Reading for life
When your first grader bursts in the door wanting to read her very first ‘reading book’ to you, it’s just as exciting for parents. There’s a special look in her eye as she realises that the black squiggles on the page are words and they are starting to look familiar. Confidence and enthusiasm soar as children experience success in the very early stages of learning to read. Adele Amorsen demystifies the process.
Long before children attend school, they are laying the foundations for learning to read. The development of speech is the first step in the process. From nursery rhymes and songs in the cradle, to having a conversation with a friend, the acquisition of speech plays a key role. Children who can speak well, and formulate sensible sentences have developed one of the most important foundations for reading.
Before they attend formal schooling, most children have been immersed in literacy from a very early age. Being read to is vital. As you read stories to your child, they are picking up countless ‘pre-reading skills’ that come into play in the first few weeks of school.
As you read to your child they learn:
- How to hold a book with the ‘words’ up the right way.
- Reading progresses from left to right and usually from the top of the page to the bottom.
- The pictures often match what the words are saying.
- The sentences make sense and often match the way that we speak.
- The words are always the same in the same book (try skipping a few sentences or pages from your child’s favourite bedtime story and they’ll soon let you know!).
- Books can be funny, sad and exciting,
- Stories sometimes have a special way of beginning and ending.
- Sometimes you can guess what will happen next (many good children’s books incorporate this important element).
Understanding and being exposed to these pre-reading concepts marks the beginning of learning to read. But reading is more than mastering early skills. We want children to develop a love of stories and books and a positive attitude towards reading.
Learning to read at school
For most children, the process of learning to read should continuously revise and build on what they already know.
They need to understand:
- The sound of the letter is important, rather than the name. That is M says mmmmm. During the first year of school, a wide range of activities develop children’s knowledge of the basic sounds of each letter in the alphabet. For example, colour all the pictures on the page that begin with the sound sssss, cut out five pictures that begin with the sound fffffff.
- Recognising, by sight, some core words, such as the, and, can, in, my, here, is and look. The teacher may model reading a book that has a small set of core words repeated on every page. The text may read something like this:
Here is my dog.
Here is my cat.
Here is my mum.
Here is my bed.
Here is my dad.
Here is my car.
Children are then encouraged to read along with the teacher, sometimes following these words in their own reading book. This is often followed by a range of activities using the same small set of core words.
Children might trace over the words, match words on cards to words on the blackboard, play memory and concentration games using the words, use flash cards and make up short simple sentences using the same set of core words.
It is very important that young children see the relationship and usage of the words within the context of a sentence, rather than just learning an isolated set of unrelated words.
Early texts, designed to assist young children to learn to read, are carefully set out. They usually have only one or two sentences on each page. Each sentence is heavily supported by the illustration, giving a clue as to what the sentence says. Sentence structures on each page are often very repetitive.
While these books can be ‘boring’ for adults to listen to over and over, they are the basis on which children develop their confidence and enthusiasm for reading. Children know that every page has the same sentence pattern; they know to look at the illustration for support; the book has been read to them at school several times; they have practiced reading it at school and they are basing their recall of the book on memory and practice.
As children’s confidence and skills develop, the number of words and letters used in each book grows and the sentence structures become more complex. Don’t rush this process and ask too much of young learners too soon.
Confidence is easily crushed when suddenly confronted with an unfamiliar book, containing five or six sentences per page and less supportive illustrations. Teachers of young children carefully plan when to introduce new words and letters, to keep confidence and enthusiasm high.
Remember that every child is different and will learn at a different pace. Some children are capable of learning a few words and letters each week. Others need more time to revise and consolidate what they know before being pressured to learn a new set of words and letters.
As long as steady progress is being made and confidence is developing then your child will continue to learn at a pace that suits their individual needs. A life long love of reading is the result.
How can parents help at home?
- Read to your child every day.
- Give books as presents.
- Point out signs in shops and traffic.
- Join the library, have a special library bag and visit every week.
- Share picture books that have rhyming or repetitive texts and have your child read along with you.
- Always hold a book so that your child can see the illustrations and text. Occasionally point out special words by running your finger under them and making comment, eg elephant is a long word; mummy starts the same way as your name Matthew - they both start with the mmmmmm sound.
- When reading to your child, discuss what might happen next in a story. Similarly, before beginning a book, talk about what might happen in the story by looking at the illustration on the front cover.
- Have your child ‘tell’ you stories that they know. Simple fairy tale favourites are good for this. Try ‘telling’ the story of the three bears together, letting your child be father bear - “Who’s been eating my porridge?”
- Let your child see you reading for information and pleasure. Discuss what you are reading.
- Look at and discuss packing and labelling. Point to the print on packaged goods and discuss the sound that the first letter is making. “Vegemite starts with the same letter sound as Vicki - they both start with vvvvv.”
- Praise and encourage every effort to read. Don’t focus on missed words or incorrect words as this quickly dispels confidence and desire.
Qualities to look for in children’s books to encourage early reading skills:
- Story content should be related to children’s own life experiences.
- There should be clear illustrations to match the text and not too much text per page.
- The flow of language should be natural and consistent with everyday speech.
- Predictable, repetitive texts are important for learning to read.
- Nothing will grab a reluctant reader more than a really funny book.
by Adele Amorsen
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, September 2001. Updated July 2009.