It’s exciting to have a beginning reader in the house, but it’s also precarious time for some. Some children may be excited to read, while others may feel a bit shy about their emerging skills. Children may be teetering on a seesaw, feeling on top of the world when they are able to read and then plunging into discouragement when they struggle with a new word or book. Children will approach reading in different ways and with different emotions.
It’s also exciting for parents to see their child starting to read, but sitting next to your emerging reader as they slowly sound out a word and then look at you in confusion when the see the very same word on the next page can tug at our patience a bit, especially at the end of a long day. Parents may also find that one of their children seemingly learned to read overnight and without much help while another child struggles or lacks an interest.
If we want to help our children become proficient readers, who not only succeed in school but also become lifelong readers, we have to nurture their skills, build up their confidence, and make the experience enjoyable.
First, remember to read at a time of day when you and your child are relaxed. If everyone is too tired right before bed, try building in a few minutes of reading time before bath or at snack time. Then you can save the cherished ritual of you reading aloud to your child for bedtime. (That’s right! Just because your child is learning to read on their own, doesn’t mean you should abandon the read-aloud ritual!)
Now when you’ve found a good time of day, and a quiet corner of the house, here are 10 tips to help your beginning reader grow in skills and confidence:
1. Encourage finger-point reading.
What To Do: Encourage your child to point to the words on the page as they read them. You can also model this some when you are reading aloud to your child. As your child’s fluency grows, they don’t need to keep pointing to every word, but for very early readers, this can help keep them on track.
Why You Should: For those of us who have been reading for years, scanning a text from left to right feels completely natural, but it turns out this is not an innate process. It’s something we’ve learned to do. It is more natural and in most case more effective for our eyes to look all over, scanning from one place to another to gather information. To teach your child the so-called “directional tracking” required for reading, it turns out all you need is a finger to help train your child’s eyes to move from left to right across a line of text. Finger-point reading also helps a child to slow down and look at each word. If you’ve ever read with a beginning reader, you’ve probably seen them start a sentence on track and then make up the second half or a word or two based on pure guessing. Pointing to the words can help keep your child grounded in the text, actually reading words instead of rushing or guessing.
2. Be patient.
What To Do: When your child comes to a new or difficult word, don’t jump in too soon to help them out. One source says for parents to stop and count to five slowly. Then decide how you can help your child approach this word, and then offer some gentle guidance. You can encourage your child to start with the beginning sound or see if they can find a small word or letter group they do know how to sound out hidden in the big word.
Why You Should: Beginning readers need help sometimes, but they also need to be given the space to sound out new words on their own and apply the reading strategies they’ve been learning. It may take them a few tries, but they must develop their phonics skills and practice them repeatedly in order to move up to more advanced reading.
3. Sound it out.
What To Do: When your child gets stuck or starts rushing, encourage them to slow down and sound out the words. Focus on phonics. Focus on word structure. You can prompt them by asking if they remember what “sh” sounds like or how certain vowels sound. However, don’t encourage them to take short cuts like looking to the picture or guessing what word might fit in a particular sentence.
Why You Should: Strategies such as guessing based on context cues or an illustration have been proven ineffective and even harmful. They may help a beginning reader get through a book today, but they ultimately do more harm than good. Reading requires decoding words, and good readers recognize words as a series of letters. They don’t make guesses about what word might come next in a sentence. “It turns out that the ability to read words in isolation quickly and accurately is the hallmark of being a skilled reader,” according to a lengthy and informative article from American Public Media. That said, we don’t need to ignore illustrations. Once your child has read a sentence or a page, we can look at the illustration to help derive meaning from the words. They just shouldn’t be a means of filling in words in a sentence.
4. Talk about the story.
What To Do: During and after the story, talk about what happened. After your child has read a page, you can take a moment to look at the picture together before turning the page. Talk about what is happening and whether a character looks happy or angry about it. Check to see if your child understands what they are reading, but try to do it without obviously quizzing them. Aside from simply asking what is happening, you can ask your child what they think is going to happen next, whether a character is happy or angry about what is happening, or where a character is going. You can gauge understanding by having a conversation about the story. Then you can help your child with any vocabulary they don’t understand or maybe even re-read a sentence if your child got through it but didn’t capture the meaning.
Why You Should: Decoding words is a lot of work for new readers. Even a relatively simple sentence may get lost on your child as they slow down to sound out a new word. Talking about the story encourages your child to reflect on what they read and re-read if necessary to understand the meaning of a full sentence after doing the hard work of sounding out individual words. Also, talking about a story makes the experience more personal and more fun. It offers a chance for you and your child to connect while reading.
5. Laugh at the funny parts.
What To Do: That’s right. Be sure to laugh a little. Many beginning reader books have some humor built in, both in the writing and in what’s implied in the pictures. Laugh, and make sure your child gets the joke.
Why You Should: Decoding words can be a grueling task at times. Kids can feel tense, and they can get frustrated. Parents can also get a little antsy next to a beginning reader sounding out words, making mistakes, getting frustrated, saying they don’t want to finish a book. Laughing a little will help break the tension, release endorphins, and help everyone feel a little better. It will also make the reading experience more fun, so your child will enjoy reading rather than thinking of it as a chore.
6. Re-read the same books.
What To Do: Encourage your child to read the same book more than once. Luckily, many children will choose to re-read a book if they enjoy it. See if your child will read a book two or three nights in a row.
Why You Should: There are a few great reasons for beginning readers to re-read the same book. First, it’s easier the second time around, and if we want to build confidence, this is a great way. “Wow, that book was hard for your yesterday. Look how easily you read it this time!” Secondly, if your child is already familiar with the words and the story overall, he or she can read with more fluency. They can read at a slightly faster pace and a greater depth of understanding.
7. Don’t stop reading aloud to your child!
What To Do: Just because your child can read, doesn’t mean you should stop. Keep your bedtime ritual of reading aloud as your child grows. Let your child choose books they want you to read aloud, and cuddle up together and enjoy. Also, try a mix of picture books and chapter books.
Why You Should: Reading to your child now is as important as ever. First of all, it is important for your child to continue to hear fluent reading with expression as he or she continues to become a stronger reader. Secondly, it’s a great bonding experience for you and your child. Thirdly, many children who are able to read on their own, say they wish their parents still read aloud to them. (Doesn’t that break your heart? Keep reading aloud!) And lastly, your child’s reading level is lower than his listening level. In fact, he’ll be able to understand at a higher level than he can read until he’s about 14. Don’t let your child miss out on being exposed to complex plot lines, advanced vocabulary, and new ideas by only exposing him to the level of stories he can read on his own.
8. Let your child choose the books.
What To Do: Both when your child reads and when you read aloud, let your child choose. You can recommend books, but try to find books that interest your child. There are many beginning reader books out there, and several series to choose from. We’ve found that our children enjoy some better than others. The I Can Read and Step Into Reading books often feature familiar characters from cartoons, movies, and even other picture books, so these may be a fun place for some readers to get started. Take your child to the library or bookstore, and pick out some books together!
Why You Should: Again, part of the goal is to make reading fun. Help your child connect with characters and stories, and make the event enjoyable however you can. Picking out some books at the library can be a fun event in and of itself, and then your child may be even more excited to sit down to try reading it.
9. Find books that fit your child’s reading level.
What To Do: Try to find books that are appropriate for your child’s reading level. You can work your way through various levels of some early reader book series, or you can peruse the library for books that look like they are on your child’s level. Series that introduce a few phonics sounds at a time are great. Move up gradually to harder and longer text.
Why You Should: If a book is too hard, it will be discouraging. If it’s too easy, it may be boring. It can be a challenge to get that “just right” book, but do your best. If you start a book, and it turns out to be more difficult than you thought it would be, you can try reading it together with your child. Take turns reading sentences, or tell your child you can read it through once, and then they can try it again another day. Try not to let their confidence take a dive.
10. Tell your child you’re proud.
What To Do: Compliment your child. Tell them what a good job they’re doing and how much they’re improving. Praise their effort, and remind them that reading takes a lot of practice to master. You can offer encouragement as they are reading, praising them for reading a particularly difficult word, and you can also praise them again at the end of the book to let them know how well they’ve done. We’re always moving forward, putting harder texts in front of our children, but sometimes it’s nice for a young reader to look back and see how much they’ve learned. One night, I pulled out one of the first stories my son had ever read to show him how far he’d come. That first story looked so easy now with just a few short words per page. He felt great when he saw the progress he had made.
Why You Should: We all want our children to be good readers and to enjoy reading. Help them gain confidence so that they want to keep trying and to take on new challenging books. Help them learn to love reading!