Teaching your kids to read

By Kari Reinhardt on August 17, 2011
Children learn to walk and talk at their own pace, so why do we expect them to learn to read according to a schedule.

My husband and I are doing something with our seven-year-old daughter, Charlotte, that we never did with our eldest child, Evan. We are teaching her to read.

We didn’t have to teach Evan. He was somehow fluently reading Grade 5 level novels in Grade 1 with hardly any coaching. We never made exaggerated lip movements to demonstrate “Oooooo!” and “Double-yew” or other letters. Evan briefly sounded out whole words and then could comprehend complex sentences seemingly overnight. We were overly ambitious, rookie parents, so we assumed Evan’s accelerated reading skills were due to the fact he was breastfed, read to daily (even before he could hold his wobbly infant head up) and listened to Chopin in utero. We heaved a sigh of relief. Now Evan could fulfill our master plan in which he would become a benevolent adult genius.

Truthfully our persnickety parenting had little to do with Evan’s inherent flair. The kid just had an astounding knack for reading. Not so for Charlotte. Helping her read initially was like “putch..puss..push-ink a tact, tractor thar-ooo wet cement.” She mistook Bs for Ds, she couldn’t understand many conflicting English spelling rules and often forgot words she had seemingly memorized. We discovered this is normal. After working with her and reading to her nightly, she can now decipher basic chapter books with ongoing guidance from my husband and me.

It was a similar story for Linus, the firstborn child of North Vancouver-based mom Kate Arkiletian. She had high hopes he would embrace reading early, yet no matter how many times she patiently handed him a book, pointed at the alphabet, or dangled other literacy “baits,” Linus refused to be hooked on phonics until halfway through Grade 1.

“Linus had absolutely zero interest in reading,” recalls Kate. “He never wanted to even try it during preschool or kindergarten.” Kate watched a bit warily as other students in Linus’s kindergarten class began to read while Linus tussled with his ABCs. Mostly though, she kept her cool and faith that Linus would eventually read on his own.

“I just kept reading to Linus when he didn’t want to read on his own,” says Kate. “I told myself, ‘It’s okay – one day he’ll just go for it’. But deep inside I didn’t want him to fall behind.”

Now that he is seven years old, Linus eagerly devours age-appropriate books. His progress is right on track and Kate’s laissez-faire attitude was also right on the mark, according to Brampton, Ont.-based optometrist Rick Thompson, even though Linus is currently ranked in the lower end of his Grade 1 class for reading proficiency.

“If a child can read three- or four-letter words by the end of Grade 1, that child is doing quite well,” says Rick. If a young child throws down a book in defeat, parents needn’t throw up their arms in despair. Rick believes reading shouldn’t even be taught in kindergarten or Grade 1. Why? Many children simply aren’t visually mature enough until the age of seven to tackle reading. Rick describes the three stages of ocular development children move through before they acquire optimum visual abilities:

Sensory and gustatory

Children use touch and oral stimulus to help guide their sight. Anyone who has steadied capsizing lamps and wiped down armloads of slobber covered toys can relate to this visual phase.

Audition

This occurs roughly between ages four and six, when children depend on sound to amplify their sight. Think about all the times your child wanted to hear a story over and over.

Visual

By age seven most children don’t rely so heavily on other senses to guide their sight, so they are often ready to handle the solely visual task of reading. “Society pushes kids to read way too early, possibly because parents want bragging rights for raising an early reader or, more altruistically, parents believe children who read at a very young age do better later in life,” Rick says. He insists there is no evidence early readers have a competitive advantage in adulthood. On the other hand, pressuring kids to read before they are physically able (or want to) may actually set them back academically. Reading isn’t even taught in schools in Finland until age seven, nor is it part of the curriculum until age six at Waldorf schools, which number 24 across Canada.

Rebecca Cooper, a teacher at the South Shore Waldorf School in Lunenburg, N.S. says that at age six reading will be introduced if an instructor feels a child is emotionally, physically and psychologically prepped to enter the brave new literacy world. “We assess a child’s readiness to read in many ways,” says Rebecca. “For example, we help correct crossdominance problems if a child favours one eye or (limb) … and we test memory recall and drawing ability as drawing is a precursorto writing and reading.”

While reading is traditionally a passive activity, Rebecca says an interactive approach to teaching literacy works best during the kindergarten and Grade 1 years. “We tell stories and teach the alphabet by ‘acting out’ letters and plots. For instance, we’ll move and growl like a bear when we show the letter B … and we’ll show an Angel and sing ‘Aaaaaah!’ to demonstrate the letter A.” Rick approves of many of the facets of the Waldorf approach but says there is no “one size fits all” method to teaching reading. Both Rick and Rebecca agree someof thebest ways to prepare children for reading don’t involve books at all.

“Play basic games like hopscotch and Simon Says to strengthen hand/eye coordination, memory and (overall) visual development,” says Rick. Tactile approaches also work well, especially when children are at the sensory/gustatory level.

“My own children learned the alphabet by feeling the letters on a special board we had made for them with engraved letters,” he says. Donna Wells, Youth and Circulation Services Manager at the Saskatoon Public Library, says pointing out shapes and talking to a child frequently – even before the child is verbal – help to build visual skills and enrich vocabulary.

“It is also extremely important to read to children way before they can read themselves. Children learn so much by being read to, such as that you read from top to bottom and left to right and that there is a difference between pictures and words.” Take heart if your little scholar is bent on renewing the same library book for weeks on end. Repetition is sometimes more important than variety.

“Young children are actually ‘working’ at deciphering words when they study the same book over and over,” says Donna. If your child has an initially frosty reception to learning to read, keep your cool and wait it out. “Have your child’s vision tested and rule out learning disabilities if he or she isn’t reading well by the age of eight. But keep things very low pressure until then,” says Rick Thompson. In retrospect, Kate Arkiletian is glad she nudged instead of shoved Linus towards reading.

“I have friends who hired tutors to teach their very young kids to read,” she says. “Their kids are certainly good at sounding out words but they don’t fully understand what they are reading and they don’t seem to really enjoy it.” Linus on the other hand, now gleefully devours books he used to keep at a distance. “I’m so glad I didn’t stress out when Linus wasn’t ‘getting’ reading,” says Kate. “Linus finally got excited about books and is clearly delighted about being able to read. He wouldn’t have flourished like this if I had pushed him.”

Reading readiness is measured more by achild’s interest than his or her age. The key is to know when to forge ahead and when to retreat. Here are some ways our experts suggest to gauge a child’s pre-literacy skills:

  • Interest. “When kids are getting in to reading, they’ll pick up books or newspapers on their own. If a small child argues with you or walks away when you are trying to get them to read – back off,” says optometrist Rick Thompson.
  • Sound it out. Librarian Donna Wells recommends testing for phonological awareness. If children are aware that little sounds together make a word and if they can spot when two words make a whole word (i.e. hotdog) they are ready to read simple sentences.
  • Keeping track. “Gauge narrative ability. If a child can coherently tell a story she has the patience to follow a tale in a book,” says Donna.

Other signs of reading readiness:

  • strong motor skills
  • ability to draw
  • good memory recall

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2012.

By Kari Reinhardt| August 17, 2011

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