Teaching Kids to Read: A Guide for Parents

April 16, 2015

Can you remember being taught how to read?  One of my oldest memories is as a five year old being asked to read from a list of words, and the head teacher ticking each correct answer. I cannot recall being explicitly taught how to read. My most powerful memory is of Mr. Knowles reading ‘The Waterbabies’, his brown brogued feet resting on the desk in front of him as he sat back on his chair, book in hand feeding the imagination of forty, nine year old students.  By that time I could read, but he fostered a love of reading that has continued into adulthood. 
This article will discuss the skills, resources and good practice which can enable parents to support children in the acquisition of reading.  It is aimed at students from four years of age, as this is when most children begin compulsory schooling.  Some children will read before this age and for some it may take a little longer. However, it is important to mention that children will learn to read in different ways and their progress will often not be at the same rate.  Furthermore, if your child has experienced quality, explicit instruction and appears to have difficulty reading, a conversation with the teacher may be appropriate.  Students vary in the pace at which they learn, but it could be that a specific learning difference such as dyslexia¹ or Irlen Syndrome² is impeding progress.  If your child tells you that print is ‘jumping’ or ‘moving’, the chances are that it is.  Your may wish to seek advice from a certified Irlen Screener.*

Making books fun in the early years

There is a plethora of reading material aimed at very young children, including board books, song books and plastic books.  At this stage your toddler will begin to understand how to hold a book, to turn pages, and that a book is read from front to the back.  Through pictures, they will learn that they must hold a book the right way up.  You will be reading with your child, tracking words so that they understand words carry meaning.  You will be discussing the pictures, extending vocabulary, and you will be modelling how to read with intonation and expression.   You will be asking questions and selecting from a vast repertoire of books in order to develop an inquisitive mind and purposefully engage your child.  The next step is the transition from paired and shared reading to becoming an independent reader.  Above all, you will be making this time fun!

Playing alphabet games

When your child begins to take an interest in letter shapes (graphemes) you will be able to point out print from the world around them.  Signs and advertising boards are everywhere, and this is an enjoyable way to help your child recall letter names, sounds and whole words.  You may hear your child say, ‘that letter is in my name’ and they will soon be able to recognise and spell their own name.

Teaching words with phonics games

Phonological³ and Phonemic⁴ awareness are literary terms which are often used interchangeably.  There is a difference.  Phonemic awareness is the manipulation of the smallest unit of sound (phoneme) within words.  Phonological Awareness includes Phonemic Awareness but considers other skills such as the ability to rhyme, syllabify (break words into syllables) and count words, letters etc., Research suggests that good phonological awareness is often a pre requisite to being an effective reader.  Activities to promote Phonological Awareness include rhyming games such as continuing a rhyming string, ‘bat’,  ‘hat’, ‘cat’, ‘mat’.  I have played this game with three year olds by simply throwing and catching a bean bag to each other as we generate rhyme.  A great activity to develop hand-eye co-ordination at the same time!  And there is no problem in accepting a nonsense word as an answer, (cat, zat, gat)!
To develop phonemic awareness you can take a word such as  *‘hat’ and change the initial/first/ beginning sound /h/ to a /m/  ‘mat’, change the final/ end  sound to a /p/, ‘map’ and then the middle/medial sound from an /a/ to an /o/, ‘mop’.   You can also add and delete sounds for example ‘slat’ without the /l/ becomes ‘sat’, ‘sap’ with a /l/ after the /s/ becomes ‘slap’. This is an aural activity and does not require your child to recognise letter shapes (graphemes). They will be listening to the sounds within words and changing the word according the changed sound.  Bear in mind that the initial sound is the easiest sound to change, then the final sound.  The most difficult sound to hear is the middle vowel sound.  It is important to mention that good practice would be to use ‘pure’ sounds.  Therefore the sound   /m/ is pronounced as /mmm/ not /muh/.  Does it make a difference?  For some children no, but for a minority they will hear the /uh/ and apply the heard sound in their reading and spelling for example /m- uh- o- p/ instead of /m- o- p/.
The skills involved in acquiring phonological and phonemic awareness can be developed with 5 to 10 minute activities in the car or whilst out walking.  Clapping syllables, using an instrument such as a tambourine to tap syllables, singing syllables in a high, low, funny voice are ways of making word segmentation fun. It is crucial to remember that children learn best if taught in a multi-sensory⁵ way so thinking of creative ways to teach phonological awareness is important.
Games such as I spy are an excellent way to encourage your child to associate a sound to an object.  To begin it is good practice to ensure that the sound matches the object i.e. ‘I Spy with my little eye something beginning with /c/ (cup), (car), (cat).  This is an aural (listening) activity.  It does not necessitate the need to recognise graphemes (letter shapes).  The next step would be to play I spy linking the grapheme (letter name) with the phoneme (letter sound) for example, ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘c’ (letter name) but its sound is /s/, (ceiling), (cent), (circle).  This is more difficult and requires the child to visualise the different sounds some letters of the alphabet make and to link the sound to the correct alphabet name.   (As an aside, there is actually a rule for when the letter ‘c’ makes a /s/ sound)!

Playing fun educational games to help spelling

Your child will begin to make phoneme (sound) grapheme (letter shape) association.  Flashcards of alphabet letters can help your child to learn the alphabet.  A word of caution.  Be careful if you ‘sing’ the alphabet.  I have known more than one child ask ‘Where is the lemon?’  Correctly articulate, l, m, n, o p, as it could be misinterpreted as ‘a lemon, o, p’!  The alphabet names will not change but their sounds can.  It is important to teach sounds with the alphabet names.  Your child will be able to use their knowledge of phonemes to match to the letter shape (grapheme).  You will have a vast assortment of objects in the home which can be used to develop the concept of phoneme, grapheme, object correspondence.  A quick look around your kitchen will offer an array of objects just waiting to be sorted by initial sound! Help your child recognise the letter shapes using dough, hide plastic letters and ask your child to find each one, draw a letter on your child’s back and ask them to guess the letter name.
Sorting games help to successfully make phoneme/grapheme correspondence.  With two graphemes e.g. ‘s’ and ‘t’.  Say the sound remembering to use ‘pure’ sounds.  Hold up an object and ask your child to put the object into the correct basket/set.  Repeat to model the correct answer.  ‘That is correct, spoon begins with /s/ (sound) and  this is the letter ‘s’ (name).
You will know when your child is ready to increase to sets with more sounds.  This game can be played in sand (hide the objects) in the bath (put objects into nets).  The aim is to have fun whilst your child makes grapheme, phoneme, object association for all letter names.
Once your child can make grapheme/phoneme correspondence you can begin to ‘build’ simple three letter words such as ‘cat’.  You can put them together as ‘c-a-t’ saying the sounds with increasing speed until they can blend  the word.  You will probably hear teachers call this ‘sounding out’.  Some will teach their students to sound out using onset and rime e.g. ‘c-at’ as they will make the connection to word families e.g. ‘c-at’, ‘m-at’, ‘h-at’.  There is an order to teaching phonics and this will be included at the end of this article in further reading.  Make sure that when you are asking your child to decode words, they do know the sound e.g.  to successfully attempt the word ‘fudge’ your child will need to know that ‘dge’ makes the sound /j/!  There is a vast array of books which take a phonic approach to reading including Soundstart or The Oxford Reading Tree. These books will introduce decoding at the three letter word level moving on to more complex phonic patterns.  They will also include high frequency words which will be learned visually i.e. will not need to be sounded out.

Using flashcards to teach sight words

Alongside phonics, you will need to explicitly teach the recognition of high-frequency words so that they become sight words (instantly recalled for reading).  These words make up over 50% of words read in a typical text and are the ones that are often non-phonic (said, was, who etc.,) and therefore do not follow a phonic rule.  Whilst flash cards of words are readily available you can download games such as Bingo which are multi-sensory and meaningful.  Pelmanism is also a good game in which pairs of cards are turned over on the table or on the floor.  You and your child turn a card over, say the word and then find its partner.  At first, keep the amount of cards you use to a minimum and play for no longer than ten minutes at any one time.  Reading material will continually expose your child to high frequency words.   If you are helping your child to acquire sight words and they are having difficulty remembering the shape of the word or if they do not recognise the same word on a different page, it might be worth having a conversation with the classroom teacher about their reading progress.

The Searchlight Model

This model asks the reader to employ their phonic knowledge, acquisition of high-frequency words and use pictures, syntactic and contextual clues in order to read.   The ultimate aim is to enable your child to read fluently as an over reliance on phonics may result in your child ‘sounding out most words’.  This will impede fluency and could have a negative impact on comprehension as they are thinking about sounding out and not story content.  Whilst reading, ensure that you or your child tracks each word, for example, with their finger, so that they develop good concepts of print in that they know that letters make words, words make sentences and that they can count words and find the beginning and end of a sentence.   Remember that we read for meaning so always check that your child has understood the story and can answer questions, predict an ending and discuss what a story could be about from the title, blurb or cover.  Take time to ask what could happen next, describe the characters and link the plot to your own experiences.  If it is a picture book, ‘read’ the story together using the pictures.  Scaffold words you know will be a difficulty i.e. names ‘this is Sally, here is the word ‘Sally’, let’s see if we can find the word ‘Sally’ on other pages.

Fostering a love of reading

Interestingly, I cannot remember being taught the mechanics of reading.  It must have happened with my parents and teachers.  However, I do remember a teacher reading for me.  Your child(ren) will enjoy listening to you read for them.  There is a huge choice of fiction and non-fiction books, books with rhyme such as Dr. Seuss.  Books with repetitive phrases will encourage your child to recognise pattern in text and, especially with rhyme, anticipate the next word.  Children like to mimic their parents, so modelling reading habits such as reading the newspaper, books, magazines, comics will have a positive effect on your child’s perceived value of reading.
Remember that your ultimate aim is not only to develop an independent reader but to also foster a love of reading that will stay with your child throughout adulthood.   Embrace this time and remember that the experiences your child receives will be those that he or she will pass on to your grandchildren.
And finally, the rule…’c ‘ makes a /s/ sound when followed by ‘e’, ‘I’ or ‘y’!

Further Reading

Irlen Syndrome: www.irlen.org.uk
Dyslexia: www.bdadyslexia.org.uk
Searchlight model: www.brandlehow.ik.org/attachments/Searchlightsreadingstrategies.pdf
Order of teaching phonics: www.letters-and-sounds.com/
Certified Irlen Screener: 
¹Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling, (British Dyslexia Association (BDA) 2015
²Irlen Syndrome (also referred to at times as Meares-Irlen Syndrome, Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, and Visual Stress) is a perceptual processing disorder. It is not an optical problem. It is a problem with the brain’s ability to process visual information, (Irlen 2015)
³Phonological Awareness, is a  broad term that refers to the ability to focus on the sounds of speech as opposed to its meaning and it has a number of different levels or components, (Konza, 2011 p. 2)
⁴Phonemic Awareness  is the oral manipulation of phonemes (sounds) within words  e.g. ‘man’ change the /m/ to /p/, ‘pan’, change the /n/ to /t/ ‘pat’, change the /a/ to /i/ ‘pit’.
⁵Employing  a visual (sight) auditory (hearing) and kinaesthetic (touch)  approach to learning.
*If a letter is inside a forward slash, /a/, it is asking for the sound.  If a letter is inside of inverted commas, ‘f’, it is asking for its alphabet name.
By Rita Wadell, reading specialist at Oak Hill.

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