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Grow a Great Reader

A special section on helping your child develop a life-long love of books

Ready to Read

by Barbara Curtis
llustrations by A.J. Garces (hardcopy only)

With Caitlin starting kindergarten next year, I'm getting worried," Laurie confided recently. "One little girl up the street started reading this summer. And my sister bought this special phonics program for my nephew. I want to give Caitlin a head start too, but I don't have much time to devote to it?not with nursing a new baby and doing my husband's bookkeeping."

I could relate. Whenever I compare myself with other moms, I feel inadequate?even though I have 11 kids! But besides learning not to compare, one of the most valuable lessons I've learned from my children is this: It's possible to accomplish a lot of learning in little bits of time.

That's good news for busy parents. A parent is truly a child's first teacher. Whether you plan to continue teaching at home or send your children to school, you want to know you've done everything you can to give them a successful start.

Stung by statistics on the growing lack of literacy through all grade levels, parents today are especially worried about reading. While our grandparents took for granted that their kids would learn to read?and read well? in the classroom, today's parents can't make that same assumption. We need to get involved?the earlier the better.

Still, there's no need to stress out about teaching your child to read. You may not know it, but you've probably already started.

Books First

Whether he's barely walking or ready to start school, your child most likely has been given a solid start on the road to reading, thanks to countless hours of bedtime stories. Nothing instills a love of literature like night after night of Goodnight Moon or The Chronicles of Narnia read by a loving parent. And even if you've never been much of a reader yourself, you may have already discovered?through reading with your kids?that it's more fun than you remembered.

So read! The most powerful motivation for your children to learn to read comes through seeing their favorite people?Mom and Dad?reading. Let your children see you reading your Bible, the news paper, or a favorite novel often. Keep as many children's books as possible around the house, either by visiting the public library or creating your own collection. Check garage sales, invest in inexpensive paperbacks and ask Grandma to give books for gifts. It's not hard, or expensive, to build a family library full of books your children will reach for repeatedly.

Treat books as though they are best friends you want to see again and again. "Oh, honey, here's The Rainbow Fish?your favorite. Let's read it again!" rather than "Oh, we've read it so many times?let's read something new." Kids never grow tired of favorites.

As a Montessori teacher, I was trained to recognize that a young child's learning always originates with the concrete?the things he can touch, see and hear. A child who has learned to love books will need little coaxing to learn how to read. What she'll need are the tools.

Sounds Second

The first tool she needs is an awareness that words are made up of individual sounds. The best readers are children who were given much practice in "phonetics," or sound awareness, before they were introduced to letters. Again, this is because the child needs to focus on concrete sense information?the sounds of our language?before she is introduced to the abstract symbols?the letters.

This is, unfortunately, the most neglected part of reading education. But it is something you can give your child easily at home with The Sound Game. You don't need any special equipment to play this game. And you can play it in two- to ten-minute snatches anywhere?in the car or the doctor's waiting room, while folding the clothes or loading the dishwasher. The only preparation you need is to brush up on phonetic sounds (see sidebar bellow).

Remember to use the sounds rather than the names of letters. Choose familiar sounds, those your child hears frequently in the words he uses. Because they have more emotional appeal and will therefore hold his attention, words about food and people he loves will have more learning impact.

Here's how your first session might go:

Mom: Let's think of some words that have mmm in them, like milk ? mommy ? moon.

Little Sweetie: Daddy?

Mom: I don't hear an mmm in Daddy. Mmm ? marshmallow ? merry-go-round.

LS: Doggy?

Mom: More ? maybe ? muffin.

LS: Cookie?

Mom: I don't hear an mmm in cookie. Cookie (say it emphasizing the sounds). C?ookie. Let's think of some words that have c (say "kuh," the hard-C phonetic sound) in them, like cookie ? cake ? cat.

LS: Mommy?

Mom: Car ? camel ? careful.

More likely than not, the first few times you'll play this game solo. Your child may offer some words, but those words probably won't be the ones you're looking for.

That's OK. You don't need to correct your child or tell him he's wrong. Instead, keep steering him toward the sound, giving as many examples as you can of words that mean a lot to him. Don't forget to use names of friends and family members as well.

Remember also that since hard c and k have the same phonetic sound, if you ask for words with c and your child offers king, that counts. At this point your child doesn't know anything about letters. Likewise for s and soft c. As long as the sound is right, he's right.

Keep playing often, and eventually?probably when you least expect it?your child will produce a correct response.

Letters Last

Would it surprise you to know that the child who knows all 26 letters by name is really no closer to reading than the one who knows none at all? A child can look at a word and say, "dee-oh-gee" from breakfast to dinner and never have a clue that those letters spell dog. However, if she has learned the phonetic sounds for the letters as well as their names, she'll string the sounds together easily to form a word with which she's familiar. That wonderful discovery makes her way into the world of reading much easier.

Once you've become a pro at The Sound Game?isolating sounds for your child and making her aware that they're parts of words?you've laid all the groundwork necessary for the next step: introducing her to the letters that serve as symbols for those sounds. That's where The Letter Game comes in.

The only equipment you'll need to play The Letter Game is a set of lower case (uncapitalized) letters. Find or make a set large enough for your child to trace with her fingers. Why lower case? Well, look at the magazine you're holding. How many letters are on this page? And how many are capital letters? Not too many. The majority of the letters your child sees in her books are lower case, so it makes sense to start there.

Introduce each letter like this: "Let's think of some words with mmm in them, like mommy ? mister ? mountain." This is familiar territory. You've prepared your child, and at this point she knows what the game is about. After she contributes a few words, ask your child, with some drama, "Do you want to see what mmm looks like?"

This is the key question and the key moment. Your child has the concrete knowledge of the letter through its sound. Now for the first time you are telling her the letter is also something visual. What child wouldn't say yes?

Use your finger to show your child how to trace the letter the same way you would if you were printing it. Then ask her to trace it as best she can. By asking your child to trace the letter and saying the sound, you engage more than just her sense of hearing and sense of sight. Studies show that the more senses we use in a learning process, the more likely we are to remember what we've learned. In addition, tracing the letters now will help with printing letters later.

Finally, Words

When your child knows eight to ten letters, you can use magnetic letters on the refrigerator door (lower case, of course) to form three-letter phonetic words, such as cat, mop, jet, bug. Say something like this, "Let's make cat ? c ? a ? t (using phonetic sounds). This is another area in which a lot of practice brings rewards when your child finally transitions to reading?and one you can incorporate into your day as you go about washing dishes and cooking dinner.

With the basics outlined here, you can enjoy teaching your children to read. If you play these games on a regular basis, you'll probably have a reader on your hands?and there is no thrill like hearing a child read, especially one you've taught yourself.

But even if you play these games only periodically, or even if your child is on a different developmental timetable?your time will be well spent. A child who can recognize even ten phonetic sounds and six letters will enter school with a head start.

And I know from experience?every time you hear your child read, you'll be reminded of the joy you had as his first reading teacher!

Barbara Curtis is a former Montessori teacher, a writer and the mother of 11 children. She and her husband live in California. Her most recent book is Ready, Set, Read! (Broadman & Holman).

Help Your Struggling Reader

For a child with a learning disability or developmental delay, reading (or rather, trying to read) can be incredibly frustrating. Reading specialist Joanne E. King offers these suggestions for making reading something any child can enjoy.

Hit the right reading level Something might be age-appropriate but still too tough for your child. Instead, shoot for your child's independent reading level, where she can read without help. As she gets comfortable there, move up to her instructional level, where she can read, but needs some assistance.

Grow a garden Make a flowerpot out of colored paper and tape it to a wall near the spot where your child reads. Add a stem made of green paper. Then, work with your child to determine appropriate reading goals?a page a day, a paragraph a week or whatever your child can manage. For every goal he meets, let him add a paper leaf to his plant. When he finishes his book, make a flower to top off your creation. You can do the same with a dog shape (add spots), a gum ball machine (add gumballs) or anything else you and your child come up with.

Try "echo" reading Read a sentence or a paragraph to your child, then ask her to read it back to you. This is a great way to increase her confidence.

Tap into your child's love language The best rewards are the ones that speak to your child's heart. If he loves to be touched, give him great big hugs after a good reading time. If she loves gifts, try stickers or stars.

For more information on Kids and reading ? click here!
50 "Must Read" Children's Books

17 Ways to Encourage Reading
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