There are few things that I see parents of preschoolers stress more about than teaching their child to read. It makes some parents turn and run at the thought of home schooling simply because they are afraid that they won’t be able to teach their child to read. For those that plan to send their children to school, they still feel that to be adequately ready, their child needs to know how to read.
You can see the fear being marketed on by companies. There is even an absolutely ridiculous product on the market that promises to teach your baby to read.
So what is a parent to do? Should you be sitting down with your 2-year-old every day drilling letters and phonics? How many books should you be reading to your child a day? How do you go from pointing out letters to having your child decipher whole words?
No one wants to feel like the negligent parent whose child would rather run around and play in the mud while having no idea how to spot their own name in print.
I want to alleviate a few of your fears and give you something to think about. I have a degree in elementary and middle level education, so I come from a place of having spent a good amount of time researching this issue and being in the classroom.
Children need two things to be able to read. They need to know what the letters on a page are and what sounds they make (phonemic awareness). They also need to have some level of background knowledge about what they are reading so that they can make sense of it and derive meaning from what they have read.
Most often when parents and teachers embark on teaching a child to read, all emphasis is placed on phonemic awareness. Within a relatively short amount of time, the child has learned all 26 letters and their sounds and is beginning to make sense of short words. The ways to go about this are endless. Stores are full of books, flashcards, and games. The internet is an abundant resource for worksheets, games, and lesson plans. I could drown you in resources to use to teach your child phonemic awareness, but you can easily do the same with a simple Google search.
Keep this very important thing in mind though as you teach your child to read. A study was done that followed children who were in Head Start (a government-funded early childhood education program where children spend hours a day working on phonemic awareness) and a group of children from similar socio-economic and social backgrounds who did not attend the program. By 4th grade you could tell no difference in reading ability between those that were in the program and those that were not. How is that possible? There are two reasons that I can see.
1) Learning language is a natural ability of the human mind. You can either push and push and push a child to pick it up at an early age, or wait for them to pick it up as they grow (most do by the age of 7). Whether they learned it at the age of 3 or the age of 7, by 4th grade they all had picked it up.
2) Head Start (and many, many other preschools and parents) forget that reading has two components. Phonemic awareness and background knowledge. 4th grade is about the time when reading comprehension is no longer based on the reading of fiction stories, but on content-area knowledge (a science or history text for example). When you spend your entire day learning phonemic awareness instead of science, history, and other subject areas, at some point it will catch up with you because you won’t be able to understand texts written about those things.
So what do you do with this information?
First, teach your child letters and sounds as they seem interested. Don’t feel like your 3-year-old is slow or behind because they couldn’t care less what letters are in their name. Keep encouraging them and provide a literature-rich environment for them to develop in and they will most likely be fine. Read to your child. Point out letters as you see them. Make it fun, but don’t stress if they aren’t interested at a young age.
Second, focus on content area knowledge. Go on a walk and talk trees, bugs, and weather. Take them to the park and when you push them in the swing talk about how the harder you push, the higher they go. Go to museums. Read books. Tell nursery rhymes. Sing songs. These things are teaching your child to read. They are REAL learning. Don’t think that because you aren’t sitting down doing a worksheet that you child is not learning.
In case you are still daunted by this task, here are a few resources to get you started.
Letter of the Week – Weekly curriculum to do at home for 2-4 year olds that focus on learning both letter sounds and lots of content knowledge.
Starfall - Online games to learn letter sounds and printable worksheets.
Core Knowledge Preschool Curriculum – This is my personal favorite curriculum. It goes from PreK-8 and is used both in schools and by home schooling families.
Our Montessori Home – A blog that has lots of great ideas for activities to do with your toddler to encourage learning and life skills.