When is the appropriate time to start working on reading skills? Some educational researchers suggest reading aloud to children in the womb. Others say when a child is a newborn. Still others say as soon as possible. In short, it is never too early to start working on reading skills.

Reading begins with vocabulary, oral language, and talk. So talk with your infant and preschooler often. The real question is: “How much are these children encouraged to use the words they hear?” These children need to hear new words, and then use the new words, in preparation for seeing those new words in print later on. After all, how will a child be able to read the word umbrella, if that child has never heard of that word nor has ever used that word before? The word will just be seen as a bunch of jumbled letters with no meaning, and the child will not know what’s correct when first coming across that word in print.

Talk and listen, share family stories, use new words, ask open-ended questions, be patient, and encourage word use. Correctly repeat what your child says and rephrase a response to proper usage whenever necessary. Preschool, kindergarten, and early elementary level teachers are usually masterful at teaching this. Stop and listen to an experienced teacher sometime. When a child says something like “I want my blankie,” rephrase to “Oh, you want your blanket.” Respond to something like “I want crayon,” to “Oh, you want the red crayon.” Or expand a simple “yes” answer to “Yes, I would like some milk, please.” It takes time for children to learn the proper structure of language. Help guide your child to that proper usage.

Young children love to hear rhymes, words, sentences, and thoughts, even though they may not know what those sounds mean. So read, sing, and talk to your child often. Look at books with your child. Find books with pictures of familiar objects, such as a ball, a doll, or a truck. Point to each item and say what it is. Add some excitement to your voice. Because children learn more words between the age of birth and age five than at any other times in their lives, these activities are vital to helping children develop and expand their vocabulary properly.

Children must master phonemic awareness skills in order to master the phonics skills necessary to become a successful reader. Play some simple sound games and relate the field trips to phonemic awareness skills. At the zoo, play an I Spy game. This game starts with “I spy an animal that has black and white stripes. What is the animal?” Answer: zebra. After a trip to the zoo, start a rhyming game. See how many words rhyme with the word snake, or bird, or lion. Made-up words are acceptable here, too. It’s all about playing with words and sounds.

Phonemic awareness skills are numerous. Continue with the zoo rhymes. Say: “I am thinking of a small animal that rhymes with hat. What is the animal?” Answer: cat. Help with isolating sounds by asking, while passing a big building, something like: “Oh, a big building. What sound does big begin with?” Answer: the /b/ sound. Or while passing a farm, asking something like: “Oh, a cow. What sound does cow begin with?” Answer: the /k/ sound. Segmenting sounds is similar but a little more difficult. This takes a word, sip for instance, and segments it into three separate sounds, /s/, /i/, and /p/. Pass your child some milk and ask: “What are the three sounds you hear in the word sip?” Answer: the sounds /s/, /i/, and /p/. At the same time, if necessary, extend the sounds while pronouncing the word.

Is it time to get up and move? Choose a simple three letter word with three sounds, like the word cat. Say the word, then say the sounds. Your child touches his head for the first sound, his waist for the second sound, and his knees for the third sound. For the word nap, say the word, then touch the head when saying the /n/ sound, the waist when saying the short /a/ sound as in cat, and the knees when saying the /p/ sound.

Here are some ideas to help with sound deletion. When your child smiles at you, say something like: “What a beautiful smile. What is the word smile, without the beginning /s/ sound?” The answer should be: mile. For substitution reinforcement, point to a bug, and say something like: “A bug. Change the /g/ sound to a /n/ sound. You have something you like to eat. What is it?” The answer should be: bun. Finally, to help with blending, simple words like pet, can be broken into their smaller component sounds. Say something like: “Here are the sounds of a word. Guess what the word is.” Then supply the sounds /p/, /e/, and /t/. Your child should answer: pet.

Want to do something for phonics? Introduce your pre-reader to some of the letters of the alphabet, the letters in his or her name, and some of the most common words used. When reading, run your finger along the sentences to show that the words go left to right and down the pages, and that you are actually reading letters and words. Make letters in fun ways such as with paint, play dough, or sand. Look for letters wherever you go, on signs, on buildings, and in books. Present a letter, b for instance, and then work with your child to brainstorm all the known words that begin with the /b/ sound, like ball, balloon, and boy. Add more to the list by going on a Letter B Hunt around the house to find additional items for this category.

Phonics skills may be easier to work with than phonemic awareness skills because letters and words are written down, providing something to point to and something to show as examples. Start by singing the alphabet. Be careful that “l-m-n-o” doesn’t come too quickly and sound like one letter. It should be four distinct sounds, so slow down at this part, maybe even pause after the letter n, and then continue with the alphabet, slowly and clearly. Consider singing to additional songs. The alphabet works best to the following tunes: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; Mary Had a Little Lamb; Old McDonald Had a Farm; Row, Row, Row Your Boat; and even Happy Birthday.

The next step is pointing to the alphabet letters and saying the letter names, followed by mixing or scrambling the letter order and saying the letter names. The final step in building these skills is looking at the letter, saying the letter name, saying the letter sound, and then saying a word that begins with that letter sound. Note that you might need to limit work to five or six letters at a time. This will help to make the work more manageable for your child. She or he will more likely learn and retain the letters presented five or six at a time as opposed to all 26 at one time.

Further reinforcement can include writing a letter and then drawing pictures of animals that begin with that letter sound, drawing pictures of all the items around the house that begin with that letter sound, or creating some made up characters or animals and giving them names that begin with that letter sound. Be creative. Silly nonsense names work very well here too, and can provide some chuckles. Make letter flash cards. Children say the letter name, the letter sound, and a word that begins with that sound. Play some games like Memory by matching two letters with each other, or Go Fish by asking for a letter card instead of a number card, or Tic-Tac-Toe using letters other than X and O, perhaps the letters S and T.

Looking for a way to reinforce that letters have sounds, and that the sounds go together to make words? Help your child learn to write and spell her or his own name. Write the name neatly on a piece of paper, point to the letters, and say the letter names. Then point to the letters and say the letter sounds. Ask your child to copy the name. This may be a bit tricky with names that do not follow conventional sound/symbol relationships. You may have to point out the irregularities. However, this is still a start toward matching letter sounds to the written letters. If your child has trouble with copying her name, then simply write the name lightly on a piece of paper. Ask your child to trace the name a few times, and then to copy.

Because there are 26 letters in the alphabet, building these skills will take some time. For pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade children, find out what letters your child’s teacher will be addressing at school during a given week. Try to reinforce those same five or six letters at the same time. Too many letters, and too many different letters, some from home and some from school, can become confusing for most children.

Once children learn their letters, they are ready to put the letters together to make meaningful words. Start with simple words, like bat. Write the word on a piece of paper, simply point to the first letter, ask for the sound, then the second letter, and so on. Include extension words, or word families, that follow the same simple pattern. For example, for bat, try cat, hat, and sat. Other common word families include these endings:  –ap, –ed, –et,-in, –ip, –od, –op, –ug, and –up.

Should you be expected to take over your child’s education and teach all of the letters and all of the most common words? In most cases the answer is “no.” Many children at this age and stage are not ready for it all. For many it is way too much pressure and leads to frustration. If your child learns to read on his or her own, then count your blessings and continue with the daily read-alouds. If your child doesn’t learn to read on his or her own, there is no need to worry, as that time will come soon. Expect your child to do well in school, and your child will rise to your expectations.

10 Ways to Help Your Child with Phonemic Awareness

  1. Present books with rhyme, repetition, and rhythm. These include Mother Goose rhymes, Dr. Seuss books, and other poetry books.


2. Take field trips. Talk about what you see. Ask questions too. Encourage your child to respond.


3. Rhyming Games – “I am thinking of an animal that rhymes with hat. What is the animal?” Answer: cat.


4. Isolation – While playing with a dog, ask: “Oh, a dog. What sound does dog begin with?” Answer: /d/.


5. Segmentation – Pass your child some milk and ask: “What are the 3 sounds you hear in the word sip?” Answer: /s/–/i/–/p/.


6. Deletion – When your child smiles at you, say: “What a beautiful smile. What is the word smile without the beginning /s/ sound?” Answer: mile.


7. Substitution – Point to a bug or similar object and say: “A bug. Change the /g/ to /n/. You have something you like to eat. What is it?” Answer: bun.


8. Blending – Say: “Here are the sounds of a word. Guess what the word is.” Then follow with the sounds /b/, /i/, and /g/. Answer: big.


9. Focus on one specific skill at a time. Five minutes, three times a day, is all that’s needed.


10. There is no need to fret if your child doesn’t get this right away. It may take a lot of practice for success.

10 Ways to Help Your Child with Phonics

1. Continue with the read-aloud. Include alphabet books.


2. Sing the alphabet often. Slow down at “l-m-n-o” so it doesn’t come too quickly and sound like one letter.


3. Point to alphabet letters and say their names. Mix the letters and say their names a second time.


4. Teach your child to spell his name. Write the name on a piece of paper. Ask your child to trace over and then copy.


5. Make letters in fun ways with paint, clay, sticks, sugar, and/or sand.


6. Look for letters wherever you go. Examples: signs, stores, buildings, boxes, book covers.


7. Look at letters, say the letter name, say the letter sound, then say a word that begins with that sound.


8. Make flash cards. Play letter games such as Letter Memory or Go Fish. Play Tic-Tac-Toe. Use letters other than X and O.


9. Start with simple words. Write a word on a piece of paper, point to the first letter, ask for the sound, then point to the second letter, ask for the sound, so on.


10. Go on a letter hunt. Look for objects around the house that begin with a particular letter or sound. For example, hunt for objects that begin with the /b/ sound, or the first sound in someone’s name.

Bruce Johnson is an educator, reading specialist at the Merrimack Valley School District in New Hampshire, member of CLiF’s Advisory Board, and author of Helping Your Child Become a Successful Reader: A Guide for Parents. Learn more at www.guidesforparents.wordpress.com.

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