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How Parents Can Teach Their Child to Read in 3 Easy Steps

Ms. Meyers is a mom, teacher, and author who writes about issues in early childhood education and parenting.

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.

Should Parents Teach Their Child 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, flashcards, alphabet cards, special manuals, and other resources. Nothing could be further from the truth. After all, nobody is better suited to teach a youngster how to read than their own parents!

Parents Are the Best Reading Teachers

Nobody is better suited to teach a child how to read than their own mom and dad. That's because reading involves far 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 and experiences. If a youngster is lucky, they come to know 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 tales.

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. Jim Trelease is the author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, an invaluable resource that all parents should own. He states emphatically: "The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children."

To teach a youngster how to read while fostering a love of books, moms and dads should keep in mind 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.

1. Warm, Loving Connections: Conception-5

Parents of infants and toddlers lay the foundation for reading success long before there's a 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 child, they should strive to promote their youngster's emotional connection to the story in the following ways:

  • Scaffolding. When reading to a young child, 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 kids 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 the child what they already know about the subject. 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 youngster 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. Jennie Fitzkee, a preschool teacher for over 30 years, sums it up beautifully:

"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!"

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!"

2. Phonological Awareness: Ages 3-7

Phonological awareness is the foundation for 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.

Studies show that children with weak phonological awareness become weak readers. Therefore, parents should help their youngster develop an ear for sounds by reading them poetry, nursery rhymes, and rhyming books as well as listening to kids' music. Instead of relying on flashcards, workbooks, and phonics kits, they should keep it fun, light, and simple.

Building phonological awareness should involve being silly with words, making it a game, and celebrating the magic of language. There's no need for parents to sit their child down at a desk and have them do phonics worksheets because phonological awareness is developed through the spoken word, not the written one. Moms and dads should promote 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 youngster 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 Boggle 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.
Reading is the search for meaning, not just the decoding of words.

Reading is the search for meaning, not just the decoding of words.

3. Comprehension: Ages 4-8

Parents and teachers can be overly impressed by young children who have decoding skills, falsely labeling 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.

Comprehension is the ability to understand and interpret what one has read. A child who comprehends well must read fluently and find meaning in the printed text. They must be able to integrate what they've just read with what they already know, gaining new insight and knowledge.

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. Moreover, 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 of the book and ask: “What do you think this story will be about?” This gets kids immediately involved, thinking about the plot, and, therefore, enhances their 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, they 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.

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

Questions & Answers

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

Answer: 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