, rather than parroting off the sounds they can decode. Ask them what they think might happen next and, at the end, if they liked it or not – and why.

Don't diss a good guess

Say the sentence is “I have a flannel to wash my face”. And your child reads, “I have a flannel to clean my face”. That may be wrong but it's a good guess because your child is clearly thinking about the meaning of the sentence. (And you can just gently say, "Nearly. But does clean begin with 'w'?) A child who guesses “I have a flannel to watch my face” may have followed the letter-sound clues slightly better but are not thinking about the meaning at all.

Keep the reading sessions short

Ten minutes at most and don't even think about starting one if they are hungry, tired or upset.

Help them learn their key words

Some words, like “he”, “she” and “what”, just don't decode well with phonics. But they're so common; they just need to be learnt by ear.

Find books they’ll love

School reading books are usually a weird old mixture of really good, new, phonics-based texts and rather dire, old, death-by-repetition ones. If your child has the misfortune to keep bringing home books of the “The hat is red. The hat is green. The hat is yellow” variety, you may want to search out some more exciting books to keep at home. Choose books about things that'll really catch their interest or make them laugh. Get right away from those ploddy reading primers into riddles and rhymes, rude poems and silly plots.

Keep reading to them

Read ripping yarns, fevered fantasies and fluffy fairy tales. Fill their imagination with the sort of wonderful stuff that keeps reinforcing the link between reading and pleasure. Every child deserves to discover that there's a whole world of bookish pleasures out there; all you have to do as a parent is open the gateway to let them through.

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