6 Tips Every Parent Should Know When Teaching a Child to Read

Many people attribute a child’s ability to read as a light bulb effect. The switch is flipped, the light comes on, everything about the way letters form together to makes words just makes sense, and the child is reading. I, myself, use this analogy quite often. Unfortunately, the sudden light is the exception, not the rule, in the way that children learn to read.

The actual reading process occurs more like a fluorescent bulb. The switch is flipped, and nothing happens. There’s a brief flicker, and the light goes out. Another flicker occurs, this time as static – flashes of understanding, moments of comprehension, and then the light dies off, this time longer than before. Just as soon as hope is lost, and the parent thinks the child will never learn to read, the static flashes occur in prolonged succession, getting stronger with each flare, until the light grows bright and remains on. Even then, there are occasional flickers, occasional struggles, and we parents have to wait for that understanding to come back. When it does, though, it’s brighter than before.

Understanding that reading process can feel like a battle, particularly if the child is facing learning delays or language barriers. There are tricks for teaching reading, though, and they are so simple that every parent should know them…

1} Are We Reading, Are We Reading? Yes, We Are!

The most basic trick we can do to prepare our children to read is to read to them. From the time awareness comes, from the time they can grasp a book {the soft, squishy ones}, we should be pointing at the words and reading them to our children.

When babies and toddlers are being read to, the books don’t have to be “on their level.” They need to hear the cadence, the rhythm, the way words are formed into sentences with pauses, breaths, inflection, and tone. As soon as they progress to a moment of understanding {18 months to three years old}, begin introducing those first readers. The red circle with the capitalized RED, the blue square with the capitalized BLUE. At that point, make reading interactive. Have the child parrot the word. Have the child trace the letters with their fingers. Tell them the letter and have them say it back. Reading is a process, and we, the parents, are the starting line!

My favorite book for teaching the alphabet is Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault. It’s fun, it’s interactive, and it’s the only time a child can feel sorry for “stubbed-toe e.”

2} ABCs are GREAT, but what SOUNDS do they make?

One of the biggest problems I see, as an educator, is a parent struggling to teach children how to sound out letters. Phonetics are tricky, but the fix is simple – as soon as they learn their ABCs, as soon as they can identify and match a letter to its name, the parent should begin teaching and chanting {yes, chanting!} those letter sounds. Children need to learn that vowels have two primary vowel sounds: the short vowel and the long vowel.

Long /a/: plane, snake, ape, make, cake.

Short /a/: back, snack, at, map, nap.

Consonants seem to be the easiest to teach, but we tend to want to put an eh or uh sound after each letter. P, however, does not say “puh,” S does not say “es,” and L does not say “el.” The tricky part in teaching a child to say the letters with extra sounds attached is that they then begin to sound it out and spell it that way. If a child writes, “pulane” for plane {let’s be honest, they’re probably writing pulayn}, it’s because they’ve assimilated that the short /u/ sound says “uh,” and the /p/ sound says “puh,” so they write it that way.

Seeing as I am not making my own video, this is the best I could find on the web. The only letters I want to remark on is that C makes two sounds: /c/at and re/c/ess, and Y has a long and short sound: happ/y/, and /y/ak. This video can help turn the alphabet into a chanting game. Start each letter by saying the letter name, and then make the sounds of the letter. With each consonant, repeat three times in a row; with every vowel, repeat twice in a row, saying those long and short vowel sounds. 

3} Memorize those sight words!

Sight words, oh, sight words. It seems as if our children need to know the Kindergarten Sight Word List before walking into the first day of Kindergarten, which can feel frustrating. The easiest thing to do, as a parent, is once the students know their letters, once they know the letter sounds, begin introducing sight words 2-5 at a time. Read a book to them, pointing to the words that will be introduced that week, and have the child repeat those words back. Next, pull out flashcards for isolation drills, speak the word to the child, have the child repeat it, and go to the next word. Do this 2 or 3 times in one sitting, repeating the drill throughout the week until the child can speak the word without prompting.

4} Start building on the basics.

The next step is to start using “building blocks” for children to read. They know their letters, they know the sounds, they know words that sometimes just need to be memorized because they are high frequency words with no strict “rule” to follow, like to, good, the, and all. Introducing these building blocks can help a child create new words from a base word. For example, they know the word at. But if I add and R to it, do they see the word rat? If I swap it for an M, can they read the word mat? How many words do they know with that basic word, and how many can they read with that same understanding?

A funny trick I use for /ow/ is to pretend to pinch, and when they instinctively say, “OW!” I say, “You’re right! Ow! Now say the whole word!”

5} Be There, Be Prepared, Fingers at the Ready!

Emergent readers, struggling readers, and beginning should be reading out loud to a parent. The best trick for reading out loud is for the parent to be their place marker. With the tip of an index finger, place it under the word they are reading, and only progress when they say the correct word. If they get the word wrong, tap the word without comment, redirecting their focus back to the word. If they get it wrong again, tap it again, this time asking them to sound it out. With compound words, cover the second part of the word, so that they can focus on the first part of that word.

6} Who Cheers for the Reader? We Do!

Reading can be stressful for an emergent or struggling reader. Instinct tells us to lay the book down, walk away, or let their tears sway us into giving up. It can help on occasion to put the book down {a tired child will never focus well} or start reading for the child, but if they are crying because they know giving up is the result, we, as parents, must morph into the role of a cheerleader. Every word, every sentence, every page needs to be applauded. When the book is finished, lay on the praise, give the high fives, and commend a job well done.

There are so many more reading tips and tricks for emergent, struggling, and beginning readers, but these five are the ones I fall back on when teaching reading skills to children.

What tips and tricks have you used when helping your child learn to read? Share below!

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