A facebook friend recently posted a note from her 4-year-old’s pre-K congratulating her on her son’s ability to read — then added a few hashtags (#sorrybutsoproud, #Jackrocks, #readingisthebest!!!). Several thoughts ran through my head: 1) Wow, that’s impressive. 2) Is he, like, reading reading? 3) Apologizing for a humblebrag does not make it any less braggy (#gagme). 4) C***, my 4-year-old can’t read!
Fortunately, that last one didn’t take up too much mental space. I have a second grader who reads beautifully now but was nowhere near crushing it until well into first grade, when he was able to navigate the pages without placing a finger under each word and sa-sa-sounding them out.
That’s not to say I didn’t squirm as I watched him struggle. The anxiety sets in quickly when the bar is set so high — not just on social media but also in school, where kids are expected to be able to read “with purpose and understanding” by the end of kindergarten. It’s no wonder we worry if our child isn’t keeping up with the others.
Here’s why we all can relax. Learning to read in kindergarten (or even before) isn’t a sign of intelligence, says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., professor emerita at Lesley University and author of Taking Back Childhood. Not only is there no research showing that kids reap long-term rewards from decoding words at 5, there are numerous studies showing that by fourth grade, “early readers” are reading at the same level as those who mastered the skill in second grade.
Besides, learning to read is a developmental milestone, and some 5- and even 6-year-olds aren’t there yet. “Children have to go through a process where they become ready, and it happens at different speeds,” says Dr. Carlsson-Paige. In order to truly read and comprehend, kids must be able to recognize and use individual sounds to create words (known as phonemic awareness), understand the relationship between written letters and spoken sounds (known as phonics), and understand, remember, and communicate what they’ve just read. Has your child nailed all that? Mine hasn’t.
Pressuring your kid doesn’t help, either — and, in fact, does more harm than good. “If you torture kids with flash cards, reading becomes a job and it’s not fun anymore,” says Elissa Mostransky, of West Babylon, NY, a mother of three and a K–5 reading specialist.
Instead, kids need a good foundation so the components that make up reading can click into place. Luckily, the way to lay the groundwork isn’t about sounding out letters or even pointing to words in books. It’s much simpler than that. And — bonus! — you’re probably setting the stage without even knowing it. Read on to learn what literacy experts, teachers, and parents recommend.
Long before my children could read or write, I’d play “restaurant” with them. They’d create menus and have jobs and give themselves new names. I just thought it was a way to keep them busy while I cooked. Turns out, I was fostering pre-reading skills.
One of the many perks of pretend play is that it helps kids learn and use new words, says Dr. Carlsson-Paige. “Oral language is the whole basis for written language, so we want to give children lots of chances to develop theirs,” she explains. My 5-year-old now knows what a sous chef is because her older brother is always the chef/owner/boss.
To take these games one step further, set out art supplies. When kids draw, say, wanted posters for bad guys or “keep out” signs for forts, they are grasping the relationship between spoken words, symbols, and the printed word, notes Dr. Carlsson-Paige. “And while you don’t want to force it, it’s great if kids can naturally incorporate writing activities into their imaginative play.”
Take Turns Telling Tales
You probably regale your child with stories already. Now trade off the narrative so the two of you are creating it together in a continuous manner. Doing this will help him understand that stories have characters; a beginning, a middle, and an end; and certain conventions, such as “once upon a time.”
Cheryl Boccard, a mom and a pre-K teacher in Huntington, NY, swears by this trick for teaching spontaneous storytelling skills: “I put random objects in a bag — an apple, a toy car, a feather — and one child picks an item and begins a story about it,” she says. “Then the next child has to continue the tale with a new object that he picks.” Totally stealing this idea for road trips!
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Use “Juicy” Words
We tend to use simple language when talking to little kids, but it’s better if you mix in a wide variety of words and constantly define and point out new ones. For instance, if your child asks to see the “picture,” tell her it’s a special kind called a “photograph” (Boccard calls this a juicy word). And, it almost goes without saying, talk to your kids as much as possible so they hear more words every day.
The reason: A bigger vocab is more closely correlated with reading comprehension than knowledge of letter sounds. “A 5-year-old who has an enormous vocabulary but doesn’t know any letters is more likely to do well on his third-grade reading comprehension test than a child who knows letter sounds at 5 but has a smaller vocabulary,” says Shanna Schwartz, of the Reading & Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Read Books Every Night
You knew this one was coming, and it can’t be overstated. “This is how kids learn that you hold a book a certain way, that the book goes from left to right, that you turn the pages,” says Dr. Carlsson-Paige. And while you may tire of hearing the same story night after night, books that use repetition are key for reading readiness.
“It’s called predictable print,” Dr. Carlsson-Paige explains. “When kids hear the same line over and over, eventually they start to match the words they hear with the little squiggly black things on the page and they figure out how reading works.”
Rhyming books (thank you, Dr. Seuss!) are particularly useful because they help with phonemic awareness. “Being able to hear that words rhyme, even made-up ones like shanna, fanna, bo banna, gets kids to tune their ear to all the different sounds they need to identify before they can read,” says Schwartz. “You can’t put a letter to a sound until you can recognize it first, which is why word games are so important, too.”
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Choose Quality Books
Interesting plots and characters help your child develop a richer command of language, also known as literary vocabulary, notes Mary Ehrenworth, Ed.D., deputy director of the Reading & Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. For example, we tend to say “hungry” when speaking, but a character might be described as ravenous — that’s literary vocabulary, and children get the vast majority of it before age 6.
What defines a “good” book? You want parts that the kids can chime in on (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow the house down”), some repetition, a strong story line, and illustrations that provide clues to what’s going on. “When I talk to parents I tell them, it’s the books you read when you were a kid,” says Schwartz.
Of course, some kids will gravitate toward movie or TV tie-ins, and while those can’t really compete with the classics, they’re okay, too. “If a book gets your kid excited about reading, be happy,” says Dr. Ehrenworth.
No, we don’t mean interrogate your kid until he spots the letter b. Instead, say things like, “Wow, I can’t believe that just happened — what do you think about that?” Exaggerating your emotional response helps kids engage with the story, Dr. Ehrenworth says, a key ingredient for reading comprehension. “In order for the story to have any meaning at all, a child needs to notice how the characters are changing and to consider the implications of the story for his own life,” she says.
It also turns out that comprehension, along with vocabulary development, is often more crucial than decoding letters when kids are learning to read — another reason to skip the “what letter is this?” quizzes.
That said, if your child is really into the alphabet, it’s fine to playfully point out letters on the cereal box or street signs (“I spy with my little eye a letter that looks like a circle with a tiny tail!”). “I’m a literacy expert and neither one of my children learned their letters until kindergarten,” says Schwartz. “I wanted them to hear 1,000 books and be able to talk about them.”
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Keep a Soundtrack Going
“Songs give children rhyming skills and expose them to the rhythm of reading,” says Schwartz. It doesn’t have to be kid songs, either (hallelujah!). As long as they can understand the words, they’re in good shape.
When you need a change of pace, pop in an audiobook: “Listening to a book is great for fluency and for children to grasp how to read — that you use intonation and change your voice, rather than staying monotone,” says Mostransky, who has The Cat in the Hat on heavy rotation. “It’s not so different from listening to you read, but it gives you a break.”
The bottom line? Keep reading fun. The biggest mistake parents make once their kids start school is that they get into teacher mode, putting their fingers under the words or having their kids sound things out, says Dr. Ehrenworth. “The next thing you know, your child doesn’t want to read with you anymore.”
The beauty of allowing your child to learn at his own pace is the pride and joy you’ll both feel the first time he deciphers a whole page of print on his own. And he will. “Eventually, reading just clicks,” says Mostransky. “I see it happen every day.”
Photo Credit: Stephanie Rausser/Trunk Archive