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How to teach your child to read - starting from scratch

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Young child reading an early reader book with a parent

Learning to read books is an important skill that you can teach your child. It can be a whole lot of fun, and it needn’t be complicated.

How you go about it will make a huge difference, so here’s a guide that will make it easy on you and your child.

Disclaimer: The advice in this article comes from my experience as a mom teaching my children how to read. I am not a professional educator. If you have questions or concerns, please your child's preschool or kindergarten teacher or other education professional.

How to begin: Going from zero to rudimentary reading skills

Going from zero word recognition to being able to read first sentences will be by far the biggest step for any child learning to read. So with this step it’s critical to make sure you set the right foundation. After that, you’ll be able to let your child’s interests guide you. But for starting out right now, just get a beginner book and follow the steps below.

Make sure beginner books are truly beginner-based. Some Level 1 or Pre-Reader books in the early reader series that you can find at libraries may be appropriate, but even many of these are too advanced when you’re starting from absolute zero.

My recommendations for absolute hands-down best first books to learn to read:

Both of my children learned to read on the above series, they each preferred one series. If you want to pick something else, by all means do so – just make sure that it has all the things that children need in their very first readers:

  • Big font
  • Short sentences
  • Big, engaging color pictures without too much clutter
  • Humor and/or excitement
  • A simple plot.
  • Only one idea per page – both in the words and the pictures

Avoid books based on TV or movie characters to begin with. Although many children are drawn to these characters, even the Level 1 books in most of these tend to have far too much going on in both the pictures and the text, leading to confusion. These books are excellent for a little later on when your child already has some rudimentary reading skills, but almost none of these are suitable for a first reader. You can certainly continue to read these harder books yourself to your child, or let him or her know the good news that they will be able to read these themselves a little later on.

Let’s assume you’ve found the ideal first reader book. If you would like me to recommend a specific first title for your child’s very first book when learning to read, it would be "Go, Go, Go (Read with Dick and Jane)" from the Dick and Jane series by Penguin Young Readers. Now you're ready to teach your child to read.

How to teach a child to read

  1. Firstly, inform the child he or she will be learning how to read. Make this be special and exciting! Even if your child doesn’t really understand the full significance of what you’re saying, your tone of voice and body language should make it clear this is a fun thing. Say something along the lines of "This is an exciting time! You are old enough to learn how to read now. As a special treat, I will teach you how!"
  2. Then just open the first reader book you have for them. Have the child sit next to you, or on your lap. Make sure your child can see the words and pictures well. Take your child’s pointer finger in your hand, and point to each word in the first sentence as you say them. Go slowly and clearly, but still use expression in your voice. After the words on that page, point to the corresponding picture. Inject as much enthusiasm as you can into this. If something funny is happening in the picture that you’re pointing to, laugh! Then either move onto the next page, or, if the child is willing, have him or her say the words again as you point to them together.
  3. The second time through reading, make sure you get the child to say the words while he or she points to the words. Remind him or her gently "It’s your turn now!" If your child hesitates at a word, try to sound out the start of the word while pointing to it. Chances are, your child will fill in the rest of the word for you. It’s really important that the pointing be coordinated with the word pronunciation, so guide your child hand-over-hand with the pointing if need be.
  4. Then simply rinse and repeat steps 2 and 3 with different beginner books. Don’t do too much at one sitting – a book or two is more than enough at one time. Don’t vary the books too quickly either, or the task will seem too challenging to your child. But do try to get plenty of short reading sessions within one day. Be guided by your child – different children progress at different rates and have different attention spans. Learning how to read won’t take forever.

Good news: If your child is about to enter Kindergarten, learning to read is certainly something that shouldn’t take the whole summer to accomplish. Spend an hour or so a day spread out here and there during the day.

Important: Always sound upbeat when reading, no matter how frustrated you may be feeling if there is a lack of progress. Your child won’t want to learn how to read if you’re not patient with his or her mistakes, or if he or she senses that this is "work" to you. Make sure it sounds like fun, and put plenty of your own laughter into it. By doing this, you will ensure your child’s success. This is also why I like the Dick and Jane series and the Elephant and Piggie series, since there are plenty of fun bits to laugh about.

Phonics versus sight words

I would not personally get hung up on phonics versus sight words while you are first teaching your child how to read. The reason being that in school, most classrooms will use both methods. They are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

If your child hesitates on a word that can be sounded out – and most early words can – try to sound it out for him or her while you both point to the word e.g. "rr – un, run". However, there is no need to get so caught up in doing this for each and every word that you both lose sight of the meaning of the sentence. In many cases, just say the word right out. Your goal here is to use the right combo of both methods – sounding out (phonics) and word recognition (sight words), that suits your child. The aim here is to get your child started on reading. So long as he or she is learning and moving forward and having fun, that’s the most important thing.

How you know when your child is really reading versus memorizing a book?

There isn’t an easy way to tell reading versus memorization with books your child has already seen. The only way to know for sure is to try a new book with your child. This is why I always bought a few more early reader books than I really needed, so that I’d always have some unread ones stashed away until they were needed. It’s an amazing feeling for both of you when your child first starts to read words in a book that he or she has never seen before!

Besides parenting how-to's such as this article, I cover kids fashion and style on a budget. Find out the 6 best children's clothing stores for style that won't break the bank!

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