“What does this word say? What about this one?”
“When can I learn to read like my brother?
Do these demands sound familiar?
After knowing and teaching hundreds of little people, and raising five of my own, I never suggest rushing kids to do things they aren’t ready to do. It rarely yields more than frustration. I have, however, known many preschoolers who beg to be taught to read. Especially if you’re a bookish household, it’s understandable that kiddos would want in on the fun. How can caregivers nurture preschoolers’ reading interest while balancing their little kid needs? The short answer is to keep it playful and let your child’s interest guide the process. Beyond that, check out these practical tips that are grounded in reading research.
Expand your conversations about the alphabet
Learning to read requires a flexible and automatic command of letter symbols and sounds. By preschool, many kids know the ABC song (even that tricky “l, m, n, o, p” section) and recognize some written letters. Play a lighthearted game to get information about which letters your child still needs to learn. You might write each letter on a sticky note and hide them around the room, then have your child race to find them, bring them back and make piles of letters they know automatically and ones they don’t. If you think they know some letter sounds, ask about those too.
After you find out what they know about uppercase letters, repeat with lowercase. Then set some goals together for letter and sound learning—maybe there are 7 letters your child doesn’t know, and you can make posters of them that they’ll see every day. You could plan to play Bingo or Go Fish to learn lowercase letters or listen to songs to learn letter sounds. Perhaps your child knows most sounds but isn’t sure about the short vowel sounds yet. You could go on a hunt around your home to find an item to help remember each one. (If you’re stumped, check the kitchen for an apple, an egg, and an olive, then grab an umbrella and head outside to find an inchworm!)
Show your child how to blend two and three-letter words
Once children know at least one short vowel sound and handful of common consonants, you can try showing them how to “sound out” words. Write a simple word on a dry erase board, like “at.” Use a small toy or your finger to be the “reading frog.” Show kids how the frog can “jump” to each letter and say the sounds “/aaah/ /t/.” Then show them the magic when the frog swims across the sounds to blend “at.” Add a letter, like c, and show kids how you frog-jump as you say three sounds. Then swim across the word to read “cat.” Take care not to distort the letter sounds. They should be clipped and clear; for instance, a crisp /t/ and not “tuuuuh.”You’re your child becomes comfortable, play a guessing game where you write a three letter “consonant-vowel-consonant” word on a dry-erase board (it can help to keep a list handy), and they have to either say it or draw what it is.
If you try this and it feels too hard, dial it back and play some oral games to build your child’s phonological awareness first — in particular, their phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear and work with individual sounds. Pretend you are an alien from another planet who only speaks in sounds. Say sounds like “/mmm/ /aaah/ /p/” and have your child guess what you’re asking for — a map, of course! When your child can reliably understand your “sound speak,” try again to blend the sounds of written letters into words.
Read decodable books together
When you’re working hard to help your child start to understand using letter sounds to read words, it’s important to give them practice books that let them use those skills. These books are usually called “decodable books.” Most picture books have such a variety of words that kids can’t use their limited phonics knowledge to read them yet. Trying to slog through these books can end up encouraging poor habits like guessing at words. Decodable books go in a sequence, adding on new spelling patterns gradually. Check out Phonic Books Dandelion Launchers for a great example of decodable books that work well for eager preschoolers.
As kids start to try out reading books, they’ll inevitably run into high-frequency words—those little words that pop up all the time in print. Many high-frequency words can be “sounded out” like any other words—at, it, in, can, etc. Kids will need help with high-frequency words that have irregularities or use spelling patterns they haven’t learned yet, like “is” or “the.” For a full list of tips for helping kids learn high-frequency words, check out this post. Most decodable book collections intentionally introduce high-frequency words a few at a time.
Continue building vocabulary and background knowledge
Compelling research suggests that kids’ reading comprehension is better when they have background knowledge about a topic. A brain full of knowledge about the world, and a wide vocabulary to go with it are two of the best gifts you can give your pre-reader. If kids get frustrated at not being able to read all their fun nonfiction books and favorite series by themselves, just tell them that listening to you read aloud and learning lots of new words and ideas is a big part of getting ready to read on their own! To step it up a notch, you could curate small book collections about different topics your child enjoys, whether that’s dinosaurs, sharks, a particular part of the world, or something else your kid loves. Then plan a project or excursion related to that topic. All these experiences give preschoolers a huge drawer of mental files to pull up when they eventually read books about these subjects on their own.
Children who are raring to read as preschoolers often become independent readers without lots of formal teaching, so above all, enjoy the learning process while it lasts. Soon enough you’ll be busy arguing with your child to turn off the light when they want to, “read just one more chapter!”