Everyone knows that learning to read is an essential skill. This is why some parents start buying flashcards and reading scheme books barely before their children have left their nappies. So, at what age should children be reading and, more importantly, what can you do as a parent to make sure that your child gets off to a flying start?
Let’s start by drawing a deep breath. Yes, there are some children who seem to decode books very early on. But equally, there is plenty of evidence to show that children who start later quickly catch up and often overtake them.
This is because learning to read is a little like the fable of the hare and tortoise. The only difference is that this race lasts years, not hours. Children have to be good at remembering symbols and linking them to specific sounds. They need also to know what the words mean once they have decoded them.
Finally, they also have to get to grips with the peculiarities of English, which throws up many wonderful words such as ‘graph’ and ‘thorough’. (Note how they both end with ‘gh’! ). This all means that most children are not reading such tomes as ‘Harry Potter’ fluently until they are well into the second half of their primary school career, despite having been introduced to letter shapes and sounds somewhere between the ages of four and five.
Early Reading Skills
So, what can parents and adults do in children’s early years? The answer is, lots!
First, your child needs to develop a serious love of books. Learning to read is going to take them several years and so it is essential that they are motivated. This is one reason why too much pressure too early can be counterproductive, as it can sometimes turn children off.
Start by choosing books that you really enjoy. This is important because when adults love a book, they tend to read it with more enthusiasm and are less likely to skip pages or rush to the end.
Aim also to read a bedtime story each night. This ‘cuddle time’ is wonderful, helping children associate books with love and attention.
Try also to let your child turn the pages and from time to time, run your finger under the words so that your child can see that print runs from left to right in English.
As well as loving books, children also need to speak fluently and know the meanings of words and phrases. Otherwise children may learn how to decode but not be able to make sense of what they are reading. This often comes to light when children are older and cannot cope when they are given books that have no illustrations.
It is also helpful if your child is familiar with a few nursery rhymes, which seem to help them focus on sounds in words. This skill is sometimes referred to as phonemic awareness. Interestingly, children’s speech, combined with their knowledge of nursery rhymes is quite a predictor of how quickly a child will learn to read.
There are other skills that we might also take for granted. These include children’s ability to recognise and match shapes and symbols. There are around 36 different letter shapes in print – although there are 26 letters, some capital letters look quite different from their lowercase equivalents.
Games such as pairs, snap and picture lotto can all help children to focus on shape recognition. If you want to give your child a challenge, slip some whole words into these games.
In addition, look out for spot the difference puzzles, which can help children to become more observant. Perhaps best of all is the traditional jigsaw. In our opinion, it is high time that jigsaws made a comeback. They teach shape, logic and, best of all, perseverance and concentration. Sit alongside your child if they are an unfamiliar or reluctant jigsaw do-er, and get out a fairly simple one so that they can gain greater satisfaction when the last piece goes in. Then little by little, aim to find some more challenging ones.
Tips to Help Your Child With Their Early Reading Skills
- Read at least one book each day and another at bedtime
- Encourage your child to talk about the pictures in the book. Can they tell what is about to happen from the illustrations?
- Try to develop a few favourite books so that your child knows the stories
- Show your child how print runs from left to right
- Point out words that your child will come across regularly-for example, the name of your street, or labels on food such as ‘milk’
- Join your local library to stock up on books and also to take part in free activities
- Be a good role model and make sure that your child sees you read, even if this is just a magazine. It is also helpful if boys see the men in their lives reading