Teaching children to read

Teaching children to read in 10 easy steps
Read and Spell blog
Teaching children to read

Learning to read is one of the most important things a child will do in his or her life. That’s because we live in a society in which literacy skills are the key to success. When reading ability doesn’t develop overnight, some parents and educators worry they are on the wrong path to instruction.

But choosing the “right” books and the “best” way to teach reading depends on every child. No two individuals will master reading at the same time or pace, and patience and persistence is a must, particularly for kids who struggle with learning difficulties or differences.

Teaching a child to read begins at birth with the reinforcement of pre-literacy skills. Nonetheless, most kids will officially learn to read between the ages of 5 and 7.

One of the most common ways to teach reading is via the sounding out method in which kids are encouraged to read aloud, pronouncing each letter or group of letters until they recognize the word by sound.

At the same time, educators will teach sight words, or common vocabulary that children can memorize in order to reduce the cognitive burden of decoding sentences. The theory is the less words children need to sound out, the more attention they have to process a greater number of terms and understand vocabulary they have never encountered before.

As kids become strong readers, they do less and less reading out loud and recognize more and more vocabulary by sight. This makes them faster. They can also do more when it comes to interacting with the books they are reading, including following more complicated narratives, understanding specific details, gist and making inferences and predictions.

They grow their vocabulary because reading introduces them to new words they can understand from context. Moreover, reading impacts on writing ability. Kids develop familiarity with more complex sentence structures and begin to use and adapt them to express themselves. This is a crucial skill that will serve them in all areas of the curriculum, from English class to social studies.

Pre-literacy skills

There are certain pre-literacy skills educators have identified as important in preparing kids for reading instruction. Children can speak their native language, but they may not always recognize the component phonemes that make up English vocabulary.

Silly songs and rhymes can help call their attention to the “Sssss” or “shhh” sounds they’ll need to associate with letters in order to read their first words. They must learn the alphabet of course, but reading books also relies on grasping the concept of narrative.

This is something parents can teach by asking kids to recall actions in the order in which they occurred or simply leading by example and rehearsing the day’s activities with them.

Parents are also encouraged to read to their children because fostering a love of books begins at home. Very young children may not understand what you are reading but they will become familiar with how books work, including distinguishing print from pictures.

Infants love to imitate adults and turning pages is a great way to practice their fine motor skills and pincer grasp. If reading becomes a routine, they’ll begin to expect fun and entertaining stories. Positive associations forged through ample quality time spent with their parents will help them be more interested in reading books on their own.

How to teach reading - use one word per card

How to teach reading

  1. Phonics
    Reading requires bringing together a child’s knowledge of the sound system of his or her native language and the letters and letter combinations that represent different phonemes. For this reason, some phonics instruction is essential. 
  2. Familiar words
    Because they are fluent speakers, kids have a base vocabulary to begin with. That’s why learning how to read words they are already familiar with is a good place to start. This might include their own name and other concrete nouns that can be prompted using pictures.
  3. One word at a time
    In the beginning, too much text can be overwhelming for a new reader. Make sure there are not too many words on a page and start by having them sound out single terms before progressing to phrases and sentences.
  4. Ample exposure and lots of repetition
    Reading words that contain the same letters and letter combinations and seeing those words multiple times helps kids practice early reading skills. Did you know that 50-75% of the words in most children’s books come from the Dolch list?
  5. Illustrations and big print
    Images can help a child in the beginning by prompting him or her to recognize the word they are reading. It helps if words are large enough and printed in bold, easy to read font.
  6. High frequency vocabulary
    Memorizing words that are likely to show up in most books for children helps reduce the cognitive load associated with sounding out phrases and simple sentences. Kids can use flashcards and practice spelling at the same time.
  7. Books they want to read
    Children are often more motivated to read if they are interested in the material to begin with. Take kids to the library and let them select the books they want to start with. If the text proves too challenging, at least you have an idea of what topics they are interested in.
  8. Taking on a challenge
    Starting with books that are too hard can be discouraging for an early reader. Keep kids motivated by selecting a mix of easy material that is at their level, interspersed with challenging books that are one step beyond. A good way to tell how hard a book is by having the child read a page and lift a finger for every word they don’t recognize. If any page contains more than 5 words the child doesn’t know, save the book for later.
  9. Graded readers
    Many English novels and stories have been adapted for readers of different levels. Check out graded readers and try using several levels in progression to ensure familiar vocabulary and a consistent increase in difficulty.
  10. Constructs and interaction
    It’s a good idea to encourage active vs. passive reading by asking children about what they have read. In the beginning they will be focused on recognizing words but later on they’ll need to get the gist of the text and be able to tell you more about the details too!

Learn more about homeschool reading

Encourage reading and teach kids to love books

Dyslexia and reading ability

Some kids experience difficulty in reading and this may be due to a learning difficulty or difference. One of the most common learning difficulties is dyslexia, a condition in which literacy skills including reading and spelling, are impacted.

While there are many types of dyslexia and no two individuals experience the same symptoms, an inability to hear the phonemes in words is often a root cause of the difficulty. As a result, kids may need to overlearn sound-letter mapping and high frequency vocabulary, and use strategies, such as creating mnemonic devices, to remember spelling.

Read more tips on helping dyslexic children in the classroom.

Slow processing, ADD and ADHD

Kids who struggle with slow processing can have difficulty with the decoding process and with holding all of the details of a text in memory long enough to make meaning. Reducing cognitive load by teaching sight words and providing as much time as a child needs to read a text, can help them develop strong literacy skills.

Children who struggle with ADD and ADHD can greatly benefit from reduced distraction and a quiet environment in which to learn how to read. Keep them focused on the text and allow them to take frequent breaks and move around before coming back to reading activities.

Patience and time are essential to keep frustration at bay and ensure kids develop positive associations with reading. Learn more about ADHD reading problems.

Typing and reading

One way to help a struggling reader is to teach them typing following a specially designed program such as Touch-type Read and Spell. This is because the early stages involve a graded approach that covers one letter at a time and then progresses to letter combinations, and finally simple vocabulary and sentences. 

Learn more

TTRS is multi-sensory and students are asked to type text that is displayed on the screen and read aloud at the same time. This reinforces phonics and involves muscle memory, which can be highly beneficial for kids who have learning difficulties and are struggling with literacy skills.

Typing is also a crucial skill for children with dysgraphia and dyspraxia who struggle to write using a pen and paper.

TIP: Did you know kids can learn how to type as early as 6 or 7, when their hands fit comfortably on a keyboard?

As more complex modules are reached, typing programs also positively impact on spelling abilities in addition to enhancing knowledge of high frequency vocabulary and improving writing skills.

The TTRS course provides plenty of positive feedback, something a struggling reader needs in order to develop self-esteem and can be completed at a pace that is just right for each individual learner.

Do you have any tips on teaching reading? Join the discussion in the comments!

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About the Author 

Meredith Cicerchia

Meredith Cicerchia is a teaching affiliate at the University of Nottingham, an education consultant, and a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from speech and language difficulties and specific learning differences, to strategies for teaching English as a second and additional language.
Reviewed by 

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman has a BA cum laude in Sociology, and has undertaken post grad work in education and educational technology. She spent 20+ years working in public health and in the charity sector.
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