Sometimes kids start to read before we realize it. True story: The first thing I ever read out loud was a stop sign. Really. We were in the car and I matter-of-factly said, “That says stop.” My mother went so euphorically crazy that I’m surprised she didn’t plow through said stop sign. I have no memory if, when we got home, she whipped out a book and asked me to read it to prove that I could. I don’t think so.
What I do remember is her announcing when we got home that I was reading, and I still remember the pride I felt for doing something that was, in my house, prized. Bingo. I don’t care if it’s a stop sign or a cereal box or War and Peace, that thrill of reading is what, as parents, we should celebrate. That’s what you want: to instill a sense of pride and accomplishment that will propel a beginning reader through the stages of reading independently.
Knowing when your child is ready to read isn’t always easy, and that’s because “ready” can mean a lot of things. Ready to sound out words? Ready to decode the pictures? Ready to comprehend a story? The truth is there are different levels of readiness. Few kids sit down, open a book and TA DA read. It’s a process. I have met many a parent stressed out about their child learning to read and on one hand I totally get it; reading is the foundation of all learning. If you have a child who won’t or can’t read, other learning is going to be a struggle.
many most all milestones, kids do things at their own pace and there’s a pretty wide range of what’s considered normal. In beginning reader terms, many series will say the book is appropriate for a 3-year-old. This does not mean your 3-year-old should be reading the book by himself or there’s something wrong if he can’t (and I will say most 3-year-olds are not even close to reading). It means you can start reading it with him to get him ready. The truth is some kids are ready to read early and some are later bloomers. The trick is to nurture a love of reading no matter when they start to break through.
Those same parents ask me how I teach my children to read. My answer is: I don’t. I rely on my children’s teachers, who are well trained and way more knowledgeable than I in the mechanics of reading. As I see it my job is to nurture what they are learning in school and to encourage them to read at home. The best answer that I can give parents when I am asked how to teach kids to read is: “Start reading yourself.” There are countless studies that show that kids who grow up around adults or other children who read are more prone to read themselves. And by readers I don’t mean they can functionally read, I mean they actually enjoy reading.
Have your kids ever seen you pick up a magazine? A newspaper? A book? And enjoy it? Or talk about it eagerly to someone? Do you go to the library or a bookstore regularly, even if it’s just to browse and explore? I would consider all of these things fundamental to building pre-reading skills. You already know your kids pick up on your habits (isn’t that how they learned to curse while driving?). It’s a tough sell to convince your kids to eat broccoli if it’s not on your plate too.
While I have edited and overseen many beginning reader lines at various houses I have a slight bias that when kids are ready to start reading, the beginning reader section is a good place to start. Most stores have a dedicated area for beginning reader books (either in a spinner rack or on a marked shelf) and most of the books are in the same trim size so you can spot them easily. You can flip through to see what your child might respond to or, better yet, take your child and let him or her choose something. The child whose eyes might glaze over at a non-fiction book about American history might be really excited to read about their favorite TV character. You are going for high interest here. Plus, one of the great joys of reading independently is being able to choose your own books, so this is a great way to really let kids loose.
Look at the levels. All publishers have leveled systems for their beginning readers, meant as a guide for parents to see what might be right for their kids. You’d think we would standardize this so they are all the same. But we don’t, so check each book to see if it looks right for your child. A level one from Simon & Schuster won’t necessarily be the same as a level 1 from Scholastic. Gauge the ratio of words to pictures, and check out a few pages for vocabulary. Also look at the book’s length—a 64-page book is going to be too long for an emergent reader. A 24 or 32-page book is much more manageable.
Here are a few other guidelines:
Many people think the ideal time to sit down and have their child start reading is at bedtime. Uh-uh. Your child is probably tired after a long day and his or her attention span isn’t optimal. When you get into bed do you think “hey maybe I’ll start tackling my tax returns now?” I don’t. It’s a perfect time for stories, snuggling, and sharing but not for struggling. Save tackling harder things like this for the morning or weekends.
Don’t stop reading to your child. A nails-on-the-chalkboard moment for any editor is hearing a parent say “Well she is reading by herself now, so we stopped reading together.” If I have my way, I’ll be reading to my children until they are 30 (because of course they will still willingly and happily live with me). Many kids are afraid that if they start reading independently they will lose that cherished bedtime story (and many of those children purposely delay reading independently because of that fear). Reading to your child will encourage them to read on their own. Keep reading, keep reading, keep reading…together.
Do it together. Ever have someone hand you something and say, “Figure it out yourself?” Not fun (I’m looking at you, IKEA). Discussions of helicopter/Velcro/snowplow parenting aside, it’s sometimes hard to know when to step in to help and when to let your child muddle through. Reading is no different. You want to give your child space and time to figure out a word or a sentence but you don’t want to leave them hanging so much that they give up. You know your child best, so jump in when you feel you need to. Sometimes it’s a good idea for you to read one page, paragraph or sentence and alternate with your child. That way he or she gets a little rest. They can also see the words you are reading and get clues to help them.
I figured out my child was reading when he kept asking to see my phone. Exasperated at the amount of screen time that was adding up I snatched it away and looked at the schedule that was pulled up. “What IS this?” I asked. “I wanted to see who was playing tonight,” he said. Indeed, the screen showed the hockey schedule. Convinced that he was just looking at team logos I scrolled through to the next screen with only words. He read off all the teams and their start times. Kids sometimes learn to read before we realize it. Even if their mom oversees a beginning reader line at a major publishing house.
Here are a few of my favorite beginning reader books to start with (admission: my favorite beginning reader of all time is Days with Frog and Toad, but I’m of the opinion that’s a bit advanced to start with).