Starting reading

Many parents believe in the theory of child-led or interest-centred ‘autonomous’ learning (sometimes known as ‘unschooling’). This often works well in home education, but even the most relaxed of parents can become a bit worried if a child does not learn to read naturally. We all probably know of children who learned to read painlessly at the age of two or three. We can call them the exception and assume that reading will happen when the child is ready, perhaps at five or six.

If your child does not yet read for himself, either because he is too young or because he has a reading difficulty, you may worry that he will never learn at home. The best thing is to relax about it, at least until he is nine or ten. Keep reading to him and eventually he will want to read for himself.

It’s easy to feel we must be doing something wrong if our child does not read at all by the time he is around eight. Even worse, he might show no interest in learning to read, and we start to wonder if we’re raising an illiterate child.

Part of the problem is that children don’t learn to read entirely ‘naturally’. Try handing a young toddler a few books. He is more likely to chew them than to ask you what the words say. As we read to children in the early years, they learn that books contain pictures and stories. But they would not learn that if we didn’t read to them.

Some children ask you what road signs or leaflets say, while others ignore them completely. It’s rather like the way that some children are fascinated by stars, or the workings of a washing machine, while others barely notice them. The difference is that we can get by as adults without knowing the names of constellations, or the innards of a washing machine, but we all need to be able to read.

Reading by osmosis

Can reading be learned as easily as speaking?

A child will not learn to speak unless other people talk to him. Moreover, when our babies start making babbling noises, we ‘interpret’ them, giving instant feedback. It’s only as they become competent that we start to give gentle non-directive correction.

When you read to your child regularly, he may be fascinated by words, and start asking you what they say. He may make his own attempt at reading them. If he looks at pictures and tells the story, that’s great. If he starts asking you about words or punctuation, explain at his level. You don’t need to talk about sounds or phonics when a child asks what a word ‘says’. If he has the ability to read at a young age, he will be able to build up his own internal phonics system. It’s rather like the way he built up his internal grammatical system for spoken language.

Some children might like you to run your finger along the words as you read. This helps them make connections as they hear you reading. For some children this is enough: a few questions, a bit of playing around with words and they will be reading. A child who learns this way may not have the ability to sound out words in traditional style. He may not even ‘hear’ how words work at first, if he is a visually-orientated child. But some children can and do learn to read this way, and tend to become rapid and fluent readers by the time they’re five or six.

Introducing phonics

Other children need to understand letter sounds and phonics before they learn to read. To introduce phonics, you could try making large coloured cards with letters on (lowercase is best to start with) or use magnetic fridge letters. Make simple words like cat and dog, then play a game where you choose a different sound to make new words – like hat and hog. Young children love nonsense words, so show them imaginary words as well – like zat and zog.

Our children enjoyed Dr Seuss books such as ‘Fox in Socks’ or ‘The Cat in the hat’ which are full of real and nonsense words to encourage playing around with words and phonics. If you don’t feel confident about phonic rules and your child doesn’t seem to be learning them intuitively, there are many workbooks for phonics available at your local bookshop or online.

As your child begins to sound out words, or recognise a good selection of ‘key’ words, make sure he has some very easy-to-read books with interesting stories, and read them with him. Encourage him to read a page, but help him out immediately when he is stuck. Don’t force him to sound out a word or worry about it, but help him to guess from context or from the initial sounds, and tell him the word if he gets worried. You want him to enjoy the story and want to read more, not to be proficient immediately. He may want to read the same book over and over, or he may want you to read alternate pages. It doesn’t matter! So long as he is trying to read, and enjoying it, he will continue.

Getting the right balance

If your child is interested, there are three good games for different stages of reading, using phonics, at the site ‘Teach your Monster to read‘.  You will have to sign up, but access is free on computers. This kind of thing can be a useful way to reinforce some basic phonics while having fun.

Should parents try and ‘push’ their children into reading at a young age by asking leading questions?

I don’t think so. If a child has this kind of mind, he will learn to read anyway. All you have to do is provide the basic resources. Start with picture books with simple words, and let him see you reading for enjoyment. Read aloud several times a day, and a talk about written words in everyday life.

But children who read at a very young age may miss out on other activities, and some experts believe it can have a bad effect on eyesight. An early-reading child may have poorer co-ordination or motor skills than his more active peers. You can’t stop a child who wants to learn to read when he’s two or three. But there is no need to encourage or push a small child into recognising words or letters. By the time children are teenagers, it makes no difference at what age they learned to read.