Next up in our early reading series! Three tips for parents who want to support or teach early reading at home…
Create an environment of ‘yes’
We are our children’s toughest critics and as their parents we often feel a drive to control them more than other adults or teachers do. This naturally leads to tension between parents and children when parents attempt to pass on a skill. Consider that perhaps it is much easier for Uncle Joey to teach my son to tie his shoe laces, for example, than it could ever be for me. Reading is no exception.
I so often see children (especially kinders through grade 2s) and their parents embroiled in an intense frenzy when reading comes up. “Come on, sound it out! Try!” says Dad, a little too loudly and enthusiastically. “No! I don’t want to! Forget it – I don’t want to know what it says anymore!” screams his daughter, much too defensively.
This loaded exchange did not come out of nowhere. They had too many interactions where Dad wanted his daughter to get it so badly (not realizing what an extremely layered and complex skill reading is) and the daughter felt Dad’s wish and wanted it too, and was also overwhelmed by the difficulty of the task, and felt the sting of Dad’s corrections more deeply than he realized.
This problem can be alleviated if parents can learn to say “Yes!”.
For example, a child slowly starts to sound out “dog” but confuses ‘d’ with ‘b’ and is saying “buh, buh”. Mom can (wait a moment and then) say, “Yes, this does look like a ‘b’ doesn’t it?! This letter is tricking our brains! It’s not a b! It’s actually b’s cousin. What letter is it?
Basically, there is always something we can say yes too, whether the child is correct or incorrect.
A child identifies the letter ‘h’ as a letter ‘n’: “Yes, it’s so much like a letter ‘n’. I can see that too. See how high its spine stretches up, up up? Could it be another letter?” Then the child will say “h!” and Mom will simply say “Yes!”.
This approach can seem counter-intuitive. We assume that it’s best to directly tell the child their mistake so there’s no confusion and they can do better next time. Unfortunately in that process we often rob the children of their confidence and enthusiasm. If we can “find the yes” and give the correction, we can move the child into greater confidence to take risks and try again when they are wrong. And learning a new skill as complex as reading involves a lot of being wrong.
“Finding the yes” takes practice. Here is a more advanced version of “saying yes” while correcting and teaching further reading skills:
A child attempting to read a sign reads it wrongly, but confidently announces to you what it says, “Mama look! Television. It says there’s a television here!”
“Yes! Emily! You tried reading this really tricky word even though it is so long. I knew you were brave enough to try long words. You’re good at trying new things. In fact, that does not say television! It says telescope. Is there a telescope around here? Now that you’re so good at reading the first parts of words, you and I can teach your brain to slooow down and look at the ends of words too. Especially now that you are able to read such long words.”
Use the whole body
Too often we think of reading and writing as activities that happen sitting down, looking at pieces of paper. But children learn with their bodies and minds and feelings and senses all together.
For kids working on letter sounds, printing, or first words, writing in the sand has a profound impact. Writing big letters is easier than small, and the friction of the sand provides more support than those tricky pencils and slippery papers – especially when we haven’t yet developed all our fine motor skills. In the sand it isn’t just our minds learning something new – all our senses are awake and engaged. The feeling of the sand is rippling through our fingers and through our bodies. Our cells are learning and remembering these letter symbols along with our minds.
If you don’t live somewhere with easy outdoor access to beaches or playground sandboxes, try keeping a bin of sand inside that comes out just for special printing time.
When Big Son was learning his first letters we started with ‘o’ and ‘s’, as children love these shapes and they are found everywhere. He loved making them with his arms in the air, and with his whole body; he loved finding circle and oval ‘o’s’ in our house, downtown, and out in nature. Anything he saw that was sqiggly or had more than one curve was an ‘s’, to which I replied, “Yes!”
Instead of asking him to find an ‘o’ or an ‘s’ on the book page on my lap I could ask him to run across the room to the bookshelf, or to any object with a brand name on it, or to any sign outside and spot them.
When children are learning their first simple words ask them to stand on their tippy toes and touch the sky for every consonant and crouch down into a ball for every vowel. Ask them to jump on the trampoline for every letter as you spell out “cat” together, or for every syllable as you pronounce long words for them.
Here are two great physical reading games to try, but know the options are endless. I can make a whole list of physical reading activities as a future post if you all are interested, but also know that our kids are actually the best guides if we watch their actions and give them the lead.
Read really good books to children without any expectations
Let’s break this down.
1) Choose really good books:
We often hear the advice that we should let children pick whatever books they are interested in when they start reading, and so we end up with stacks of inane Ninja Turtle and Tinker Bell Early Readers that vaguely summarize a tv episode of the same brand that we’ve already heard plenty of times. This generally does work well when your child is practicing reading himself. But during special read-aloud time you will need to pick out really great books.
Think about it like movies – your child might think they are happy to watch whatever drivel is next in their Netflix line-up, and they may whine a bit when you insist on sharing a classic that you know they will love, but once they’re into a well-made children’s classic they are more captivated, because, well, it’s good.
It may be a bit of a negotiation to pick a new book, and certainly you have to take the child’s interests into account; but you also have a right to choose these books too – you’re the one doing the reading after all! And you get to introduce great stuff to your child because you are the parent. And, there is nothing better than when both you and your child and are excitedly enrapt in a great book and can’t wait for the next chapter. Here is list of great read-aloud chapter books for young kids that parents will also love.
2) Read without expectations:
Being read to as a child is receiving a gift. Give this gift to your child with generosity. During this special reading time resist the temptation to quiz the child on words you come across. If you feel their comprehension is lacking, pause and summarize the story for them instead of prompting them to try and summarize it for you.
Even better, find someone else to talk to excitedly about the book in front of your child. I have even called in my husband in under false pretenses when reading to kids (someone needs a glass of water perhaps?) and then announced “how great this book is!” and briefly summarized what’s happening for him in front of the kids to re-engage them. However you do it, don’t spend your read-aloud time testing. Be generous and give them stories.
How will you actually fit in this special read-aloud time, you ask? Anywhere and anytime that you can. While the kids are in the bathtub. While they’re eating lunch on the weekends. Keep the book in the car and read in the line at pick-ups, drop-offs, or while waiting for a sibling. Get the audiobook and listen together on commutes. Bring the book with you to the park or on your walk and read outside together for 10 minutes before heading home. Make reading a reward and agree to read aloud for so many minutes upon the completion of chores or errands. Or the old classic: before bed, if it suits your family.
Tip* if the kids are too wriggly and excited in bed at night, try turning off all the lights and reading to them with a book light, or with your cell phone flashlight.
Have other good tips or questions for us about teaching reading? How about teaching reading to older children who have special needs, or children who have experienced trauma in school? Comment below. And watch for the next article in our early reading series, coming soon!