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How can I teach my child to read?

Being able to read is the most important skill children will learn during their early schooling and has far-reaching implications for lifelong confidence and well-being. (Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics)

Teaching your child to read is a huge, exciting puzzle and a journey that begins from birth. The journey will look different for every child; just like other developmental milestones such as learning to walk and talk! When we think about teaching reading, we tend to think about the actual skill of reading words and putting them together to make sentences- which is what we want our children to be able to do naturally and easily...and they will! But there are a few things they need to be able to do first.

Pre-reading skills

We talk about this a lot! However, we cannot emphasise the importance of reading to your child. Read to them from birth, read every day and continue to read to them when your child is a confident, independent reader. Instilling that love of books early on is so important and opens up a limitless world of imagination. Aside from this value, you are also teaching them essential skills that they will need before they can begin to read on their own. Simply by reading to your child and talking about what you read and occasionally running your finger along the text and pointing to the words, you are teaching them that print has meaning and that we read from left to right. Early books are usually very rich in rhyme and this is so important for developing phonological awareness which is integral for learning to read. If children can finish a rhyming string, even if it's in a familiar book, this is going to help them hugely on their reading journey because they will need to be able to listen and predict.

Phonic knowledge

It sounds obvious but children need to know some letter sounds before they can begin to learn to read! They need to be able to hear the sounds, recognise the letter that matches the sound (the grapheme) and be able to say the sound in its shortest possible form. Pre-school children do not need to know the letters of the alphabet- rather the sound that the letter makes. It's actually unhelpful to teach the letter name in the early stages unless children know the sound it makes. So, the word 'cat' should be pronounced c-a-t (not: "see, ay, tee"). It's really important that this is done orally first of all. So that children are learning how to blend and segment words without even seeing them. They don't need to know what the graphemes look like to be able to do this. For example, if you say "Can you put your hands on your h-e-d?" Children are listening for and breaking up the sounds in the words, before they are learning to read them. Keep practising this throughout their reading journey and make it fun! It sometimes takes a while for them to hear the sounds, but with practice, they will get there!

When your child knows a few sounds and can hear, say them and recognise the grapheme, it is not too early to start trying to read them by blending the sounds together. You don't have to wait until they have learned all the sounds; you can scaffold their learning and keep building on their skills as they learn new sounds. Just as we do in our classes!

With the first six sounds that are taught, s. a. t. p. i. n. there are already a number of words that you can teach already! You have the word 'a' which is the same as the sound; a number of V-C words (vowel, consonant) at, it, an that we use in every day reading and several C-V-C words (consonant, vowel, consonant) sat, pin, pit, pat, sap, nit, nap, pan, tin, sin. That is a lot of words you can learn to read from just six letter sounds!

Make it fun!

There are so many games you can play with your children to make reading fun. Kinaesthetic games that involve handling the sounds (magnetic letters, wooden letters etc) help children to learn effectively. The games can be adapted as children learn new letter sounds. Here are just a few ideas!

  • a sensory sound hunt The letter sounds you are working with can be hidden in a variety of materials (eg shaving foam, straw, flour). Ask children to find the sounds and see if they can match them to the words. Can they blend them together

  • a c-v-c object hunt Hide c-v-c objects (eg cat, dog, pig, rat) among other materials. Ask children to find the objects and they could stick them into playdough. See if they can sound them out orally. You could extend to asking them to find the sounds and match to the written word

  • match words and pictures Using simple c-v-c words (eg bus, map), ask children to match the sounds to the pictures

Make it personal

Children love it when you make the reading about them. They learn to recognise their own (and family members') names pretty quickly. They love it if you write down some silly sentences about them / their family members. Choose sounds that they know and make it simple and repetitive to build confidence.

My three year old roars with laughter when I write silly sentences / captions and draw a picture. My drawing is really bad but that doesn't matter at all.

You can write short captions like:

a hen in a pen

a pig and a wig

a cat in a hat

a dog on a log

a rat on a cat

Whatever, you write, keep it short and build on sounds they already know to make it fun, easy, achievable and build confidence. As your child learns new sounds you can develop this further.

It's not just about phonics!

Whilst children need to be taught phonics correctly and sounding out should be modelled and practiced, it's important to remember that you don't have to wait until they have learned all their sounds or are able to blend until you start teaching reading. It's all a big puzzle and things will fall into place with time. Many children are visual learners and will learn to memorise a whole word before they are able to sound it out. This is not a bad thing! We want them to recognise words by sight too. They don't have to de-code everything and it doesn't matter if they learn this skill first.

There are many sight words that we expect children to learn in Reception : in, and, can, cat, am, went, up, day, look, this, dog, big, see, on, mum, it, at, play, yes, for, a, dad, is, get

but some of these words are NOT decodable. We might call these tricky words!

Words such as: I, come, you, was, are, the, we, me, he, all and said are all tricky words. Words that although the first sound may be decodable, the whole word isn't. Don't be afraid of using these words- just introduce them gradually and keep repeating them, You can play games so that learning them is fun. Games such as:

  • sticking the word on a wall A hand shape works well! Ask children to find the word and 'high-five' it, saying the word

  • playing 'tricky word' splat Write down some of the tricky words you are learning on to pieces of paper. Using a fly swatter, race your child to hit the tricky word, saying it at the same time.

Repetition, repetition, repetition!

Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action...the architect of accomplishment (Zig Ziglar)

It seems obvious but repetition provides the practice that children need to master new skills. Nothing could be truer than that in reading. In the same way that children want to have the same books read to them again and again, practise reading the same words again and again in different contexts. It's a really good idea to have a sound / vocabulary book where you can keep track of all the sounds, words that they know. You are doing so much to improve their memory and brain development!

Confidence for reading books

Before you rush to start your child off with a reading scheme, I would highly recommend making your own books about your child and things that will interest them. Start with words they know or can sound out. Draw your own pictures and / or involve your child in the process. Practise again and again. Then write another adding some new words. Before your child is ready to read books with words in, they will need to already be able to do most of it easily. Don't let them struggle or put them off with books that are too challenging. Keep on building their confidence every day with praise and showing them how clever they are! Good luck!

Disclaimer: All views expressed here are my own.


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