How Children Really Learn to Read…in 10 Steps

When should children learn how to read? Do we have to teach children how to read or does it just happen on it’s own? Why do some children struggle with reading? What can I do to help my child learn how to read?

The U.S. Department of Education would have you believe that learning to read is rocket science, which makes it sound extremely complex and like something that should only be left to trained professionals. As a former elementary school educator for seven years with a Master’s degree focused on Linguistics, I almost believed this to be true. But then I had my four children, and after following these 10 steps, I saw them all learn how to read from a very young age, much like the Finnish children do which is “as if by chance”.

So without further adieu, here are the 10 steps that I have found which have led my children to reading.

1. Make Them Feel Safe and Loved

This may sound like a strange first step for learning how to read, but it is the most important aspect of human development. I know that against all odds, there are many who have succeeded even when they have been raised in the most unfortunate of circumstances, but the best environment for a child to thrive is one in which his or her basic needs are all being met and where he or she is shrouded in love.

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Children who are noticed, children who come first, children who matter, and children who are loved will be able to reach their own personal best in whatever areas they are so inclined to grow.

2. Provide a Language Rich Environment

When adults realize that children are blank little slates who know nothing about the world or the things in it, and then take the time to talk to them and show them all of the little things that they see and interact with, it helps their oral language development to flourish and grow thus providing them with a rich foundation of vocabulary.Add-subtitle-text-3

When little babies sit in the grass across from their parents, rolling a ball back and forth for the first time, they don’t know what a ball is, what it means to roll, to throw, or to catch. They don’t know what colors are or that the little blades poking their legs are called grass…they don’t know that the sound they hear is a bird chirping or that the tall green thing next to them is a tree. They don’t know about clouds, or wind, or sun, or rain…these are all things that they must learn, and the more we talk to them and the more they hear these words repeated over and over and over again, the sooner they’ll learn the names of the things in their little worlds and their worlds will get bigger.

Research shows that a child’s vocabulary is correlated with reading comprehension in upper elementary school and that children who enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge fall further and further behind as compared with students who have rich vocabulary knowledge. Children who enter first grade as linguistically rich will know 20,000 words and children who are linguistically poor will only know 5,000.

When children have a rich vocabulary based on experiences, this is known as background knowledge, and is a key piece of learning how to read.

3. Sing Songs and Nursery Rhymes to Build Vocabulary

Another aspect of language and vocabulary development occurs when children memorize songs and nursery rhymes. As children’s brains are growing, whatever is repeated over and over and over again will strengthen the neural pathways and lay the foundation for further brain development. Neurons that are used will remain; neurons that are not used will die. Starting at about 6 months (see a really cool image here), you’ll notice an explosion of neural connections which will reach its peak when children are between the ages of 2 and 3. By age 4, synaptic pruning begins. You want to lay the foundation BEFORE this happens and what better way to do it than with songs and nursery rhymes.

Not only are songs structured in a way that is predictable and patterned, but singing them is enjoyable and therefore, we do it a lot. It is this repetition that helps us commit what we sing to long term memory. Check out my YouTube playlist of favorite nursery rhymes here. Here’s another playlist of all of my favorite preschool songs and another one just for the ABCs. The standard Mother Goose Nursery rhyme book is good too.

With my children, I love making up songs about everything all the time! I have songs about how much I love them, songs about waking up in the mornings, a song before we go to bed, songs about getting dressed or getting in the van…and they LOVE it! It’s absolutely fascinating to me that our youngest son, who is 20 months and still developing his ability to communicate using complete sentences, yet can sing all of the words to his favorite songs and nursery rhymes.

4. Foster a Relationship with Books

Reading is so much more than just words on a page. It’s a feeling, it’s an expression, and it’s a whole new world that can be discovered just by turning a page. By building a foundation of reading that is based on bonding and love, your child will grow up having positive associations with reading that will motivate him to peruse reading on his own…not just when it’s “reading time”.

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

This is why I love creating reading routines that are just part of our day. When my babies are little, I have nursing stations set up around the house with my comfy rocking chair and a table nearby for water, burp towels, and anything else I might need. When my babies are ready (usually around 6-8 months), I start keeping little baskets of books nearby too. I love reading before bed, when they wake up in the morning, before naps, or anytime we’re just cuddled up and rocking together.

While this early reading is going on, children are learning about some very important pre-reading skills such as how to hold a book, how we read from left to right, how we turn pages, how books have a beginning and an end, and how words are used to represent pictures on the page. Check out my blogs: How to Engage Your Baby with Reading and Best Books for Babies for more ideas on reading with babies.

Throughout the entire process of learning how to read, this step remains crucial. We need to find the time in our busy lives and in our busy days to read often. We need to build libraries of books, use reading as part of our routines so that it doesn’t get missed, make reading fun, and make reading about snuggling up in the arms of someone you love to explore something new. As your children grow and changes, find out what engages and excites them, and continue to look for new books that they will like.

4. Pre-Reading Skills are Very Important

Instead of listing these each of these separately, I wanted to lump them together to emphasize that they are best taught simultaneously, but each one is of vital importance. In fact, without these skills, children will struggle as readers for their whole lives, but with a solid foundation in them, they will learn to read from a young age “as if by chance”. When my children are about 6-8 months old, I have found that this is the optimum time to start teaching them these skills.

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

  • Words Have Meaning: Before children start learning about the alphabet, they need to know what the alphabet is used for, and they need to see that words have meaning. I learned about this valuable skill when our first born daughter was 6 months old and we started watching Your Baby Can Read videos together. It took awhile for her to master the first batch of words, and she didn’t really start articulating her understanding of them until about 12 months of age, but once she did, her word memorization skills cascaded like a waterfall. (The Your Baby Can Read program did have it’s flaws, and has since gone out of business. This has inspired me to create my own reading system called “Teach Your Child to Read” which is coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!) I have also loved using books like this – Hinkler First Words to teach my babies that words represent things.
  • Letter Names: Teaching letter names is where it all begins. Learning uppercase letters is in some ways easier because they are more distinct and easier to differentiate, but children will encounter the lowercase letters more often, and so I like to teach them simultaneously. In the English language, we have 26 letter names that children must learn, which is a pretty straightforward process that simply requires repeated exposure and rote memorization.
  • Letter Sounds: Learning the letter sounds is a bit more tricky because while we may only have 26 letters, they make up 44 different sounds. Being able to understand and recognize the different sounds in a language is called phonemic awareness. (So it’s really more auditory than visual.) When children are learning their letter sounds, I have found that it’s best to work in layers. First teach the consonants (using the hard c and g) and short vowels. After these are mastered, you can start getting into more complex letter sounds such as long vowels (and all of the different ways they are represented…starting with the most basic), digraphs (two letters that come together to make a single sound like the /ph/ sound in “phone”) and dipthongs (vowel combinations where neither vowel sound is heard such as in the words “coin” and “moon”).

5. Decoding Three Letter Words

Learning how to decode three letter words is where the true act of reading begins. When children can look at the word “cat” and are able to isolate the individual sounds that each of the letters make, “/c/-/a/-/t/” and then blend those sounds together, “c-a-t”, to make the word “cat” this is what is known as phonics.

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Children are ready to embark on the journey of learning three letter words once they have completely mastered their letter names and letter sounds. If you push them into decoding too soon, they will get frustrated, lose confidence, and possibly hate reading forever. Okay, maybe it won’t be that severe, but it’s much much better and way more effective to wait until they are ready.

One of my favorite tools for teaching three letter words is Starfall’s Word Machines. (Watch a little video of us using it here.) This is a really fun and cute way for children to become familiar with decoding three letter words. After that, I love using a muffin tin like this and some foam letters like these to teach word families. It’s best to first start with three letter words before branching out to words with four letters or more. Read more about this process in my blog: Using Magnet Letters to Teach the ABCs.

I wouldn’t have realized that this step was so important unless I had seen it with my own eyes with all of my children. It’s like once they figure out this step, the floodgates open and they start reading more and more words at an increasingly rapid rate.

6. Memorizing Words with Repeated Reading

Once a children have sounded out the word “c-a-t” many many times, they eventually will just know that this is the word “cat”, and they won’t have to sound it out anymore. Children can also just memorize words that they encounter often without ever learning how to sound them out at all.daddy reading with elliot

The more children are read to and the more that they “read”, the more they will be exposed to words over and over and over again which will help commit them to long term memory. Going back to the brain development I discussed in the songs and nursery rhymes session, it is this repeated reading that will help children commit words to their long term memory.

When you think about how you read as an adult, especially when you encounter a slightly challenging text like a college textbook, think about how you read, and in particular, notice how you read when you come to a word you don’t know. Many times, we simply see the beginning and ending letters of a word and this leads to recognition, that’s why we can still read and make sense of a paragraph like this. Other times, we will rely on a plethora of other skills (not just decoding) to figure out a new word such as our background knowledge, context clues, and looking at the structure of the word (i.e. root words, syllables, etc.).

In the primary grades, there is a HUGE emphasis on teaching phonics, as if learning every single rule of the English language is the true key to learning how to read, but the reality with all of these phonics lessons is that while they are really good for helping children learn how to spell, they are not a crucial component of learning how to read. In fact, a meta-analysis of 71 intervention control groups looked at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions and found that phonemic awareness and comprehension interventions made a difference whereas phonics and fluency interventions did not.

As a teacher, but mostly as a parent, I have been enlightened as to what learning truly is and is not.

Learning isn’t about memorizing a series of facts and rules. Learning is about creating meaning. True long term learning occurs when something is so entertaining, so engaging, and so useful, that the repetition needed to commit it to long term memory seems effortless.

7. The Different Stages of Reading

There is a progression of reading that children will go through at different ages based on a variety of factors. You might just notice your children are going through each of these stages on their own, or you might see that they need a little nudge and some guidance in getting to the next stage.

  • Picture Reading: This is basically where children flip through the pages of the book and just talk about whatever is seen in the pictures. You can read to your children this way to teach them what picture reading is like or you might just observe them doing it. This was something our daughter Ophelia would do on her own starting at about a year and a half. After watching Dora programs, she LOVED all of the Dora books and would flip through all of the pages saying words that she knew. With our son Elliot, who wasn’t quite as interested in books, I would encourage him to read picture books like this and this and this because he was ready to “read”, but not quite ready to tackle the words on the page.
  • Repeated Reading: When you read books over and over and over with your children, especially really good interactive books where they can lift the flaps and such, you’ll probably fall into some patterns based on what entertains them. For example, if there’s an animal, you might ask what the animal says, or if there’s a rhyming word, you might pause to let them fill in the blank. By having these predictable routines, your child will love anticipating his or her participation.
  • Reading Single Word Books: This is an excellent way for children to memorize words that will help them read while letting them practice their reading skills. Sometimes, word books can get very busy making you think you’re getting a better value because in 10 pages, they cover 100 words, but trust me, less is more. I absolutely love the simplicity of these Hinkler First Word books and how they keep it simple with just one picture and one word per page.
  • Reading Sentences: Once children are out of the baby stage and have a good foundation of basic reading skills, they will love reading books with simple sentences. Gone are the Dick and Jane books of the past, today’s easy readers are Mo Williams books! One of our favorites is this, but we try to buy as many as we can because every single one is pure gold.
  • Reading Books of Interest: Teach your children how to find books that they like at the library and even on Amazon. Organize your books at home using bookshelves and baskets of books so that your children can easily find new books that peak their interest. They might choose books that are too hard and just look at the pictures, they may select all of the baby books they enjoyed reading over and over with you from long ago, or they might discover a new genre that they can read on their own.
  • Reading to Comprehend: There are a variety of comprehension strategies that you can engage your children with as they become more accomplished readers, and I explain these more in detail in my blog: How to Teach Reading Comprehension. One of the best ways to help your children with their comprehension skills is simply to talk about the books they are reading. You might want to read the same book as they are or read together so you know what the story is about, but sometimes it’s fun when you don’t know what the book is about and they have to tell you as much as they can.

8. Let Children Progress At Their Own Rate

As I created my “Teach Your Child to Read” program (coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!), I debated calling it “Teach Your Baby to Read” because I have seen that it is totally possible, but at the same time, I have learned that it is not always probable.

By going through this progression, three out of four of our children have become very early readers (before the age of two), but one of our children only started reading recently at the age of 5. Now, this may be due to the fact that we skipped the memorizing words stage with him (due to the fact that we were in the middle of a huge life transition at the time…see my blog: How I Became a Stay at Home Mom) or it could just be that due to his personality, he wasn’t interested in learning until now.

At any rate, I believe strongly in letting each of our children develop at their own rate and according to their individual interests. My strongest teaching philosophy is rooted in the zone of proximal development that encourages teachers to continuously provide students with learning opportunities that are not too challenging, but just challenging enough, and then providing scaffolding as they learn the new idea or skill until they can do it on their own. In this manner, I am always creating learning goals for all of my children that helps me to meet them right where they are.

Learning how to read is not a race, and nobody is going to give you an award for being the best parent just because your child reads at a young age. BUT, when you place these pre-reading tools in front of an eager learner, and they POUNCE on them, it seems almost cruel to think our society would have us wait until they are in school to begin reading.

9. Encourage Your Child to Ask for Help

This is a reading comprehension strategy known in the teaching world as “Monitor and Clarify” meaning that good readers know how to monitor their reading to make sure that they are understanding what is being read and working to clarify anything that they don’t understand.

When I was a teacher, I designed many lessons to teach this concept, but it wasn’t until I read with my children, side by side, every day, that I truly grasped the importance and the organic nature of this process. Every night as part of our bedtime routine, I read with our oldest daughter Ruby (currently 6). She has a HUGE stack of chapter books she keeps in her bed next to her little nightlight, and every night we cuddle up and she reads to me for 10-20 minutes any book of her choosing. As she reads aloud to me, she’ll pause at a word that she doesn’t understand to say, “What does this word mean Mom?” I never taught her how to “Monitor and Clarify”, and yet somehow she just does it.

Ruby Reading in Bed

Ruby Reading in Bed

How? Well, when she asks me a question, I answer it. I don’t put it back on her and say, “What do you think it means?” or “Let’s look at the context clues to figure this out.” Yuck. No thanks. When Ruby asks me the meaning of a word, I simply tell her, and we move on. When she struggles to correctly pronounce a word, I quickly read it for her, and she doesn’t skip a beat. There is this misconception that we need to let our children struggle in order to learn, and I disagree. What typically happens after I tell her the meaning of a word is that she knows what that word means and she applies that knowledge the next time she encounters the word or phrase in question. If she somehow can’t remember and asks for help again, I’ll simply tell her again…just like that.

10. Become a Family Who Reads

Both my husband and I love reading. Our children know this, our children see this, and they know we are a family of readers. Our house is FULL of books, and we have bookshelves and baskets of books in every room. We read books every night before we go to bed, we cuddle up and read throughout the day, we listen to books on tape, we go to the library and get as many books as they’ll let us check out, we pay regular library fines for late books, and we don’t even mind, we have book wishlists on Amazon for ourselves and for every child, and we buy books to add to our library for birthdays, Christmas, from the tooth fairy, and anytime there’s a really good book that we just have to have.

When you become a family of readers, your children will become readers. When you teach your children not only how to read, but how to access books (from your home library, from the public library, and from Amazon), they will become masters of their own destiny. Instead of going to you like an empty vessel waiting to be filled, they can fill their own tanks with whatever knowledge they desire. Here’s what I mean…

When we found out we were pregnant for baby #5, our daughter Ruby went straight to our Basher Books collection (an EXCELLENT source for teaching young children higher level concepts…we have purchased just about every single one), and read the book about the human body. She came to me later and said,

“Mom, did you know it’s really up to dad if our baby becomes a boy or girl because he’s the one who carries the x or the y chromosome?”

And that’s what I’m talking about folks! This is what reading is all about. It’s not about reading early or getting high grades, and it’s not about becoming proficient or advanced or reading the right number of words a minute. Reading is about unlocking the world around you, discovering new things, exploring new ideas, getting lost in another world, and having access to all of the knowledge that the world has to offer.

In Conclusion

Learning how to read is not rocket science, it is not something that should wait until formal schooling to be learned, and it does not need to be taught by a trained professional. In fact, very little “teaching” is actually needed in order to lead children to reading. What is needed is an environment conducive to reading, deliberate exposure to word recognition, letter names, and letter sounds, guidance in discovering the structure

By creating an environment conducive to reading and by building a foundation of some key basic skills, children can learn to read “as if by chance” and in the process unlock an entire world that is just resting at their fingertips. *Since writing this blog, I have created my own reading program that links to all of the resources you’ll ever need to teach your child to read.

Happy reading!

Videos of Our Kids Reading

  • Reading with Julian 18 months. Notice how much he interacts with the books I am reading. These are some of his favorites that we read all the time.
  • Ophelia reading at 2.5. Ophelia started reading from a VERY young age, and it really blew our minds!
  • Elliot reading some Mo Williams at age 5. Elliot started reading on his own fairly recently, and he is so proud! He has a nightlight by his bed, and we hear him over his monitor reading to himself every night.
  • Ruby reads The Princess in Black at age 6. Ruby start reading at a VERY young age like Ophelia and absolutely LOVES reading!
  • Here’s a playlist of our kids learning how to read over the years. *Showing children videos of other kids reading can be a great way to get them motivated to read!