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8 Steps to Teach Your Child to Read

If you’d like to teach your child to read, the best advice I can give is to not search for fancy online programs and “teach your child in only 30 days” approaches.

Reading is a complex learning process and must be taught in a developmentally appropriate way.

Reading is not a natural process for a child to learn. Speaking is natural and will be learned by listening to adults and mimicking them, but reading must be specifically taught as a new skill.

First, let’s take a look at when a child is ready to learn to read. This is very important information and worth spending a few minutes reading as it will impact how you teach your child.

Then, read on for the steps you can follow to teach your child in a developmentally appropriate way.

When is a Child Ready to Learn to Read?

The first thing to consider when wanting to teach your child to read is why you want them to learn.

If you want them to be ahead of others when they start school, or you’ve heard of a great program for 3-year-olds, stop right there and let your children simply play.

Children are ready to read formally when they start school, usually the first grade. During kindergarten/reception year they are only expected to start experimenting with sounds and letters.

Should you, as a parent, try to get your child ready for school by teaching them to read during the preschool years?

Unless your child is absolutely fascinated with reading and constantly asking what this sound is or what that word says, it isn’t necessary.

This is not because you shouldn’t do it as a parent –  you absolutely can teach your own child to read. However, the preschool years are not the time to do it. These are the years for developing pre-reading skills and a love of books by reading to your children.

Mother reading to son

As a teacher, I’ve spent years in the classroom and I’ve taught children to read in the first grade. I’ve also taught preschool for several years and have an insight into what goes on in both phases – preschool and the early formal grades.

I recently searched “teach your preschooler” on Pinterest and Google and the first phrase that popped up was “teach your preschooler to read.” I was shocked to see how many articles there were on teaching children as young as 3 to read. I found programs aimed at 2-year-olds!

You would struggle to find any teacher who has studied child development to agree that 3-year-olds should be taught to read.

There may be programs out there. They exist because there’s a market. There are parents who want the best for their children and want to know if they should teach reading early.

So people buy the products and they continue being marketed to parents. But it doesn’t make it developmentally appropriate.

Pin - How to teach a child to read

Why Your Preschooler is not Ready for Formal Reading

Here are a few reasons why you should not be teaching your preschooler to read yet. Read on to number 5…the most important reason.

1. Preschoolers Should be Playing

Play is the most important activity during the first 6 years of a child’s life. Children learn everything through play. The value of play should never be underestimated.

By forcing your child to sit down for formal lessons, you are taking away time from them that should be spent playing and learning in a natural way.

Child playing with dad

2. Preschoolers Have a Short Concentration Span

Learning to read is a complex process. It involves many skills and it involves long periods of concentration.

Your 3-year-old is probably able to concentrate on a task for 5 to 10 minutes, and that is normal. They should not be forced to sit for unnatural periods of time. Children need to learn and play in short bursts of time and frequently swap from one task to another.

When your child is older and able to sit down and concentrate for half an hour, then they are ready to start learning during formal lessons. In the meantime, you can work on increasing your child’s attention span.

3. They Need Time to Mature

Children are taught to read at school for a reason. They have matured by the time they start formal schooling.

The preschool years are not for cramming in formal school activities, hoping your child will be better off than the others or “better prepared.” There is a reason they don’t put children into formal classes when they’re two years old.

Young children need time to develop physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally. They need to be allowed to be children, without the pressure of being forced to learn things they are not ready for.

4. Reading Should be Meaningful

When a 2-year-old is taught the letters and how to identify words, they may learn to identify letters and sounds and some may even start to read, but this is at the expense of other skills (which I’ll mention in the next point) and this is not meaningful learning.

One of the most important factors for long-term reading success is the motivation to read and the desire to want to decode words.

Your child should be at a stage where they are dying to decode the symbols on the page. Most 2-year-olds may enjoy looking at picture books and listening to you read, but haven’t yet matured to the level where they want to read the words themselves. Forcing them will not develop a love for reading.

Child reading

5. Pre-Reading Skills Must be Developed

Before a child learns to read formally, there are many pre-reading skills that must be well developed. This means the foundation for reading should be worked on during the toddler/preschool years, just not the formal reading skills.

Here are some skills that must be developed:

  • Auditory awareness
  • Auditory discrimination
  • Auditory memory
  • Visual awareness
  • Visual memory 
  • Visual discrimination
  • Print awareness
  • Listening comprehension

Learning to read is not just about learning letters and putting them together. Children learn over several years how to distinguish sounds (auditory perception) as well as symbols (visual perception) through rhymes, games, listening to stories and many other activities.

Cow jumping over the moon

There are literally hundreds of activities and games that can be played that will get your child ready to read, and that don’t involve reading actual words.

The thing is, it is actually possible to teach a 3-year-old to read. It just isn’t good for them. They will learn to read at the expense of learning important skills and it will likely catch up with them later on in school.

I’ve seen it in my classes over the years. Children learn the sounds and learn to put them together but over time, as the class becomes more fluent, some children struggle with certain sounds or struggle to move to the next level of fluency.

Some can put 3 letters together (e.g. c-a-t) but cannot read blends (e.g. c-l in clap). Others can read a word on paper but cannot put the word together just by listening to 3 sounds. Then there are children who learn to read by memorizing but don’t have the skills to break up sounds on their own.

There are many variations of what can happen when children don’t have a solid grounding of pre-reading skills.

6. It’s Not a Race

Nowadays society is all about doing everything faster and better. Children hardly get to play anymore because there are so many demands made on them. This is unfair to our little children who are missing out on being young.

It’s not a race. Your child is not going to be better off because they learned to read before school. They are going to have years and years and years of pressure, stress, exams and all sorts of challenges.

They will have missed many important experiences and most of all – the chance to participate in the greatest joy of childhood – play.

Do you want your child to read before everyone else or do you want them to read because they’ve developed a fascination for letters and words and a life-long love for reading? Which will be better for them?

What if Your Child Learns to Read on Their Own?

Does your child play non-stop with letters, ask you what words mean as they pass road signs, or listen to their older sibling read and read along with them?

Well, then you have a naturally early reader. If there’s one thing I don’t believe in, it’s stopping your children from learning when they show an interest in something.

As long as you are not forcing any learning, if your child is asking you what sound the letter makes or if they are memorizing words in their books, let them go with it. They are developing their own love of reading.

Here is an excellent explanation of how children learn to read in a nutshell – starting from infancy. It is the best 12-minute investment you can make in your child’s education!

Can I Teach My Child Pre-Reading Skills?

The good news is that reading does not magically happen at school but is a process that starts with learning pre-reading skills from a very young age.

So, you shouldn’t be teaching them to actually read, but you absolutely should be teaching all the necessary skills that will be needed when your child is ready.

Teaching your preschooler to read does not mean teaching them the letters and the sounds. That is the first stage of formal reading.

Let me explain why I say that. Teaching a 3-year-old the sound the letter “b” makes is quite meaningless. He/she may memorize the symbols and sounds but not have the skills to work with sound.

Playing listening games, however, will develop your child’s auditory perception.

Then, when learning the sounds, not only will he/she be able to recognize and sound them out, but the process of blending sounds, segmenting sounds and putting words together, while attaching meaning to the words, will be simple to learn.

The last thing you want to do is spend months making your preschooler learn to read and send them off to school with no auditory perceptual skills and already slightly annoyed with the reading process.

Child frustrated with reading

Your child may feel the task is difficult and probably a bit pointless and they will then be starting the formal process on a reluctant note. This will not encourage life-long reading.

By the time children go to school, they should be ready to read and want to understand the words in the books. Learning will then be meaningful and easy.

How to Teach Your Child to Read

Here are 8 things you can and should do with your preschoolers that will teach very important reading skills.

Side note: As much as you don’t want to push unnatural learning, don’t stop natural learning either. If your child is asking what a sound is or learning to blend sounds on their own, go with it!

1. Read to Them

Reading to your child is the number 1 way your child will learn not only vocab and language skills, but also develop a love of books and a desire to read.

2. Talk to Them

Talking to your child often will develop their vocabulary as well as their use of grammar and language. Encourage discussions while reading to them, as well as throughout the day.

Children must have a good understanding of language before they are ready to read for meaning.

3. Point Out Print in the Environment

For sale sign board

Print is all around us. Before children are ready to read, they must understand that letters form words and that words have meaning. Also, when words are placed into sentences they hold meaning.

As you drive, point out road signs and what they mean. Look at words on food items at the grocery store. Teach your child about decoding these symbols to understand the messages and why the messages are there.

4. Develop Visual Perception

Visual perception is an often-overlooked skill. It is the ability to make meaning out of what the brain sees. It includes visual awareness, discrimination and memory.

This is very important for learning to read and seeing shapes and patterns in letters and words.

Visual perception can be developed through many games. A good example is a picture memory game. 

5. Develop Auditory Perception

Auditory perception, which is the brain’s ability to process sound, is one of the most vital skills to learn. 

Auditory perception can be developed through games such as listening memory games, following instruction games, nursery rhymes, etc. It includes auditory awareness, discrimination and memory.

Your child’s auditory perception will influence how capable they are of blending, analysing and segmenting sounds when reading.

6. Play with Letters

While you don’t want to be forcing your child to learn letters, you do want them to be exposed to letters during play.

Surround your child with letters in the bath, in the sandpit or in their room. Let them play with the letters and become familiar with the shapes without placing any expectations about learning them. They will learn some naturally anyway.

7. Encourage Play

Free play, although it may not be directly obvious why, is the single most important prerequisite for learning to read.

Formal skills can only be learned when a child has spent a good few years thoroughly engaged in play.

It is during play that children will naturally develop all kinds of skills needed for reading – visual, auditory and spatial perception, motor skills, language skills, etc.

8. Introduce the Letters and Sounds

This is the last step in pre-reading skills and the first step in formal reading. At this stage, you can introduce letters and the sounds they make.

Soon, your child will be able to place 3 simple sounds together to make words and then learn to make blends with 2 or 3 letters, within words.

The process of learning to read should be meaningful and doable at this stage and a child will progress naturally until they are reading sentences and paragraphs.

I hope you have found this article useful and that it has given you some tips to get started teaching the important stuff.

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Owolabi Bolanle

Wednesday 8th of April 2020

I find it very useful. Thank you

Tanja Mcilroy

Thursday 9th of April 2020

You're welcome Owolabi!

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