Teaching a child to read is surprisingly easy. While a degree helps if you’re teaching a classroom full of children whose backgrounds vary, teaching your own does not require a degree. You know your child and his readiness and personality.
Before you begin, you need to be sure he is ready to learn. This happens at very different ages, and it has nothing to do with intelligence. Readiness is mostly a matter of interest, personality, and specific skills. Just as you aren’t equally skilled in all areas, or equally interested in them, your child isn’t either. His gift may be in reading, or it may be in something else, like math, art, music, or physical education. It really doesn’t matter if he learns to read at age two, or at age six. The important thing is that he learns when he’s ready to learn and that the process be friendly, unstressful, and fun. You want your child to love to read, and he will make that decision during the learning process. Go slowly and don’t pressure.
Vocabulary and Language Readiness
Before a child can read, he needs to have a good vocabulary. He should be able to speak in complete sentences with fairly reasonable grammar. You can help him with this by using bigger words when you talk to him and speaking to him in an adult way. For instance, when my daughter was a year old, I decided, just for fun, to teach her the word ambulate. People told me it was too hard, but a word is only hard if you don’t know it. Any familiar word seems easy. The word is no longer than dinosaur or elephant, which we regularly teach small children to say. I’d regularly say, “Let’s ambulate to the park today.” We’d then walk to the park. Used often enough in various contexts, it soon became a familiar word. Your child doesn’t need to understand every word you say. Use it and he will figure it out. Young children are pre-programmed for rapid language acquisition.
Let him do a lot of talking and make a point of listening and responding. Conversation is an essential part of reading readiness.
As he reads, he will need to be able to understand a great many words and be able to follow complex sentences. The better he knows his language, the better he will read.
When a child is reading, he will need to translate words into understandable experiences, using only his memories to do so. This means he needs to have many personal experiences. The more he experiences, the easier reading will be for him, because he will be able to relate what he’s reading to things he’s done and seen.
Let your child do as much as possible in your home. Give him chores. Let him help you cook. Give him his own little garden or flowerpot. Talk about what is going on around you. Make sure your conversations aren’t just instructional. Many parents forget to talk to their children when they aren’t giving instructions. Talk about everything you do when you’re together, and be together a lot.
Take your child on family field trips. Go to the zoo, the park, appropriate museums, and to the grocery store. Talk to him about what he’s seeing and doing. Does he know what you’re really doing when you go through the drive-through line at the bank, or does he think you’re picking up free money? When you go to the zoo, do you prepare by reading some animal books and learning facts you can discuss when you’re in front of the animal’s habitat? (Did you use the word habitat? It’s not a hard word.) When you’re at the park, do you bring along a nature guide and look up the name of the tree or flower you’re admiring? Do you stop to smell it, feel it, and talk about the visual details? Do you sit and watch a trail of ants go by?
Pay attention to your world. Every bit of it will be called into play when your child learns to read.
Learning about books
When my son was reading chapter books in first grade, his teacher asked me how I managed it. I told her I had been reading chapter books to him since he was born. They require a child to listen and to form pictures without help from a television camera or artist, and this takes practice. She started reading simple chapter books to her class and teaching them how to make their own pictures in their heads.
If you want your child to read, you’ll have to read to him a great deal. Read picture books, chapter books, even scriptures. Don’t wait until bedtime for one quick story. Read after breakfast, in waiting rooms, under a tree, in a tent, curled up in a special chair…read constantly. Show your child how important books are by being willing, from time to time, to stop your important grown-up tasks to respond to a story. Let your child hear you say, “That was hard work and I deserve a reward. I’m going to sit and read for a while as my reward.” Buy books as a reward and make library and bookstore day really important.
If your child learns to love being read to, he will soon want to learn to read so he doesn’t have to wait around for you to read to him. Book lovers are often early readers. Teach him how to hold a book, turn pages, go from front to back…basic book skills. Don’t have formal lessons, just talk about what you’re doing.
Run your fingers under the words as you read so he understands how to go left to right, top to bottom. This isn’t natural to children, who would logically expect to go left to right, then right to left on the next line. Let him see where those words you’re saying are coming from.
Play with the stories you read. This means to do things beyond just reading the book. If you read about a grandmother who made bread, make bread together. If you read about a bird, go buy a birdhouse. If you’re reading about a pretend monster, make your own pretend monsters. Act out the stories with puppets—after you make the puppets together—and change the ending if you like. Let your child dictate a sequel to you. Turn a poem into a song and sing it. The important thing is to make the book last longer and become more important by spending time doing more things with it. Don’t buy expensive book-related toys. Use what you have around and let your child participate. His monkey puppet might not be professional, but it will be more meaningful.
When reading chapter books to little children, do it in bed after the picture books are read. (He is likely to fall asleep, but that’s fine.) You can also read them during the day while your child is playing quietly with toys. You’ll be surprised at how much they remember even when they appear to be ignoring you. If you have older children, read to them while the younger children are in the room. When you’re discussing the story after each chapter, your little ones might surprise you by contributing their own meaningful thoughts.
Before you tackle the academic readiness skills, make sure you’ve turned your child into a book lover who has a book-centered lifestyle. That done, the academic portions will move along much more smoothly.
Continue to part 2: Reading Readiness