Teach Your Child to Read in 3 Easy Steps: A Longtime Educator Explains How

Updated on July 27, 2020
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As an educator, Ms. Meyers knows parents are best suited for teaching their children how to read and fostering a lifelong love of books.

Parents are uniquely qualified to build the connection between books and feelings of love, warmth, and security.
Parents are uniquely qualified to build the connection between books and feelings of love, warmth, and security. | Source

Should Parents Teach Their Children to Read?

  • Are you troubled by the number of people in your circle who rarely read for pleasure?
  • Do you want your youngster to love reading and develop a life-long passion for it?
  • Are you concerned about school reading programs that over-emphasize phonics and sight words but focus too little on comprehension?
  • Do you worry that schools are doing more harm than good with their push to get children reading in kindergarten?

If you're nodding along to these questions, you're the perfect candidate to teach your child how to read. Sadly, too many parents have the misconception that reading must be taught by trained educators and requires a pricey phonics kit, worksheets, alphabet cards, special books, and other resources. Nothing could be further from the truth. After all, nobody is better suited to teach youngsters how to read than their own parents!

The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.

— Jim Trelease, author of "The Read-Aloud Handbook"

Parents Are the Best Reading Teachers

Nobody is better suited for teaching children how to read than their own moms and dads. That's because reading involves more than sounding out words on a page. At its most powerful, it's an emotional pursuit as well as a cognitive one—an interlacing of the written text with one's own life. If youngsters are lucky, they experience it as a warm, loving time when they sit on Mom's lap and turn the pages of the book, walk to the library with Dad for afternoon story time, and cuddle in bed with both parents on Saturday morning to hear their favorite stories.

They might be too young to understand what's being read to them, but they make profound connections that will last a lifetime: reading is love, reading is security, and reading feels good. To teach children how to read while fostering a love of books, parents should remember these three simple mantras:

1. Start with the heart

2. When you're out and about, sound it out


3. Comprehension is the key that turns sounding it out into reading

Teaching a child to read should start in the affective realm, not the cognitive one.
Teaching a child to read should start in the affective realm, not the cognitive one. | Source

1. Warm, Loving Connections: Conception-5

Parents of infants and toddlers lay the foundation for reading success long before there's need for systematic instruction. While some gung-ho moms and dads get seduced by products that claim to promote early reading, they should resist the temptation to buy them. Introducing formal instruction too early may actually backfire—making youngsters see reading as a task that wins parental favor, not as a pleasurable activity unto itself. Studies show that youngsters who receive early instruction are less likely to read for enjoyment when they get older.

Reading is all about the affective realm for this age group and parents should adopt the mantra: Start with the heart. When reading to their children, they should focus on the following to build an emotional connection to what appears on the printed page:

  • Scaffolding. When reading to young children, parents should keep in mind the image of a scaffold—one piece placed on top of another to make something bigger and stronger. If the bottom of the scaffold is weak and wobbly, the entire thing will collapse. Little children have limited experiences so parents should build upon what they already know. Reading a book about butterflies to a child who has never seen one is largely meaningless. However, reading a book about butterflies to a youngster who spent the afternoon watching them fluttering around their garden is immensely powerful.

  • Tap into prior knowledge. Before reading, parents should ask their children what they already know on the matter. This primes the pump for deeper learning. For example, when reading Make Way for Ducklings, a mother could recall the day that she and her daughter went to the pond. She might ask: “What do you remember about the ducks there?” Before reading Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a dad could reminisce about the time that he and his son watched the heavy equipment at the construction site near their house. He might ask: “What vehicles do you remember seeing and what were they doing?”
  • Make it warm and cozy. Some moms and dads fall into the trap of reading to their youngsters at bedtime when everyone is exhausted from a long day at work and school. It's far better for parents to choose a time when they're feeling fresh, energized, and involved in the process. Most importantly, they should make reading a warm and cozy experience: sitting under the shade of a tree, sipping hot cocoa by a warm fire, or cuddling together in bed on a lazy Sunday morning.

The more you read aloud at home increases your child’s development!  The biggest bonus is bonding together.  Nothing beats snuggling with Mom or Dad, one-on-one, reading a book.  Life is good!

— Jennie Fitzkee, preschool teacher for over 30 years
Parents should teach phonological awareness in an organic way: reciting nursery rhymes, listening to kids' music, and playing games. They should make up rhymes throughout the day: "Get in the car. We're not going far!"
Parents should teach phonological awareness in an organic way: reciting nursery rhymes, listening to kids' music, and playing games. They should make up rhymes throughout the day: "Get in the car. We're not going far!" | Source

2. Phonological Awareness: Ages 3-7

Studies show that children with weak phonological awareness become weak readers. Therefore, parents should help their kids at an early age by promoting the sounds of language through poetry, nursery rhymes, and music. Instead of relying on flashcards, workbooks, and phonics kits, they should keep it fun, light, and simple.

Phonological awareness is about being silly with words, making it a game, and celebrating the magic of language. There's no need for parents to sit their children down and give formal lessons. Instead, they should teach it throughout the day in an organic way by remembering the mantra: When you're out and about, sound it out:

  • Get creative with rhyming words. Parents should talk to their youngsters using rhyming words: “Time to get into the car, my little star.” “Let's clean your room. Do we need a broom?” “Eat your dinner or you'll get thinner.”

  • Read nursery rhymes, short poems, and books that rhyme. Dr. Seuss is a great place to start.

  • Play word games in the car. Driving from place to place presents a terrific opportunity to play simple word games. Think of as many words as possible that start with “m”: man, moose, muscle, machine, mailbox, monkey, meat. Think of as many words as possible that rhyme with cat: bat, sat, mat, that, fat, gnat, pat.

  • Play “I Spy”. While waiting in the doctor's office or sitting at the dinner table, play a game of I Spy“I spy with my little eye something that's brown and starts with the 'sh' sound” (shoe). “I spy with my little eye something that's green and begins with the 'l' sound.” (leaf).

  • Play games that promote phonological awareness. Good ones include Uncle Wiggily, Hedbanz for Kids, and Boogle Junior.
  • Play kids' music that rhymes while in the car. This is one of the easiest ways to instill phonological awareness in children. Some favorites include beloved performers: Hap Palmer, Linda Arnold, Charlotte Diamond, Dr. Jean, and Joe Scruggs.

What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness in young children is the foundation for early reading. It involves the ability to hear and manipulate sounds, syllables, and words. It includes skills such as recognizing when words rhyme, clapping the number of syllables in a word, and identifying words with the same beginning sounds such as "cat" and "cow." When children develop phonological awareness, they see the patterns among words and use that knowledge to read.

Making connections between one's own life and what one reads is the magic of books. Reading is the search for meaning
Making connections between one's own life and what one reads is the magic of books. Reading is the search for meaning | Source

3. Comprehension: Ages 4-8

Parents and teachers are often overly impressed by children who have decoding skills, incorrectly calling them “readers.” Reading, though, involves much more than merely sounding out words on a page. It also includes comprehension, which is far more complex and harder to teach.

To comprehend successfully, children need more than just decoding skills. They must also read fluently and find meaning in the printed text. Once again, when it comes to teaching comprehension, parents are best suited for the task.

To make meaningful connections with the printed word, youngsters need rich and varied life experiences. A kid who has never strayed from the inner-city will not get much from a story about farm life. Conversely, a child who has only lived on a farm will lack the background that's needed to comprehend a story about commuting during rush hour.

Moms and dads can boost comprehension by remembering the mantra: Comprehension is the key that turns sounding out into reading. They can engage in the following activities.

  • Reading themselves. Parents who read for both pleasure and knowledge are powerful role models for their children. Moms and dads who want to learn more about a topic—whether it's gardening, medical issues, or dog breeds—can go to the library to check out books with their kids. They can also jump on their computer, goggle a question, and find the answer. This provides a powerful example of how reading keeps us informed and is central to our lives.

  • Making predictions. When reading to children, parents should ask them to predict what will happen next in the story. They should start with the cover and ask: “What do you think this book is about?” This gets kids involved in the story, alerts them to the plot, and improves comprehension.

  • Relating the story to the child's experiences. A parent should guide the youngster in making meaningful connections. For example, when reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a parent might ask: “How would you feel if someone came into your house, sat in your chair, and broke it?”

  • Always following up a story with a discussion or activity. Studies show that comprehension increases greatly when reading is followed by discussing the book or doing an activity. Parents might ask: “What was your favorite part?” or “Who was your favorite character and why?” They might ask their child to draw a picture of an alternate ending or help them write a story with a similar plot or theme.
  • Keep reading aloud to kids even when they can read themselves. Too often parents stop reading to their children when they get older. This is a critical mistake. Continuing to read aloud with older kids strengthens the parent-child bond, serves as a springboard for important conversations, and models reading as a source of information and enjoyment. Jim Trealease's Read-Aloud Handbook is the quintessential resource to inspire moms and dads to keep reading to their kids. I have been giving it as a present at baby showers for years. As a teacher and mom, I know it contains the best advice new parents will receive.

What is comprehension?

Comprehension is the ability to understand and interpret what one has read. In order for children to successfully do this, they must decode the text. They must make meaningful connections between what they've read and what they already know. They must also be able to think deeply about what they've read.

Final Thoughts

Parents have 3 mantras to remember when teaching their children how to read: 1. Start with the heart 2. When you're out and about, sound it out and 3. Comprehension is the key that turns sounding it out into reading. By keeping these in mind, parents can transform their children into proficient readers who love books and will turn to them for both pleasure and knowledge.

What is your favorite series of children's books?

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In this video, parents get helpful hints for reading with their little ones.

Questions & Answers

  • My sons (14 and 12) hate to read. What can I do to encourage it at their current ages?

    While it's best (and easiest) to encourage a love of books in children when they're little, it's never too late, and it's always worth the effort. Of course, you'll need to use different strategies, but the goal is the same: to build a connection between feelings of well-being, security, and happiness and reading. Unfortunately, as kids get older, they start to associate reading with negative things (studying for a test, doing homework) and negative feelings (anxiety, stress). What you want to do is turn that around, so reading is seen as something relaxing and pleasurable.

    I suggest you set aside an hour each night after dinner for reading. The TV is off as well as cell phones and computers. Your family gathers in a cozy room, and everybody reads something of their choice (a novel, magazines, comic books, non-fiction), but nothing work or school related. To make it more enjoyable, serve hot cocoa, popcorn, and dessert from time to time. During the last 10 minutes, have everyone share something about what they read. If this sounds impossible to do because your family is too busy on weekdays, do it just one night a week—perhaps, Friday or Saturday--when everyone isn't so frantic with after school activities and homework.

    Also, make sure you and your spouse are setting a good example by reading often for pleasure. At dinner time, talk about what you're reading and why you're enjoying it. Discuss different genres and authors. Elevate the dinner conversation by discussing literature, not just the latest TV shows and movies.

    When my sons were in middle school, they loved participating in the “Battle of the Books,” a nation-wide program to promote reading. Kids formed teams and read selected books that were high quality and age-appropriate. Then they competed against other teams at their school and other schools, answering questions about the books: characters, plot, symbolism, etc. The team and competition aspect motivated my boys to read, and they had a fun time doing it. I also read a couple of the books aloud to them. Because the books were chosen by a committee of professionals, I enjoyed reading them and discussing the important ideas they covered (immigration, bullying, discrimination) with my sons.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers


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