In the early years, your focus is on developing your child's love of books. Nothing is more important than that!
1. Start with the heart (conception – age 5)
The huge mistake in education today involves putting the cart before the horse – teaching phonics before fostering a love of books. Young children are forced to learn letter sounds, letter names, and sight words before they even develop an interest in reading – before they even understand that reading is communication between author and listener. Yes, early instruction has children reading at younger ages but so what? Are there any benefits to early reading?
The research shows there's not. In fact, it shows the opposite. Children who learn to read at a later age – first or second grade instead of kindergarten – quickly catch up with their early reading peers. By third grade, everyone is at the same level. However, (and this is a big however), children who are taught to read at an older age are more likely to read for pleasure than those who were taught earlier.
Playing "eye spy" is a fantastic way to promote phonological awareness. I spy something that is purple and green and starts with the "cuh" sound. Make it fun and your child will want to learn more. Make it boring and your child gets turned off to learning.
2. When you're out and about, sound it out (ages 3-7)
My 4-year-old neighbor was recently visiting my house and showed me the homework packet she receives each week from a tutoring center. Ugh! It contains page after page of paper-pencil tasks: Circle the pictures that start with the “tuh” sound. Underline the pictures that end with the “fuh” sound. The little girl absolutely hates doing these pages. It's hard for her to sit still. Her mom gets frustrated. They battle. Mom bribes. Daughter cries. Before kindergarten has even begun, they've already established a negative dynamic that will probably last for years with parent cajoling and child rebelling.
Chill out, parents, and have some fun with it. Stop with the workbooks and paper-pencil tasks. Those are neither age appropriate nor engaging. Your goals during these years of your child's life is to promote phonological awareness, which is the foundation for early reading. Parents have naturally and brilliantly promoted phonological awareness in their young children for generations. By reciting nursery rhymes and poems, reading stories and singing songs, parents have taught their children how language sounds and works.
Reading involves finding meaning in the text. A young child may sound out every word perfectly, but it's not reading unless she comprehends what she read.
3. Comprehension is the key that turns sounding out into reading (ages 4-8)
As a long-time teacher, I've seen trends in education come and go and come and go again. After decades of ignoring phonics, we're now over-emphasizing it at the expense of comprehension. Many parents (and teachers, too) hear a child sound out every word correctly and assume she's an excellent reader. Wrong!
Some students read fluently but can't answer a single question about what they read. They are not true readers. To promote comprehension, parents should ask questions before, during, and after a story. They should help the youngster connect what she already knows to new information she's getting from the text. They should stop during a story and have her predict what will happen next. Most importantly, they should always be helping her make meaningful connections between her experiences and what's happening in the book.