Our young children see text around them every day. Words and letters are all around them. They are naturally curious and want to learn. So, how can we help them to understand the amazing world of print around them? As a teacher with almost 30 years of experience behind me, I have helped lots of struggling readers over the years who have missed out on some of the important steps in pre-reading. Without these, children find it hard to put the pieces together when they begin their formal education at school. Here are ten ways we can help our pre-schoolers on the path to becoming readers.
Set an example by reading and read to your child
Let your child see you reading and that you value reading as a worthwhile activity. By modelling the habit of reading, they become curious and value books. Reading to your child is a great way to engage them. From the earliest stages, this is the perfect way to bond with your child, helping them to develop a love of books while you share some special time together. This love of books will go on to serve your child well, as a love of books at an early age is a strong indicator of success at reading in school. On the flip side, if younger children do not find enjoyment in books, they will more than likely struggle further down the road in their school years. Help them to really get into books by making reading fun and using expression in your voice when reading to them. After all, reading is fun!
Act like a reader
When sharing a book with your child, teach them the early skills of handling a book. They learn from watching you that we turn pages from front to back. Use words such as the ‘cover’ of the book and the ‘title’ and ‘author’. Point to the words as you read the story. This helps your child associate those marks on the page with the words that you are saying. It is also important to give them time to act like a reader. I have vivid memories of my youngest daughter as a two-year-old, ‘reading’ The Gruffalo’ by Julia Donaldson to me with the most amazing recall and expression. This was mimicking my reading of the book, which taught her some very important pre-reading skills that helped her to develop into the avid reader she has become.
Talk about the story
As you read a book with your child, don’t just turn the pages and read. Stop. Ask them about the illustrations. What can they see? Can they find certain things on the page? Talk about the characters. Ask them questions about them. What do they look like? What are they doing? What are they feeling and why? Ask what they think will happen next. These skills are important in helping your child to develop comprehension. This understanding of what you are reading together is crucial. If we just value the ability to recognise words and read them a little way down the reading journey, it will mean very little without the understanding of what they have read. I often explain this with an example of me reading Spanish. I was taught some very basic rules about how to read Spanish words in terms of the sounds letters make. I can read some text in Spanish, but I do not understand most of it. This is the same for children who lack comprehension skills. Us teachers often call this ‘barking at print’. There is not much point in reading something if you do not understand it, so help your child to value and develop comprehension skills from a very early age to give them a head start.
When you finish reading a story to your child, don’t forget to get them to summarise the story. Ask them what they can remember from the book. Can they remember events in order? What happened first? What happened next? What happened in the end?
Letters all around
When it comes to learning letters and the alphabet, lots of people think that flashcards are the best way to teach their child the alphabet. While these are, of course, a good way to learn about letters, we must take advantage of what we call ‘environmental print’. This, simply put, just means the letters all around them in their home, at the shops they visit, on the signs in streets, and so on. When my girls were small, they were curious about the words and letters on road signs. We had fun on motorway journeys looking at the sins as we approached them to see if they had letters from their names (their initial letter). Mhairi (my youngest) loved motorway journeys as her initial was always on the signs! We also found letters in the signs above the aisles during our weekly trips to the supermarket. By pointing out familiar letters, your child is engaging with print in their environment in a natural way, so make the most of these ‘teaching opportunities’ when they come along! This is far more meaningful to them and will result in them remembering a lot more as they are driving the learning through their own curiosity.
Adopt a multisensory approach
One thing I have to ‘unteach’ frequently is the confusion children have between letter names and letter sounds. It is far more important for children to initially learn the sounds of letters rather than their names. With this in mind, a good way to make it a fun and meaningful experience and help your child to retain the learning is to use what is known as a multisensory approach. This means not just looking at flashcards to learn the sounds but using different senses. Playing with puzzles to match letters to pictures is a fun way to help children remember the sound a letter makes by associating it with the initial sound of a given picture. Get crafty and get out the scissors, paper and glue. Cutting out large letter shapes and sticking on pictures of objects with the same initial sound is a fun way to reinforce the association of the letter sound with the shape of the letter, as well as developing those fine motor control skills – so get out the craft supplies!
An often-overlooked pre-reading skill is learning about rhyme. However, research has shown a strong link between poor ability in early rhyming and low attainment in reading. Children who have been taught nursery rhymes before going into preschool tend to have an easier time when it comes to learning initial reading skills. The recognition of patterns in rhyme probably has a lot to do with this – it is similar to looking at letter patterns in learning blends and word families. So, don’t forget that all-important rhyme time! There are plenty of great children’s books with rhyming patterns in the story, so make sure you point these out when you share them with your little one.
What type of book is this?
When we visit the library or bookstore, we look under different genres when selecting the book we want to read. We might look for a biography in the non-fiction section or a sci-fi story in the non-fiction shelves. When our children have had a little experience with different types of books, it is possible to teach them about different genres at a very simple level just before they are ready to start school. They can sort non-fiction books by understanding that these tell facts about people, places or animals, for example. The idea of the fantasy genre can be understood as make-believe or something that couldn’t happen in real life. Realistic fiction can be presented to them as stories that are made up but could happen in real life. Other types of books might include ‘reference’ books such as alphabet or number books. Using these simple ways to categorise books will help your child to learn about genres from an early age.
Learning to read – phonemic awareness
‘Phonemes’ are the smallest sounds in our language. In phonemic awareness, the focus is on what we hear. These are the letter sounds, the short vowels (like ‘a’ in apple) and long vowel sounds (like ‘ai’ in rain) and the digraphs like th/ch/sh/ng sounds. With ‘phonics’, the focus is on knowing how to write the letters that go with the sounds. Although phonemic awareness and phonics are important elements in reading, they are by no means the only pathway to learning to read. This, along with sight word recognition and those all-important comprehension skills, all work together to make our children independent readers. Spend time with your child, learning letter sounds, but do not do this in isolation as all the reading skills together will help them become a reader.
Decoding is simply putting the phonemes (or sounds) together to make a word. For example /c/,/a/, and /t/ together make the word cat. This is also known as ‘sounding out words’. This skill relies heavily on your child having a good base of phonemic awareness and the phonetic understanding of the letter that matches with the sound. As children learn to decode words, they become more familiar to them and are stored in their long-term memory. These become ‘sight words’, the ones they recognise instantly and do not need to decode to read.
There are many wonderful apps available that you can download and let your child use to help them on their reading journey. Many apps and websites will help your child learn about letter sounds and help them to match initial sounds to pictures. There are some great sites and apps I like to use. Sites I like include www.doorwayonline.org.uk, a Scottish site with games in a Scottish accent. There are many similar sites like www.abcya.com, which is American, and many apps with an English accent, so you are bound to find something to meet your own preferences.
The important thing to remember is that reading is fun, so make sure you and your child enjoy the journey. Emerald Education has a new subscription box service, launching in December 2021. Our ‘Little Learners’ boxes are aimed at 3-5-year-olds and contain a great children’s book, along with some letter and number games and craft activities. Each month, you can have a new book and a fantastic bundle of activities based on the story arrive straight to your door, helping you to have fun with your child and really dive into their curiosity and help them develop those all-important pre-school skills. Click HERE to find out more!
If you would like to find out more about the service Emerald Education Centre offers, please get in touch. Email Elaine at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me through our Facebook page www.facebook.com/emeraldeducationbundoran.