Who’s more excited about the prospect of your child learning to read, you or him? It’s a hard call. At this point, he's so close, he can taste it. And he's so eager, he might just choose the power to read over x-ray vision, or even a new Transformer guy. For parents, excitement is usually tinged with worry. You’re excited alright, but it’s a mixture of happy excitement for your child's future success, and nervous excitement for his future struggles. Parents want so badly for their child's progress in reading to be smooth and easy. As a teacher, I'm here to tell you: while it may be smooth, easy is not usually the most apt label for this giant milestone.
That said, there are some very practical and easy things you can do at home to pave the road to reading. And it's never too early to start! Jerlean Daniel, Deputy Executive Director at the National Association for the Education of Young Children says that the process of raising a great reader starts well before kindergarten. But as kindergarten approaches, it's important to ramp things up. Where to begin? According to Daniel, there are three major things that prepare children to read: reading aloud to them, engaging them in one-on-one conversations, and giving them lots of opportunities to write. Read on to find out why these components are so vital and how to incorporate them into your child's day.
If you're the parent of a child under six, you've probably been told over and over again how important it is to read to your child. And while the advice can start to sound like a broken record, it can't be emphasized enough. According to the National Commission on Reading, reading aloud to kids is the single most important thing you can do in terms of making sure they develop literacy. Research shows that reading aloud to children promotes their development of language, vocabulary, even motor skills (as they learn to turn pages). Kids who are read to consistently from an early age don't only learn to read more easily, but they also show better language scores long after kindergarten is a distant memory-- years later in upper elementary school.
In fact, the research on reading aloud is so strong, that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently began advising member doctors to prescribe daily reading to young children. Reading aloud fosters social and emotional development, and it's a great time to bond with your child. Also, according to Daniel, “Reading to children brings them an awareness of worlds beyond their own, a sense of imagination, an increase in vocabulary, and helps them make solid connections between literature and things in their own life.”
Reading aloud is all about building a foundation, by showing kids that words hold meaning. Another way to plant that reading seed? “Children like to do what they see their parents do, so modeling an interest in reading is important,” says Daniel. Whether you are reading to your child or showing your excitement to her about something you’re reading on your own, immersing your child in a world where reading is important, is key. And studies show that as little as fifteen minutes a day of reading together can make a huge difference in a child's ability to learn to read on their own.
You talk to your child all day long, but setting aside a set amount of time each day to talk in a special way can have a big impact on reading readiness. According to Daniel, “Young children need ‘Ear Time:’ a time when an adult the child cares about is listening intently to them and responding with questions.” Everybody is busy, and often when we talk with our kids, we're only half listening.
To get maximum reading benefit, set a kitchen timer at a specific time each day and tell your child that until it rings, you're going to focus solely on him. If the phone rings, ignore it. Let the laundry sit until later. Start a conversation, listen to what your child says, and ask questions. Ear Time not only builds self-esteem, it helps prepare children's brains for maximum intake, Daniel says. One-on-one conversations with your child teach them how to hold a back-and-forth dialogue, and build their vocabulary at the same time. And studies show that one of the key predictors of reading success in young children is their vocabulary.
Want to help your child stretch his word bank? Quit dumbing down what you say for his benefit. “It’s important for parents to use grown-up vocabulary when talking to their kids," Daniel says. "They’ll be able to understand you by reading your non-verbal cues, listening to your expression and tone, and by the context of the situation. This will build your child’s vocabulary, and help him understand the nuances of language.”
For example, if your child is diving into a big slice of chocolate cake, instead of saying, “Mmm, yummy,” try rubbing your tummy and saying, “That cake looks delectable!” The excitement in your eyes and your other non-verbal cues will ensure that your child understands you. Sprinkling “Ear Time” in with your more casual conversations can prove to be a huge factor in your child’s reading success.
Reading and writing go together like peanut butter and jelly. But for kindergarten kids, working on "writing" often means working on art. “Drawing is writing in its earliest form," Daniel says. "If you ask a child what his paper ‘says,’ he’ll tell you all about it." Children express their ideas through drawings long before they're able to express their ideas through words. Even if the only "words" kids can write are scribbles and lines, it's important to remember the goal: for a child to know that they can express themselves on paper. As they develop, Daniel says, children will begin to try their hand at letters and words. “When a child begins inventive writing, there’s no need to correct it. It’s important for the child to express himself, and have adults ‘ooh and ah’ over it,” she says.
To help your child make the connection that writing and drawing are a form of expression and communication, ask your child to narrate what they’ve drawn. When she tells you what her picture is about, write what she tells you on the page, so she'll begin to understand that words have meaning. "Knowing that her words can be put onto paper is a thrilling thing for a child,” Daniel says. Looking for other ways to incorporate writing into your child's day? Involve her in creating a grocery or packing list. Ask her what's missing and write down what she says. This will help her realize the utility in writing.
The recipe for preparing your child for reading success is quite simple: read every book on the shelf, chat until you’ve run out of things to say, and write on any blank writing surface you can find! Keep in mind that whatever stage your child is at in learning to read, your own enthusiasm is key. Support him in his journey with gusto.
And as the world’s young reader’s guru, Dr. Seuss, once said, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” In this case, the answer is simple: Enjoy reading, writing, and talking with your child and soon, there will be another independent reader in the house!