Learning to read is not like flicking on a light switch. You need to start with the basics: the alphabet. My son is four now and our primary focus is on letters. I started with what most people probably start with which is singing the alphabet song. Over the past year we have been working on writing a different letter each day.
All you really need to do is work at it. You don’t need to spend money on fancy materials or programs; you just need to put in effort. For example, you can grab a sheet of paper and write out some lines for your child to write between. Kids like to stay in between the lines when they write. I usually use three lines per row: A solid line on top, a dashed line in the middle, and a solid line on the bottom. I just grab a pen and make five or so rows on the top half of a sheet of paper and write the letter myself in upper left hand corner. From there, I ask my boy to try to write the same letter as many times as he can in the remaining space I’ve provided.
On the bottom half of the sheet of paper, I’ll usually write out a little blank underscore for the letter of a word that we’re working on that day. For example if we’re working on the letter F:
_ R U I T
_ I S H
_ R O G
_ A N T A S T I C
Then I’ll ask “What letter do you think is the first letter in the word fruit?” and have him write that letter just a few more times and reinforce the concept of words being made up by letters. That’s the fundamental here. We might not be using words like concept, fundamentals, and theory, but that’s exactly what we’re teaching by focusing on something simple.
Grasp the subject, the words will follow.
-Cato the Elder
The key to this process is to keep it short and sweet. You don’t want to try to do too much at one time. To get cooperation, you have to take small steps over and over again. Just do one letter a day at first and only spend a few minutes. If you overload your child, he’ll be turned off by the process and get stressed the next time you try to repeat the lesson. But, if you do a little bit at a time and back off when your child starts to stress, you’ll be able to gain momentum as the days and weeks go by.
Another thing is to keep it positive. Positive reinforcement is much more powerful than trying to humiliate your child into moving forward. This is the same for all humans, but even more so for a child. Try to keep your positive reinforcement varied too, not using the same praises all the time. Kids start to know when you’re bullshitting and will sniff it out and be hurt by you trying to bullshit them. Sincerity is a virtue. One form of praise that works well, for example, is to tag team with your wife. You could say “Mommy look at how well Andrew wrote the letter A today. Isn’t he really getting good at it?” Bragging on your child’s accomplishments to someone else is like bonus points of positive reinforcement. This is especially true when you’re bragging to someone from whom the child seeks acceptance, like mom or grandma.
There’s really no wrong way to do this kind of teaching. What’s important is to stick to doing a little bit each day or at some sort of consistent frequency. The tools you use are not that important either. You could use flash cards that are sold anywhere or just a simple sheet of paper. A lot of the flash cards are great because they’ll have the letter and a picture of an object that starts with that letter. Kids really seem to like the pictures and the visual reinforcement is terrific. So change it up and keep it varied. I think it’s important to mix in some writing though. Just doing reading practice is not as powerful as doing both reading and writing.
As my children progress, I plan on writing future posts about this topic. In my opinion, learning to read is the single most important thing in terms of educating your child. Reading abilities amongst people fall into a large spectrum between beginner and advanced. Just knowing how to read is one thing, but continuing to hone that skill until you have become an advanced reader is something else. You not only want your children to know how to read, you should want them to be exceptional readers. There is only one way to do this: practice. If your child develops the ability to read early and is already working on speed, comprehension, and grammar at a young age, school courses and self teaching will come to your child so much easier. You will empower your child to live a life that will be continuously enriched with knowledge.