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What to Know About Teaching Reading

Have you ever felt pressure to get your kids reading right away?  If so, you’re not alone.  So many parents feel stressed about teaching reading and most of the time what’s being asked of them isn’t even what’s best for kids!  So much of it is based on bad and outdated information.  This is what you really NEED to know about teaching reading before you get started!

Learn what you NEED to know about teaching reading to make it a fun, successful, and kid-friendly experience!

What Does It Mean to ‘Read’?

What does it mean to ‘read’?  That probably sounds like a strange question, but it’s actually the most important place to start.  There’s a bit of misinformation out there about what it really means to read.

What Reading Isn’t

  • Memorizing Books: Kids tend to ask for the same books to be read over and over again.  That’s totally normal and even good for them (more on that in part 2).  As the kids hear the same text on the same pages over and over again, they start to memorize it.  Then they can pick up that book and appear to read it.  In reality they are usually just reciting it from memory.  Sort of how I can recite the entirety of Goodnight Moon after reading it to my daughter eleventy billion times!
  • Sight Words: There is a bit of controversy over sight words.  Many push them as vital for kids to learn to read.  I disagree and that disagreement is based on science.  ‘Reading’ sight words is basically calling out a word based on memorizing the ‘picture’ of it, sort of like how your child says ‘square’ when you point to one.  They know the shape and call it by name.  With sight words they know the ‘shape’ of the word (how it looks) and call out the word by recognizing the ‘image’.  They aren’t actually breaking down the word into its parts, which is a key part of reading.  They are also using the part of the brain that should be used to form a mental picture of what they are reading for comprehension (more on that in a minute).  So, memorizing a list of sight words really isn’t the same thing as actually reading.

What Reading Is

  • Words & Mental Images: Reading happens when the left side of our brain breaks words down into their base sounds (called phonemes) while the right side of our brain forms mental images for comprehension (or other connections for people who are blind).  This is why sight words can be problematic.  When you are using the right side of your brain to interpret the ‘picture’ of a word (which is what is done for sight word reading), it is already occupied and can’t be used to form mental images to aid in comprehension.
  • Neural Connections: Based on what I just described, it becomes clear that in order for reading to work well, there needs to be a connection between the two sides of the brain.  What is being decoded (sounded out) on the left side of the brain needs to connect to the images/experiences on the right side of the brain.  So, reading happens when we have neural pathways that can connect these two hemispheres efficiently and effectively.

Normal Timeline for Teaching Reading

“Shouldn’t she know all of her letters now?  All the other kids in preschool do!”  Yeah, that’s going to be a no!  Comments like that are NOT based in reality, or in an understanding of the normal timeline for teaching reading.  So, if that’s not reality, what is?

Bit by Bit

Kids learn to read bit by bit over time.  During the process they will go through three main stages.  Just like kids learn to walk and talk in their own time, progressing bit by bit, they also do so for reading.

  • Pre-Reader: This is the first stage of learning to read and it starts when they are just babies.  It starts at about 6 months old and can easily last until about 6 years old.  This is when kids ‘play at’ reading.  They do things like pretend to read, play with pencils and paper, and retell familiar stories.  So, when your child grabs a beloved book and flips through the pages while babbling, or scribbles on paper while pretending to write, they are actually building towards reading!  This is the most vital stage for reading to your children.  This stage also includes skills such as learning to identify letters and the sounds that they make.
  • Initial Reader: This is the time when the rubber meets the road, so to speak.  It’s the stage when what we think of as ‘teaching reading’ actually begins.  It’s the first stage where actual reading takes place.  The initial reading stage often starts around 6-7 years old, but anything from 4-8 years old is in the normal range.  It includes skills such as sounding out simple words and reading simple texts.  At the early parts of this stage, some children may not even know the names of all the letters yet.  As kids enter the initial reading stage they might start asking what letters they are seeing, pointing out familiar letters, and asking how to spell words.  Just remember, some kids will naturally hit this stage on the earlier side while others will hit it on the later side, just like they do for walking and talking.
  • Confident Reader: This transition from Initial Reader to Confident Reader isn’t always a super obvious one.  The key thing to watch out for is when your child no longer needs to sound out most words.  Again, this is not about memorizing sight words.  This transition is about having sounded out a word enough times that it happens fairly effortlessly.  Sort of how when people first learn to drive they have to consciously think through every step, but eventually most of the steps just happen on their own as a form of ‘muscle memory’.  As kids become confident readers they are able to read longer passages and are better able to comprehend what they are reading.  Unlike the other stages, there isn’t much of a clear age range for becoming a confident reader.  In my experience I have often seen it happen at roughly 8-10 years old, but it can vary quite widely.

Early Isn’t Always Bad

As I said before, it is *vital* that you don’t try to push your kids through these stages.  In fact, overly academic preschool settings have been linked in studies to social, behavioral, and academic problems.  There is no long term advantage to introducing academics and reading earlier with kids.  That’s part of why, in the homeschool world, you often year, “better late than early”.

The problem is that this idea also kind of misses the boat.  It can leave parents feeling like it’s wrong to introduce anything remotely academic at a young age, for fear that they might harm their children in some way.  But that’s not entirely true.  These issues with early reading are not the case for children who naturally choose to start reading early and pick it up at their own pace.  It’s only a problem for those with outside-imposed reading instruction and pressure to ‘learn’.  So, if your child. genuinely wants to learn to read, and you keep it gentle and don’t pressure them, go ahead and let them learn!

Don’t Be Afraid to Teach Reading

Don’t let the pressure around teaching reading make you doubt yourself or your child.  Remember, there is a very large range of normal when it comes to learning to read.  When your kids are little focus on building their brains and bodies up so that when the time comes they’ll be ready to learn to read!

Stay tuned for part 2 where we’ll talk about how to teach your child to read.

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