Learning to Read:
A Survival Guide for Parents

by Devon A. Corneal

Photo credit: Zero Creatives, Cultura/Getty Images

As a lifelong book lover, I was eager for my son to start reading. I envisioned him spending afternoons lost in stories and school nights hiding under the covers with a flashlight to finish one last chapter. All this will happen, I’m sure, if we can manage to survive the beginning reader stage.

Someone should have warned me that while my son learned to master this new skill, I’d be spending my time listening to him read books that are, well, boring. There’s a reason for this, of course. Emerging and beginning readers have to focus on identifying letters and forming actual words, so text needs to be simple and repetitive. Complex plot must wait until kids have a richer vocabulary and can process the meaning of the words. This means that stories for newer readers are gutted to their most basic components.

Don’t get me wrong — I love hearing my son read his first sentences. But the repetition can sometimes feel mind-numbing. Here are a few tips to help you survive this important stage.

1. Be patient. Very few kids go from sight words to Dickens in a year. Learning to read is a long, gradual process. Take a few deep breaths and try to relax.

2. Don’t compare. Pay no attention to the kid in your son’s class who is, in fact, reading Dickens. It won’t help your child learn to read any more quickly.

3. Set up for success. Make sure everyone is fed, rested, focused, and comfortable before you open a book. Then choose books that challenge, but don’t frustrate your child. If you’re not sure what books are appropriate, check out the I Can Read series. Books are grouped by levels ranging from “My Very First” books that focus on basic sight words to “Advanced Reading” for kids who are ready for denser text.

4. Choose books your child likes. Kids are more likely to engage with characters or topics that interest them, and that makes reading more fun for both of you.

5. Bite your tongue. It’s hard not to correct your kid’s mistakes. Try to hold back. If the mistake changes the meaning of the text, then it’s useful to speak up. If not, let it go or revisit it later. Perfection isn’t the goal — gaining reading fluency is.

6. Put books everywhere. The more kids read, the sooner you’ll be out of this stage. Put books in the car, the bathroom, the kitchen, and your purse. You’ll be surprised how often they’ll reach for one. Old board books, teeth marks and all, are perfect distractions for the car.

7. Offer incentives. I told my son that if he read to me for 20 minutes a day over the summer, I would get him a toy. Fifteen hundred minutes of reading later, he’s the owner of a new police boat and a bigger vocabulary. Some may disagree, but I think it was worth every penny.

8. Don’t stop reading aloud. Just because your child is starting to read, don’t stop reading to them. You can share more complicated stories than they can handle on their own and listening to you will teach them tone and inflection.

9. Make reading a habit. My son reads to me for 20 minutes every evening while I’m making dinner. The routine means we don’t fight over when the reading gets done, and I’m available to help with the hard words.

10. Have fun. I can’t sugarcoat this — mastering the basics of reading can be a chore, but it’s also an amazing process. Try to make it entertaining. Pick silly books, laugh at mistakes, and enjoy your child’s efforts. This too will pass, and probably more quickly than we’d like.