Our eldest son is reading at about a third grade level. He’s just turned 4. I started teaching him when he was 3 ½. Sometimes I struggle with this. I don’t want to be seen as that mum. You know, the mum that pushed and drilled her little child just so they can announce with pride that their child can read at a young age. Sometimes when people realise his reading ability they ask me how I taught him and I feel my defences rising. “Oh, he mostly taught himself” I say, which is definitely stretching the truth. He undeniably wanted to learn and, for the most part, he enjoyed learning to read. I did teach him, I encouraged him and I supported him. I absolutely didn’t force him to learn to read. I taught him because I believed that he was READY to learn to read.
I am a firm believer that children are ready to learn at all different ages. The benefit of homeschooling is that they can learn when they are ready without the pressure of keeping in line with a class full of students. Some children begin reading at two, others are simply not ready until they are ten. This begs the question, however, of knowing just when they are ready to learn. Of course, every child is different and there will always be exceptions and different expressions. In general, though, there are a number of commonly agreed upon signs of reading readiness.
Signs of reading readiness and how to develop them in your child
1. First and foremost, they are interested and motivated. If a child is not interested in learning to read it will be a painful and most likely fruitless endeavour. In teaching your child to read you don’t want to teach them that reading is a chore, but rather that reading is a joy. I love Mem Fox’s thoughts here when she writes that a “stories-first [approach] takes care of the essential attitude problem. Children who have been endlessly entertained by wonderful stories have a joyful attitude to learning to read.” (Reading Magic, p.57) Our son was asking us to teach him to help him read the words he came across. He was excited to learn.
What can I do?
If you want your child to learn to read, then read to them first. Let them fall in love with reading before you even try to teach them that c-a-t spells cat. Find a special, snuggly place to read and use it often. Fill your house with books. Pull them off the shelves and put them where your kids will pick them up. And read, read, read to them.
I highly recommend reading Reading Magic by Mem Fox. She discusses the importance and impact of reading aloud to our children and it’s incredibly inspirational. I borrowed it from the library so many times that I eventually bought my own copy.
2. Understands how books work. A child who picks up a book a “pretends” to read has learnt an important lesson already. That within the pages of a book a story is told that can be shared and enjoyed. Our son was memorising books and stories and telling them back to us. He knew that if he brought us a book then we would read it to him. He knew when to turn the page. He knew which were his favourite books and would tell us which book was which.
What can I do?
Fill your child’s world with books that they can pick up, turn the pages, look at the pictures and, most importantly, read them together. Read them a book and then let them “read” it back to you. Get them to turn the pages. Point out the pictures. Get them to fill in the sentence. “What do you see? I see a looking at me.” (Brown Bear, Brown Bear, by Bill Martin Jr/Eric Carle).
3. Understands how printed words work. Does your child know that those little black symbols on the page translate into the words coming out of your mouth? A child who is ready to read may ask you to read the words in their world. “What does that say, Mummy?” They may “follow along” with their finger, or pretend to “write” messages. The could even begin to recognise common words (like their name) or sight words (like “the” or “and”) Before we began to teach our son to read he could already recognise a dozen or so different words. He knew that letters made up words and that words made up stories or conveyed information. He was constantly asking us to read everything he saw.
What can I do?
As you read to your child, follow along with your finger, point out interesting words. “Look how long this word is!” I especially love books with words incorporated into the pictures. Every child can roar along with The Very Cranky Bear because the word roars across the page. Find signs in your daily world. Point out the letters, read the word. Lots of children begin to recognise logos for shops and brands very young and you can build upon this – read them the word, point out logos that they might recognise. Talk to them as you write, and then read, your grocery list. We also really liked the “Endless Reader” app by Originator for helping to develop print awareness in our boys. The letters are dragged together to make a word, and the words are then placed into a sentence which is read and shown to the child. Very simple and effective.
4. Recognises (most) letters and knows the sound they make. Our son could recognise all of his letters by two. Some he knew what sound it made, others he knew the name, still others he identified by a key word that started with the letter (Y = Yay!). He began learning to read at 3 1/2. That’s 1 ½ years of solidifying, expanding and internalising his letters before we even considered teaching him to read. By 3 ½ he could recognise both upper and lower case letters and tell you the most common sound they made of most letters. He didn’t have to stop and think to remember the letter, it was automatic. This meant that when he began learning to read he could simply build upon this foundational knowledge. He wasn’t stuck trying to remember the letters. Not every child learns their letters this early, my son was particularly fond of naming things (we used to call him the commentator) but there are still some things that you can do to encourage this.
What can I do?
Play with the letters. We had foam letters in the bath (magnets on the fridge work well too), alphabet peg puzzles, apps on the phone and iPad (see HERE for some of our favourites). We would stop on the ramp at Coles to name the giant letters at their level. We would spot the letters in the parking garages, the letters in title of a book, the letters in a logo. If your child is older, then stamps, painting, even crafts can be fun. Make a swan from an S, make a dog from a D (just don’t ask me how because crafts are not my forte.) Read alphabet books. Our family’s favourite is Dr Seuss’ ABC, so much so that we’re already on to our third copy.
5. Has a developing phonological awareness. Can your child hear the individual sounds that make up a word? Can they finish a rhyme? Can they tell you that cat starts with “cuh” and ends with “tuh”? This can be a little harder to tell since it’s not as easily observed. Our son could tell us that “cuh-ah-tuh” said “cat” and that “duh-ah-duh” said dad. He could tell us what sound words started with. He could tell us that the “cat” sat on the “mat.”
What can I do?
The best way to develop this is to play with the words themselves. Read rhyming books and get them to finish the rhyme, sing words songs, say tongue twisters until you’re giggling in a heap on the floor. My son absolutely loved the book, “My Cat likes to Hide in Boxes” with its rhyming couplets and we read it to him so many times that we would have to hide it to give us a break. “Oi Frog” was another rhyming favourite and we had fun trying to guess what each animal was allowed to sit on. Make deliberate mistakes with the sounds in words. The book, “Did you take the B from my ook?” does this so well, but you can do it yourself with any book or story. There are, of course, worksheets and printable games that you can do for these however, unless your child is a huge fan of these kind of activities then I would try to make this a more natural part of your day.
What does this mean for me?
You still may not be sure whether your child has all of these signs and that’s okay. Teaching a child to read is not all or nothing. You don’t have to commit to finishing the job within six months. Learning to read is a journey and you and your child can take it as slowly or as staggeringly as you need. A false start, as it were, is not a bad thing. It simply means that you have listened to your child and paid attention to where they’re at. That is a wonderful thing, not a failed attempt.
If your child is not ready yet, then that’s okay too. Children learn to read at phenomenally different times. It’s simply the way they’re wired and has almost nothing to do with intelligence. What a privilege you have to nurture their love of reading through real-alouds together. Continue to encourage their developing reading-readiness skills and help them to fall in love with books and the stories they tell.
If you think your child is ready to learn to read then you are about to embark on a wonderful journey together. It’s not always sunshine and daisies but watching your child discover this new and delightful skill is a wonderful privilege. In my next post I will detail the program and method that we used to teach our son to read for those who would like more information.