How to Teach Your Child to Read

father sitting with daughter on lap and smiling at each other with a book

If you are taking care of young children at home during the pandemic, what is the most important thing you can do to keep their education on track? Mary Field, Head of Academics at the International School of San Antonio, recommends that you use this time to teach your child to read. As Mary explained during a webinar about how to teach your child to read, moderated by our Founder and Executive Director Inga Cotton, the best approach for teaching reading is systematic phonics, and she recommends several low-cost or free resources. Mary also offered advice for building skills in children as young as two or three, and argued in favor of shared reading for older children.

This post about teaching children how to read is part of our effort to give parents the tools they need to keep their children learning at home, in spite of the pandemic. Children really can learn everywhere, and with a good roadmap for learning at home, families can make a lot of progress. Reading is a fundamental skill, but we also recommend you look at our guide to at-home learning activities, including Mary’s post about learning a new language.

Teaching Reading With Systematic Phonics

Teaching reading, Mary explained, is about helping children to take what they know about aural language and map it to the written word. Systematic phonics is the teaching method that works for most kids most of the time.

Kids have been hearing the sounds of their native language (or languages) since before birth, and they have real-world knowledge of the meanings of those words. Our job as parent-teachers is to show them how to link the spoken words to the written representations. The English language can be tricky—did you realize that there are two “th” sounds, a voiced sound like “these” and a breathy sound like “mouth”? We can unlock these mysteries for our children.

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons is a book by Siegfried Engelmann, Phyllis Haddox, and Elaine Bruner that guides parents in teaching their children to read using direct instruction. As of this writing, the paperback edition costs about $15, while the spiral-bound edition—probably worth it because you will open and close the book so many times—costs about $30. Used copies may be cheaper.

The Engelmann book is very explicit about what parents need to do and say with their children. Mary said that you can order the book, read the first lesson that night, and start teaching your child to read the next day. The important thing is to be intentional about doing a lesson every day—not just when everyone feels like it. If you make a consistent habit of spending about 20 minutes daily teaching your child to read, then within a few months your child will be able to independently read beginner books like Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop.

One thing for parents to be aware of, but not to worry about, is the fact that the book starts by using a slightly altered alphabet. For example, when students need to make a “th” sound, the “t” and “h” letters are connected at the bottom. Towards the end of the book, the lessons switch to using a standard alphabet, so children are prepared to read typical books.

As a free alternative, Mary recommended Parker Phonics—either the parent book or the teacher book. They are not as scripted as the Engelmann book, but they do a great job of teaching systematic phonics, and the price is right.

Online resources are plentiful, but a good starting point is a playlist of videos by Mark Seidenberg, an author and professor who studies reading. Mary also recommended the Reading Rockets website. If you type “printable phonics readers” into a search engine, you’ll get lots of results, including this set from The Measured Mom. Mary also recommends these decodable passages for reading practice. For each page or booklet that you print, Mary suggests that you take a minute to pre-read the book to make sure it syncs up with the letter sounds that your child has already learned.

Praise and Correction When Teaching Reading

To teach their children how to read, parents need to use materials that teach systematic phonics, and be intentional about using the program consistently. Parents also need to be thoughtful about how we communicate praise or correction while teaching our children to read. We want our children to feel good about themselves and the work they are doing, but when we are teaching reading, we need to steer them towards good habits and correct answers.

Mary gave the example of a parent and child reading a picture book about horses. The child sees a picture that looks like a horse, and says, “Horse!” but the text actually says “pony.” It would be very natural for the parent to say, “Yes, good job!” thinking that the child is close enough. However, offering praise for saying the wrong word does not help teach reading skills. A better approach would be better for the parent to gently make a correction first: “What is the first sound of ‘horse’? /h/. What is the first sound of this word? /p/.” Then, sound out the word “pony.” Once the child sounds out the correct word “pony,” then the parent should offer praise. (It’s common to say “puh,” but when we’re teaching, it’s better to isolate just the initial sound—written as /p/—and not to use our vocal cords.)

Parents should be gentle in making corrections, and also should show their children that making mistakes is no big deal. Learning how to read is not a competition; it’s a process to be enjoyed together. Parents need to make the correction, show the child a strategy that works, offer praise, and then move on to the next word. This is an opportunity to cultivate a growth mindset by praising effort rather than telling the child they are intelligent. We all know our children are intelligent, but that is a fixed quality, and we want them to focus on the things they have control over, like hard work. We can support our children’s development of a growth mindset by using effective strategies to teach them reading, and then celebrating that success.

Phonemic Awareness for Younger Children

During the webinar, members asked how parents can prepare children as young as two or three years old for learning how to read. Mary explained that children that age are ready to develop phonemic awareness: the skill of breaking down a spoken word into its sounds.

Here is a game that helps develop phonemic awareness. Mary suggested going to your kitchen or desk for a minute to quickly grab a handful of those tempting small items that parents think of as choking hazards, but that young children find irresistible. Spread out these items and ask your children questions like, “Which ones start with duh, duh, duh?” Wait to see if they point out the shiny dime or the yellow rubber ducky.

Beginning sounds are the easiest to identify; you can also ask about ending sounds and the sounds in the middle. Even just a few weeks of daily practice will build a foundation of phonemic awareness to help children learn to read.

Mary noted that phonemic awareness is different from knowing the ABCs. In the Engelmann book, students learn phonemes first, and learn the alphabet later. Montessori techniques help children learn letter sounds first, and focus on lower case letters, unlike many of the literacy products that are marketed to parents of young children.

Background Knowledge Supports Reading

As children learn to read, they are drawing on their knowledge of spoken language. Mary said, “It’s not really possible for a young child to read a word that they have not learned the sound of.” Children also need background knowledge of the subject matter. Core Knowledge by E.D. Hirsch is a program designed to support and address this need. The early grades are focused on helping children become fluent readers, and then from around third grade, children need to use their reading skills to build knowledge.

Mary is a strong believer in shared reading. We tend to think of this as something to do with children who have not yet learned how to read. However, even children who can read beginning books independently may be curious about subjects and want to read books that they are not really ready for. With shared reading, an adult can unlock the challenging words in the text and fill in background knowledge. Even teenagers sometimes enjoy being read to—even though they might deny it if you ask them. Audiobooks count as shared reading, too.

As an example, Mary described the book Mystery of the Giant Masks of Sanxingdui. She has seen these artifacts in real life and enjoys sharing about them with children. During a shared reading of this book, Mary could show a world map and point out the city; she could explain that these masks are thousand of years old—not as old as the dinosaurs, but older than the United States. A good source of inspiration for knowledge-rich books is the website Multicultural Children’s Book Day and the hashtag #readyourworld.

Learning Multiple Languages and Alphabets

For families who are bilingual or multilingual, Mary recommended taking a few months to teach reading in one language, and then moving on to the second or third language. For example, in a bilingual family, one parent could start teaching reading in Spanish and establishing good habits. Then, the other parent could teach reading in English, using the other parent’s advice about what worked.

The timing and pacing is not as important as just simply making a deliberate effort to teach reading. Mary gave the example of a young relative, who grew up bilingual in English and Spanish; at nine years old, he and his family were ordering dinner at a restaurant in Monterrey, and he realized he could not read the menu. The skill of reading is not something that kids will necessarily pick up from their environment; it has to be taught deliberately. But don’t worry—it’s not that big of a time investment, and it’s something that families can certainly do at home.

Many world languages use alphabets that are different from ours, but the underlying principles of teaching reading are the same. It’s always a matter of connecting the spoken language that the child already knows with the written words.

Families Teaching Reading at Home

Mary felt called to create a webinar about how parents can teach their children to read at home because she speaks with parents at school, and sensed their level of uncertainty about how to teach reading effectively. The International School of San Antonio offers a language immersion preschool program that serves children from two to five years old. Children learn math, literacy, science, arts, and music while absorbing French or Mandarin Chinese. English and a third language are added later in the program. The school also offers weekly immersion classes in French and Chinese for students 3-12 years old.

We hope this post helps you, as a parent, feel equipped to start teaching your child to read at home. We are all facing disrupted lives due to COVID-19, but parents can make the most of this time at home with their young children to lay a foundation for reading. It may only take 20 minutes a day for a few months, but it will give your children a strong start for their education journey.

Resources for Teaching Your Child to Read

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