Strategies For Teaching Kids to Read

Reading is the act of translating written symbols and converting these symbols into words, sentences and paragraphs that can communicate something meaningful to us.

Like talking and walking, reading is also a skill. In fact, it is the third language skill, and like all other skills, it must be practiced over and over again until it is perfected.

The four language skills however are: listening, speaking, reading and writing.

When Do Kids Learn To Read?

Most kids don’t start “reading” until around 6 years old. The reason I say this to you is that, I don’t want you as a parent to feel pressured that your 3-year old son or daughter isn’t reading.

Between the ages of four and nine, your child will have to master some 100 phonics rules, learn to recognize 3,000 words with just a glance, and develop a comfortable reading speed approaching 100 words a minute. He must learn to combine words on the page with a half-dozen squiggles called punctuation into something – a voice or image in his mind that gives back meaning.

The progressive, on-going process of learning to understand and use language begins at birth as a mother or father lifts a baby, looks into her eyes, and speaks softly to her.

It’s mind-boggling but this casual, spontaneous activity is leading to the development of language skills. This pleasant interaction helps the baby learn about the give and take of conversation and the pleasures of communicating with other people.

Young children continue to develop listening and speaking skills as they communicate their needs and wants through sounds and gestures, babble to themselves and others, say their first words, and rapidly add new words to their spoken vocabularies. Most children who have been surrounded by language from birth are fluent speakers by age three, regardless of intelligence, and without conscious effort.

Each of the 6,000 languages in the world uses a different assortment of phonemes – the distinctive sounds used to form words. Whenever adults hear another language, they may not notice the differences in phonemes not used in their own language. Infants are born with the ability to distinguish these variations. Their babbles include many more sounds than those used in their home language. At about 6 to 10 months, babies begin to ignore the phonemes not used in their home language. They babble only the sounds made by the people who talk with them most often.

During their first year, babies hear speech as a series of distinct, but meaningless words. By age 1, most kids begin linking words to meaning. They understand the names used to label familiar objects, body parts, animals, and people.

As kids develop their language skills, they give up assumptions and learn new words and meanings. From this point on, children develop language skills quickly. Here is a typical phase:

At about 18 months, children add new words to their terms at the astounding rate of one every 2 hours.

By age 2, most kids have 1 to 2,000 words and combine two words to form simple sentences such as: “Go out.” “All gone.”

Between 24 to 30 months, kids speak in longer sentences.

From 30 to 36 months, children begin following the rules for expressing tense and number and use words such as some, would, and who.

At the same time as they are gaining listening and speaking skills, young children are learning about reading skills as well.

Learning To Read

Reading skills are like building blocks. To learn to read well, children need the blocks of knowing the sounds of letters and the blocks of knowing the meanings of words (vocabulary), word parts (grammatical markers) and groups of words (overall meaning or semantics). To build these foundations of reading, children need a good approach and an effective reading instruction.

There are two main approaches to teaching reading –

1.       Phonics approach and

2.       Whole language approach

What parents can do to help is to determine what method(s) their child’s school is using to teach reading. The best way to learn this is to talk to your child’s teacher, listen to him or her talk about what they do during the day, and examine homework assignments.

Phonics Approach

A phonics approach focuses instruction on learning to associate printed letters and combinations of letters with their corresponding sounds. Phonics instruction gives students strategies to unlock or decode words.

A phonics approach to teaching reading may include:

“Sounding out” words as a way of figuring out new words. For example, “moon” would be sounded out as “mm-oo-nn.”

Practice worksheets or exercises on letter sounds, matching photos with spoken words, short vowel/long vowel or letter of the week.

Whole Language Approach

The whole language approach focuses on understanding. That is the understanding that reading is finding the meaning in written language.

A whole language approach to teaching reading may include:

Teaching reading and writing during the day in the context of the lesson topics.

Teachers putting an emphasis on storybooks rather than worksheets as well as multiple writing opportunities.

Try The Balanced Approach

Several years of research shows us that there is no one best way to build students’ literacy skills. A balanced approach to teaching reading combines a strong foundation in phonics with whole language methods.

Only through more than one kind of instruction can students gain the skills to recognize and manipulate the sounds of letters and words and the skills to know very well what they read.

Since all children learn differently, only a balanced approach to teaching reading can provide all children the skills they need to read well.

An Effective Reading Program

It is important to recognize that a student figure out how to read in a certain order: first they must understand that words are composed of different sounds, then associate sounds with written words, and finally they can decode words and read groups of words.

Students who have trouble learning to read need to be specifically taught the relationships of letters, words and sounds. (Awareness of letter/sound relationships is the main tool good readers use to decode unfamiliar words.)

Each child needs a different measure of practice to be a fluent reader.

Phonics instruction should be based on individual student needs and taught as part of a comprehensive, literature-based reading program.

Abundant opportunities for children to read at their own reading level help them to learn to read for meaning and enjoy reading.

Highly skilled teachers can help children develop good, overall literacy skills.

That is good vocabularies, understanding of correct syntax and spelling, reasoning skills and questioning skills.

What If Your Child Has A Learning Disability?

For children with language-based learning disabilities, learning to read is especially difficult because they have a harder time with sounds of letters and words than their colleagues. Research has indicated that because phonics instruction concentrates on recognizing and manipulating sounds of letters and words, more serious phonics instruction may be necessary for children with learning disabilities.

From preschool through fourth grade, parents can watch for the following signs to know if their child may have a learning disability:

Slower to learn the connection between letters and sounds

Difficulty “sounding out” unknown words

Constantly misidentifying known words

Makes consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w), transpositions (felt/left), and substitutions (house/home)

Transposes number sequences and confuses arithmetic signs (+, -, x, /, =)

Trouble understanding or remembering what is read because so much time and effort is spent figuring each word.

If a child regularly displays one or more of these behavior patterns, he or she may have a learning disability and parents should seek appropriate testing and intervention from their child’s school.

With diagnostic tests, it can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy which students in kindergarten and first grade could have difficulty learning to read.

By identifying reading difficulties early means children have a lot more time to learn to be successful readers. Since reading is learned more easily and effectively during the early years, identifying language-based learning disabilities and providing appropriate interventions give children more time to learn to read well.

How To Teach Kids To Read

Babies learn to speak pretty much from the moment they are born. It’s an incredibly complex skill, but unlike speaking, learning to read is not natural. It has to be taught.

In an English alphabetic system, the different letters on the page are abstract and meaningless, in and of themselves and so they must be linked to equally abstract sounds called phonemes, blended with each other and pronounced as words, where meaning is finally realized.

How do you do this?

The following tips will help you out:

Tip 1: Read Aloud To Your Child

Teaching your little one to read is truly a process that begins at infancy. No, I am most certainly NOT advocating programs that claim to teach your baby to read using flashcards! What I AM encouraging you to do is to begin reading with your newborn within days of welcoming her home! Not only is ongoing reading time building a special connection time for the two of you, it instills in her a love for books. Enjoyment while reading is one of the single greatest predictors of reading success in school-age children. If kids don’t learn from an early age to enjoy reading, it will most likely hinder their ability sometime later on in life.

How much you read to your little one is completely up to you and your family, but It is advisable to aim to read at least 3-4 books a day, even while your child is very young. As she gets a little bit of older and can sit for longer stretches of time, make it a family goal to read together for at least 20-minutes each day.

Here are a few suggestions for the types of books to read to your child. But certainly, read whatever your child responds to and likes!

Birth-1 Year: Lullabies, Board Books (with real pictures), Cloth Books (with various textures), Song Books

1 Year-3 Years: Rhyming Books, Song Books, Short-Story Board Books

3 Years-5 Years: Alphabet Books, Song Books, Picture Books, Rhyming Books

Tip 2. Ask Questions

Asking questions while reading to your child is not only great for encouraging your child to interact with the book, but it is also more efficient in developing his ability to comprehend what he is reading. You see, if our main objective in “reading” is getting our child to “sound out” words, we have missed the boat entirely. Even children who can decode words and “read” with great fluency still might not be able to comprehend what they are reading. If a child can’t comprehend what he is reading, there will actually be no point to reading at all!

While your child is a baby, ask him questions such as, “Do you see the cat?” while pointing at the picture of the cat. This will not simply develop his vocabulary, it will also encourage him to interact with the book that he is reading. As he gets older, ask him to show things in the book himself and make the sounds of the animals he sees.

Once your child is about 2 or 3-years of age, begin asking questions before, during, and after reading the book. Show your child the cover of the book and ask him what he thinks the story is going to be about (predicting). While reading, ask him what he thinks is going to happen in the story or why he thinks a character made a particular choice (inferring). If a character is depicting a strong emotion, identify that emotion and ask your child if he has actually felt that way (connecting). At the end of the book, ask if his prediction(s) came true. Afterwards, ask him to tell you what he remembered taking place in the book (summarizing).

Modifying each of these techniques during read-aloud times to meet the developmental stage of your child are a great way to promote and increase reading comprehension!

Tip 3: Be A Good Example

Even when your child is fascinated with books from an early age, her captivation will quickly dwindle if she does not see reading modeled in her home. If you are not an avid reader yourself, make a mindful effort to let your children see you reading for at least a few minutes each day! Read a magazine, a cookbook, a novel, your Bible…it’s up to you! But show your child that reading is something that even adults need to do. If you have a son, share this article with your husband. Sons have to see their fathers read; especially since it is not something that young energetic boys are naturally vulnerable to doing.

As parents, we can sometimes get wrapped up with what exactly our little kids should be doing to be successful. But we quite often forget that children often discover by example. Grab a book and take a load off…for your child’s sake, of course!

Tip 4: Identify Letters In Natural Settings

Before our boys were born, we painted and hung large wooden letters spelling their name above the cribs as an attractive accent in their rooms. I would have never assumed that those wooden letters would have such a studying incentive for Big Brother! Around age 2.5, he began asking what letters were above his name. That’s honestly how he learned to spell his name…and he can spell his brother’s name too because he has taken an interest in his letters as well. In technical terms, this is called “environmental print” and includes all of the print we are bounded by–fast food signs, labels, traffic signs, clothing, magazines, etc.

Often times, we want to force our children to learn letter names by a certain age. We buy flashcards or DVDs claiming to teach our children their letters. We drill our 2-year old again and again for minutes on end. Don’t buy into this…allow your kid to be a kid and take advantage of the “teachable moments” as they come along!

Children’s minds are like sponges and are definitely capable of memorizing the alphabet from drilling, but that’s not the most effective method that will produce the best long-term results. Your child will be showing interest in the print he sees around him and will ask questions. That’s your chance to jump in with a practical application that actually has real meaning and significance to your child.

Don’t misunderstand me and feel that I don’t think learning the alphabet is important. It is certainly important…but the method in which we teach them is even more important! Always keep in mind that our ultimate goal is to foster a lifelong learner who loves to read, not a child who has simply memorized without any significance.

Tip 5: Incorporate Multiple Domains Of Growth

Children learn best when multiple senses or areas of advancement are included. That’s why hands-on learning produces longer memory and more meaningful application. Once your child has shown a pursuit in letters and you have already begun to utilize genuine settings for identifying those letters, begin implementing activities that incorporate as many senses as possible. Keep in mind that learning letter names isn’t nearly as important as learning their sounds!

There are a multitude of ways to incorporate multiple domains of improvement in regards to letter recognition and early-reading skills. Alphabet crafts allow your child to learn the shape of a letter together with an association of the sound it makes all the while utilizing fine motor skills in the process of cutting, gluing, and creating! Playing games that involve gross motor skills (like tossing beanbags on the suitable letter) are also wonderful ways to include movement. Needless to say, every child loves songs and rhymes! Take an inventory of your child’s strengths and areas of interest and target activities to fit them!

Tip 6: Classify The Genre

Once your child is just about 5 and can recognize the difference between real and make-believe, I would suggest starting to help your kid understand various genres of books during your reading time together. This might seem complicated, but it’s really not. There are around 5 different genres of children’s books that I would encourage you to point out to your little one. Of course you can use the term “type” rather than “genre” if that is easier to remember.

Nonfiction (real stories or facts about animals, places, people, etc)

Fantasy (make-believe, can’t happen in real life because of magic, talking animals, etc)

Realistic Fiction (a made-up story, but it could technically happen in real life because the characters and situations arebelievable)

Alphabet Books

Song Books

reading books

When children classify a book into a certain genre, they have to first summarize the book in their head and recall details. Chances are they have to use that information to decide which type of genre that particular books fits into. Finally, your son or daughter will be recalling details from other books in the same genre, making connections between the two. This simple task that might take 5-10 seconds of your time after reading a book but it certainly packs a punch of thought and processing in that young brain!

Also, it’s important to note that not all books will fit into one of these genres, especially books that are regarded “phonics readers.” I would suggest that you do this exercise only with high-quality children’s literature, not with books that are trying to get your child to “sound-out” on their own. Most photograph books found in children’s libraries will fit into one of these genres.

Remember, our goal is for our children to learn to comprehend what they’re reading…otherwise reading will honestly do them little good. When we encourage our children to think about and process the book we’ve just read together, we are inadvertently modeling what we hope they’ll one day do independently!

Tip 7: Word Families

To put it simply, word families are words that rhyme. Instructing children word families is a phonemic awareness activity that helps children see patterns in reading. This is a significant skill because it allows children to begin “reading” by grouping sets of letters within a word. The very first part of a word is called the onset along with the last part of the word is conveniently called the rime. Word families share a similar “rime” as the onset changes.

Once your child recognizes the word “mop”, he’ll then have an advantage to reading all of the other words that have the exact same rime (top, pop, stop, cop, hop) because just one single letter is changing. Plus, recognizing rhyming words is a great language skill in and of itself!

Tip 8: Phonemic Awareness And Phonics

“Phonemes” are the smallest sounds in the English language (go here for a complete list of phonemes). These sounds are made up of consonants, short vowels, long vowels, and digraphs. “Phonemic Awareness” consists of learning those sounds and how to manipulate them within a word. Digraphs are unique sounds made up of individual letters like /th/, /sh/, /ch/, etc.

“Phonics” includes learning how to spell those sounds and the various rules that the English language follows. Phonics is an important components of reading/spelling, however it should never be the main focus. Again, we are looking to balance our literacy “program” with reading comprehension as the end result. Learning the rules of phonics is simply a tool that helps a child learn to decode and spell. I used the Pathways To Reading program in the classroom as my phonemic awareness and phonics program and loved it! It made learning all of the tricky spellings so much fun, but I wouldn’t recommend it until your child is in kindergarten or first grade.

Tip 9: Decoding

Decoding is often referred to as “sounding it out.” This is an important element in teaching your child to read, but it certainly isn’t the most important. Once your little one knows the sounds each letter makes (which is taught in real, meaningful situations), she is ready to begin putting words all together. When looking at a short word, encourage her to say each individual sound /b/, /a/, /t/, and then put them together “bat”.

As children decode words with an increase of frequency, they will become more proficient at automatically identifying that word. At times this task is tedious, though, so it’s important to find creative ways to make it fun. When I taught first grade, I used to buy little finger puppets that my students could use to point to the letters as they were decoding. This was a big hit and made this process so much fun!

Tip10: Sight Words

Sight words, also known as high-frequency words, are the most common words in our written language are are usually difficult to decode phonetically because they don’t follow the rules of phonics. Because of this, they must be memorized. As I’ve shared with you before, I am not an advocate of rote memorization for optimal learning because I feel it only utilizes the lowest level of cognitive processes.

However, sight words must be memorized in order for your child to become a fluent reader. There are some popular lists of sight words that individual researchers have found beneficial, including the Dolche List and the Fry List. Don’t get confused when looking at this list…just start working on a few sight words at any given time when you feel your kid is ready. Sight words teach a child to read.

Activities like Sight Word Bingo can help make memorizing sight words more enjoyable!

Tip 11: Using Your Local Library

Libraries have a lot to offer. Getting to know your local library can be a part of learning about and loving books.

You can borrow great children’s books for free from your local library. This means you will surely have lots of books in your home for your child to explore – and it won’t cost a cent.

Taking your child to the library and letting her choose her own books can be a fun adventure. You can talk about and plan your trip to the library with your child, and get thrilled together.

You could ask your child, for example:

•        How many books will you choose?

•        How many books can you find by your favourite author?

•        Will you borrow books that have animals in them?

•        Do you have a favourite book you’d like to borrow again?

•        How many days will it be before we go to the library again?

Libraries also provide story times and activities for young kids. Going along to these sessions is a way to help your child get familiar with the library, have fun and enjoy books and stories.

Libraries often have audio books, dual-language books, ebooks and magazines.

It is possible to listen to audio books in the car or as a family at home together.

Just get in touch with your local library for more information.


In conclusion, here are some practical suggestions you can implement every day based on the learning to read strategies shared with you above.

Obviously, you can’t implement all of these suggestions with children of all ages, so use your judgement about what is the best way to teach your child to read.

First, read to your child every day! Ask him or her questions before, during, and after reading. Let him see you reading. Look for letters while out and about and in the environment around you. Read a variety of books and make a game out of guessing the genre. Have fun rhyming! Work on letter sounds and manipulating them within words. Encourage your child to sound out short words. Practice memorizing a few sight words each day. Make use of your local Library and Most of all, have fun together!

Share with us, other strategies you will use to teach your child to read.

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