10 tips to help kids learn to read

Kinderling News & Features

Jaquelyn Muller is a child literacy advocate and author of children’s books I Love You 5 Lollipops and Elizabeth Rose on Parade.

The start of formal full-time education for kids and parents is a life-changing stage! On top of all the scheduling changes for the family, it is also a huge developmental year that can come with a lot of pressure, especially if it’s a parent’s first child to go through school.

By the time of the first year of formal school education, most children have naturally developed language skills and knowledge. They are usually familiar with books and the alphabet, writing and drawing and many know how to write their own name. A few children may already read some high-use, short words.

This first year is all about building and solidifying those skills in preparation for the following years. The rates and abilities of students is extremely varied, and this is where many parents can become anxious about how their child is developing, particularly in the area of reading as it is the foundation of all school learning and comprehension.

I think the best idea for parents is to remember that trained professionals who understand the science of childhood learning and development are supporting children at school. These practical tips might help you in this initial year.

1. Don’t over-think it

Parents have been teaching their children skills every day for years and reading is no different. You successfully teach your kids to eat with a spoon, use a potty, keep fingers out of noses, and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. These things can be taught pleasantly, or they can be made into a painful chore. Being unpleasant (e.g. yelling, punishing, pressuring) doesn’t work, and it can be frustrating for everyone.

This notion applies to teaching literacy, too. If your child tries to write their name and ends up with a backwards ‘D’, it’s no problem. No pressure. No hassle. You should both enjoy the journey together.

2. Talk to your kids (a lot)

Reading is a language activity and if you want to learn language, you should hear it. Don’t be afraid to use a wide vocabulary with your young child. The worst thing that could happen is that they ask you to explain what it means. Having them feel comfortable asking questions is a good skill.

3. Continue reading to your kids

Just because they are at school doesn’t mean they won’t want you to read to them as well. If a bedtime story has been a part of your nighttime routine then keep it up. My 11 year old still loves to be read to at night but now we take turns in reading chapters from novels rather than just picture books. This is a rewarding and lovely way to end the day. I have enjoyed reading some contemporary stories but have also been able to share some of my favourite books this way.

4.  Have them tell you a story

Ask them recount an experience or make up a story. Write it down as it is being told, then read it aloud. Point at the words when you read them, or point at them when your child is trying to read the story. Over time, with lots of rereading, your child starts to recognize words.  

5. Create awareness for phonics (letter names and their sounds)

You can’t sound out words or write them without knowing the sound of each individual letter, so bring this into everyday life. Think of other words that might rhyme with someone’s name. Sound out words on street signs or at the shops, they can start to look at this like an ‘I spy’ game rather than sitting at a table and learning.

6. Listen to your child read

When your child starts bringing books home from school, have them read to you. There will be many hours of this, let me tell you, and there can be a temptation to jump in too early and correct them but allow them room to make mistakes. Studies show that this kind of repeated oral reading makes students better readers, even when it is done at home.

7. Promote writing

Literacy involves reading AND writing. It doesn’t matter if they use pencils, crayons, markers or paints. Encourage your child to write. One way to do this is to write notes or short letters to each other or integrate it in an art activity. Writing is writing no matter what form or function.

8. Ask questions

When your child reads, get them to recount the story. If it’s a story, ask whom it was about and what happened. If it’s an informational text, have your child explain what it was about and how it worked. Reading involves not just sounding out words, but thinking about and remembering ideas and events. Improving reading comprehension skills early will prepare them for subsequent success in more difficult texts.

9. Let your child see you read

While most of us love to read a novel before bed when all is quiet, it is great for kids to see you read for enjoyment rather than for work or practical reasons. Promote discussion about what your favourite types of books are, or were growing up. Kids love hearing stories about you as a child. Promoting a literacy-rich home is a family activity.

10. Keep an eye out for why they might struggle

There are many reasons why some kids take to reading and books quickly and why others show little interest or find it difficult.

For example, I have one child that reads for necessity and one that is a good reader, but then she struggled to begin with until we realised she needed glasses. It wasn’t that she couldn’t read, it was that the glasses helped her to see the smaller connecting words like ‘it’, ‘is’, ‘the’ and ‘in’ which help with comprehension.

Keep communication open with your child’s teacher so that any hurdles can be identified early and strategies be employed. There are no rules about when your child has to be a confident independent reader; the trick is to identify the way your child enjoys learning and work with those methods.

And if you don’t yet have a school-aged child remember:

You can’t introduce literacy too early. I started reading to my own children from the day they were born!

Listen to Jaquelyn's interview on the Feed Play Love podcast: