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The 3 Essentials When Teaching Your Child to Read

Updated on February 10, 2017
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Nancy taught pre-k, kindergarten, and earned a master's in special education. A son with autism showed her the value of early Intervention.

Parents Are Best Equipped to Teach Their Children to Read

Nobody is better equipped to teach children to read than their moms and dads. That's because reading involves more than sounding out words on a page. At its most powerful, reading is an emotional undertaking as well as an intellectual one – an interlacing of the written text with one's own life. If a youngster is lucky, she experiences reading as a warm experience when she sits on her mom's lap, cuddles in bed for a nighttime story, or walks to the library with dad for afternoon story time. She might be too young to understand what's being read to her, but she makes profound connections that will last a lifetime – reading is love, reading is security, reading feels good. To teach a child to read, parents should remember these 3 simple mantras: 1) Start with the heart. 2) When you're out and about, sound it out and 3) Comprehension is the key that turns sounding out into reading.

Teaching a Child to Read Begins by Building a Connection Between Books and Feelings of Love, Security, and Warmth

Teaching a child to read starts in the affective realm, not the cognitive.
Teaching a child to read starts in the affective realm, not the cognitive. | Source

1. Start With the Heart: Conception-Age 5

Parents of infants and toddlers lay the foundation for reading success long before there's need of formal, systematic instruction. While some gung-ho moms and dads get tempted 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 in reading 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:

  • 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 a butterfly is largely meaningless. However, reading a book about butterflies to a youngster who spent the afternoon watching them fluttering around her garden is immensely powerful.

  • Tap into prior knowledge. Before reading, parents should tap into their children's prior knowledge – priming the pump for deeper learning. For example, when reading Make Way for Ducklings, a mother might recall the day she and her daughter went to the park to feed the ducks and ask: “What do you remember about those ducks?” Before reading Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a dad might reminisce about the time he and his son watched the heavy equipment at the construction site near their house, asking: “What vehicles do you remember seeing and what were they doing?”
  • Make it warm and cozy Many parents fall into the trap of reading to their children at bedtime when they're exhausted from a long day. This often makes for an unsatisfying experience for both parent and child. 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.

Teach Phonological Awareness in an Organic Way: Reciting Nursery Rhymes, Listening to Kids' Music, and Playing Games

Make up rhymes throughout the day: "Get in the car. We're not going far!"
Make up rhymes throughout the day: "Get in the car. We're not going far!" | Source

2. When You're Out and About, Sound It Out: Phonological Awareness Ages 3-7

Studies show that children with weak phonological awareness become weak readers. Parents can almost guarantee their youngsters will become proficient readers by starting early with phonological awareness. They should forget flashcards, workbooks, and pricey kits such as “Hooked on Phonics” and just 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, parents should teach it throughout the day in a fun and 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 is brown and starts with the 'sh' sound” (shoe). “I spy with my little eye something that is 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.

Reading Is the Search for Meaning

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

3. Comprehension Is the Key that Turns Sounding Out Into Reading: Ages 4-8

Parents and teachers are often overly impressed with children's decoding skills and wrongly label them “reading.” But, of course, reading involves much more than merely sounding out words on a page; it also includes comprehension, which is more complex and harder to teach. To comprehend successfully, children must not only have solid decoding skills, they must read fluently and find meaning in the printed text. Once again, when it comes to teaching comprehension, parents are best suited to the task.

To make meaningful connections with the printed word, children 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. A kid who has never visited an aquarium will not have the background needed to comprehend a text on marine life. Moms and dads can boost comprehension by remembering the mantra: Comprehension is the key that turns sounding out into reading.

  • 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, U.S. government, or dog breeds – and go to the library to check out books are teaching their kids about the value of reading.

  • Making predictions. When reading to a child, parents should ask them to make predictions about 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, alert to the plot, and improves comprehension.

  • Relate the story to the child's experiences. A parent should guide the child 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 and sat in your chair and broke it?”

  • Always follow up a story with a discussion or activity. Studies show that comprehension increases greatly when reading is followed up 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.

What is comprehension?

Comprehension is the ability to understand and interpret what one has read. In order for a child to comprehend what she has read, she must not only decode the text; she must also make meaningful connections between what she's read and what she already knows. She must also be able to think deeply about what she has 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 out into reading. By keeping these in mind, parents have what they need to turn children into proficient readers who love books and will turn to them for both pleasure and knowledge.

Teach Your Child to Read and Enjoy Doing It With This Book

No matter what their level of education, parents are better equipped to teach their children to read than teachers are. As both a mom and a teacher, I know parents have what it takes – the ability to combine the affective and cognitive realms to turn their kids into readers who love books. I highly recommend Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons because it gives parents the tools they need to make the process joyful and effective.

What is your favorite series of children's books?

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