5 Traditions for Teaching Kids to Read

If you teach your children that reading is fun, they'll grow up wanting to tackle as many books as possible.
If you teach your children that reading is fun, they'll grow up wanting to tackle as many books as possible.

One of the greatest joys of parenting is watching your children learn about the world around them. It can seem like they're developing new interests and surprising skills almost every day. But sometimes you can succumb to the pressure of comparing your kids' milestones to the other children in your lives: Are they learning faster, slower or in different ways from other children? Does this reflect on you? Is there something you could be doing better?

One of the ways this stress can manifest is in the development of pre-reading and literacy skills. For most new parents, it's an ongoing concern. And once your kids start school, you want to know that you've prepared them and that you continue supporting their desire to learn, whatever form their personal style takes. And sometimes, your own experiences and memories get in the way. Nothing is more heartbreaking than seeing your child frustrated at his or her own progress.

Here, we'll look at some traditions for helping kids learn to read that can help to preserve your child's sense of fun and pleasure in the activity. After all, reading is an essential skill that will see your child through the biggest successes of his or her life. But it's not necessary to stress out -- for you or your child -- to get those steps accomplished. Reading is, should be and always will be a fun activity.

Literacy at Home

In establishing a literate environment for your child, it's important to demonstrate the behavior of a reader. By modeling reading skills and reading for pleasure, you're teaching your child far more than you know. One of the most interesting recent scientific developments has brought us new information about mirror neurons, which are specialized connections in the brain that learn skills and activities by watching others practice them.

It can be hard enough finding time to read for pleasure whether you have children or not, but in terms of helping your baby become an interested reader as she grows, you can demonstrate a healthy respect and love for the written word by surrounding yourself with reading material of all types, visits to the library and other readerly activities. A family that loves reading is a family that grows readers.

Of course, nobody's suggesting that you turn off the TV or avoid books on tape. Those things also have value. But enjoying quiet time, reading aloud with your children and discussing topics of interest with them, is a great way to establish early reading habits. We spend so much time in our children's early lives cuddling and playing with them, and taking advantage of those pleasurable feelings by adding books into the mix creates a connection between reading and pleasure that is one of the first steps toward making words and reading a fun experience.

Using Building Blocks
Read with your child, and choose books that appeal to her specific interests -- it will help the stories come to life.
Read with your child, and choose books that appeal to her specific interests -- it will help the stories come to life.

Phonics is the word for what most of us remember the learning process to be like: You learn the sounds that each letter makes, then slowly string them together into longer and longer words until you're creating whole sentences. By bringing those letters and sounds together from children's infancy, you create powerful connections in their minds between the sound and the picture.

But learning simply by rote repetition has been debunked pretty thoroughly over the past few decades. Because reading and writing are acts of communication, they involve all the parts of our brains: left, right, intellectual, emotional, intuition and memory. It's not enough to approach writing like codebreaking, because when we write -- just as when we speak -- we're sharing parts of ourselves.

That's why it's so important to bring reading into everyday life. Reading shouldn't be an activity that means sitting inside, bored and forced: It should be an exciting adventure. And for kids who aren't naturally interested in sitting still or reading page after page, that means finding a connection between what they care about and what they're reading.

Imaginative children, for example, will learn about reading much more quickly if allowed to write the books and stories themselves -- first with you taking dictation, and later by illustrating and writing their own scribbled tales. Likewise, a kid with particular interests -- dinosaurs, sports, art or detectives -- can find a personal connection with stories about those things.

Cater to Different Learning Styles

Once your child's learning begins in earnest, it's important to establish the development of literacy as a safe place. Too often our frustration can create anxiety when a child doesn't perform as well as he or she would like to do. And as parents, our anxiety over their trouble -- nobody wants to see their child feel ashamed or less-than -- can just add to the stress.

That's why it's important to remember two things: Your child's failures are not yours, and they're not really failures at all. By involving your child in determining his strengths and weaknesses, progress and areas for improvement, you give him back control over the process. The fact is that we all learn in many different ways, and for a skill as important and complex as reading, that could take a while to reveal itself.

By bringing in a variety of strategies, and seeing which of these pre-learning and early development activities your child enjoys the most, you can streamline and personalize your child's development in a way that sidesteps a lot of those burnt fingers and hurt feelings.

If your child doesn't seem interested in letter sounds or word games -- the strategies most parents think of as "the right way" to engender pre-literacy skills -- it could be a matter of having him draw pictures of the things he fancies, and then labeling them with the correct words: "Mom driving the car," for example, or "The cat sat on the couch."

Engage the Right Brain
Don't let the story end once the book is over -- ask your child what he thinks might happen next, or make up new stories about the characters.
Don't let the story end once the book is over -- ask your child what he thinks might happen next, or make up new stories about the characters.
Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Thinkstock

Even more than other kinds of learning, literacy is a wholistic experience. What that means is that it involves our whole selves. From the visual sense of letters and their sequence, to the meaning that words make when they come together, to the sense of pride at a storybook read for the first time or a beautiful piece of writing you've created, language is at the heart of everything that we do.

Literacy isn't about retreating from the world; it's about engaging with it. Just think of all the ways reading and writing -- comics, menus, guest lists, to-dos, stories, newspapers, online articles and games -- come into your life every day. If you think about it, bringing your child into this arena couldn't be easier. Think about how many street signs, TV ads and stories you see: The world is your storybook.

When reading with a child, you can bring the joy of reading into the context of things the child is already grappling with: By looking at the cover of a book and asking what she thinks will happen inside, or simply by discussing the images, you connect reading with anticipation and cause/effect skills.

By asking which character was her favorite, or whether she's satisfied with the ending of the story, you bring your child into the storytelling process in a way that will make her more excited about learning what happens next. By involving the child in the storytelling process, either by building on a story you're reading together or by creating new stories, you create a rich, imaginative environment that will make any future hurdles much less fearsome.

Tackle Trouble Spots

The fact is, all brains want to learn: young brains specifically. After all, it's what they're designed to do. Philosophers and teachers have often described teaching as nothing more than establishing an environment for students to teach themselves. It can be difficult to remember this when common learning disabilities or inconveniences -- like dyslexia, dysgraphia, hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder -- crop up, but it's also essential. Our children want nothing more than to impress us with their radical skills, and when they run into roadblocks, it's frustrating for all of us.

It could be a physical problem, delayed motor skills, hearing issues or even problems with eyesight that aren't obvious. Perhaps a child doesn't want to read because her school environment isn't set up to cater to her particular learning style. In that case, supplementing her work with home reading and activities can help bolster her confidence. Maybe your child gets bored because he's not engaged with the material and would be more interested in extra subject matter that's more to his liking.

It doesn't really matter what they're reading, after all: For a child who has lost the wonder of reading, a comic book or exciting film version of a classic tale can do as much to excite her and bring her back to the passion of learning as the "Dick and Jane" that might be alienating her at school. But by identifying the pressures and concerns of your particular child's reading situation, you can find a way to put all that advice, momentum and excitement to use.

For more great family and tradition articles, check out the links on the next page.


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  • Linde, Sharon. "Can You Teach Your Baby to Read?" St. Louis Kids Magazine. June 2010. http://www.stlouiskidsmagazine.com/story/can-you-teach-your-baby-read
  • Mums' Net. "Helping Your Child Learn To Read." Mumsnet.com. 2011. http://www.mumsnet.com/books/teach-your-child-to-read
  • Teaching Treasures. "Reading Methods." TeachingTreasures.com. 2011. http://teachingtreasures.com.au/homeschool/reading-methods/reading-methods.htm