First there was learning to talk. Then there was learning to use the bathroom. And now there’s one more hurdle that feels both inevitable and yet completely overwhelming: learning to read.
As a parent, the milestones can feel like daunting and impossible tasks, especially when you’re at Step 1. There’s the worry — is he behind all of the other kids? Am I damaging him by doing X and not doing Y? What if he NEVER learns?! — and, of course, there’s the way each milestone can feel slightly consuming.
But then he learns. He starts to make progress. The ball starts rolling and I wonder why I was ever worried to begin with. And that’s sort of where we are with the whole reading thing.
My son’s fourth year has been a slow and gradual climb toward literacy. He starts Kindergarten in September, so I know that he’ll bulk up his reading skills then. But the interest is there! He wants to know what words mean, he wants to take over reading a page, he wants to learn learn learn.
Am I just really lucky that he was born with a zest for learning? (Probably.) With no known learning disabilities? (Definitely.) But there are certain things we’ve done or experienced that have built up this staircase toward literacy. We’re still climbing, but I thought I’d share our experience with 12 ways we’ve practiced beginner reading skills:
Learning to Read 1 of 14
We're now in full-fledged "learn-to-read" mode, with literacy finally on the horizon. Here are some helpful and sometimes bizarre ways he's been developing reading skills over the past year...
Starting at a Young Age… 2 of 14
We started basic print recognition with alphabet bath toys (which he now uses to spell words), alphabet magnets, basic sight words (like the STOP sign), and plenty of books. Slowly and gradually building interest in words and books has — without a doubt — made the transition seamless.
Playing Alphabet-Based Games 3 of 14
We also have a few ABC-based games (like this Dr. Seuss game), which helped jump-start an interest as well as a need to read. If he has to figure out the letter that a word starts with in order to win a game, he'll figure out that letter. (I have a competitive one, here.)
Car Games That Ask Him to Guess Letters 4 of 14
My (teacher) sister started this car game with him, and it's really helped him with phonetically hearing and recognizing words: First he guesses which letter I'm thinking. Then he has to guess which word I'm thinking about, beginning with that initial letter. So if I'm thinking of the letter "S," he could guess snow, sky, snake, sun, etc.
When he guesses the word, then it's his turn to think of a letter and corresponding word.
It's been a great opportunity to sneak in little word-recognition lessons, especially when he mixes up easily confused sounds like K and C, and even coming up with little sing-song rhymes to remember. (Example: "Car starts with C not K, but close! You can remember 'car' by singing, 'CAR, CAR, C-A-R!').
Video Games Can Teach Words Too! 5 of 14
I touched on this in my recent post about why video games might not be all that terrible. In it I said,
"I've also watched as he picks up on more sight words — sounding out and memorizing words because he has to learn them to get through the game. (You know how they say the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in a culture where you have to learn the language to eat and live? It's kind of like that.) Of course he's picking up on reading skills in a multitude of ways, but I'd be lying if I said video games isn't a contributing component."
And so my 4-year-old now fully recognizes words like start, on, off, resume, player, and go. Would I rather he get those skills from books? Sure. But reading skills are reading skills.
Sending and Recognizing Text Messages 6 of 14
"Mom, Aunt Debbie texted you!" he'll say while holding up my phone. He can find Grandma's name in my address book and text her things like "hi" or "love Noah." (He's also a big fan of telling emoji stories.) He can call the correct person (under my direction) almost all of the time.
Again, reading skills are reading skills.
"Playing" with Workbooks 7 of 14
While we haven't tried flash cards or any "formal" reading programs, he sure does love activity books with puzzles and matching games. I'll catch him sounding out words or proudly announcing, "Look mom! I can read this!" as he's going along. Sometimes just putting him in front of print-based activities is all he needs to put the pieces together on his own.
Following Along with Books on Tape 8 of 14
We're big fans of books on tape, especially in the car. And now he reads along with his finger, making sure that the author's voice is matching the words that he's reading. The more times that he sees basic words like "the," "and," "because," and "Spiderman," the easier it is for him to recognize them in different books.
Using the Leap Reader To Read Out Loud 9 of 14
This was a Christmas present from my sister, and it's a huge hit. Not only can the LeapReader pen read the stories to him, but he can choose to use the pen only for words he doesn't know. He also started using the pen to create his own story, or to make the book say funny things by omitting certain words. (For instance, he gave me a message by pointing to the word "you're" and then pointing to the word "pretty". He thinks he's just goofing around, but those are reading skills.)
Making Attempts at Writing 10 of 14
This was a little goof-around activity we did this past summer, when he was just starting to get into the reading groove. When asked how he thought to spell the sentence, "Superheroes fly in the sky," this is what he came up with. It showed us exactly where he was in terms of reading and writing skills, and writing has continued to be a key part in developing his reading skills. We started encouraging him to write birthday cards to his friends (Happy Birthday Jack!), write his name on his belongings, and play writing-based games.
Visiting Libraries and Bookstores 11 of 14
We also spend a lot of time in local libraries and Barnes & Noble book stores, just to immerse him around books and print.
Taking Turns Reading 12 of 14
And now that he has a little more confidence in his reading abilities, we started taking turns reading at night. I read one book to him and then he reads a book to me — usually a basic book with easy sight words. It's a routine that gets him A) excited about reading, and B) more practice. I'm actually happy to start doing this before it becomes part of standard homework assignments, because what kid likes to be told he has to do something? This way, the pressure is off.
Reading Beyond Books 13 of 14
Now that the ball is officially in motion, we take any and all opportunities to practice reading skills. This is a note that his Aunt Debbie left for him, which he wanted to read on his own. (The highlighted words are the ones that he read all on his own, without any assistance.) He was so proud of himself by the end of the note, realizing that he can recognize certain words without my help.
Not Pushing Too Hard 14 of 14
I think the common thread in all of these examples is that we don't push him. We don't sit him down with a stack of flash cards and drill him for 10 minutes. We don't insist that he reads to us and then reprimand him for getting words wrong. The good thing about starting early is that you can make it fun — make up games and activities, and sneak in little lessons when the time is right.
In my experience with each of these milestones, slow and steady seems to make life easier. (Isn't that how the saying goes?)