The Most Important Reading “Teaching” You Can Do With Children at Home

A few weeks ago, I could have told you springtime was fast approaching based not on the calendar or the weather, but on the number of emails and messages I got from followers wanting to know the best at-home programs to use to teach their preschoolers to read. It’s that time of year when we’re all looking ahead to the next school year, a year that seems especially important if next year means kindergarten, as we all want our children to have a positive first school experience. (And for many parents these days, pre-kindergarten, junior kindergarten, or transitional kindergarten also seem monumental, as people believe that is the school year when their children need to start reading so that they are ready for kindergarten…). Who knew that worrying about teaching our children to read was such a seasonal thing for parents?⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Anyway, my answer is almost always the same and is super easy to implement… In fact, I’d be willing to bet money that if you’re following me, you’re doing exactly what you need to do already…

Read to your children. Read to them a lot. Enjoy books. Laugh at books. Talk about books. Let your children have free access to books. Let them read books. Make reading and books so natural, fun, and enjoyable that they want to do it frequently, so that they read more, so that enjoy it more and want to read more, and so on.

“The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children. This is especially so during the preschool years. The benefits are greatest when the child is an active participant, engaging in discussions about stories, learning to identify letters and words, and talking about the meanings of words.”

Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Washington, D.C: National Academy of Education, 1985. Page 23.

Then, if you still wanted some informal ways to “teach” reading, remember that most children aren’t developmentally ready to read until they’re 5 or 6. So your job at home is to lay the groundwork so that when their brains are ready to read, they’ve got the foundations necessary to jump right in. Some wonderful examples of informal activities and instruction that you can easily implement at home include:

  1. Surround your child with books, and read a lot to them! Focus especially on high-interest books for your child. Focus especially on high interest books, books that your children want to come back to again and again. Research shows that greater access to books, whether owned, borrowed from the library, or browsed during regular library visits, is connected to greater reading achievement in elementary school (Giorgis, Cyndi. (2019). Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook (Eighth Edition)). Did you know that picture books expose children to 70 percent more unique vocabulary words than everyday conversation (Giorgis, page 8)? Returning to those books again and again, as children want to when the books are exceptional, helps children more efficiently remember and retain the meanings of new vocabulary words (Giorgis, page 49). Additionally, reading these books builds children’s background knowledge. Both a large vocabulary and an extensive background knowledge (also gained by simple trips to zoos and museums, for example) help children understand what they read once they’re able to decode words.
  2. Read rhyming and predictable books, and let your small pre-readers read them with you. When you read these, let your children finish the rhyming or predictable text on their own. They can likely do this way before they can decode the words, so these books are wonderful confidence boosters while also providing terrific opportunities to talk about letters and sounds, building important phonological awareness for reading. As you find rhyming words, you can point out the different letters at the start (the onset of the word) and the letters that make the rhyming sound at the end (the rime of the word). For example, you might read Sheep in a Jeep, and you might have an informal observation to make about “sh-,” “j-,” and “-eep.” Rhyming books tend to be predictable, but you can find high-interest predictable books, too. I love Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems, for example, because they conversationally make sense to children, so between the visual clues in the illustrations and the conversational nature, children can often figure out what each character is saying before they can “read” the words themselves. I’ve got a list of similar books that can be read conversationally here, if you need some variety!
  3. Talk a lot about letters, especially letters that hold importance to your child. You can do this easily with rhyming books (see tip above). You can also do this as you look at signs around town (“Hey, look, that street starts with the same letter that your name starts with!”). Remember, many children will first learn letters that are important to them. So, talk with your child about the letters in his name, his sister’s name, his pet’s name, his school’s name, his city, etc. and leave the random letters to the end.
  4. Play with letters. Trader Joe’s Schoolhouse Cookies are terrifically fun literacy conversation starters! Letter puzzles are also a big hit, especially if you can throw a sensory high-and-seek aspect in (children love hunting for letters in rainbow rice and shaving cream, for example). We’ve also got foam bath letters that we’ve built words with and talked about during bathtime. Whatever it is, take time to both name the letter and talk about the sounds it makes, remembering that most letters make multiple sounds, and as always, make this fun, not a quiz or a chore!). As you both talk about a play with letters, remember to expose children to both lower- and upper-case letters (we almost always focus exclusively on uppercase letters, but most of the letters we expect children to read when they start reading are in fact lowercase…). Check out this post for more ideas of easy and fun ways to build letter recognition skills.
  5. Provide your child access to writing materials. Let your child make her mark! No, her letters may not look anything like the words she meant them to be, but if she has fun writing and has an opportunity to practice, she’ll get there. And more importantly, she’ll enjoy it, so she’ll want to do it more and she’ll want to learn more!⠀⠀⠀

For more inspiration and research on the benefits of simply reading to your children as an effective method for teaching reading, my two favorite books are Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook (you can read my review of it here) and The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction by Megan Cox Gurdon (you can read my review of it here).

Please share— what tips, tricks, and secrets do you have for terrific informal reading instruction with preschoolers at home?


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