What is the best way to teach children to read?
Teaching reading requires children to master two skills; phonics and language comprehension. They need to be able to decode by blending sounds in words to read them and they need to comprehend what the word means in the given context. In school, children will be taught these two skills at the same time.
Phonics is used to teach word reading. Phonics connects letters (graphemes) with the sounds they make (phonemes). When children recognise the phonemes, represented by the graphemes, and blend them together, they can read words. Children will probably be taught letters and sounds in a specific order at school. Good phonic teaching relies on the accuracy of adults’ articulation of the phonemes so while it is possible to teach your child phonics, they need to be accurately spoken.
A common misconception when adults teach children these sounds is to lengthen the sound. For example, in the word nut, ‘n’ is often said as ‘nuh’; ‘u’ is often said as ‘uh’ and ‘t’ can be pronounced as ‘tuh’. This could end up causing lots of confusion, since the word could sound like ‘nutter’. While you may want to introduce letter sounds to your children, it’s worth noting that inaccurate modelling of these sounds could cause confusion and lead to inaccuracies when sounding out.
A good first step in teaching children to read would be to develop your child’s listening skills. If they can listen well, this will lay foundation for learning phonics. When children learn to decode words, they will need to be able to see the letters and hear the sounds they make. Helping your child develop their listening skills is therefore essential in hearing the phonemes in a given word. Discussing the sounds around you (cars, footsteps, birdsong) will promote active listening; a crucial part of hearing phonemes.
To support your child in learning phonics, it’s useful to find out how your child’s school teaches reading and how you can help. There are useful online resources to draw on. Two recommended websites with free phonics resources would be:
Once your child knows some sounds, they could try reading some in a book. It’s a good idea to start with sounding out the initial sound in a word. For example, in the word cat, the initial sound would be ‘c’. You could also ask your child to hunt a specific sound on a page. It’s also a good idea to encourage your child to look for sounds and words in the world around you, such as on signs and shops.
Perhaps the most important thing a parent can do to develop your child’s reading would be to develop a love of reading from an early age as this will help your child positively associate with reading. Make time to read daily to your child and reinforce positive feelings about storytime. If your child likes reading with you, they will probably want to learn to read for themselves. A comfortable and calm environment will also help your child to enjoy reading. Making reading fun (using expression and different voices for characters) will also help your child to love reading. Encouraging your child to choose what you read (including offering a range of genres) will not only give them opportunities to experience text in different styles, but it will also help them to develop their own reading interests. Reading the same book again and again is not a problem – the familiarity of a book can provide reassurance to your child.
Another invaluable way parents can help develop their child’s reading would be to ask questions about the books as you read them. This will help expand their comprehension skills (the other key skill when learning to read). Discuss the front cover and pictures as you read. Picture books are brilliant for sparking children’s imagination and enjoyment and the pictures themselves often show layers of meaning, so they are a good way to engage your child in the story even if they are not yet able to read the words. You could ask the following questions about the pictures and/or text when you’re reading, such as:
- Can you predict/tell what might happen in this story?
- What can you see on this page?
- What happened on this page?
- How do you think x feels? How do you know?
- What might happen next?
Reading yourself can be a good way to pass on your interest in reading to your child, as it models the importance of reading to them. It doesn’t matter what you are reading, as long as you can show that reading is a regular feature in your life as this will normalise reading for your child.
At what age should a child be able to read?
Children as young as four can start to read, but children may not start reading until a bit later on – from age 5 or sometimes 6. It’s worth noting that reading fluency will not likely happen until even later on (7 or 8) as this is when the child can automatically and accurately recognise words. Reading age depends on the individual but providing stimulus early on is likely to help your child read, thus input from parents can be a big help in a child’s reading success.
How do you teach a child who is struggling to read?
Keep reading aloud to your child in order to maintain your child’s interest and enjoyment in books. If your child is struggling to decode, you can still ask them questions about the book to expand their comprehension ability. Asking questions about word meanings, how a character feels and what’s happening in a story will all help to develop their comprehension ability.
Games might help those struggling with reading. Boggle, Hangman, or using a few letters to make cvc words (such as cat, nut, dog, man) may capture their interest.
If your child is at school and you have worries about their reading, make contact with the school to discuss your concerns.
Fiction recommended reading list for pre-schoolers:
The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Judith Kerr
The Nursery Collection, Shirley Hughes
Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found
Oliver Jeffers, How to Catch a Star
Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Burglar Bill
Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Funnybones
Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, The Treasure of Pirate Frank
Jon Klassen, We Found a Hat
John Burmingham, Mr Gumpy’s Outing
John Burmingham, Avocado Baby
There’s a Bear on My Chair, Ross Collins
Nick Sharratt, Shark in the Park
Nonfiction reading list for pre-schoolers:
Antoinette Portis, Hey, Water!
Laura Gehl, Odd Beasts
Katherine McEwen, Who’s Hiding on the River?
Judy Allen, Are You A Bee?