Tips to Help a Child Start Reading

Tips to Help a Child Start Reading
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The Editorial Team November 22, 2012

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Reading is one of the most important skills young children must learn as they begin school. Determining how to teach a child to read requires patience, knowledge of early intellectual abilities and a flexible approach. The first steps in teaching basic reading skills are often the most challenging. However, whether you are a parent or a teacher, cultivating a love of reading will benefit a child throughout his or her lifetime.

Signs of reading readiness

Before teaching your child basic reading skills, consider whether s/he is ready to begin reading. Most children begin reading in first grade, although other kids learn to read at age four or five. Think about the child’s general intellectual abilities and whether s/he shows curiosity about reading materials. Does s/he enjoy story time? Has s/he begun pointing to words or following along as you read to him or her? These are signs that a child may be ready to begin learning how to read.

How children learn to read: key abilities

Many scientific researchers have developed theories about how children learn to read. Psychologists and education experts have identified several key abilities that help with reading.

Phonemic awareness

Phonemes are the smallest units of language, representing the key sounds made during spoken speech. For example, the “P” or “CH” sounds are considered phonemes. Phonemic awareness refers to a child’s ability to identify and manipulate these individual word sounds. When teaching a child to read, the National Reading Panel recommends using the following tasks to improve phonemic awareness.

  • Ask the child to isolate individual phonemes in simple words. For example, ask “What is the first sound in the word ‘dog’?”
  • Work on identifying common sounds in different words. “What sound is the same in ‘kitten’, ‘kite’, and ‘koala’?”
  • Categorize phonemes and identify those that do not belong. “Which word is different? ‘Baby’, ‘bus’, ‘ball’, ‘truck’.”
  • Teach the child to blend phonemes to form a word. This is also known as sounding words out. Focus on the different sounds that form a complete word, such as “school.”
  • Focus on phoneme deletion to help the child recognize words with missing parts. For example, “What is the word ‘bland’ without the ‘b’ sound?”


Most people have heard of the program “Hooked On Phonics,” but what is the importance of phonics in teaching a child to read? Phonics refers to the ability to connect sounds (or phonemes) to a particular letter of the alphabet. If phonemic awareness teaches a child how to recognize sounds, phonics teaches him or her how to connect those sounds to the written word. The following exercises can improve phonics abilities and are an essential part of teaching a child to read.

  • Begin with the basics: teaching the child the alphabet. Use fun games, coloring books and songs to teach the letters of the alphabet and their corresponding sounds.
  • Teach relationships between words with rhyming games. “I say the word ‘bat.’ Can you tell me a word that rhymes with ‘bat’? How do you spell it?” This teaches the child how word structure and sounds relate to one another.
  • Use known words to identify novel words. Present the child with a word he or she has not read before, such as blast. Work through each phoneme of the word, asking the child “What letter is this? What sound does that letter make? Can you name a word that starts with the letter?”

Beyond basic reading skills

Once a child has developed phonemic awareness and a solid understanding of phonics, he or she is well on the way to reading. The next step is to build fluency by exposing the child to new words and challenging his or her abilities. Reading familiar stories multiple times helps when children are learning the alphabet and sounding out words. Next, choose a slightly more challenging book with novel words. Encourage your child to sound each word out, thinking about each letter and how it sounds.

In addition to reading with your child and providing feedback when he or she struggles with a word, it is important for your child to read independently. This builds confidence and a child’s ability to make meaning of new words. With patience and consistent practice, your child will soon be decoding words and understanding written sentences.

If you’re an educator and want to specialize in helping children learn how to read, you might be interested in knowing more about our Curriculum & Instruction: Reading Intervention MEd program. Discover how to strengthen and polish your instructional skills for the teaching of reading in the general education classroom and for becoming a literacy teacher leader.

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