Setting your child up on the right reading path

Mother reading to her son
Mother reading to her son 

Crawl before walking

A friend called me up saying that her 3½ year old daughter came home from daycare and announced that she needed to be taught how to read – could I help? The friend had no idea where to start. As a child my friend had struggled with learning to read and wanted to make sure that her daughter was taught the right way – first time around. As I teacher, I explained that she was already doing a lot of the right things, such as reading to her children every night, but it got me thinking…

The first proverbial step in teaching my own two children to walk was crawling, a natural skill that most children master at some point in their first 12 months. At the time, I didn’t consider the conditions that were needed to support the process of crawling and facilitate it – not simply the strength to hold their little body up, but also head control, being comfortable on their tummies and the cognitive development to co-ordinate the crawling function.

Teaching reading has a similar process: it is not simply putting a book in front of a child and having them recognise the letters and the words that the letters make. And it need not be such a formal process. From birth we can do lots of things around the house that help set a child up for their reading lives.

Australian ‘Word Poverty’

Our children are living today in a state of “word poverty”; in a society where they are more likely to have mastered the internet before starting kindergarten; or suggest a google search, or simple phone call to mummy or daddy to find the answer rather than look through a book. Communication takes on so many non-vocal forms that we forget sometimes to use words and simply talk.

The statistics bear this out; 27 per cent of Australian pupils in third grade do not meet the minimum performance standards of literacy that is required for effective participation in further schooling (Australia Bureau of Statistics, 1997) and 20 per cent of Australian 15-74 year olds have ‘very poor’ literacy skills (Australia Bureau of Statistics, 1997). In short, our children are being held back because their bank of words is not developed enough and the sad truth is that, how well our children learn in any subject or skill is totally dependent on how well they learn to read!

What’s so beneficial about reading to your kids?

I read the book, We’re Going on A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen to my daughter every single night for more than 12 months! She was only 18 months when it was given as a gift – but she was old enough to pick it from the shelf every night without fail! Children often want to have the same book read over and over, this is not a detriment to the process of learning to read – it is actually a good thing as it promotes fluency, embeds vocabulary through repetition and involves their imagination and joy of the story itself.


As I mentioned earlier, reading to your child not only develops listening, attention span and memory, but also builds language skills for learning to talk and pre-mathematics concepts such as numbers, shapes and order. It is also a great way to spend some quality quiet time with your child. The more you read, the better their vocabulary will become which will be invaluable down the track when the formal learning to read takes place.

Reading to your children has the additional benefit of helping your child listen to the sounds in words and notice how some are the same and some are different; knowing about these sounds is key to Synthetic Phonics, which is how schools should be teaching reading once the National Curriculum comes into place.

Synthetic Phonics is a method that teaches children how spoken words are composed of sounds, called phonemes, and how the letters in words represent those phonemes. Synthetic Phonics involves teaching small groups of letters quickly then showing children how letter sounds can be blended together to pronounce unfamiliar words. This method is effective because it helps children match visual symbols to auditory sounds, gives them the ability to segment sounds to words and helps them understand that most sounds can be represented in more than one way. In short, it’s much easier to learn to read.

By reading aloud you are already helping develop a multitude of skills that will greatly further their reading and listening comprehension later in life. They will learn about words and language and about the world outside of their home; they’ll learn how to listen attentively and to notice how the sounds in words can vary; they’ll begin to pay attention to the language used in books; and to notice how this language is different from spoken language; it will also, of course build their vocabulary with words they can understand and use.  

Apart from understanding the variances in sounds, listening to stories will also provide your children with background knowledge about a variety of topics that they can access when needed and help them learn to recount and retell stories. This will help them talk confidently about topics, as well as characters, settings and story lines, which they will eventually relate to their own lives – an important skill for successful future comprehension. Finally it will help them learn about how books work in that print (and not pictures) is spoken words written down, letters in words are written in a certain order, and written words are separated by spaces.

Where to start

There are certain things you can do to not only ensure your child loves to read, but also ensure they get the most out of the process without making it feel like hard work for everyone involved.

Make sure you choose books that have similar content to your child’s life, for example, stories about familiar daily activities, situations and school or daycare. Young children have great memories; these situations, paired with simple story lines, will allow your child to retell the story his or her own words to you, their friends or even a soft toy! Pattern books with repetitive and predictable rhymes, phrases and story lines will also help their comprehension and involvement in the stories you read to them.

Children are also incredibly curious. Books with facts, explanations, new people and things will satisfy their curiosity and unusual folk tales and animal characters will make sure they maintain their attention during longer stories! This variety of information allows them to use their existing knowledge to try understand these new ideas, and the variety of sounds (especially in rhymes and alliteration) will hasten their learning of letters and what words should sound like.

There is more to reading to your child however, than merely the choice of book to use.

How to read aloud!

There are several methods you can use to maximise the learning experience your child has while reading together.

First introduce the book to your child; read out the title, the author’s name and even the illustrator’s name. Look at the cover together, and if your child is old enough to talk ask them to guess what the book might be about. Based on their assumptions, you can suggest things to look and listen for during the story. This kind of preparation helps children predict what might happen in narratives, and who might appear in the book, an important reading skill to have later on in school.

If your child is a little older, run your finger under the text while reading; this shows your child that it is the words (and not the pictures) which tell the story. This is not to say that pictures don't help! You can ask your child to look closely at the pictures to help understand the story and to make predictions about what might happen next. Add to this by asking your child ‘thinking questions’, such as ‘what might happen next’? ‘Where did he go’? ‘Why did she do that?’

Another method is to repeat interesting words or rhymes, not only while reading a book (and encouraging your child to repeat after you), but at other times, like while driving. Another way to ride on interesting sounds is to pause when reading a repetitive or predictable phrase and wait for your child to ‘fill in the blank’.

During story-time, be sure to only answer questions related to the book; all other questions that have nothing to do with the book are for later on. Also remember to talk about the story during and after to follow up on the story. Ask your child to talk, draw or paint scenes from the book; or even act as one of the characters! If your child does ask questions you can’t answer, be sure to reference books together to get the answer so your child understands that this is a way to find out about things you don’t know.

As with all educational processes, there are some things that could do to discourage your children.

What NOT to do!

Whatever you do, don’t show your child that you think reading is a chore, or that it’s something that you wish you didn’t have to do! There’s nothing that can squash enthusiasm faster than a parent who clearly doesn’t want to be doing something with you. Along these lines be sure not to complain if your child wants to read the same book again and again; play the part of the long-suffering parent a little longer and maintain that enthusiasm! Suffice to say, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is forever ingrained in my mind,20 years after it has been put away!

It’s also very important to remember throughout that you are not teaching your child; you’re reading to entertain them, so don’t choose books that are too hard or that only you find interesting, or think it a good idea to interrogate and test your child after the story. This just turns a bonding experience between parent and child into a test; not enjoyable in the slightest.

In terms of expectations, don’t expect your child to read independently before they are ready, but also don’t stop reading to your child once they are an independent reader. Children of all ages love to be read to while snuggled on your lap, so keep enjoying books together for as long as possible!

The world around you

You don’t need to wrap up pre-reading with stories alone. Other than repeating stories and rhymes while in the car or out and about, as well as drawing, painting and signing songs, you can also discuss the grocery shopping with your child at the supermarket – have them collect the potatoes, or lemons, ask them what colours things are or the shapes on packaging. These activities also help in the pre-reading process with word bank building and pre-math and pre-reading skill development. Not to mention making numerous supermarket shopping trips a little less stressful.

But the most important factor is…

… reading should be fun!

Reading to your child is all about bonding, closeness and keeping it fun! Leave the tests and ‘hard stuff’ for school so you truly enjoy your time together. Pre-reading is about teaching the fundamentals of our world through stories.

Suffice to say that once my friend was armed with this information, teaching her three and a half year old to read became more of a lesson in using the everyday items and experiences around her than anything else. Her now almost six year old is reading ahead of her age and loves story-time and borrowing books from the library. Synthetic Phonics was introduced when the child was five, but her passion for reading was already set by this time and her 1st grade teacher has commented positively on this passion. My friend is now trying to work on developing a passion for writing which is another ballgame all together!

Resource List – Phonics program for parents and teachers alike – Contains a guide to choosing age appropriate books – Offer free delivery for online books and have a huge selection – The Children’s Book Council contains lots of ideas, reviews and new titles

Jo-Anne Dooner is a literacy trainer, primary school vice principal and author of an Australian phonics literacy