How to teach your child to read

November 27, 2012

in glenn doman, Literacy, Raising children, Reading

When my daughter was barely two months old, my mother gave her a lovely book as a gift – Monkey Puzzle by Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson – and asked me if I had started reading books with the baby yet. I was slightly surprised – isn’t it too early, I asked her? She’s not going to understand anything I read to her, shouldn’t I wait till she was at least 6 or 8 months old? What my mum replied stuck with me:

it’s not about the content, it’s about the atmosphere. She will be lying on your lap, with dim light, she’ll be cozy and hear your voice and look at the different pictures, and she will always associate this loving, cozy atmosphere with reading, and that’s how she will learn to love books.

If she did the same with me in my childhood, it definitely work. My idea of having a great time to this day is lying somewhere under a blanket on the sofa with a hot chocolate or a cup of tea in my hand and reading a book. So even though the topic of this article is how to teach your young child to read, and how to build very early literacy, never forget that the first thing your child needs is to love reading and to love books. Can you imagine a proficient musician who doesn’t love music, or a brilliant dancer who doesn’t love dancing?  So even though proficiency later on depends on hard work and practice, don’t forget the first step is to lay the foundation for a love of books, and this comes from reading lots of stories with your child in a loving and cozy atmosphere.

So for the first 2 years, all you need to do is to read and look at books with your child every day – when she’s on the potty, as a bedtime story, upon waking up, while riding a bus, any time really. What sort of books are good to start with? I recommend hard cover books so your child can turn pages, touch the book and even chew on it without you having to worry about pages ripping! Furthermore, there should be a story that you can read – not just random labelling of items shown on pages. It helps if it’s a story that rhymes (one of the reasons why the Gruffalo is so popular!). Also, I have noticed that some children’s books have messy or abstract illustrations – for very young children, use books with simple illustrations that are not overloaded – with just a few animals or items per page and concrete objects to look at. Apart from the Monkey Puzzle mentioned above, I am a big fan of the books Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. My daughter also loved My Cat just Sleeps by Joanne Partis as a bedtime story from very early on. Get more ideas by visiting the Genius Experiment Bookstore, but you could really just browse around in any good children’s bookstore and have a look which books might suit – it is especially important to get one that you will be happy to read 100 times over!

Once your baby starts walking and is turning into a toddler, another way to foster a love of books is to visit the local library often – many of them have children’s sections with small chairs and sofas where children can just come and touch all the different books. You can visit once a week as an activity and choose new books – it saves a lot of money and gets your child excited about choosing new books. This approach worked extremely well with my daughter – even at 18 months she would pick up random books from our bookshelves in the living room and start “reading” them to herself. She would often choose novels without any pictures and just browse through the pages and tell herself stories. Now that she is 2 years old, she will put her teddybear on her lap and start “reading” the Gruffalo or other books to him, imitating our bedtime stories. She will often prefer to look at books herself rather than listening to me. She will say “stop it mummy” or “leave it mummy” when I start reading and tell the story herself. This is perfect. Independent reading is the ultimate aim, and if it starts at 2 already even better!

Now that you have achieved a love of books, you can start thinking about laying the foundations for actual reading – but I can’t stress enough how much more important love of books is than measuring when exactly your child can decipher letters. Some parents like to boast that a child can read certain words or their name or that they can recognise letters – and though that is great, it is really not what you should focus on. Literacy later on will depend on a love of books and language, vocabulary, grammar, familiarity with stories and story lines, and on creativity – these things are more complex and therefore you cannot measure them early on, which is why people often focus on the simpler side of teaching the ABC – so even though you will want to do that as well, just don’t stress out over when exactly your child recognises letters or words and focus on richness of vocabulary, imagery and ideas instead. That said, there are a few songs that you can sing and watch with your child when he is approaching 2 years old that will help laying the foundations for learning letters. In English, these are the ABC song and the Phonics Song. I like these two versions on youtube:

ABC song:


I like this version because it is relatively slow and only shows the letters – some versions are very fast – too fast for a young child to process in my opinion – and they add too many confusing elements – showing letters on top of trains etc. – keep it simple so your child can focus on the letters and does not have to deal with distraction. My daughter learnt this song at kindergarten when she moved into the group for 2 to 3 year olds, and she absolutely loves it. I found it hard to grasp why she would like it so much, given that it is just a meaningless array of sounds at first, but for some reason young children seem to enjoy just memorising and repeating sounds. She loves shouting the part “L M N O P!!!” particularly.

Phonics song:

This is another great song for starting to teach sounds and associated letters. Again, I like the simplicity of the version. I showed this to my daughter a few times when she was young but it is really only after she turned 2 that she started to be interested in the song. Now, when she wants to sing it she will say “A A Apple!” or “I I Igloo!”. Do you know any other good songs? Please share it in the comments below!

A radically different but increasingly popular approach is the flash card method as advocated by Glenn Doman. A parent would sit down with the child every day showing flash cards with one sight words and read it out. You start out with 10 a day, for example, then the next day replace some of those with new words and slowly build up vocabulary that way. I prefer to read real books with my child as I think it is better for learning grammar and logic to read whole stories rather than individual words, but it does seem that using the flash card approach children might be able to decipher words earlier than if you just read books together. It may be worth trying a bit of both to check the results!

From here on, I am starting to write her name or simple words like “mum” or “cat” and show her the letters. So far, she is not very interested. When I write “ABC” and ask her “what’s that?” she will say “ABCD!” enthusiastically (the start of the ABC song), so she is starting to know that letters stand for sounds and I assume will soon start to recognise more letters. But as I have repeated often so far, recognising letters is nothing that you need to watch as a milestone at such an early age. Educational experts say that any average or reasonably bright child growing up surrounded by language and lots of books that is encouraged with the steps outlined above will pick up the alphabet and early reading skills by age 4 or 5 at the latest, and there is no reason to rush through it. Just make sure you both have fun in the process, which will ensure the best outcome in the long run!

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