Be sure to check out our Ready-to-Read Checklist at the end of this article for a list of signs your toddler is ready to start reading!
By Alexa Joy Sherman
Parenthood can be a pressure cooker in more ways than one, but the intensity is especially high when it comes to making sure our kids hit their developmental milestones on time. As they approach school age, the heat is really on, with learning to read atop the list. “Reading-level expectations of kindergartners are very high,” says Susan B. Neuman, EdD, professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan and author of Reading to Your Young Child: A Parent’s Guide (Scholastic, 2007). “And they’ve gotten dramatically more rigorous in recent years.”
But don’t panic yet. Chances are you’ve been raising a capable reader without necessarily knowing it. “Early literacy is highly related to the attachment created between parent and child,” Neuman notes. In other words, simply reading, making eye contact, talking and playing with your child all eventually translate into literacy. The additional strategies outlined here will only serve to further boost your efforts.
Teach by example
As with most things, children learn by observing what you do. “A parent’s job is not to teach reading—it’s to model and demonstrate, through your own behavior, what reading is and what it can do for your child,” Neuman notes.
So ditch your inner drill sergeant and just start exploring the wide world of words: Read and write in front of your child, follow recipes together, ask questions when you read your little one a story. “Parents can help children learn by focusing on details and using the books as opportunities to talk about their lives,” Neuman says. For instance, you might ask your child how the illustrations are similar to or different from where you live—or simply ask her to tell you the names of the things on any given page.
Keep it interesting
Point out words all around you—from street signs to billboards—and seize every opportunity to emphasize the magic of reading. “Children learn a lot through environmental print,” Neuman says. “They don’t actually learn to read that way, but they realize that print will help them better understand the world around them, so it really helps in motivating them to want to learn to read.” Also, read at all hours of the day—not just before bedtime.
Otherwise, says Neuman, children will associate reading with going to sleep! “I recommend parents take books with them everywhere and let children hold them even if they can’t read them yet,” she adds. Finally, head for the library! “The library is the gift that keeps on giving,” Neuman says. “Children need to develop a library habit from the very beginning.”
NEXT: BECOME A BOOK REVIEWER
Become a book reviewer
For starters, opt for reading material that’s relatively short and simple. “The text should be laid out clearly, and there shouldn’t be too many words because beginning readers just can’t stay with it for too long,” Neuman explains. Also, check out as many informational books as possible on topics your child enjoys, like sharks, trains, princesses or horses. This allows her to become an expert on something she cares about and master her world, says Neuman.
Meanwhile, look for basic illustrations that help your child figure out what’s written. “Some illustrations may look pretty, but they can also be very confusing, even for the child who’s learning to read,” Neuman notes. Also, get silly with your selections. “Children love to laugh at this age, so they often enjoy books that have a sense of fun,” Neuman says. “Parents should keep it light and joyous.”
Play with the letters
Learning the alphabet and letter sounds is crucial to becoming a successful reader— but you must make it interesting and engaging rather than something they have to learn one minute and forget the next. For instance, keep singing the “ABC” song and read books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault.
“The best alphabet books help children associate a letter with a picture,” Neuman says. “This helps them learn that each letter can map onto a sound.” But as much as you should read and talk about the pictures, there’s no need to turn it into a rote-memorization exercise. “Flashcards are not good for children in the long run,” Neuman says. “[They] learn ‘I’m supposed to please you,’ and it’s not an internal kind of activity.”
NEXT: TEACH THEM TO WRITE
Teaching your child to write can also help them learn to read. Start with big, capital letters—which are easier to print—and let your child have at it, freehand, Neuman advises. “It’s important for them to have blank pieces of paper and not lined paper so they can explore,” Neuman says. “First, they tend to do it artistically and play with it, and then they get more exact and refined as they develop the muscles of the hand.” You might begin with the letters of your child’s name.
“There’s nothing more fun for children than when they can print their name very clearly,” Neuman says. “It gives them a sense of identity and they love that.” Once again, avoid teaching tools that are confining— like letter-tracing books. “We need to get children to recognize the difference between what the parent does and what they do,” Neuman explains. “Over time, with enough practice, they will do it the right way. Tracing isn’t necessary at all.”
Research shows that children who are most likely to have reading difficulties start kindergarten without an adequate ability to sound out letters—and that they continue to struggle with reading throughout their academic careers.
This is just one more reason why it’s important to talk to your pediatrician if you have any concerns about your child’s hearing or speech. “Language development is the centerpiece of reading,” Neuman notes. So if a child is speech-delayed or has hearing difficulties, the parent needs to seek the advice of a pediatrician.
NEXT: Ready-to-Read Checklist
According to Neuman, some children are able to read as early as 2 or 3 years of age. So it’s never too early to start! That said, here’s what kids should know by age 4—or certainly by the time they’re in kindergarten:
» All the uppercase letters of the alphabet
» That a letter is distinct from a word » What rhyming is » How to segment—or pull apart—words (e.g., “carpet” = “car” + “pet”)
» How to blend words—or put them together (e.g., “car” + “pet” = “carpet”)
» That print is read from left to right, and up to down » How to retell a story in some basic form (e.g., by looking at a familiar book and telling you what happens in it)
» All (or some of) the sounds that letters make » How to read or recognize their name in print » How to write some letters, such as the ones in their name
By the time they’re in first grade, children should be able to read on their own. “They won’t be able to read complex text, but they should be able to read the words they can decode with phonics,” Neuman says. So give them a Dr. Seuss book like The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham, and let them read you a bedtime story for a change!
Los Angeles-based writer Alexa Joy Sherman looks forward to the day her son reads her a bedtime story.
6 easy ways to encourage your tot’s literacy.