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How Can I Teach a Child to Read?

Paulla Estes
Updated May 16, 2024
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Teaching a child to read is one of the most important things a parent can do. Though teachers may have more training or experience, parents are every child’s first teachers, and starting the process of learning to read begins long before any child attends school. Here are a few simple tips from an experienced elementary school educator.

Take Time

It is important to view reading as one part of a child’s total language development, not a separate skill. With this lens, it is clear that early exposure to spoken language as well as written language will have lasting effects on the way a child learns to read. It probably isn’t a surprise to you that learning is intimately tied to your emotions. Stress, anxiety, anger, fear, or other negative emotions causes the release of hormones that can prevent retention of new information and slow the learning process. This is just one more reason why reading with your young child should be a fun shared activity, not a stressful one. You can also make things a little bit easier by getting an English tutor for your child. These online learning sessions can supplement education at school as well as the more relaxed personal tutoring you do at home.

The single most helpful thing a parent can do to help their child learn to read is to read to their infants, and read with their toddlers and young children. There are so many reasons why this simple action has a strong effect on a child’s learning. First, the time spent with your child is vitally important to helping them develop positive self-esteem.

More than that, if you are consistent about reading with your child, they will learn from your example that reading is important. Finally, through watching and listening as you read, your child will naturally begin to pick up patterns in sounds and words. It may not sound like much, but remember that without basic reading your kid will not be able to move on to more complex topics like Algebra, Statistics, or Calculus. Equipping them with this basic skill will lead to more advanced learning opportunities in the future.

It’s a Process

As with walking, talking, or riding a bike, there are many skills that contribute to a child’s ability to read. Good parents don’t dwell on the imperfections of their toddler’s speech--quite the opposite in fact, as most parents beam with pride at the short, mispronounced language experiments that come out of their children’s mouths. Learning to read is the same way. Just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean that it’s not reading, and each new book should be another way to build confidence in your young reader.

There are many important steps that parents can guide their children through as they are learning to read. “Reading” pictures is a simple but powerful skill that teaches children to assign meaning to objects on a page. Reading pictures is a great habit for young readers to establish, because it helps them to rely on context for clues to unknown words or ideas.

Many parents observe that their children will begin reciting a favorite story or book long before they are actually able to read it. When children mimic reading in this way, they are experimenting with what reading looks like and sounds like, and building confidence that they can do it.

“Sounding out” is a well-recognized idea that often comes up in early stages of reading. Recognizing letter/sound patterns is vitally important to a child’s success as a reader. Rhyming games, sound games, and sound blending games will all contribute to a child’s ability to read. A simple example may be asking a child to say as many words as they can think of that starts with the same sound as “goat.” Making the connection between sounds off the page will only support them as they learn to connect written symbols and sounds.

There is a drawback to the phonics “sounding out” strategy. Many students and parents subscribe to the unconscious belief that if they can sound out a word, they can read the word. Separating the written word from its understood meaning is understandably dangerous. Even as adults, we encounter words that we have the ability to say or even spell correctly, though we have no idea what the word’s meaning actually is. We have come to rely on other strategies, primarily looking at the context of the word, to help us understand it. Young children are not different, and encouraging them to use pictures and prior knowledge to make sense of what they are reading can help them become skillful readers, even into adulthood.

Love Patience and Love

One very important thing to remember as you prepare to teach a child to read is that reading is a very complex and complicated process. As adults, it is easy to take for granted the many different ways that we process language. As teachers, it is important for every parent to recognize that it takes a lot of work to turn squiggles on a page into sounds, sounds into words, and words into meaning. Love, patience, and a love of reading will be visible to your child and will encourage them greatly as they learn. You can also supplement any other form of learning by finding a personal tutor for your kid. There are tutors who have hundreds or even thousands of hours of experience teaching kids, so they should know exactly how to deal with yours.

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Paulla Estes
By Paulla Estes , Writer
Based in Maine, Paulla Estes is a freelance writer and website editor with a B.A. in English Literature from George Mason University. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Paulla appreciates the flexibility and consistency that comes with contributing to WiseGeek. She relishes the opportunity to continuously learn new things while crafting informative and engaging articles for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon206507 — On Aug 16, 2011

I don't think that it's a big deal if a 5-year-old understands the meaning of every word. My child can read "Dan rides his bike to the lake," and easily understands every word. But he could also read "Dan rides his bike to Denver," even though he doesn't know what "Denver" is. He can read and say the word and ask me what it means.

The reason he can read a word that he does not understand or recognize is that he has been taught phonics! If you teach your child with a synthetic phonics storybook like "An Ant - Learn to Read," your child will not encounter any words that he or she does not understand, as all the words have been chosen to be understandable by 4 to 5-year-olds. A 5-year-old child has a vocabulary of 20,000 words, so there is no reason to use any words that the child has not yet encountered.

By anon132636 — On Dec 07, 2010

I have researching homeschooling techniques for my child. I have found flash card apps to be invaluable as the child can pick up a phone or jump on a computer to learn while I prepare for my next lesson. Wondering if anyone has any tips on the best application and techniques for this. Currently I am using Flash Card Maker Pro for Android devices but I am open to suggestions. --flash cards android

By flashcards — On Dec 05, 2010

I have found that my daughter is very receptive to learning with my phone. A couple of months ago I downloaded a flash card application from the Android Market called Flash Card Maker Pro. After a couple of weeks she increased her reading level by a full grade. Granted, she was reading at Kindergarten level and is now in first grade.

Regardless, we are very proud of her and hope the the app continues to improve her skills. I found a ton of information on flash card apps doing a search for flash cards android. Let me know if anyone else has had a similar experience.

By anon126923 — On Nov 14, 2010

My daughter is three years old and has begun reading early readers - she is probably at a mid to late first grade level already and she has only been in a preschool a few months where there are no books available for the children since they are deemed too young (maybe they think the children will damage the books as they do read stories to them there).

How did I teach her? Well, I didn't really. I read to her from the time she was six months old and pointed out large words to her that meant something from the time she was a year old. We told her what the sounds of letters were and she knew them all by 18 months (she only learned the alphabet song at school when she was nearly three years old) By two years she knew a large number of words and we would point to her favorite words in stories we were reading her and she would fill in the word - I think she knew those stories by heart as she could recite long portions of them.

I did track under the words I was reading at a stage and she learned that words are read from left to right.

Shortly before she turned two she was reading a large number of sight words and by two and a half I would point to a word in a story and she knew that was a basic phonetic word and if she didn't know what it was I would sound it out for her - by three she knew how to blend and I had not tested her at all.

At three I took out very early readers, gave her a few flashcards to check she knew the words (she did) and she was reading - since then I have chosen books that gradually increase her vocabulary and shown her a little how phonics works only when she does not know the word that comes next.

She has learned already how to use picture clues simply by me asking about them when we get to a word she sticks on.

But she likes reading - she's seen us read to ourselves, she's had endless times cuddling up and listening to stories and now that she knows how to read herself I just read longer and more difficult books to her as well as the easier ones.

I hope and pray that school will not ruin it for her by teaching her what she will already know well by then. The definition of reading is to derive meaning from text, so unless what they are reading is meaningful to them we will be wasting their time (which is why I am not so keen on pure phonics instructions books as they are so busy trying to stick to phonics rules that the text means little) and if they do somehow manage to learn to sound out words but do not understand it then it is also by definition not reading.

By anon123581 — On Nov 02, 2010

This advice is good, and I wholeheartedly agree with the comments about the drawbacks to phonics.

The key to teaching a child to read is to teach them to recognize the most used whole words and practice the words they have learned until they're comfortable with them. Point out the words whenever they occur in everyday reading material.

Children have an amazing instinctive capacity to read, so don't be frightened of channeling that. The Reading Revival reading scheme is a great tool to do this.

By emmakaye8 — On Jul 31, 2010

Wow! the first three lines of the article are my thoughts exactly. A parent is the first in line to teach a child to read. Just because a child goes to school, does not relieve the parent of the duty to help educate a child.

By anon96440 — On Jul 15, 2010

Learning to read is about incorporating meaningful experiences with learning to read. Every program needs reading comprehension, writing, games, and fun into an initial program for a lifetime of successful reading skills. Erika B, Ph.D.

By suntan12 — On Jul 06, 2010

Sunny27- I agree that teaching reading should be fun. With all of the software available, I don’t know how it can’t be fun. Many software programs like Starfall are free and offer creative animation to help the child learn to read.

The format maintained a positive and congratulatory tone which encouraged the child to continue with the lesson. I think that parents have to try many things to see what the child feels comfortable with using. But I do think that a daily story time is a must to encourage the love for reading.

By Sunny27 — On Jul 06, 2010

Mrbugles- I agree with you, but the writer’s suggestion of daily reading to the child is a good one. Picking books rich in alliteration and rhyming text allow the child to learn that certain words make the same sound with a specific ending.

Reading stories by Dr. Seuss really helps. Children love the repetitive rhyming and the stories are really fun for the parent to read as well.

Teaching children to read should be an enjoyable experience and not a stressful one because they will later associate negativity with reading and won’t want to read. Books on tape played in the car can also help the child.

By mrbugles — On Mar 10, 2009

I notice a lot of people worry that their children are able to sound out words, but don't grasp the meaning (in fact, it's also mentioned in this article). What I don't understand is why people don't concurrently teach vocabulary along with phonics skills. If children learn how to sound out words along with what those words mean, then they'll find it much more relevant to them. If you want to teach a child to read I think this is a very important part, which is why I made it a focus in my learning instruction.

Paulla Estes

Paulla Estes


Based in Maine, Paulla Estes is a freelance writer and website editor with a B.A. in English Literature from George...
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