Reading Strategies for Beginning Readers

One of the biggest questions I often get as an early elementary educator and a parent of young children is “what are the most important things I can do to help my child learn to read?” Early childhood and lower elementary teachers have many professional development courses and training on the most critical components to early literacy. Even if a child is in pre-school or day care where reading skills are taught, I find many parents want to supplement at home to support their young reader(s).  In very simple terms, I will explain the most important reading strategies for beginning readers. These are:

  • Print Awareness
  • Letter Knowledge
  • Phonological Awareness
  • Listening Comprehension
  • Motivation to Read

Reading Strategies for Beginning Readers

Print Awareness – Use language in everyday life

When a baby is born, they do not automatically connect print with language. This is a skill that is explicitly taught by you as the parent, or by their teachers when they attend school.  It is so interesting to watch children skip over words or sentences on pages because they do not realize they are there.  Even if the words are in plain sight, it is a skill to notice them.  I love watching a child connect with print; it is a gift as a teacher to help them achieve this, but parents can receive this gift at home as well. Here are a few ways that you can daily encourage a child’s print awareness:

  • Use board books or cloth books and have your child hold the book as soon as they are able to grasp it on their own. Until then, hold their hand and guide them through turning the pages.
  • If there are only a few words on the page, point to each word as you say it. (this is called one-to-one correspondence and a skill that will be assessed in Pre-K and Kindergarten)
  • Read aloud every day — but also use print labels, signs, menus. Print is everywhere! (this is called environmental print)
  • Being familiar with various ways people use language helps children feel comfortable with books. This means pointing out a speech bubble as someone is talking or showing “automatopia” is used in books as a sound, but is also a word (ex. whoosh, ruff) This will facilitate their eventual understanding that print is useful to them.

A side note; as we have traveled around the world, we have collected books in languages that we as a family do not speak ourselves.  I feel books in these languages have been an invaluable tool to “play with words”.  We butcher how to pronounce the beloved Russian character “Cheburashka”, the Polish adventures of “TinTin”, the poor little Spanish bird in “Eres mi Mama”, and our go-to animal voice exaggeration character is always the wolf in the German Little Red Riding Hood “Rotkappchen”.  My husband and I treasure watching my daughter travel to all of these wonderful memories through her books, but also make it a fun and memorable reading session to “pretend read” before my daughter was reading on her own. For more on books as the best travel souvenir, click HERE.

Letter Knowledge – See and recognize letters

Based on the research of Ehri, Invernizzi, Cunningham, Caulkins, and McBride-Chang as well as others, that BOTH letters and letter sounds simultaneously are highly useful for teaching kids to read and write.  However, there needs to be a system in place so that you are not throwing the whole alphabet at your child to digest at the same time or teaching in a haphazard way.  The foundation of reading is to have your child master each letter and sound. When you start adding digraphs, dipthongs, vowel teams, etc., it will be extremely difficult and confusing for your child if they do not have the basics.

You never want to teach the letters in ABC order. One of the first songs that most children learn is the ABC song which gives them the letters in order already.  This is wonderful, however, if you teach the letters out-of-order, you are ensuring they have mastered them.  Many students begin Kindergarten and when asked “what is this letter” and need to sing the ABC song to identify it correctly.

Phonemes are the meaning of a letter and your “mouth move” is signaled by each letter. When you look at spelling a word, the sequence gives you a “road map” which is the phoneme sequence.  Reading is following this road map of phonemes and you have to understand the map in order to read the word.

I recommend teaching letters in the following order:

The first letter to begin when teaching your child is with the child’s name. The pride your child feels in his identity is important from the beginning. After that, the order in which I teach them is based on phonemes:

m, t, a, s, d, i, f, r, th, l, o, n, p, e, h, v, sh, u, b, k, ck, c, g, j, w, ch, tch, x, z, qu, wh, y

I know you see digraphs (two sounds that when put together make a unique sound) mixed in there (th, sh, ck, ch, tch, wh) and you are wondering why. It is important to teach these digraphs early because so many words in beginning books have each of them and it helps build fluency to be able to identify them pronounce them correctly (ex. the, this, she, duck, cheese, watch, when, where, why).

As you introduce the letter and phoneme to children, you are going to dissect each one like a scientist.  Put on your proverbial scientists hats and goggles on and explore each letter phoneme explicitly.  Have your child experiment with the sound with their mouth. This takes time and practice for correct pronunciation.

It is VITAL you do not teach the sound and attach a vowel. Ex. the letter C is /k/ not /kuh/. You have to cut off the extra vowel phoneme or eventually when they start sounding out words in writing, they will have trouble differentiating the sounds.

In order to attach meaning to a letter and sound, you must make a meaningful connection to the real world. For each child, their environmental surroundings are different. For example, most children have heard a baby cry, so associating /a/ with the sound and a picture of a crying baby will help the child make the connection. However, if you live in the desert, you would not use the association of an avalanche for the letter /a/.

Phonological Awareness – Hearing and making sounds

When children are babies; you may wonder if it even matters to teach your child how to hear and make sounds. When you study neurological research about sounds,  you find that babies can hear the world in a very different way than older children and in adulthood.  We as adults often take for granted our abilities to sort out and prioritize the sounds we hear.  If you have ever studied a foreign language as a beginner, you know that when you first begin listening to the language being spoken, you cannot decipher individual words, or even sounds sometimes.  I was learning Turkmen as an adult, and even when beginning with learning their alphabet, it was extremely difficult to hear and repeat some of the sounds my teacher made.

The human voice can produce at least 150 phonemes (speech sounds), and English only uses about 40 sounds. Researchers are still in the ground-breaking phase of studying all the mechanisms of the brain that lead to language development  (Friederici and Wartenburger, 2010Kuhl and Rivera-Gaxiola, 2008). However, there is a great deal more data now that shows infants innate predispositions, and their incredible abilities to learn once exposed to natural language. Infants who are less than 1-year-old are able to discover the sounds and words used in their particular language(s) whereas the most sophisticated computers still cannot.

A young child’s ability to express emotion, empathy, and thoughts through words is a breathtaking feat that only a human brain can accomplish. There are complex and multi-modal language learning processes (speaking, writing, listening, reading) that tiny infants are capable of using from birth.  This is paired alongside with exposure to items and events: the natural world of faces, actions, voices, etc. Furthermore, if a child is exposed to multiple languages, they will have higher behavior regulation (raising their hand instead of shouting out, taking turns, waiting in line, etc.) when they begin school.

Listening Comprehension- Understanding what you hear

In order to learn a language, a child depends on listening. This is especially crucial in the first 5 years of their life.  For the brain to stimulate comprehension, listening provides the aural (hearing) input that serves as the basis for language acquisition and enables a child to eventually interact in spoken communication.

There are many things a child is hearing passively (in the background).  Passive listening could be a child hearing you talk to a friend on the phone, the music playing at the store, etc. Active listening is when you are speaking directly to your child as the intended audience.  Both active and passive listening is vital to language acquisition.  Effective listening comprehension is developed when a child can adjust their listening behavior to deal with a variety of situations, types of input, and listening purposes.

The National Capitol Language Resource Center gives a list of both top-down and bottom up strategies that young children will eventually master. Top-down strategies are listener based; the listener taps into background knowledge of the topic, the situation or context, the type of text, and the language. This background knowledge activates a set of expectations that help the listener to interpret what is heard and anticipate what will come next.

Top-down strategies include:

  • listening for the main idea
  • predicting
  • drawing inferences
  • summarizing

Bottom-up strategies are text based; the listener relies on the language in the message, that is, the combination of sounds, words, and grammar that creates meaning.

Bottom-up strategies include:

  • listening for specific details (characters, location, objects)
  • recognizing cognates (spelling patterns ex. fan, pan, Dan)
  • recognizing word-order patterns (ex. The ball is red. The balloon is red.)

As you read to a child from Age 0-5, they are beginning to learn how to listen strategically if you engage them in the questions about the story. Children as young as 1-year-old can monitor their comprehension and evaluate whether they achieved the goal that was set up in the book walk or prediction questions you as the parent asked them.  For example, when you ask a child while looking at the cover “what do you think this book is going to be about?”, then  they find their answer was correct as you read, even young babies can acknowledge their success to you by smiling or excitement.

Older children will immediately refer back to the questions you selected when they find a detail you asked them about.  I have seen this work in my classroom over and over and it does wonders for the self-esteem of an emerging reader to be correct in a prediction.  Setting your child up for this kind of success is a powerful influence in mastering reading fluency and comprehension.

Motivation to Read – Cultivating the love of books

Cultivating a love of books begins by reading books to children early on.  If you are a parent reading this, start from Day 1 by taking 3 of your favorite books to the hospital with you in your go-bag. I also recommend having a copy of Literacy and the Youngest Learner in your bag for yourself.  Educators, this is a phenomenal resource as well.

Book-sharing time should be as a special time —this process cannot be rushed or done haphazardly. The saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.  Think through 3 times per day when you can be reading together calmly as a family or as a class.   Just like appointments, going to the gym, etc. have to be planned and scheduled, schedule and plan reading times into your day so that you can manage your day and still keep reading a priority.

If you are able, visit your public or school library often. Make the librarian(s) your best friend.  I recently got all 24 of our books for our Book Advent tradition for $6 at our local library sale.  The librarian knows my family consumes books and we will share with others.  When I was overseas, there were no public libraries with books in English, so I had to improvise.  The US Embassy and International School sponsored book swaps that we would frequent, but I would trade and borrow books with other families. You may not have access to many books, so utilizing online websites is critical. For a list of the best online resources for books that I have found particularly useful, click HERE.

Again, I stress the importance of reading every day. This gives you a natural way to have a conversation about the topic or characters in the book.  Books also have pictures of things you may not see in daily routines, so always be sure to name the pictures as you point to them — this is also strategic in building your child’s vocabulary.  I hope that your emerging reader(s) find success as you travel the world through the pages of books.

P.S. Book Oblivion is offering a new course in January for a limited time called “Teaching Kids to Read Ages 0-5“. You can  jump on the waiting list and receive a free eBook, “The Importance of Reading Aloud; A Parent’s Guide” by clicking HERE.

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