Once your child passes all the “baby milestones”- learning to walk, talk, and control bodily functions- it seems natural to look forward to the next big milestone- school. And synonymous with school is reading. Reading brings us joy, entertainment, knowledge, communication, and understanding. It is also the number one skill your child will need for school success.
You don’t have to wait for five or six years and let a teacher teach your child to read. Educators and researchers agree that families can positively influence reading development in three ways: by providing a print-rich environment, by modeling reading purposes, and by providing positive support and interaction. You can begin today to raise a competent reader, and construct a strong foundation for literacy by following a few simple guidelines.
First, Read! This seems obvious, and parents often protest that they do read to their children, at least once a week, or even daily. However, in order to develop your child’s desire to read, you must model, or demonstrate, independent reading. Your child needs to see you reading for your own enlightenment, enjoyment and enrichment. Why do children learn to talk on the phone and watch television and play games? They see us doing those things and enjoying them! They need to see us reading. Let your child see you reading instructions, labels, advertisements, lists, the newspaper, magazines, and books. Explain what you are reading and why.
There are also two key factors to remember when reading to your child- timing and frequency. Don’t wait until your child is a year old before you start reading books. It’s never too early to start! According to Lesley Mandel Morrow, author of Literacy Development in the Early Years, “babies begin to acquire information about literacy from the moment of birth. They continue to build on their knowledge of oral language, reading, and writing as they go through early childhood. “ I read to my babies as I nursed them. Sometimes I read children’s books. Sometimes I read the newspaper or a poem or the Bible. The reading material isn’t as important as the fact that the child is hearing the sound of written language and sees you holding a book. And when you read a book aloud, read it slowly and enjoy it! D. Ray Reutzel and Robert B. Cooter, Jr., authors of Teaching Children to Read, point out “the most common mistake in reading aloud is reading too fast.” Begin early to model a good reading pace.
For maximum benefit, reading must be done daily. However, the good news is that you can read ANYTHING. Road signs, advertisements, labels, cereal boxes, newspapers, magazines, comics, and games all contain words. The first word I remember reading was “Chevrolet”. It was on a billboard we passed often and my father read it to me even though I was just a toddler. The value of this concept is that your child understands that the words around us make sense and serve a purpose. Reading environmental print to your child should become natural and automatic.
Second, teach your child letter recognition. In Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print, Marilyn Jager Adams states that “letter recognition is the single best predictor of early reading success in young children.” As you see words and letters, point them out. Say them clearly. Help your child make connections with comments like, “That says sale. It starts with the same letter as your name- S. Samuel starts with S. Sale starts with S. “
The “alphabet song” is a cute trick we’ve all learned, but young children don’t understand it anymore than they understand the pledge of allegiance. They’ve simply memorized the sounds. That’s why it’s so difficult for a child who has memorized the alphabet song to actually recite the alphabet. When they get to “elemenopee” they don’t know what they’ve said. It’s best to just learn to recognize the alphabet and say the letters in order. The song can be learned later, for fun, when your child understands what he/she is actually saying.
Next, help your child develop phonemic awareness. Don’t be frightened by the sound of that. Sound is actually what it’s all about. Your child needs to understand that speech is composed of individual sounds and that those sounds can be manipulated. Play word games. Let your child hear similar words like hop, mop, lop, top. Show your child how to change letters to make new words out of familiar ones- pot becomes dot, lot, not, hot, cot, go, or rot, by changing one letter. Make up rhymes, work puzzles, sing silly songs. And remember, you can help your child understand sounds by pronouncing words distinctly. For instance, say the phrases “I scream” and “ice cream”. Your child should be able to hear the distinction in sounds.
Encourage conversation. Ask questions that require more than “yes” or “no” answers. Listen to your child’s answer. Encourage your child to think. When you’re reading a story, stop and ask “What do you think will happen next?” At the end of the story ask “why?” or “what happened?” questions. Let your child dictate his or her own stories and write them down.
Use your local library and build your own library at home. Most libraries allow children as young as three to have their own library card. Let your child check out books on a regular basis. This encourages reading and responsibility.
Begin acquiring books when your child is born. Start with a “library” of five books and try to add a book or children’s magazine each month for the rest of your child’s life. Books don’t have to be expensive. You can buy used books and paperback books. Watch for yard sales, and contact your local school about book clubs. You can buy quality children’s literature for as little as 50 cents a book, through national book clubs such as Scholastic SeeSaw, Trumpet Club, and Troll.
Finally, turn off the television. Give your child some individual attention. Encourage drawing, writing, and hobbies. Hobbies spark further interest in reading. For example, if your child is interested in baseball, he/she can read about the history of the game, players, how the field is prepared, how sports cards are printed, etc. (See sidebar for a story about baseball.) Children also gain valuable skills when they learn to read instructions and how-to books.
You are your child’s first teacher. You don’t have to have an education degree to start them on the road to reading success!