Help your child learn to read Part 1: Tips for parents of pre and partial alphabetic readers

Posted by Catherine Young Morris on

You’ve probably heard some version of this a million times already: Read with your child for 15-20 minutes a day.  And yes, this is great advice.  Reading and talking to your child are the simplest ways to broaden your child’s vocabulary and understanding of the English language. This is important both for your child’s broader academic success, as well as for their reading development. 

But don’t stop there. If you found your way here, there is a lot more you can do to help your child learn to read, because there is a lot more that you know about written and spoken English.  Here are some tips for parents of pre and partial alphabetic children that go beyond what you may be used to hearing. 

Talk to your child about what you are reading, and how you are reading it. Yes, the first tip it to talk.  Why do books have a table of contents?  Page numbers?  Headers?  Are you making up the story from the pictures?  Who did make up the story?  What are all those symbols on the page?  Are you reading instructions on a package?  A sign on the street?  What useful information do these give you?  What do you do when you come across an unfamiliar word?

The answers to these questions may all seem obvious to you, but they are not to your child.  That makes them great topics of conversation, and you will be amazed by the questions you get asked.  Helping your child understand many of these fundamentals takes some of the mystery out of reading and make it much more approachable to even consider that they can learn to do it themselves. 

Model pointing to the text with your finger as you read it.  You don’t have to do it all the time (and your child will get annoyed if you are covering the pictures), but it will help your child learn that there are spaces between words and that we read from left to right.  Children can learn to track text even before being able to read the words on the page, so you can turn it into a fun game where you read the word when they point to it. Following along with text is a bigger skill than you may realize.

Give your child time to notice different text and punctuation, especially in pictures.  Talk about key letters, or words your child may be familiar with.  Again, you are helping your child develop familiarity and a vocabulary for beginning to understand text. 

Enjoy poems, songs, and wordplay together.  Ear training isn’t just for musicians.  An important part of reading is being able to hear both the sounds and rhythm in language.  The best part is that these important listening skills are also infinitely fun to practice together. 

Forget the sight word flash cards.  They have no place at this stage of your child’s reading development.  You may have heard of programs that train very young children to read, but this is a very dangerous road to go down.  The first reason is that very young children will memorize whole words like pictures, because they lack the alphabetic knowledge to do otherwise.  This can result in the child being unable to recognize the word at all when presented differently. 

Even children who recognize letters learn words less accurately when expected to perform whole word memorization. They will also struggle more at later stages of reading than children who learn to read using a phonics approach. Whole word memorization can fool you with short term gains, for what will ultimately turn into long term pain. Put your energy elsewhere at this phase. Like the alphabet!

Give your child lots of practice with the ABC’s.  Your child will need to learn many things about the letters of the alphabet: a) the names, b) the most common sound each letter makes, and c) to match upper- and lower-case letters.  Alphabet books are great for helping to develop this knowledge, but so are fridge magnets, letters in the sand, alphabet noodles and playing with letters anywhere they appear, or you make them!

Depending on when you start introducing letters, you may initially find that your child has limited interest.  This is normal, and you don’t need to rush it. 

Do not expect your child to naturally discover the names and sounds that letters make on their own or figure it all out from watching you read though. Few will.  

Start with a letter or letters your child may encounter frequently (like the first letter of their name) and introduce it often.  When it’s clear that the concept and understanding of the letter form have really sunk in (and kids will usually get quite excited about this and start noticing and making their letter everywhere), it’s a good time to start gradually introducing new letters. 

Note: The ability to form letters in writing and recognize letters do not necessarily go hand in hand. Your child needs a lot of practice scribbling and drawing before they will be ready to take on letter forms.  Encourage all this fabulous play by making pencils and paper accessible and spending time together working on books and artwork. If you make a habit of labelling pictures with titles and the artists’ name, you will be surprised by how quickly your child picks up on and copycats your behaviour. 

Take it slow and give your child lots of practice. You don’t need to wait until your child is school aged. Follow your child’s lead and give them opportunities to show you that they are ready to learn something new.  Mastering all 26 letters and their most common sounds will give your child a strong foundation for learning to read at home, at school, and beyond. 

What are your favorite activities with your pre-readers?  We’d love to know.  

Check out these alphabet practice resources: