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Expert Reading Advice for Grades K-2

Answers to the most frequently asked questions posed to our panel of experts

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Gentle coaching, praise, and lots of shared books help your beginner master important reading skills.
Gentle coaching, praise, and lots of shared books help your beginner master important reading skills.

How can I help my kindergartener learn how to read?

What is phonemic awareness?

How can I tell if my son needs more work in phonics?

My daughter is having problems sounding out her words. What can I do to help?

How do I select books for my children to read?

Q: How can I help my kindergartener learn how to read? I don't know how to help her.

A: There are some simple things that you can do at home to support her learning at school. First and foremost, read aloud to her every night, without exception. Reading aloud is the perfect tool to promote the pleasure and enjoyment of reading and to offer her a good model (you) of what reading is all about.

Second, play language games to help her become aware of the sounds of language. In order to learn to read, children must be able to hear sounds in words and then begin to match those sounds to letters. By singing songs and clapping to the rhythm, by listening for words that rhyme in poems and stories, and by talking about words (those that begin or end with the same sound, those that sound alike) you will be helping your child think consciously about language.

Third, encourage your child to write — even if she is just making scribbles. Writing actually helps develop reading skills. By forming letters, children learn to recognize certain words like their names. They also learn that written language is a communication tool. You can play "restaurant" and ask your child to be the waiter who writes down your food order. Soon you will begin to see letters and even words mixed in with the scribbles.

Your child's teacher may have other suggestions that will directly support what is happening at school. Good communication between home and school will also foster your child's reading success.

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Q: What is phonemic awareness?

A: This relatively new term describes one aspect of language development that all children must acquire for the process of learning to read to be smooth. While the term may sound long and difficult, it really refers to something quite simple: the ability to hear sounds in language and do different things with the sounds, like break them apart and blend them back together.

Phonemic awareness has absolutely nothing to do with reading or even with associating letters and sounds. It is an ability that works purely on an auditory level. For example, if I say three words to you, such as "daddy," "hat," and "dog," and you can tell me which ones have the same beginning sound, then you have successfully isolated and heard the "d" sound. You do not necessarily have to know that the name of this sound is represented by the letter d to be successful in this task.

Similarly, if you can tell me which words rhyme in a set of several, then you have successfully identified parts of words that sound the same. Finally, if I ask you to change the beginning sound of your name to the "m" sound (for example, "Susan" becomes "Musan"), then not only can you hear and isolate sounds, but you can also manipulate them — change them around.

These are all skills associated with phonemic awareness. They are critical because they are the precursors of learning to decode words and also how to spell. If a child cannot hear or manipulate sounds in the first place, then she will have enormous difficulty later identifying them and even less success connecting them to specific letters in phonics lessons.

How to help: It's actually quite simple and fun to encourage the development of phonemic awareness in your child.

  • Singing songs together is probably the best way to build these skills. Songs are filled with rhymes and sound patterns; when heard and sung over and over again, these sounds become part of your child's repertoire. Furthermore, because songs are rhythmic, certain sounds are accentuated, drawn out and highlighted.

  • Playing language games is another way to build phonemic awareness skills. For example: One person names a word and then you both see who can make the most rhymes from it. Nonsense words are perfectly acceptable in this game (people, meeple, steeple, creeple, cheeple). Or make up sentences together with the stipulation that every major word has to have the same beginning sound ("Six silly snakes sat slowly on a sandwich").

  • Read aloud to your child — and include poetry as well as stories. Poets must have a wonderful sense of phonemic awareness because their words sound so beautiful when read aloud. They prove that sounds and rhythm contribute to the beauty of a poem as much as the words and images themselves.

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Q: How can I tell if my son needs more work in phonics?

A: This is a tough question because there are so many factors that play a part in the process of learning to read. Phonics is certainly one of them, and most children do benefit from explicit teaching of the sounds letters make. Let's look at the whole picture of how reading is possible and then examine more closely what you can do if your child is having difficulty with the phonics piece of it. There are three major aspects of the reading process that kids need to internalize to be successful.

Comprehension: First, your child must be able to understand what he reads. It is possible to read all the words aloud correctly, yet still not be able to comprehend the meaning of what they say. Teachers check this by asking questions such as "Why did the dog run away?"

Grammar: Second, there is the grammar that words and sentences are built upon. This does not necessarily mean that at age 6, 7, or 8 your child should be able to name all the nouns or verbs in a sentence. But he should have some idea of how language works. This helps the reading process go more smoothly, because as he reads, he will use certain expectations of the ways words fit together.

For example, in the sentence "The dish ran away with the _______," only a certain kind of word will logically fit after the word the. "Spoon" is the obvious answer, but if your child did not know the nursery rhyme and substituted "boy" or "dog" instead, she would still be obeying the rules of grammar. Your child's teacher might build grammatical awareness by reading a sentence aloud and pausing before the last word to let the children chime in.

Phonics: Third, there is phonics, the knowledge that both individual letters (like t, c, and p) and combinations of letters (like tr, cl, and ph) have specific sounds. Phonics is critically important because it allows children to figure out how to read words they have never seen before. Knowing certain phonetic rules also helps children generalize from words they know how to read to new words. For example, if a child knows the "silent e rule," she can probably read the words like, bike, and hike. But the real power comes from being able to transfer this rule to a whole new set of words and read gate, mate, and late.

If your child has trouble reading new words, try to examine exactly what is stumping her.

  • Has she understood what she has read thus far? (comprehension)

  • Can she use that knowledge combined with her understanding of how language works to think about what the unknown word might be? (comprehension plus grammar)

  • Can she attempt to sound out the word? (phonics)

In the earlier example of "The dish ran away with the _______," if your child came up with the word saucer instead of spoon, she would have made use of all three systems even though she did not provide the correct word. Saucer is an indication of comprehension because it makes better sense than boy or dog. It is also a noun and fits grammatically. Finally, it begins with the same sound as spoon and therefore shows some phonetic applications.

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Q: My daughter is having problems sounding out her words. What can I do to help?

A: Reading to your daughter every night and encouraging her to read to you is one of the best things you can do to promote her reading growth. She will benefit from reading books that are "just right" for her. Search out phonics readers. These simple books, focusing on three-letter, short-vowel words such as cat, run, sit, and hot, will allow your daughter lots of opportunities to sound out simple words using the phonics skills she is learning in school. Sometimes, early readers have difficulties sounding out words if the words are more complex than the phonics skills they have learned, or they are being exposed to far too many phonics skills before they have had time to master the basic ones. Simple decodable readers will definitely help.

Another possible reason for your daughter's difficulties may be weak phonemic awareness skills. Try the simple test below to see if she can orally blend sounds to form words. This is a critical skill — one she will need before she can sound out a word in print while reading books. If she can't do these exercises, then more work with her auditory skills will be needed. Consult her teacher or school reading specialist.

Phonemic Awareness Quick Test
Say the sounds below, pausing between each sound or group of sounds. Ask your child to blend, or put together, the sounds to make a word.
1. cup . . . cake
2. sand . . . wich
3. pen . . . cil
4. s . . . at
5. m . . . ud
6. b . . . all
7. n . . . o . . . t
8. c . . . a . . . n

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Q: How do I select books for my children to read (they are 6 and 8 years old)?

A: Think of selecting books at these ages according to how they might be used:

Read-Alouds
Read-Withs
Read-Alones

Read-Alouds
A read-aloud book is one that you read to your child at special times — like bedtime or in a comfy chair on a rainy afternoon. These books should always be well above your child's independent reading level because you are the one in control of the reading. The purpose for reading aloud is the same as the first time you read a book to your child as an infant: for bonding together, for enjoyment, for developing listening skills, for increasing vocabulary, and finally, for helping your child develop a rich understanding of the power of written words in stories, poetry, nonfiction, and other kinds of reading material. Often, we read aloud less to our children as they grow older, not realizing that the benefits continue to be enormous. And because the book is literally in your hands in this kind of experience, you should choose the book you would like your child to hear.

Read-Withs
A "read with" book is one that you and your child read together. Now, however, the primary control of the book is in your child's hands, as for the most part, your child will be the one reading aloud. These books should be generally at or slightly above your child's independent reading level. As she reads aloud to you, offer help as needed with difficult words or phrases. You can also make comments (if they seem to be part of the natural flow) about what is interesting or striking about the material being read. You could wonder aloud what might happen next. In these ways, you are sharing a book experience together, with your child taking the lead while you participate in ways that still model how good readers learn from text. Book selections should be a joint decision — as you are partners in this experience. You could start by choosing books that are like those your child brings home from school, or consult with her teacher to determine where her reading level is. Another good strategy is to let your child read books to you that she has already read on her own. This is a wonderful way for her to achieve fluency — a critical reading skill, as well as build self-confidence.

Read-Alones
A read alone book is just that — a book that your child selects and then reads on her own, perhaps at night after spending earlier time with a read-aloud. The key to book selection here depends upon the broad foundation you set in the above experiences. You can take your child to the library and point out books by the authors you both have already read together or explore topics of interest you have discovered together.

As your child gets older, he will naturally want to assume greater control over the selection of reading materials he encounters. Encourage this — it's a good indicator of his desire and motivation to read proficiently. Proficient readers are most able to read for enjoyment and learning.

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