The process of learning to read starts long before kids actually sound out letters on a page. Here's how parents can lay the ground work and help kids gain some basic skills at home.
The first step toward reading is oral proficiency and doesn’t involve any printed letters at all. Rather, it’s teaching phonological awareness, which is the ability to identify and work with sounds in words. According to David A. Kilpatrick, a psychology professor and author of Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, a deficit in this area is actually the most common reason why children struggle with reading words, which is often called dyslexia or can be classified as a learning disability.
April Hackett-Helmkay, a speech-language pathologist working in schools in Eastern Ontario, says even preschoolers can engage in phonological awareness activities like rhyming, alliteration and clapping syllables.
Another trick is to get them to delete parts of words. For example, you can ask them to say the word “applesauce” without “apple.” “Or you say a word slowly and they say it quickly so they’re blending the sounds,” suggests Hackett-Helmkay. Nursery rhymes, rhyming games and discussing initial sounds (“‘Taylor’ and ‘taco’ start with the same sound”) are also helpful.
Learning the alphabet song alongside a visual component like a book or video encourages letter recognition, and many kids recognize the letters in their own names when they enter kindergarten. When sounds are introduced and your child begins to learn to read at school, ask the teacher which letter/sound combos have been taught so you can help your child practise at home.
A child’s vocabulary knowledge is a good predictor of academic success, says Hackett-Helmkay. “You can have great decoding skills, but without solid oral language comprehension, such as vocabulary, you won’t be able to understand what you’re reading.” It’s never too early to start building vocabulary—start by narrating your day to your baby, and as your child gets older, converse often and answer their questions to build that vocabulary and knowledge base.
Bedtime stories instill a love of reading, but they also teach your child skills (like how to hold a book and turn the pages) and play a role in vocabulary development. Continue reading aloud to kids as they get older by choosing a chapter book that your child isn’t ready to read themselves. You want your child to develop positive associations with reading, which can make a difference when they start to learn to read on their own, especially if they are struggling.