Most parents naturally want to know how kids learn to read books. Even if their children do not do it yet, they usually want to encourage the activity. Book reading at childhood tends to result in retained literacy later on in a child’s life, after all… and literacy is something we sorely need.
It is all too easy to assume that most of our society is now literate when we ourselves are from good educational institutions. The sad truth is otherwise. The latest studies from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that 67% of grade 4 students in the US cannot read proficiently. 33% out of that 67% are listed as having only basic literacy skills. The remaining 34% do not even have that and fall below the basic mark.
This is not a phenomenon exclusive to the US, by the way. In the UK, as many as 42% of children leave school functionally illiterate. In Australia, 33% of year 5 students cannot meet literacy benchmarks. In Canada, a whopping 42% of Canadians are semi-illiterate.
Book-reading is only one part of the process that turns a person literate, yes — but it is an important part. Book readers get more practice at parsing meaning from text; they encounter more words to add to their vocabularies; they tend to learn more in school. And research shows that those who read earlier — in their preschool years, that is — tend to do all of these things better.
How Do Children Start Reading?
The process has some degree of individuality for each child, but most children learn to read now by breaking down words into abstract sounds that are called phonemes. By themselves, these sounds mean nothing. A “duh” sound is just a sound.
It is when the child puts together the sounds that he gets a word he can recognize, usually one he has heard before and knows. “Duh” is added to “oh” and then “guh” — he figures out that the word is “dog” and this refers to the four-legged, furry creature living in his neighbor’s yard.
This is the phonic method of instructing children in reading and it is arguably the prevalent technique for it now. There are other methods, but studies have shown that this one tends to produce the best results most consistently. Breaking up words into simpler pieces and finding out how letters and sounds relate to each other make learning to read easier than memorizing each word’s sound and meaning as something entirely unique to it.
Comprehension in Reading
Yet beyond the phonemic reading is also the aspect of comprehension, which parents should strive to add to their child’s tuition in early reading. Children can recognize words they encounter often, yes, but they should also be helped to understand that those words put together in that order mean more than they do individually.
Understanding gains complexity as time goes on and the reader learns more. When a child first begins to learn words, for example, he thinks each object has only one name. His mother is “mama”. Anything he reads at the first stages that uses the word “mama” will be associated with his mother.
It is only later, after reading more books, that he realizes that other creatures also have a “mama”, and there are many such mothers in the world. It is only later too that he figures out that “mama” is also “woman”, “wife” or “Sally”.
Training Your Child’s Phonemic Awareness and Comprehension
There are many things one can do to help children get a taste for reading and reading well. Reading to children frequently stimulates learning as well as interest, for example.
Part of it relies on what you are reading to them, of course. Get a feel for what your child really finds interesting and use that as a guide to buying books and other media. Most children like games, too, so try to make games out of reading.
Literacy games are good bets here. You can invite the child into a game where he recognizes and differentiates letters by look as well as sound. This is just the tip of the iceberg, too, as the older your child is and the more advanced his reading level, the more interesting the games can become.
If your child is already walking, for instance, try having him participate in treasure hunts that promote phoneme awareness by having him seek out objects nearby based on certain criteria. For example, you could have him look for objects in the room that end with the same sound as the word you are making. You could even do it the other way and ask him to seek objects that start with the same sound as the word you spoke instead.
When your child starts reading, he will very likely have certain books he wants you to read again and again. Do it, and ask him to read parts of it himself. This sort of repetition is good for him as it will let him remember the words in that particular book.
There are some words that he will just have to memorize, of course, because they do not fit into phonemic conventions. You can build your child’s vocabulary with these little by little. Look for lists of “sight words”, like the Dolch or Fry lists, and teach them to him gradually. You can also check if your teaching program has any lists of its own, because most of them do: the Children Learning Reading course comes with its own list, for example, and is more manageable than the enormous lists others use.
Remember, too, that reading is an activity influenced by others. Children can learn patterns better by using building blocks, for example, and pattern awareness is critical in language. Singing songs helps improve reading abilities, too, by improving phonemic awareness. The child who reads (and reads well) is a well-rounded one; capable of relating books or information to the other data he is constantly absorbing from the world around him.