Are you feeling under pressure?
Being a parent is pretty stressful at the best of times, with all kinds of demands dumped on us left, right and centre. Add ‘teach my child to read’ to the list and for many busy mums, the stress level just turned up even higher.
The good news is that you can take a breath and rid yourself of some of that pressure. Reading, writing and spelling are NOT prerequisites for starting school. Let me reassure you that teachers are mainly interested in knowing that your little one is socially, emotionally and physically ready to cope with the demands of school life.
Most children will be assessed either just prior to starting school, or in the initial weeks of the first term. This is nothing for parents to worry about. There is no ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ for the child. Teachers use their observations simply to benchmark what each child can and cannot do yet.
The learning curve in the first year of school is quite incredible. By the end of the year, most children will have made significant growths in their social, emotional and intellectual development. I have seen countless 4 and 5 year olds start school unable to read, and finish the year as competent readers, writers and spellers. It has never ceased to amaze me.
DO YOU NEED TO GIVE YOUR PRE-SCHOOLER A HEAD START IN LITERACY?
No one’s forcing you to do it, but young children do have the most incredible capacity to learn new things at this age. About 75% of their brain development happens in these early years, so it’s the optimum time to harness the natural curiosity that young kids have. This is why giving them a head start at this age actually makes sense, as long as it is done properly.
Young children learn very differently compared to older children and adults. Formal, rigid instruction just doesn’t work at this age. Instead, pre-schoolers learn through playful discovery. If your child is anything like mine, the moment she sensed I had my serious, ‘I’m going to teach you something’ head on, she smelled a rat and ran a mile.
So, whatever you do to build any literacy skills before school, it HAS to be playful. Make it into a game if possible or set it as a fun challenge. The most important advice is to keep it light and keep the pressure off.
Parents are often surprised that learning to read isn’t just about getting children to recognise letters. There are many practical things you can do to build your child’s early literacy skills in a playful way.
Here are some suggestions to kick-start your child’s learning journey.
HOW TO KICKSTART YOUR CHILD’S LEARNING JOURNEY
SING SONGS, MAKE UP SILLY RHYMES AND PLAY WITH WORDS
These are great for building a key reading skill called phonemic awareness. This is the ability to hear individual sounds in words. It’s how we know that ‘cat’ is made from 3 individual sounds: c…a…t. It’s also how we know that ‘cat’ sounds like ‘bat’ but starts with a different sound.
PLAY MATCHING GAMES
Games like ‘Snap!’, where your child must quickly match 2 images that are the same, are great for building recognition skills. Your child needs visual skills to recognise letters and words.
PLAY SORTING GAMES
Cut pictures from magazines and get your child to sort them into groups, for example, group animals together, or buildings, or people with hats on. Again, this type of activity builds visual discrimination skills.
PLAY ‘SPOT THE DIFFERENCE’ GAMES
Get your child to look closely at 2 pictures and identify the differences between them. This is a great way to help them recognise details in visual images. Down the track, it will help them to determine one letter from another. The Internet has lots of resources for this type of game.
PLAY SEQUENCING GAMES
Talk about the order in which things happen and play with sequencing things, such as the steps involved in making a sandwich or brushing teeth. Strong sequencing skills help children to develop better reading comprehension. Sequencing also helps children understand how texts are put together, which is useful for their own story writing down the track.
POINT OUT LETTERS IN THE ENVIRONMENT
Look at street signs, in shops or on car registration plates. Say the letter’s name and say its sound. Find the letter that starts your child’s name and say its initial sound, “Letter s makes the ssssssss sound like a snake.” This is a great pre-phonics activity.
USE PLAYDOUGH TO MAKE LETTERS
Getting your child to say the letter’s sound whilst making its shape is a great multi-sensory activity. Rolling and shaping playdough also strengthens hand muscles for writing.
Challenge your child to pick up little beads or dried pasta shapes with just their thumb, index and middle fingers. This is a great way to build the tripod grip for holding a pencil properly. A good pencil grip can really help with handwriting and letter formation in school.
CREATE A WRITING STATION
Give your child access to plenty of paper, pencils, crayons and other writing tools so that they can freely experiment. Many pre-schoolers like to write random letter strings. A top tip – if you are going to show them how to write letters, avoid the temptation to only write in capital letters. Lowercase letters are used more often in most texts.
READ TO YOUR CHILD
Reading lots of different types of books builds listening skills and talking about new words builds vocabulary. Re-tell favourite stories and make up silly stories. Most importantly, have fun and don’t try to force it.
HOW CAN YOU FOSTER GOOD READING HABITS?
Sometimes it feels like half the battle of learning to read is getting your child interested in it. Establishing a few good reading habits can make a big impact on your child’s literacy development.
BE A POSITIVE, READING ROLE MODEL
This is one of the best things any parent can do. Letting your child see you engaged in reading gives them an important message. It tells them that reading is a good thing and has a variety of purposes such as to inform or to entertain.
SURROUND CHILDREN WITH THINGS TO READ AS SOON AS YOU CAN
Not everyone has shelves filled with books at home these days, so get them reading the stuff that comes in the mail box; flyers, menus, local papers and catalogues. Outside the home they can look at street signs, posters and labels in the supermarket.
ENROL YOUR CHILD IN THE LOCAL LIBRARY
There’s a wealth of books there, so offer them a choice. It’s often tempting as a parent to steer children towards books we liked when we were young, but don’t be disappointed if your child wants to look at something completely different. Allow them the freedom to explore a variety of fiction and non-fiction books so that they can broaden their reading repertoire.
GRIT YOUR TEETH AND LEARN TO LOVE YOUR CHILD’S FAVOURITE BOOK!
Don’t get frustrated if your little one picks the same book over and over again. They will grow out of it eventually – I promise! Re-reading the same story helps your child listen for word patterns and rhythm, recognise vocabulary and build fluency. Many children will memorise their favourite book and pretending to read it aloud builds their confidence.
THE POWER OF READING ALOUD TO CHILDREN
Undeniably, one of the most important things that you can do to help your child is to read books aloud to them. Research shows that it has far-reaching, positive impacts on children’s development. Regularly listening to stories can stimulate the areas of a child’s brain that control imagery and comprehension. Similarly, reading rich text picture books aloud to young children can increase their vocabulary development and language skills.
Reading aloud to your child has many benefits:
- It’s a great way to model fluency, expression and intonation in your voice
- It teaches your child to be a good listener
- It helps your child to develop better grammar
- It builds comprehension skills
- It teaches your child important reading cues such as the direction in which text is read, and what the different parts of a book are
It’s worth noting that anytime of the day is a good time to read to your child. If you are caught in a queue, waiting for the doctor, sitting on a train or have some time to fill, reach for a book and share a story with your child. It doesn’t matter if it’s only for a few minutes and you don’t manage to finish the book. It can be a beautiful way for you to bond with your child, whilst giving them a gentle but valuable head start on their reading journey. Enjoy!