Reading is a complicated business, but it can help if we think about learning to read being made up of two closely-related parts.
The first part is word-reading. This just means recognising the little squiggles on the page or screen. When they are first learning to read, children recognise some words as whole words (often starting with their name).
Phonics involves building words from sounds. A sound might be represented by an individual letter (such as ‘b’ or ‘t’) or a group of letters (like ‘sh’ or ‘air’). At school, children will start by learning the letters and the sounds those letters represent, and then learn how to blend them together to read simple words. For example, once they know the individual sounds for ‘c’, ‘a’, and ‘t’, they can blend them together to form the word ‘cat’.
You can find out more about phonics by watching this short film.
With practise, children become quicker at recognising words and blending together sounds in unfamiliar words until they are fluent readers.
The second part of reading is comprehension. This just means being able to understand the meaning of the words on the page. Comprehension is about understanding all language, not just the words that children can read themselves. We build our comprehension skills by having conversations with family and friends; listening to language in songs, films, and on TV and talking about the books we read.
When we set out to help our children to learn to read, we need to think about both strands of reading.
How to help at home:
1. Listen to them read every day
A small amount of reading practise every day is likely to be more useful than a large block all at once.
- Linking the sounds to the letters. Encourage your child to sound out the words, rather than just guessing. This is slow going at first, but it does get faster as they get the hang of it. Encourage them to say the sounds correctly, without an ‘uh’ sound on the end (so ‘mmmm’ instead of ‘muh’) as it makes blending them together easier. And don’t forget that some words, like ‘said’ and ‘the’, are tricky and your child won’t be able to sound them out with the sounds they know at the moment. Keep pointing these tricky words out to practise them.
- Don’t be afraid to reread. It’s sometimes good to ask your child to reread a word, a sentence, or even a page if it has been hard going. This helps to build confidence and to support fluent reading.
- Practise reading away from reading books. The world is full of text to read – words on other books, signs and notices when you’re out for your daily walk, websites and games, lists stuck to the fridge, and things that siblings have written. If there are words in the environment that children can read, encourage them to read them as much as possible. There’s nothing like the feeling of using your new reading powers in the real world!
2. Read to them every day
The books that developing readers can read themselves aren’t the only books they should have in their diet. Quite the opposite – listening to books and stories that they can’t yet read independently is vital for helping them to enjoy reading, develop their language skills and comprehension, and eventually become a confident reader themselves. We need to drench them in language!
- Make a regular time. It might be that at the moment, the usual pattern of the day has changed a bit. Reading before bedtime might still be the best time, but there might be other opportunities too: listening to a story over breakfast (as no one has to rush to school or work), mid-afternoon while they have a snack (and energy is staring to flag), or while the bath is running. Finding an easy time to read can make things more manageable and help to make sharing a book a regular occurrence.
- Choose a wide range of books. A mix of fiction and non-fiction, real stories and magical stories, familiar characters and new experiences help to broaden children’s interest and keep story time fresh. Sometimes you might choose a book, sometimes they might choose a book, and sometimes you might read both.
- Don’t be afraid to re-read. Listening to the same book more than once is really important for children. As well as letting them encounter the same words and phrases enough times to remember them, re-reading helps children to the think again about the ideas in the book, perhaps noticing things they missed the first time.
- All join in. Interactive reading – with your child joining in with phrases, sound effects, and actions – can help story time to become a shared experience full of fun.