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My approach is by no means the only way to teach a preschooler how to read. What you're about to read is simply a sketch of what has worked for us so far. Because, as I've discovered with my own children, not all kids learn exactly the same.
I read to my babies from the beginning. It isn't every day – and it's less with each subsequent kid, if I'm being honest – but the benefits of reading aloud to young children cannot be overstated. Introducing little ones to words, language patterns, and a love for books is the foundation for developing a passion for reading. Oh, and we also sing the alphabet song. Like, a lot.
At around 18 to 24 months, I start teaching my children how to identify letters. Thanks to all that alphabet song singing since birth, they recite ABCs with ease. But letter identification is a whole different ball game. We accomplish this in many ways.
- Purchase or make flashcards. I like having flash cards with capital letters and then a picture of something that begins with that letter. I sit down with my children and go through the cards, one by one, saying, "A, apple. B, bear. C, cat," and so on, allowing them to hold each card and praising them if they repeat it. Short sessions and exaggerated praise and high-fives are key to keeping their attention. And if my kids aren't feeling it, I don't push it. The key is to make it fun.
- We use alphabet magnets, which can be manipulated on a whiteboard or refrigerator. Kids love this hands-on activity.
- A simple app – one that displays letters your child can tap to hear the letter's name – can help reinforce their letter-identifying skills, as well.
Once my kids reliably identify all of the letters (which can take several months) I add in letter sounds to the flash card play. "A, ah, apple. B, buh, bear. C, cuh, cat." You get the idea. I occasionally throw in some other words that start with each letter as I'm going through the flash cards, too.
Letter songs from the ABCmouse.com app or YouTube channel (where they're free) is a fun way to reinforce letter sounds. Beware: Many of these songs are annoyingly catchy or just plain annoying. You will get them stuck in your head.
Once my kids get a solid grasp on letter sounds, I start playing around with words in a number of ways.
- Spell your name. Leaning how their name is spelled is a fun way to show kids that putting letters together has meaning. It's also a great confidence builder. They can practice tracing their name with crayons or markers. Or by using letter magnets. Or even writing with their fingers in shaving cream, if you want to make it a sensory activity.
- Spell simple words. Words are everywhere, even on the side of the road: "STOP" and "EXIT," for example. And don't forget pet names; "cat" and "dog" were some of the first words we started with, too, because my kids love animals.
- Spell funny words. My little ones especially enjoy spelling out potty words, such as "poop" or "fart." But you can go ahead and skip that, if it's not style.
- Gradually introduce word families. Starting with the word "cat," I swap out the first letter for another one, spelling "rat," "sat," "fat," "bat," etcetera. Each time I swap a letter, I ask them, "Now, if I put a 'b' here instead of a 'c,' what does it spell? This works for other word families, such as "can," "ran," "fan," "big," "wig," "pig," and more.
My strategy for sight words is to cycle through sets of maybe 10 simple words – in, out, up, and, we, you, can, get, down, them – until my child masters them. Then I add in more words. Initially, I say the word, have them repeat it, and then use the word in a sentence – the sillier, the better. Eventually though, I show them the card and they are able to say the word themselves. Pro tip: I've that found grouping opposites (up/down, in/out, over/under, yes/no) or even similar words (this, that, then, them, who, what, when, how) together in sets to be helpful.
- Sight word flash cards were my BFFs during this stage. You can make your own, of course, with paper or note cards. If you are not feeling crafty, there are plenty of storebought flash cards available for sale.
- When reading books to my children, I point out words they are learning and say, "Look, you know this word!" And then I check to see if they remembered – and praise them if they got it right!
- Endless Reader is a sight word app my kiddos like, too. I found it effective because kids can drag the letters together in the right order to actually create the words, and then they watch a silly animation that acts out the word. You can try it out with a limited number of words for free or pay for packs of words.
From there, we start with pre-level 1/level 1 readers, which are available in abundance at our local library and online or in bookstores. Getting through these books can be painful because you want to jump in and basically read it for them. But with lots of practice, my children's confidence gradually grew.
Voila! There you have it!
My two school-aged kids weren’t necessarily fluent readers — although my daughter was close — by the time they entered kindergarten. (It’s worth noting, too, that my now-third-grade son was tested and is considered gifted.) But with the help of these phases and tools, they were able to get a jump-start into reading — a valuable skill they will continue to hone and hopefully enjoy for a lifetime. And hopefully, my younger two daughters can do the same.
As parenting often works out, I haven't been as eager with my last two children. I've been working with my almost-4-year-old on flash cards for a while, but I've kind of dropped the ball in comparison to the effort I put into the first two kids. (Whoops! The "perks" of being the younger of 4 siblings.) I haven't done much with my 1-year-old yet, aside from reading and singing ABCs. Right now, I'm just trying to keep her from maiming herself because she's climbing on everything.
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.