When I was a little kid, a family friend gave me a hefty hardcover called The World of Nature. I pored over the pictures of mammals, reptiles, birds and fish and carried the book around like a briefcase. One day, I announced to my mother that I could read. She gently expressed doubt, but I insisted. She asked me the title of my beloved tome. “Animals, Animals, Animals,” I declared, hedging my bets.
Guessing is an important part of early reading, but eventually kids need to grapple with real letters — they should be able to recognize and name about 10 of them before starting kindergarten. (Children who can read entire words before starting kindergarten are ahead of the game.) So what do parents need to do to make sure kids are ready? Don’t worry — it doesn’t involve lugging an encyclopaedia around. And you’ve already started teaching them without even knowing it.
Engage your child with words
The more we expose children to language, explains Linda Phillips, director of the Canadian Centre for Research on Literacy at the University of Alberta in Calgary, the easier reading will come. This means talking, singing, cuddling, playing — any way you can engage your child with words. Phillips gives the example of grocery shopping. “Parents do this all time. ‘Oh, we need some oranges; where are the oranges?’ And your toddler is looking around, finding the oranges.” The richer a child’s vocabulary, the more confident he’ll feel about reading.
Jennifer Beer began focusing on vocabulary development with her now five-year-old son, Harry, after he was diagnosed as hard of hearing. Beer and her husband were advised to talk to him as much as possible, about everything. “Walking down the street, we gave him more and more words: ‘Look at that man, he’s running, he’s wearing a red shirt.’ It could be tedious, but I think that helped develop his aptitude for vocabulary.” Beer says her husband teased her for using big words — such as “gigantic” or “enormous” — when Harry was younger, but it seems to have paid off: Today Harry is gobbling up both the Geronimo Stilton and Captain Underpants series, as well as chapter books such as Charlotte’s Web and The Boxcar Children.
Beer also sees a link between Harry’s enthusiasm and the fact that she and her husband are avid readers. (Phillips emphasizes that when it comes to passing on the habit of reading to your kids, it’s more about exposure than disposition or genetics.) “We have loads of books, he always sees us reading and we read to him multiple times a day,” she says. “Before he knew what books were, he’d pretend to read.”
Even babies can feel positive about reading, says Phillips. They may not be able to focus on the pictures or understand the words, but they relish the soothing and animated tones in which grown-ups read to them. They also love to hold and chew on board books. So go ahead, let your six-month-old goober all over a book — simply being surrounded by them could help turn him into a reader later in life.
And when your toddler chooses George and Martha for her bedtime book 15 nights in a row, try not to groan. Hearing the same story and looking at the same pages over and over is critical for memory development, explains Phillips. Each repetition allows children to absorb additional details and take in the arc of a narrative. “There will come a day when your child will pretend to read her favourite book, telling you the story in her own words. This means she now understands the process.”
Very young children won’t necessarily know there’s a difference between pictures and words. They only start to recognize print that’s been pointed out to them at about age three, says Phillips. Focusing on illustrations encourages their enjoyment of books, but it’s also OK to gently draw their eyes back to the words, where the rest of the story is. Marie Prins, who runs a private remedial practice in Cobourg, Ont., suggests running your finger under the print as you read.
Try finding words all around you. Show your preschooler the forecast, or ask him whether you have apples or ice cream in the grocery cart while checking your shopping list. This engages him, draws his attention to print, and teaches him that it conveys information. Next, start introducing him to letters. A beginning knowledge of some of the symbols that correspond to letter names is the essential first step in the mechanics of reading. Do this in the context of reading a story or passing a roadside sign. Point out the first letter of your child’s name wherever you see it, on a billboard, a storefront, or a cereal box. Make it fun: “I see a B, a big B — can you find it?” Prins suggests keeping alphabet books and big, foam puzzle letters at home.
Sound out words
So when does “sounding out” come into the picture? Phillips explains this is part of engaging children in language. In the context of singing, reading, talking and rhyming, call your child’s attention to the sounds letters make in common words. If you are reading a book about snakes, for example, point at the S and draw out the “ess” sound as you say “snake.” Prins believes that “saying the sounds” is the more important skill for children to master, above learning the letter names. “Knowing the name of the letter sometimes gets in the way of learning how to sound out words,” says Prins. “If they’re looking at a word that starts with the letter M, instead of saying ‘mmm’ they say ‘em.’”
Children should master a few other basic concepts before kindergarten, says Phillips, such as knowing the front of a book from the back, where on the page to start reading, what to do when you come to the end of a line and when something doesn’t make logical sense (for example, reading “the chair sat on the teddy”). These are all tools that will make decoding words and sentences much easier.
Stick with it
If your child doesn’t want to read (she closes books or pushes them away), follow her lead. Any pressure could turn her off reading. Instead, try finding a book about a favourite toy, and share it with her in an excited voice, even if, at first, all you’re doing is looking at the pictures.
Problems with development (whether it’s hearing, auditory processing, vision or learning disabilities) can sometimes interfere with a child’s interest in reading. Investigate concerns as soon as they arise, but don’t jump to conclusions — lots of kids mix up their letters. In Prins’s experience, vision is often the source of difficulty. “If a child in grade one isn’t reading, I pay attention to how that child focuses on print. Can he track properly from left to right? Do his eyes converge on print the way they’re supposed to?” Prins recommends that kids who are falling behind in school have their eyes tested, ideally by a developmental optometrist.
And if your child claims to know how to read before she actually does — if, for example, she makes up book titles — take heart. It means she wants to learn. And some day, maybe she’ll write about it.
A version of this article appeared in our January 2012 issue with the headline “Ready, set, read,” pp. 42-43.