Learning to Read

written by Jeanne

Despite the fact that I was an educator at the time that I had my children, it never occurred to me to teach them how to read. My daughter worked out the system on her own at the age of 4½. I suspect she was a visual learner and paid close attention to the squiggles at the bottom of the page when she was read to. My son seemed a lot less interested in looking at the pages than at turning them and moving along with the story. But he was very quick to notice if a familiar story was paraphrased in any way or if the intonation used was different. (This was particularly frustrating for me since I couldn’t imitate my husband’s deep growls and falsettos that he applied to different characters and my son would complain loudly at the discrepancies.) I suspect that my son was an auditory learner and he did not read independently until he was almost seven years old and after a solid year of being exposed to what sounds letters make when forming a word (i.e., phonics).

But they both got there, and it never occurred to me that they wouldn’t – with or without my help. Perhaps because I was so relaxed about it, I have trouble understanding what all the frenzy is about among some modern parents who are concerned either that their child is not keeping up with their peers, or that they somehow feel that earlier independent reading gives their child some kind of “edge.”

Of course we all want our children, not only to read, but to enjoy reading so that they become lifelong readers. When I told my grown son I was writing an article of advice for parents on reading, he reminded me that not everyone is the same kind of reader. “I’m still a slow reader and a literal thinker. Kate (his sister) can just whip through stuff.”

I think he probably offered the best advice any parent is going to get: when it comes to reading, know your child. Not every child will learn to read in quite the same way and not every child will display the same penchant for reading. But most children learn to read.

What can we do? First I think it is important to remember that most children learn to read between the ages of 5 and 8. That is because the brain must pull together several sub-skills in order to help a child de-code the “squiggles” and understand what they mean. Some children seem to learn seamlessly. They have a good instinct for seeing a word and blending the sounds almost automatically. They also usually have a good memory for words that recur often. Other children need more time with sub-skills (e.g., learning the sounds of letters and then blending them to make words, learning how to use pictures on a page as visual clues for the meaning of words, etc.). The age span is comfortably but acceptably large. I have met several “late bloomers,” who manage to catch up to their peers in very little time. No one can predict when a child is ready, but we can insure greater success if we stay relaxed about the process and limit ourselves to providing the right environment.

What is the right environment? Many parents reading this blog already have a language-rich home so it may sound as though these common-sense suggestions could hardly be enough, but when it comes to learning how to read, method often matters less than attitude.

Children who are the most successful readers are those who are surrounded by books. There are books at home, books in the car, books in the bedroom, books, newspapers and magazines in their parents’ hands. They are usually children who have been read to regularly. Their homes are full of language – parents speak with them, not simply at them. Parents tell stories – about their childhoods, their day, and their adventures. They are not afraid to make up spontaneous stories (young children especially love stories about characters with their own names!)

Children go through predictable stages when learning to read. Knowing what to expect helps us know how to support them in their progress:

Children usually show us that they understand the concept of reading when they start pretending to read (e.g., holding a book, flipping through the pages in the right order and using the pictures to construct ideas about the story). Asking children questions about the storybook you are reading is a good strategy but be judicious. Some children, just like adults, sometimes just want to get to the end of the book to see what happens and don’t always like the interruptions. Know your child.

The second phase involves realizing that print contains a message – that there is a difference between the picture on a page and the black squiggles below. Often children will retell a story referring to the black squiggles as they continue to pretend to read. Listening intently to a child reading you a story is not only a gift of your time but a solid investment in motivating your child to read independently. Toward the end of this stage children begin to make connections between letters and the sounds they make.

The phase of “transitional reading” usually takes place in the early grades as the child becomes efficient in using strategies for constructing meaning, such as sounding out letters or using knowledge of common letter patterns to decode words and blending and segmenting letters to make sense of the whole word. Auditory awareness is key to learning phonics, or how to sound out words. Using the phonics program that the child receives in school (in whatever language) as a cue, parents can emphasize the beginning and ending and middle sounds of words in playful ways; children love learning the sound of the first letter in their names. Children generally love playing rhyming games and substituting initial sounds (e.g., calling Daddy “Faddy” and Ben “Zen”). Pointing out different common signs such as the corner “STOP” sign or “Migros” is also a general favorite and good practice for reading whole words at once without sounding out all the letters (i.e., sight words).

A child is an independent reader when they can independently and automatically use various strategies to figure out unknown words AND when they can comprehend text that is abstract and removed from personal experience. In general, children reach this level by the end of third grade and then switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Advanced reading is achieved when a child can critically reflect and respond to text, providing different levels of interpretation and adopting alternative view-points.

It is true that learning to read is not a guaranteed skill that will develop completely on its own, like learning how to speak, which is programmed into our brains from birth. Reading is an “add-on skill” for the brain to pull together. There is a fairly large set of sub-skills that must all be coordinated by the brain before the child is able to read independently. A person lacking exposure to these sub-skills may well not learn how to read. But barring learning difficulties, most children’s brains are well-equipped to pull together all the sub skills involved in the complex process of reading.

The one mistake we can make is to try to force a child toward this goal before his/her brain is ready. My biggest challenge as a first grade teacher was when I encountered children who had already lost all motivation to try to master the process.

What do we do then? We get them going again by appealing to their interests, by masking the sub skills in engaging and playful activities and games, and by reading good children’s literature to them. I have yet to meet the “lazy” child who does not enjoy a good story and who would resist thumbing through a picture book on a topic that particularly appeals to him/her.

There is no magic recipe that will help your child to learn to read, nor do you need to do anything special other than to remind your child (and maybe yourself): “Someday you’ll be able to read too!”



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