Lately various people have asked me how I teach reading to my kids. After yakking it out a couple of times, I've come to realize there is somewhat of a rhyme to my reason, even if it's not a system, per se. I also thought that maybe it would be helpful to others who are teaching little ones. Or know little ones. Or maybe are way past ever being interested in raising kids but just like reading about me and my ongoing adventures. I love you guys too.
First, a disclaimer- I'm not a certified anything in this field. I don't know what to do with kids who are exceptions to any rules or whatever. I'm sure I'm missing something someone considers vital. I'm just not that worried about it since I'm three kids into this reading thing so far (two more on their way to reading) and it's going swimmingly. I'm sure I'll eat my humble pie and have some of my own issues to get over with each individual. Every kid is a unique person with unique needs and as their parent you are best equipped to be sensitive to those needs as they are ever changing and to adjust accordingly. If you ever feel overwhelmed about it there are always resources and experts to check with but it's usually over-kill and nothing that worrisome if you stick with something and love on your kids.
So before there is reading, there is pre-reading. The number of skill sets to identify with pre-reading might be overwhelming, since in a way it starts with language and identification and the whole miracle of the mind of an infant who is interpreting her whole world through her sensory input. First she is learning to identify things, not just as objects in her field of vision, but as interactive objects in space that each have qualities associated with them. She's comprehending spacial relationships, time and change, experiencing emotional connections with the world around her, and generally building up a sense library. And if you're like most of us, as a parent you are talking to her all the while. So she is gradually building associations between the sounds you make and these sensory experiences. The repeated ones reinforce connections in her mind, and as she starts experimenting with sound making and motion making she herself favors repetition, reinforcing what she's learned in her own practice, even if it's just a single syllabic noise or random raspberry sound she's learned to produce.
Pretty soon she's understanding a lot of what is being said around her, or at least picking out the things that are pertinent to her experience. Given time, she begins playing with those word noises herself, and the more success she has in responses to those word noises, the more certain she is of their meaning.
A couple of years later (or even as late as three or four years is not abnormal), when she's forming words and little sentences, then she's taking command of her language and realizing that others can be made to understand her. All the while ever since the earliest time, I hope, you've been reading with her. Together, hold a book appropriate to her development stage and just read.
The first concepts about books will just be as objects. Things that can be carried, pages that can be turned, bright colors. At some point the photos or illustrations will become recognizable icons, thanks to pointing and naming. Because, let's face it, a house is not the same thing as a picture of a house. So what they've began to learn is that an image can stand for an actual object.
Now as you've been reading with them, they've also begun to realize that certain books prompt certain stories to be told, so that the same book consistently causes you to to tell them the same story. If a favorite story is read often enough, they may even begin to memorize some of it. Just like they like to reinforce language skills by being (sometimes painfully) repetitive, they may also often bring you the same books without any concern that they've already heard it a dozen times today. Be as patient as possible with this, as long as they are engaged and genuinely interested.
In addition to reading picture books with them, let them hear you reading aloud more advanced chapter books. Let them enjoy quality stories without worrying about laboring to read yet. Let them see you enjoy reading quietly to yourself. All this will help your little one to have a desire to participate and become literate too. You may not think of yourself as a reader or think it's your favorite hobby, but you need to model it, and model an enjoyment for it in order to encourage them.
When they start being interested in singing along with you, (which may be long before they speak words, since they love to hear and dance to music!) begin teaching them popular alphabet songs. As much as is reasonable, supply them with letter games and toys. Be careful not to just teach them the letter names, but more specifically the basic letter sounds. Just like they have learned that a picture of a dog stands for an actual dog, and especially if they can be prompted to tell you that a dog says 'woof' or 'bow-wow' or whatever onomatopoeia you elect, they will be ready to accept that a symbol 'letter' represents a certain sound. This sound learning is the most commonly understood 'pre-reader' stage, although everything that comes before in terms of language and symbol learning is also foundational and I consider pre-reading skills to really begin from birth.
Before I continue, I want to add one thing to prevent frustration. No one learns on a schedule. No one learns on a perfect upward-climbing linear graph formula. Some times we gain ground, sometimes we are stagnant for a while, sometimes we learned to parrot but not to understand and need to be reintroduced, sometimes we actually forget what we knew, and other times we have rapid growth in our skills. This is true for all people of all ages in all areas and types of learning. So it is not anything to be worried about if a pre-reader seems to spend a long time in one stage without advancing, or even needs to be reintroduced to anything they seem to have forgotten.
So once your child is learning letter sounds, how do you get them reading? Well, I do a number of surreptitious things, but I never try to rush them to the starting line. Instead I am watching for the readiness signs.
When I am reading, I will try to select early readers with repetitive words. (Even though I personally can't stand most of them!) I will begin to put my finger under the word I am reading as I am reading it, so they can associate the word they hear with a set of symbols on the page. If they are familiar with the story, I will begin to pause at simple key repeated words and let them say the word in the story. This may begin them on sight reading (more about sight and phonetic approaches can be said on a post about reading approaches after the pre-reading stage. I won't get into this now, except to say that I believe both to be essential to reading fluently and both important to teach at the same time). They may begin to recognize familiar words just by their shapes. At the same time, I will try to 'sound out' words in front of us, on book pages, signs, in birthday cards etc. I will sound out the letters as I draw my fingers under the word and then repeat the sounds until they strike a familiar chord and indicate a word. I will not pressure the child to do this, but simply let him see me doing it. Now he will begin to get the idea that letters make sounds and put together sounds make words, and words come together in sentences and books and so forth.
He may or may not be interested in writing the letter forms, although I worry least at this point about his writing. I let him trace and copy letters and I help him 'spell' and write by guiding his hand. More than the prettiness of his letter writing, I'm only most interested in that he's learning to hold a writing implement properly and comfortably, and that he's recognizing that letters put together mean things. He may or may not be ready to write his name and if he's really ambitious, also the names of others he knows well. I do not push writing for pre-readers as anything but play, allowing them to prompt me and ask me to help them make a letter and not initiating it or pushing it myself. It usually comes up when they are drawing and want to sign their name or write on it the name of the person the picture is for, or make a simple phrase like "I love you" to include in the picture, or maybe to make a birthday wish list. They may ask how to make certain letters they have been enjoying learning about and you can show them by guiding their hand to drawing an example on a separate paper to let them copy their own way. Try not to get into correcting them or asking much. Reverse letters are very common and are part of the mental to hand development. (Sometimes I write with my non-dominant hand to remind myself how hard it is to be a new writer!) Writing demands more complex skill and can frustrate the young reader if he's not ready for those motor skills.
At any rate, he will begin at some point to recognize that the civilized world around him is full of these letter forms. He will have the tools to figure them out and will have observed how you can break down a word with a bunch of letters into a series of sounds. And at this point I just wait. I don't do anything new, just continue reading and pointing to words as I read and doing sounding out and letter sound repetitions. Eventually, sooner or later my little almost-reader will do something very special.
They suddenly read something to me.
By now the child can be any age between three and seven or even older depending on the individual. I wouldn't worry about how long it takes them to get to this point because reading is a very necessary part of getting along in society and if you're doing all the pre-reading things, reading together, making letter sounds, pointing out words as you read, at some point they will *want* very badly to decode the writing and they will come to it when they are ready. It is more important that they want to read, and not a good idea to pressure them to it. It is important that they own the skill as a personal achievement and not as a challenge they feel put upon about.
The first thing they read on their own, unprompted, can be a sign on the road. Or a label on something, or a word from a piece of junk mail on the table, maybe a card they received in the mail that they really want to understand on their own. In the case of some of my children it has been the cut scene in their video game or a talk bubble in a comic book they were so determined to enjoy. If it is a word that they have never memorized from the easy readers you read with them before then you will be especially sure they have begun to decode the written language.
Celebrate. Now you are ready to read!