The following is part of a series of guest posts by leaders in the field of literacy and family learning. This post is authored by Timothy Shanahan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Professor Shanahan will deliver a pre-conference workshop and concurrent session at the 2019 Families Learning Conference.
Parents often ask how they can help their children learn to read. No wonder. In 21st century America, it is an essential skill.
Reading plays an important role in later school success. One study even found that how well 7-year-olds read predicts their income 35 years later!
What can parents do to help? Here are 11 practical recommendations for helping young children learn to read. 1
1. Teaching reading helps.
Sometimes, parents are told early teaching is harmful, but it isn’t true. You simply can’t introduce literacy too early. I started reading to my own children on the days they were each born! The “dangers of early teaching” has been a topic of study for more than 100 years, and no one has ever found any convincing evidence of harm. Moreover, there are hundreds of studies showing the benefits of reading with your children when they are young.
2. Teaching literacy is the same as teaching other skills.
You don’t need a Ph.D. to raise a happy, healthy, smart child. Parents have been doing it for thousands of years. Mothers and fathers successfully teach their kids to eat with a spoon, use a potty, keep their fingers out of their noses, and say “please.” These things can be taught pleasantly, or they can be made into a painful chore. Being unpleasant (e.g. yelling, punishing, pressuring) doesn’t work, and it can be frustrating for everyone.
This notion applies to teaching literacy, too. If you show your 18-month-old a book and he or she shows no interest, then put it away and come back later. If your child tries to write his or her name and ends up with a backwards “D,” no problem. No pressure. No hassle. You should enjoy the journey, and so should your child.
3. Talk to your kids (a lot).
Last year, I spent lots of time with our brand-new granddaughter, Emily. I drowned her in language. Although “just a baby,” I talked — and sang — to her about everything. I talked about her eyes, nose, ears, mouth, and fingers. I told her all about her family — her mom, dad, and older brother. I talked to her about whatever she did (yawning, sleeping, eating, burping). I talked to her so much that her parents thought I was nuts; she couldn’t possibly understand me. But reading is a language activity, and if you want to learn language, you need to hear it, and eventually, speak it. Too many moms and dads feel a bit dopey talking to a baby or young child, but studies show that exposing kids to a variety of words improves language development.
4. Read to your kids.
I know everyone says this, but it really is a good idea — at least with preschoolers. One of my colleagues refers to this advice as the “chicken soup” of reading education. We prescribe it for everything. (Does it help? It couldn’t hurt.)
If a parent or caregiver can’t read or can’t read English, there are alternatives, such as using audiobooks; but for those who can, reading a book or story to a child is a great, easy way to advance literacy skills.
Research shows benefits for kids as young as 9-months-old, and it could be effective even earlier than that. Reading to kids exposes them to richer vocabulary than they usually hear from the adults who speak to them, and can have positive impacts on their language, intelligence, and later literacy achievement.
What should you read to your kids? There are so many wonderful children’s books. Visit your local library, and you can get an armful of adventure. You can find recommendations from kids at the Children’s Book Council website or free books online at other websites like Unite for Literacy.
5. Have them tell you a “story.”
One great way to introduce kids to literacy is to take their dictation. Have them recount an experience or make up a story. We’re not talking “Moby Dick” here. A typical first story may be something like, “I like fish. I like my sister. I like grandpa.” Write it as it is being told, and then read it aloud. Point at the words when you read them or point at them when your child is trying to read the story. Over time, with lots of rereading, don’t be surprised if your child starts to recognize words such as “I” or “like.” (As children learn some of the words, you can write them on cards and keep them in a “word bank” for your child, using them to review later.)
6. Teach phonemic awareness.
Young children don’t hear the sounds within words. Thus, they hear “dog,” but not the “duh”-“aw”- “guh.” To become readers, they have to learn to hear these sounds (or phonemes). Play language games with your child. For instance, say a word, perhaps her name, and then change it by one phoneme: Jen-Pen, Jen-Hen, Jen-Men. Or, just break a word apart: chair… ch-ch-ch-air.
7. Teach phonics (letter names and their sounds).
You can’t sound out words or write them without knowing the letter sounds. Most kindergartens teach the letters, and parents can teach them, too. I just checked a toy store website and found 282 products based on letter names and another 88 on letter sounds, including ABC books, charts, cards, blocks, magnet letters, floor mats, puzzles, lampshades, bed sheets, and programs for tablets and computers. You don’t need all of that (a pencil and paper are sufficient), but there is lots of support out there for parents to help kids learn these skills. Keep the lessons brief and fun, no more than 5–10 minutes for young’uns.
8. Listen to your child read.
When your child starts bringing books home from school, have him or her read to you. If it doesn’t sound good (mistakes, choppy reading), have him/her read it again. Or you read it, and then have your child try again. Studies show that this kind of repeated oral reading makes students better readers, even when it is done at home.
9. Promote writing.
Literacy involves reading and writing. Having books and magazines available for your child is a good idea, but it’s also helpful to have pencils, crayons, markers, and paper. Encourage your child to write. One way to do this is to write notes or short letters to your child. It won’t be long before he or she is trying to write back to you.
10. Ask questions.
When your child reads, get her to retell the story or information. If it’s a story, ask who it was about and what happened. If it’s an informational text, have your child explain what it was about and how it worked, or what its parts were. Reading involves not just sounding out words but thinking about and remembering ideas and events.
11. Make reading a regular activity in your home.
Make reading a part of your daily life, and kids will learn to love it. When I was nine years old, my mom made me stay in for a half-hour after lunch to read. She took me to the library to get books to kick off this new part of my life. It made me a lifelong reader. Set aside some time when we turn off the TV and do nothing but read. Make it fun, too. When my children finished reading a book that had been made into a film, we’d make popcorn and watch the movie together. The point is to make reading a regular enjoyable part of your family routine.
ABOUT THIS POST
Timothy Shanahan is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was Founding Director of the UIC Center for Literacy. Previously, he was the director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools, and is the author or editor of more than 200 publications on literacy education. Professor Shanahan will present a pre-conference workshop at the 2019 Families Learning Conference on Sunday, Nov. 3 entitled "How to Improve Reading Achievement." He will also present a concurrent session on Monday entitled "The Language-Experience Approach." You can find more information on his pre-conference workshop here.