One of the first and most anticipated milestones in a child’s education is learning to read. Reading skill continues to progress throughout childhood, but there are two huge leaps that happen early on. The first is the recognition that groups of letters make sounds and that words can be systematically sounded out. This is the point where the rational part of the child’s brain is capable of reading. At this stage, the process of working out a word requires the full attention and you will notice that the child easily loses track of what a particular sentence or story is about. They are capable of reading, but often don’t really enjoy the process itself, although they may still get excited about interacting with you or the challenge of puzzling out each word.
The second major leap happens when the intuitive brain becomes capable of reading. At this point, the child may still have to stop and work out the occasional word, but enough of the processing is happening at the intuitive level that the rational brain can engage in understanding and enjoying the story being read.
Currently two of our four children are readers, so we are still very much engaged with this process. As with all learning, I think the most important step is establishing the right environment. This means plenty of books around. It means reading to them every day. It also means them seeing you read both for information and for pleasure. For younger siblings, they should see their older siblings progressing and hopefully involved in the process of reading to them. This way the reading process is modeled at every level.
Much like learning to walk or talk, reading requires a certain level of mental maturity, and children will reach this at different ages. Our children have generally been ready to start working on letter sounds by two and a half or three and sounding simple words by three or four. Our eldest reached this point, but did not progress to intuitive reading till he was six. Our second was intuitive reading shortly after turning five. Our three year old knows letter sounds and is ready to begin learning how to sound simple words. As with all learning, one of the keys is to make the process enjoyable. I think it is important to manage expectations and keep frustration out of it. Some children may have a harder time, or a learning disability that makes reading challenging.
When teaching our first to read, we experimented with a variety of packaged systems. My impression is that they are mostly useless. Surely with enough sweat and tears, following a regimented program, you will eventually break through and teach them to read, but it is hard to imagine a love of reading arising out of the process. Apart from trying to force a particular pace on an organic process, the biggest flaw in most of these systems is that the material the children are reading is mind-numbingly boring. Seriously, sit down and try to read through a series of “Bob” books sometime. It is painful. Why on earth would anyone be motivated to read such boring material?
Here I have to stop and call out one system that we have found to be very effective for mastering letter sounds and basic words.
For some reason, Leap Frog’s Talking Factory series hit exactly the right level of entertainment and education for our children. I’m not normally a fan of silly “preschool” educational videos, but this series worked well for us. It was probably more effective because television is not present and videos are a rare treat in our household. Children who are continuously blasted with video content may not be as interested in these simple stories.
That aside, I think the largest factor in our kids learning to read was simply having us sit and read to them frequently. As they reached the right stages, we’d start pointing out words we were reading, have them read an occasional word, and finally play reading tag where we alternated reading sections. The idea here is to keep the process interesting (this means picking interesting material to read), but at just the right level to challenge their current skill. I want talk more about the idea of focused practice at just the right level between boring and impossible in a later post, but I think it is critical. What catches a child’s interest is going to vary a lot between individuals and that is one advantage you have as the parent. You can latch on to each passing interest and capitalize on it.
Contrast this approach with a regimented program of drill, worksheets, and boring, meaningless “readers”. The difference is especially noticeable in the middle stage where words can be sounded out, but it requires enough mental focus that it is difficult to take a broader perspective. Giving children an environment within which to practice, but still keeping things moving by reading with them keeps them engaged and motivated to improve.
As they enter the intuitive reading phase, keeping a steady supply of books that are moderately challenging, as well as interesting, keeps them moving forward. At this stage, I think that audio books can be an effective supplement. Make sure that you have a version where a single reader reads an unabridged version of the book. Dramatized versions can be fun once the story is familiar, but will probably not help with reading. Our second oldest began listening to the Hobbit on audio book when she was five and was soon eager to read it herself. At first she could only read short passages, but since she was already familiar with them from the audio book, she already knew how to pronounce the difficult words. This allowed her to engage in reading a story that normally would be way beyond her level.
The final point that I would make is that everything we’ve tried has been more effective when it was something that was not forced. Beginning with using the videos and reading to them as a special time to look towards, to using audio books at night in bed, and finally challenging them to read harder material to learn about things they are interested in or exciting stories, reading should never be a chore or a task to be completed. Once a task oriented mindset is created around an activity, it will be very difficult to break out of later. We had this experience with our eldest. After trying to push him through some reading programs, we had to back off completely for a while before he rekindled an interest in reading and really took off.
Challenge yourself to read more frequently to your children and to yourself. In fact, Emily and I have found that reading together in the evening after the children are in bed has strengthened our marriage. Give it a try!