Tips for Developing Pre-Reading Skills in Young Children

The Basics

Just as all people must learn to crawl before they can walk, children must attain certain milestones before they can become part of the world of words. Parents can do much to help unlock the magical realm of reading. When your baby is even just days old, there are steps you an take to foster your little one’s love for books. Here are some tips to help you introduce even the youngest child to words and help her develop important pre-reading skills.

“Reading is the most complex psychological process we deal with in our whole lives,” says Donna Sullivan, director of Commonwealth Learning Center in Needham, Massachusetts. “It involves the auditory system—how we hear and understand; and the visual system—how we interpret letters. When these psychological processes are in place, a child is ready to read.”

Not every child will learn to read at the same age. While some youngsters may start as young as four years old, most children become readers during first grade. But it is important to note that the process towards literacy begins long before a child enters a classroom.

Read Aloud Together

“There are two important components to teaching young children to read,” says Dr. Jeanne DeTemple, PhD, research assistant on the Home-School Study of the Acquisition of Language and Literacy Project at the Harvard School of Education. “Reading aloud to them and letting them see you read. Both of these tell your kids that reading is a useful, desirable activity worth learning.”

Talk the Talk

There is no minimum age to begin exposing children to language and books. “Parents should talk and read to their children even when they are small infants,” recommends Sullivan. “Using real words, not baby talk, will stimulate language development and model language as well.

“By the time a child is between the ages of four and five, she will comprehend that words are made up of sounds. This is the time to really start developing her vocabulary,” Sullivan says. “Extend one-on-one conversation to include lots of interaction with your children. Discuss topics which most interest them and encourage them to share their ideas. You can expand their language by repeating their sentences back and adding more words to what they have already said.”

All this talking will teach kids that speech is made up of a series of sounds. “Now children are ready to learn that what comes out of their mouths is represented by words on a page,” says Sullivan.

Wheeling Their Way to Words

But before they pick up a book, children must also learn to distinguish between left and right. Growing Child, a newsletter chronicling preschooler development, suggests that learning to ride a tricycle can help.

Most children are mature enough to ride a tricycle by the age of two and a half. The pedaling they learn forces them to shift from right to left, which helps them distinguish the two different sides of their bodies. This is a first step in learning to organize the left-to-right dimension in space.

Children who have difficulty differentiating a “b” from a “d” or words such as “saw” from “was” have not yet learned to sort their left sides from their right sides. Once a child can discern his own left and right, he has reached the starting point for separating left and right on the printed page.

Riding a tricycle also teaches the importance of sequence order. As a child rides he knows he cannot pedal both sides at the same time and must learn to pace his movements. This develops the ability to organize time which will help him learn to read words in the correct order.

Fun and Games

“Learning to read should not be an academic endeavor,” stresses Sullivan. “All pre-reading activities should be kept playful.”

For example, she suggests singing rhyming songs, reading favorite stories over and over, or playing games which challenge children to find objects with similar sounding names.

“Children pick up reading skills all kinds of different ways,” says Joanne Stone-Libon, director of the Headstart programs in Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop, Massachusetts. “In our Headstart programs we like the children to have input into what our teachers are reading to them. We ask them to talk about the stories and pictures. It creates a connectedness, and the more involved they become the more fun they have.”

The Earlier the Better?

Should very young children be taught to read? Kathryn Knox, director of communications for Gateway Educational Products, makers of the Hooked on Phonics reading program says, “Hooked on Phonics is appropriate for children from age four up, but customers have reported success with children as young as two years old.”

Hooked on Phonics uses audio tapes, flashcards, and workbooks to teach reading phonetically. “What attracts kids is the colorful books and flashcards, the music and the friendly voice of the tutor,” says Knox.

Hooked on Phonics is not something I would consider using with a young child,” says Dr. DeTemple. “This program only focuses on one element of reading, which is phonics. But there is much more involved. Children need to learn vocabulary, story structure, and how a book works.”

“How to read from left to right, and from the top of the page to the bottom, and how to turn pages without skipping around are all skills children must learn. These are not typically taught in school and they are not included in this type of program. Special focus on phonics is completely unnecessary.”

“I’m not enthusiastic about packaged reading programs for preschoolers,” says Dr. Joan Friedberg, PhD, co-director of the Pittsburgh-based literacy program, Beginning with Books. “There are wonderful children’s books parents can buy for the same amount of money that will provide the rich background and environment children need to become literate.”

“I don’t think preschool-aged children are developmentally ready for Hooked on Phonics,” says Sullivan. “Very young children may not be emotionally equipped to handle the advanced work of reading.”

“Parents must ask themselves why they want their three or four year old to read?” Dr. DeTemple continues. “We wouldn’t want a child to be an early reader so that he could read alone. Reading together is far too important.

“The only value to being an early reader is social and emotional, not intellectual. Early readers are often praised by their parents which makes them feel good, and they may be labeled by their teachers as smart kids, but in the long run there aren’t any advantages.”

Books, Books, Books

“Children truly learn to read when they are ready,” adds Stone-Libon. “And in the long run there should be no difference in the abilities of an early reader and an average reader. Early readers do not have better comprehension than others.”

As soon as possible the distinction should be made between books and toys. While toys are intended for play, books should be treasured and treated gently. “Children should learn how to handle books with care,” says Dr. Friedberg. “It is wise to discourage children from cutting or scribbling in them. Remind the kids that if they ruin a book, the story will no longer be available to read and enjoy again. As an alternative offer old magazines or catalogues to cut.”

Helping preschoolers create their own books is another way to develop pre-reading skills. Dr. Friedberg suggests, “Make it a family project. Have the child dictate a story and then illustrate it. Seeing their own words on a printed page makes them more meaningful. As they go back over the finished product they should even be able to figure out what some of those words are. It is just one more way to begin to unlock the secrets of reading.”

“There’s no great mystery to teaching children how to read,” says Stone-Libon. “Reading to them one-on-one outweighs everything else. Begin as early as possible and read, read, read.”

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