Round about the time children enter their final year at Pre-School or nursery, concerned parents start surreptitiously comparing notes in the playground on what their children know. And one of the things they gravitate to is letters, writing and reading. Do they know their alphabet? Can they write it? Can they recognise their name? Can they write their name? Can they read? At all? A bit? Whole novels? If you are involved in one of these conversations rest assured that there is a huge range of ‘normal’ at this point, and what your child does or doesn’t know does not have any bearing on their likely level of achievement in the future.
Children don’t need to learn to read before they go to school. That is, after all, what school is for! However, some will learn, whether from natural interest and desire, an ability to quickly learn to recognise words, or because their parents make an effort to teach them. When they learn to read varies, but what helps children in the early years of school is being able to pick up this fundamental skill as quickly and easily as possible. The aim of this post is to give you a sense of what learning to read involves, and what you can do as a parent to prepare the ground in the best possible way – without putting pressure on or trying to force the child into something they are not ready for.
Years ago a friend of my Mum’s, a specialist teaching assistant, described a child she was teaching who had been labelled as having additional needs. After some time spent with her it was clear that her life experience was so limited that she had no idea what a picnic was, nor had she seen the sea. Once given attention, and one on one time to improve her speech and knowledge of language, she improved quickly and dramatically. Later, in a seminar I attended, a Speech and Language Therapist made a point that struck the same chord with me – that when children start school it is their speech and language that matters and must be worked on before they can reasonably be expected to read and write.
If you think about this it becomes obvious. If you are trying to read a word you have never heard, where is the lightbulb moment of recognition going to come from? Often when reading children will start to sound out words and then make a link to something they know – if their vocabulary is bigger and wider they will find it much easier to read, and read quickly.
So reading really starts with speaking, listening and communicating. All of those things that you probably do already are fundamental to getting your child ready for reading. Talking to them. Expanding their vocabulary. Singing to them. Doing nursery rhymes until the cows come home – or jump over the moon. Reading to them as much as possible and slowly and gently increasing the complexity of the language in those books. Asking them questions and encouraging them to answer. Letting them talk to you and listening, feeding back, developing their own responses.
More controversially, it is worth considering how you speak when you talk to your children. If you really want to make learning to read easier for them, work on your own pronunciation. Now I don’t mean you have to flatten your natural regional accent, or start practising talking in cut-glass received pronunciation, but you do need to consider how well you enunciate your own words. If you habitually say ‘yeah’, and ‘gonna’ and ‘bin’, why would your child recognise those in ‘yes’, ‘going to’ and ‘been? And why would they write them? If you don’t sound the beginnings and ends of words clearly, how will your child know the sounds that begin and end those words? The first stages of learning to read are all about connecting the phonic sounds of simple three letter words, and that is far easier for a child who is used to hearing language that is clear and well enunciated. Again, it isn’t really about accent, as within a local accent the sounds are consistent, but it is about sounding out consonant sounds effectively and differentiating phonically between different words.
To recap: before you start thinking about letters and phonics, the most important first steps are talking, reading and building up your child’s language skills. Nothing else will make such a difference as to how well they succeed when they eventually get to school. It is their breadth of language knowledge that will give them a secure basis on which to start exploring the world of independent reading.
This is Part 1 of ‘Preparing the Ground for Independent Reading’. In Part 2, we’ll look at introducing the alphabet, basic phonics, and what you can do with keen Pre-Schoolers that supports their reading development without causing issues when they begin formal learning.