Teaching Children to Read Their First Words

See the bottom of this article for links to earlier parts of this series.

In previous articles we explored the skills a child needs to be able to read and also learned how to teach the alphabet. Now we’re finally ready to start teaching a child to read.

Black Mormon mother and daughterThere are two ways to cope with the words found in books. Phonics is the method currently in fashion. Phonics involves learning the sounds letters and letter combinations make and then sounding out words. The other method is called sight reading. This means a child memorizes the word. Many schools today focus on just one system, which is short-sighted and limits a child’s ability to read well. If a child has to sound out every word, it will take him too long to read a story and he will be focused on sounding out, not understanding or enjoying his material. However, if he has to memorize every word, it will take him too long to learn how to read and will limit his ability to figure out unfamiliar words. In addition, some children, particularly those with learning challenges, will not be able to learn one system or the other. By teaching both, you allow the child more opportunity to succeed and to build on his strengths.

When I taught my preschoolers to read, I started with sight reading. I wanted them to get the basic concept of reading and to be able to read their first stories quickly and easily. The first time a child opens a book and starts reading, it should be a successful experience. As I taught words, I taught phonics informally. Later, when children are old enough for worksheets, you can add phonics worksheets for more formal training.

When you were teaching the alphabet, you began playing with helping your child learn to recognize his name. You were starting sight reading at that time. A child’s name, and the names of people and pets he loves, is a great way to get started with reading. First words and sentences should be meaningful to a child.

You’re not going to start with a book because, as mentioned earlier, you don’t want to go there until the child is ready to be successful. Instead, you’ll only need file cards and pictures of family members. On cards, write each of your child’s names—first, middle, and last—each on a different card. Set out the names with a picture of your child. Under the child’s picture, print his name so the letters match the ones on your card. (Decide in advance how you will write the letter “a.” Do you want to write it the way it’s found in books, or the way we normally print it? I used the method found in books and showed the difference in them when I taught writing later.

At first, you’re just going to get him used to seeing the words in the right order and together. Put the picture on a bulletin board with the names under it. Periodically, point them out, saying what each word is as you touch the card. Invite him to do the same thing. One day, when you feel he’s ready, put them on the floor out of order, but still under the picture. Say, “Oh, look. The cards got mixed up. I wonder how I get them back in order?” Let him try, gently helping him as needed. Say, when he makes a mistake, “Oh, I think this one goes here, because it says Matthew, which is your first name. So it has to be first.”

Do this off and on for a few days until he can do it naturally. At the same time, make multiple copies of the name cards and let him practice sorting them as you help him “read” the card. All of these activities will teach him to read his name informally without worksheets or books.

Next, obtain pictures of each member of your family. You want individual photos. Include the pets. Make first name cards for them, but use whatever the child calls the person (Mommy, Suzie, Sis…). Set out your child’s picture and one other picture. Set out his name card and the name card of the other person. Ask him to find his name card and place it under his picture. He should be able to do this easily. If he can’t, postpone the next activity. Now show him the other name card and picture. Ask him who is in the picture. Say, “Yes, that’s Daddy, and this card says, “Daddy.” Can you put Daddy’s name card under his picture? Good work!”

Remove the name cards and hand them back to him, asking him to do it again. Do this a few times, but not so long he gets bored. To vary it, put the pictures in different places in the room and let him run to get them. Over the coming weeks, add one new name at a time, never more than one a day. You’ll probably need a number of days or even weeks to be ready for the next name. Don’t add a new name until he completely knows the ones you’ve already introduced. You want every early step to be easy and successful. Later, you won’t worry as much about complete mastery in advance, but by then he will consider himself a good reader.

When he knows all the names, play a new game. This one is harder and will take time to master. Set out the pictures, but put the wrong names under two of them. See if he notices. If he doesn’t, point out to him some things are a little mixed up. If you have a pet, you can make this funny by putting a parent’s name under the pet. Children find this amusing. Ask him to fix it. Over the next few days, mix up more of them. Only add one new mix-up a day so you don’t overwhelm him. When there are too many, back up and use fewer.

Once he is comfortable with this, hand him all the cards and ask him to put them under the right person.

In the next article, we’ll learn our first sentences.

Continue to Teaching Children to Read Sentences.

Previous articles in this series:

Part 1: What your child needs before he reads. Don’t start the process until he has this basic life experience.

Part 2: Reading Readiness Your child needs a good imagination and matching skills, among other things, to be a good reader. Here’s how to give him those skills.

Part 3: Colors and Shapes. The skills used in learning colors and shapes prepare a child for the abstractions of letters and words. Fun and easy ways to teach these skills.

Part 4: The alphabet. Singing the alphabet is only the start. Help your child learn to recognize and match the letters, both lowercase and uppercase.

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