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March 1, 1997
Teach Your Child To Read Well
Preschool Through Grade Three
By Howard Hobbs, PhD,
Reading, Language Arts Specialist

STOCKTON DESK - Mothers can easily teach their baby to read. It's easier than you think. Remember your teaching must take place all day, every day and must include:

    (1) attention to spoken and written words
    (2) practicing sounds based on phonics regularities in spelling, and meaning based on the use of simple sentence structures
    (3) individual tutoring and group language play activities for children.

Probably the most important element of your reading program for your baby is your own understanding that spoken words and syllables are themselves made up of sequences of elementary speech sounds. This understanding is essential for teaching those sounds to your baby. Learning to read our alphabetic language depends on these elementary sounds that letters represent.

In the early stages of your baby's reading program use sounds in association with the shape of the letters of the alphabet.

There is nothing that is more important to good readers. General intelligence, reading readiness, and listening are all testing your baby's ability to identify the sound-meaning relationship(Stanovich, 1986, 1993).

The lack of this awareness is the most powerful determinant of reading failure in the primary grades.

Failure to learn the English alphabetic system and in learning how print represents spoken words can be avoided by early home teaching. When young children can hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words to express themselves, they have an extremely good chance of becoming superior readers in school (Adams, 1990).

As your baby becomes confident in the use of spoken language, they quite naturally begin to attend to meaning associated with sound. From that point on, you can teach your baby to read well through language activities that encourage active exploration and experimentation with sounds to familiarize your child with writing down spoken words on paper with a pencil (Hobbs, 1973).

Teaching your baby to read is important whether your child is in nursery, prekindergarten, kindergarten, or first grade (Yopp, 1992).

Try to encourage your child to attend to the separate words of sentences (e.g., rhyming songs, print tracking); then break up words into syllables (e.g., clapping syllables); next, detect and generate rhymes; move along to engage in alliterative language play (e.g., listening for or generating words that begin with a specific initial phoneme); then blend phonemes to make words (e.g., /b/-/a/-/t/= bat); and make new words by substituting one phoneme for another (e.g., change the /h/ in "hot" to /p/); finally, identify the middle and final phonemes of words; then segment words into phonemes (e.g., dog = /d/-/o/-/g/).

Remember When You Teach Reading To Your Baby - You Are Training The Way Your Baby's Mind Works!

Letter Names and Shapes

When the young child can quickly recognize letter shapes, it is time to begin teaching simple word spelling. The child can then begin to appreciate that all words are made of sequences and patterns of letters, sounds, and meanings. Children can then comfortably discriminate the shape of one letter from another. That is the time to begriming teaching letter-sound pairings.

Encouraging young children to produce their own spellings of simple words is a powerful way to communicate acceptance of their efforts. Children will begin to write on their own as soon as they can form the letters with adequate ease and to their own satisfaction.

Generally, knowing the names of the letters in the alphabet is more a test of memory than of ability to read from the knowledge of the sound those letters make in while words. Yet, public school teachers have historically relied upon a child's ability to name all the letters, as a criterion for reading readiness.

Because the names and shapes of the letters in English are very similar to one another, their learning is best fostered through numerous guided and playful exposures to the alphabet. Across the prekindergarten and kindergarten years, mothers should create many opportunities to engage their children with the names, shapes, and formation of the letters of the alphabet.


Phonic teaching refers to a teaching method where letter-sound correspondences for letters and letter clusters are taught by drill; blended; practiced in words, word lists, and word families; and practiced initially in text with a high percentage of decodable words linked to the phonics lesson.

In reading for meaning, skillful readers move their eyes through text left to right, line by line, and word by word. With the exception of short function words, such as a, on, of, and any, they almost never skip or guess. Instead, they fixate on very nearly each and every word of text.

Further, during the fraction of a second that they do so, they take in -and must take in - all of its letters, translating them to speech sounds on their way to evoking the word's meaning.

These word recognition processes are far too rapid and automatic for skillful readers to be aware of them. Nevertheless, their reality has been broadly confirmed through a variety of technologically sophisticated research methods with mature readers, including eye-movement recordings and brain-imaging techniques.

To become a skillful reader, your child must learn how to decode words instantly and effortlessly. In doing this, your child must be taught initially to examine the letters and letter patterns of every new word while reading.

It is perfectly acceptable to tach the young reader to rely on context for word identification, but good readers soon abandon that time consuming technique as reading speed increases (Stanovich, 1980).

Your young reader must develop fast, accurate decoding skills in order to be able to take full advantage of a public school instruction.

The reason that phonics instruction is frequently used by experienced reading specialists is that it really helps young children understand, apply, and learn the alphabetic principle that is the foundation of the spelling conventions of written expression.

Phonics is systematic and gradually builds from basic elements to more subtle and complex patterns.

The goal of teaching your baby to read is for you to convey the logic of the reading and writing system and to invite its extension to new words that your child will encounter on his own.

Your phonics instruction is best conducted with a relatively small set of consonants and short vowels. These spelling-sound relationships should be developed progressively. By using this limited set of letters to build as many familiar words as possible, students can be convinced of the utility of phonics and shown that every letter matters. Most commonly, initial lessons should focus on short words that adhere to the basic left-to-right principle of sounding and blending, such as fat and fit.

Once your child has learned to sound out such basic short-vowel patterns, lessons should be extended to include the most common other vowel spellings. Children who understand how the alphabetic principle works can find it easy to add new letter-sound pairs to the working set.

Whether irregular or not, those short words of extremely high frequency, such as the, of,are, and you, should become easily recognized from the beginning. Text cannot be written without these very high frequency words.

As other irregular words are added along the way, it is worth noting them and their phonetic regularities.

Context has a powerful effect on your child's comprehension of words and sentences. The use of syntactic (grammar) and semantic (meaning) levels is helpful in a number of ways. Sometimes the young reader will use context cues when learning decoding skills. Context is also useful to resolve ambiguity (e.g., in the two pronunciations of the word read).

A third use is to suggest a possible meaning when a word is unknown to the reader (e.g., the meaning of facade when the reader does not know that facade means the front or face of a building).

Fluency with text is the ultimate key to the door of comprehension and higher-order thinking.

The best reading instruction you can provide is to provide a strong relationship between what your child learns in phonics and what he reads. A high proportion of the words in the earliest selections your child is given to read should conform to the phonics already learned. After your child has demonstrated initial mastery of the phonics level taught, it is also essential that context be integrated, through sharing reading and writing activities.


Good spelling is important to your child's reading fluency and future vocabulary development (Adams, Treiman, and Pressley, 1996; Read, 1986).

By engaging your child in thinking actively and reflectively about the sounds of words and their spellings, a strong cognitive foundation for both independent learning has been established.

Gradually, the focus of you instructional activities for your child should be extended to more complex spelling patterns and words. Moving pattern by pattern from basics through consonant blends, long vowel spellings, inflections, and so on, the primary goal is to instill the larger logic and regularities of the system and its conventions. The early exploratory lessons will evolve seamlessly into formal spelling instruction.challenges is that of persuading children to go beyond this tendency.

In public school beyond Third Grade, you should visit your child's teachers and inquire if they are using instruction to extend spellings and meanings of prefixes, suffixes, and word roots. This cannot be emphasized too much.

Leading children to notice such patterns across many the many different contexts covered in the school curricula makes it easier for your child to learn the particular words in the teacher's lesson. At the same time, it supports their ability to look for and use such spelling patterns and word analysis strategies beyond the lesson in their own reading and writing.challenges is that of persuading children to go beyond this tendency.

The primary goal of spelling instruction, is to alert your child to patterns, to how words are put together, and to conventions and correctness.

Spelling lists and quizzes should be purposeful and support and reinforce reading and writing instruction. Extensive reading and writing, including opportunities to edit for final publication, for real purposes and audiences, play an indispensable role in mastering spelling.challenges is that of persuading children to go beyond this tendency.

Vocabulary Development challenges is that of persuading children to go beyond this tendency.

Written language places far greater demands on your child's vocabulary knowledge than does casual spoken language. Indeed, more advanced texts depend so heavily on precise wording to build meaning and message that, from the middle grades on, students' reading comprehension can be closely estimated by measures of their vocabulary. Your child will be able to learn from these texts only if he approaches them with most of the vocabulary he is required to already know.

Learning to read brings with it special opportunities as well as special needs for expanding one's vocabulary. Current communication research indicates that of the roughly 3,000 new words that the average student learns per year, the majority are learned by encountering them in text. However, the number of new words that children can learn from text depends on how much they read, and the amount that children read ranges enormously. As documented by research, the ninetieth percentile fifth grader reads about 200 times more text per year than the tenth percentile reader does (Nagy, Herman, and Anderson, 1985).

In the interest of vocabulary development, your child should be read to as much as possible. Yet this cannot be the whole solution. First, your child needs to be encouraged to attend to the meanings of new words he encounters in text. Second, your child's ability to understand and remember the meanings of new words depends quite strongly on how well developed his vocabulary is already.

When your child is able to read effortlessly and accurately, he will then be able to construct meaning. He will be able to work with the words of the text that gives him a literal understanding of what the author has written. And he will be able to answer the question, What is the author's point of view? What are the underlying assumptions? Do I understand what the author is saying and why? Do I know where the author is headed? Is the text internally consistent? Is it consistent with what I already know and believe or have learned elsewhere? If not, where does it depart and what do I think about the discrepancy?

It is the deeper level of meaning construction that yields this sort of reflective, purposeful understanding that leads to a real education, after all.

The productivity of your student's higher-order comprehension processes is limited by his vocabulary and reading fluency in two ways. First, these higher-order processes are necessarily thought-intensive. They require analytic, evaluative, and reflective access to local and long-term memory. challenges is that of persuading children to go beyond this tendency.

Yet active attention is limited. To the extent that your child is forced to struggle with the words, he will necessarily lose track of meaning. Second, it is the wording or explicitly given information in the text that constitutes the basic data with which the higher-order comprehension processes must work. When your child skips-over or fails to understand the words of the text, comprehension suffers.

In the interest of developing your student's reading comprehension, he should be given many opportunities for open discussion of both the highlights and difficulties of text. Because the grammatical structures of written text are more varied and complex than those of casual, oral language, regular exploration and explicit instruction on formal syntax are also justified.

Your child's reflective control of text can be improved through direct instruction in comprehension strategies. Beginning in kindergarten, they should be a regular part of your child's reading an language arts curriculum throughout his school years. You can always discuss these matters with your child's public school teachers to find reassurance that the school is providing this important educative function for your child.

The single most valuable activity for developing children's comprehension is, of course, deep and wide reading itself. The amount of reading that your child does is shown to predict the growth in reading comprehension across the elementary school years even after controlling for entry-level differences. It predicts the quantity as well as the language, vocabulary, and structure of your child's writing ability in later years.

It also predicts the richness of your child's oral storytelling. Among older students and adults, it predicts receptive vocabulary, verbal fluency, content-area achievement, and all manner of general knowledge even when other measures of school ability, general intelligence, age, education, and reading comprehension itself are taken out of the equation (Anderson et al., 1984; Adams, Treiman, and Pressley, 1996; Stanovich, 1993).

Through reading, your student encounter new words, new language, and new facts. Beyond that, however, he will encounter thoughts and modes of thinking that might never arise in his face-to-face worlds. In the interest of your child's own greatest potential and fulfillment, he should be encouraged to read as frequently, broadly, and thoughtfully as possible.

Appropriate Instructional Materials

A balanced, comprehensive early literacy program for your child must embrace a variety of reading materials available free of charge in the local public library. To illustrate the range, these may include environmental print, student compositions, classroom anthologies, trade books (e.g., literature books that are not part of a traditional textbook series), chapter books,core works of fiction and nonfiction, magazines, newspapers, reference materials, and technology.

Whatever the nature of the material, however, the mode in which it is read can be roughly divided into three categories: read-alouds, instructional reading, and independent reading.

Illustrated story books are most suitable for kindergartners and longer stories and even well-chosen novels are within reach by the end of first grade level child.

Choose stories, chapter books, and poems; but also choose reference books and news clippings; math, science, and history; biographies; jokes and brainteasers. Use read-aloud sessions as a means of helping your child to explore language, and information. The goal is to whet his appetite, open his curiosity, kindle his knowledge, and show him the horizons.

To encourage optimal progress with the use of any of these early reading materials, you will need to be aware of the difficulty level of the text relative to your child's reading level. Sign-up your child for his own Library Card, and just ask a librarian to help your child select an appropriate reading level story book. Visit the Library often. The rest will take care of itself.


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Copyright 1996. Mother Wire Magazine. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission.

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