Watching a child learn to read can feel miraculous.
And for good reason: reading is an incredibly complex process that requires children to recognize shapes (letters), match these shapes with their corresponding sounds, combine these sounds into words, and then mentally pair these word with their definitions. Emerging readers must also begin to understand and apply decoding rules, pause at punctuation, and infer word meanings based on context clues.
And of course, decoding a string of words is just the beginning of what it means to be a strong reader.
Literacy starts in infancy. Young children are all “pre-readers” who pick up clues about reading from their environment. Parents of preschoolers don’t need specialized training in how to teach reading. In fact, some studies suggest that pushing formal reading instruction too early can backfire if kids aren’t developmentally ready. But parents can help foster key pre-reading skills that will give their kids a strong foundation for later reading success. These include phonemic awareness, background knowledge, and “concepts about print.”
1. Use Word Games to Strengthen Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness is the “ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in words.” Research indicates that phonemic awareness is a key predictor of a first grader’s reading success.
Parents can play verbal games to help children hear and isolate words’ beginning and end sounds — even before kids begin to link sounds with their corresponding letters. This can be as simple as saying, “I like ba-ba-ba-bananas and ba-ba-ba-baseball. What do you like that begins with ba-ba-ba?” Here are three other simple games you can play when you have a few minutes of downtime.
- I Spy: Give the traditional “I Spy” game a phonics twist. For example, “I spy with my little eye something that begins with ‘mmm.’” Then provide contextual hints as necessary (“It starts with mmm and you can drink it”).
- What If?: Practice manipulating phonemes by replacing the opening sound of a word with a new sound. For example, you might say, “What if every name in our family began with the /w/ sound? Mommy would be called . . . Wommy!” Or “What if all the food at the table started with /t/ sound? This pickle would be a . . . tickle!”
- Finish That Rhyme: Nursery rhymes are a time-honored vehicle for supporting phonemic awareness — particularly recognition of words’ “end” sounds. After your child is familiar with a few rhymes, pause when you get to the final word in a line and let your child finish it. For example: “Hickory, dickory _____; The mouse ran up the _______.” Point out that “dock” sounds like “clock” and see if you can come up with other words that rhyme with that pair.
2. Build Background Knowledge
According to Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine, authors of Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, one way to predict a “good reader” is to find the child who knows a little bit about everything.
Guernsey and Levine describe a study where two groups of children read a passage about baseball. One group was composed of strong readers who knew very little about baseball. The second group was composed of weaker readers who knew a lot about baseball. On the subsequent reading comprehension test, the baseball lovers outperformed the “stronger readers” because they were able to make connections that eluded their peers. As Guernsey and Levine write, “To make those inferences and connections, [a child] needs background knowledge. To acquire that background knowledge, she needs to be exposed to and taught the thousands of intricate concepts lurking within science, geography, history, government, art, music, movement, mathematics, engineering, and, yes, everyday life.”
This is where media can be a useful tool for parents. Children today spend more time than ever interacting with technology. Rather than leaving them to their own “devices,” parents can use screen time as a tool for teaching kids more about the world. Research tells us that children gain more from media when parents talk with them about what they are watching and doing. The formal term for this is “joint media engagement.”
Here’s is how it might work: if a TV show about dinosaurs excites your child’s imagination, look for short online videos about dinosaurs, take a virtual tour of a natural history museum, check out dinosaur books from the library, and let your child share what they’ve learned with grandma next time they Skype together. In other words, use media as a tool to fuel their natural curiosity about how the world works.
3. Teach “Concepts about Print” Through Read Aloud
Reading aloud to kids is “the single most important activity for building knowledge for their eventual success in reading.” When kids sit next to a caring adult and hear engaging stories, they develop positive associations with books, build vocabulary, and develop contextual understanding.
They also pick up small but vital book smarts, such as how to hold a book, which direction to turn the pages, what an author is, and where to find the title. These skills are called “concepts about print” and simple actions—such as moving finger along test to show that we read from left to right—help prepare kids for independent reading.
So when toddlers flip through pages, when preschoolers make up silly rhymes, or when your kindergartner asks to learn more about arctic animals, they are engaged in important pre-reading activities — and your support can help them lay the foundation for future reading success.
Additional Resources for Parents
Learn practical strategies for making the most of read-aloud time.
Find apps that support children’s cognitive development.
Get Reading Rockets’ extensive parent resources.