Today I observed a 7th grade class made up of students I had taught in kindergarten. As they all settled in for silent reading, I was amazed. “Oh my God,” I thought, “They all learned how to read!” Seeing how these kids had grown up to become fluent and engaged readers was both inspiring and incredibly reassuring.
Teaching kindergarten, the range of reading skills among students was always striking. Some students entered kindergarten reading chapter books, while others struggled to recognize letters. Each situation was completely fine and developmentally appropriate. That said, when kids really struggled to make progress in reading, I got nervous. But seeing those 7th graders reading independently reassured by my knowledge that kids develop at their own speeds.
Kids learn how to read in a variety of different ways, but there are consistent components that go into becoming a successful reader. Here are five skills that kids need in order to read, broken up into two sections; plus ideas for how to support them in developing these skills:
First, the Very Basics
Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize, think about, and work with individual sounds in words. This includes blending and isolating sounds, and segmenting words into beginning, middle and ending sounds.
Blending sounds is exactly what kids do when they “sound out” words that they read. When kids are able to blend sounds, they can be told the sounds “buh — ah — t” and verbally blend them together to make “bat.”
Segmenting words is the opposite of blending. When segmenting, kids are asked to take the word “bat” and stretch out the words into beginning, middle, and ending sounds (“buh — ah — t” ). Segmenting also includes the ability to isolate sounds by identifying sounds at the beginning, middle, and end of words. Segmenting sounds is how students “stretch out” words when writing — a sign that they are trying to figure out which letters to write for which sounds.
Both blending and segmenting words are important for your kids to master verbally before they start trying to read and write. So start playing sound games!
How to Help: Ask your child to identify the sounds they hear at the beginning, middle, and end of words. Remember that this is different from asking for the letters that make these sounds. When you’re driving or just hanging out, ask your child to “stretch out” words into beginning middle and ending sounds. Find ways to add a little sound play to your day.
I bet this looks like I wrote the same thing twice, but trust me — phonological awareness is different than phonemic awareness. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and parts of spoken language like syllables, words, onsets, and rimes (that’s spelled right, promise!).
When children develop phonological awareness they understand that words are made up of different sounds (phonemes) and that words can be segmented into larger chunks of sound (syllables). Syllables begin with a sound (onset) and end with another sound (rime).
Put together, phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are strong predictors of a child’s success in reading.
How to Help: Play rhyming games with your child. Say two rhyming words and ask your child to come up with more words that rhyme. Rhyming requires your child to break words into onset and rime (the “rime” part is the part that rhymes).
Concepts of Print
Understanding concepts of print means that kids understand how books work. Concepts of print include the idea that books open left to right, contain a front and back cover, and that words are read left to right and top to bottom.
The best way to help your child master concepts of print is by regularly reading with them. Seeing you turn the pages of books will help kids understand how books work. Also, hearing you decode words out loud teaches children that the print on the page corresponds to the words you are saying aloud.
How to Help: Get wordless picture books for your child to “read.” This will give your child a chance to practice reading and applying their knowledge of books without having to decode words.
The Next Step
Letters, Decoding & Sight Words
After kids are able to segment and blend sounds, they’re ready to try to decode all the new and exciting words that await them in books. But first, they need to learn to recognize the letters on the page and identify the sounds that they make. Once kids know their letter sounds, they’ll be able to work on reading simple words by stretching out their sounds. Starting with consonant/vowel/consonant words like “can” and “sit” helps kids to apply their knowledge of letter sounds in a straightforward way.
Once they have the easy words down, kids can move into learning the harder stuff. Also, it’s important that kids master a wide variety of sight words. Sight words are words that can’t be sounded out and need to be memorized. Imagine a kid sitting there trying to stretch out “the” over and over again. Some words just need to be committed to memory!
How to Help: Talk about letters and words with your child. When you see letters on signs, mention what letters they are. As your child gets older and more interested, have him practice “reading” the letters that he sees to you. Once they have that down, move onto going over the sounds of letters with them and having them read easy words out loud, like “bat” and “dog.”
It’s not enough to simply learn how to read, kids must also understand what they read. Once kids learn to read fluently, the focus shifts to reading comprehension.
But even kids who have just started learning to decode need to learn to understand what they read. By teaching them to focus on the meaning of what they’re reading, kids learn they are able to correct themselves by checking whether or not the words they read make sense in the context of a story.
How to Help: Read with your child regularly. As you read, ask questions about the story. Have your child retell stories back to you, make connections with characters, and compare books to other stories they have read.
But let’s be clear: the number one way that you can help your child learn how to read is by reading with them regularly. Once kids have their imaginations captured by books, they’ll be motivated to learn to read. Kids will be excited to learn about letters and sounds, knowing that the words they make up come together to magically create whole new worlds in stories.
Use the tips above to help your child learn to read, but remember that all kids learn in different ways and at varying speeds. If you feel yourself getting worried that they won’t read, think back to my class of former kindergartners and rest assured that (with support) your child will indeed learn. Remember, learning is always about the goal, not how fast you reach it.