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Getting Ready to Read

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #71, 2006.

How to teach the skills your little ones need to be ready to read.
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Melissa Morgan

Just as in potty training, your child will begin reading when he or she is ready, and not before. However, there are things that you can do to help your preschooler get ready to read. You don't need money-just use your senses.

Before children can read, they need to discover perceptual skills- seeing, looking, perceiving and remembering differences. Children also need to develop their auditory processing-the ability to notice and remember differences in sound. Meanwhile, they will also be fine-tuning their other senses: touch, taste and smell. Put these abilities together, and you'll help your child get ready to read.

When preschoolers learn to notice differences in shapes, they can begin to distinguish between different letters or words. Puzzles, sorting, and playing matching games all help to increase visual memory. You can also make your own memory game with two matching sets of flash cards (or of any type of cards that have only one of each card).

Do you remember how to play the memory game? Here's a simple way: Lay all the cards face down. Take turns with your child turning over two cards. If they match, the person who turned them over keeps the pair. If not, turn them back over. The aim of the game is to remember where all the cards previously turned over are, as this helps you make many more pairs than you would by random guessing.

Touching Letters and Words

Preschoolers thrive in a world of touch and action. Playing with magnetic letters or writing VERY LARGE letters on marker or chalk boards helps the "hands-on" type of children get ready to read. Cut letters out of sandpaper, felt, or cardboard. Draw shapes, letters, and your child's name in wet sand, finger paint, or pudding.

Manuscript letters are formed with combinations of stick and ball shapes. Touching helps kids to perceive when the stick or ball shape goes up or down, left or right. Form letters using craft sticks, pencils, and pipe cleaners. Cut shapes and letters out of candy, cookie dough, and gelatin. Touch, taste, smell, and eat. Play with letters and words together. Make it a game, not a chore.

Older babies naturally play the naming game with Mom and Dad; they point to everything and want you to name it. You can make reading readiness a naming game. Take turns picking out which book to read, then pointing and naming the pictures in ABC and simple one-word books. You don't need to read the text. Just interact.

For an overview of reading methods, read Mary Pride's Big Book of Home Learning: Preschool and Elementary and Mary Pecci's paperback Why Johnny Ain't Never Gonna Read (A Challenge to the Nation).

Listen to Sounds Together

Put actions and sounds together. Take turns playing listening games such as "Simon Says."

Play "What's That Sound?" What do you hear-running water, birds chirping (what kind?), sirens blaring, raindrops? Take time to listen. Then make a simple comment about the sound. Wait for your child to make a comment.

Take turns imitating animals. Point to a dog (or a picture of a dog), and say, "Arf! Arf!" Then wait for your child to imitate or initiate something else (by pointing or making a sound).

Learning the different sounds an animal makes is one way a child learns to listen and distinguish the differences in sounds. This skill will be put into use later when the child needs to listen and distinguish between letter sounds, such as between d and b. While writing a letter for your child, make the letter's sound. Wait a few seconds for your preschooler to imitate your sound before you continue to write.

Borrow music books for children from the library. Sing along with the words. Run your fingers under the words as you sing them. If you have access to a computer with an Internet connection, you can try out karaoke for free. Download a fully functional, free karaoke player for your PC from vanbasco.com. You can make the words big, make the music slow or fast, and also search for free karaoke songs. Find songs that go along with books that you are reading or nursery rhymes. To practice animal sounds, try songs like "Old McDonald Had a Farm."

Call a relative on the phone and let your child have a short conversation. Using a phone helps develop listening skills, because it forces a child to concentrate on what someone is saying without using visual clues.

Look for books that put pictures with rhymes and songs that your child likes. Rhymes, such as those in Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop, help children start learning that words can sound the same at the end, but have different meanings. You might find your preschooler beginning to associate many of the letters and words with the rhymes. Point out letters and their sounds, leaving out the last word when you read storybooks.

It is hysterically funny to me to see the extent that political correct publishing houses have changed nursery rhymes to be palatable to a modern audience. You, of course, can change the words that you don't like, if your child isn't reading yet. You'll know your child is beginning to read when they begin to correct your reading, or to tell you that you skipped or changed a word.

Relax, and Have Fun!

As your child grows, naturally show him or her that there are practical reasons to read, such as grocery lists, food labels, directions for games, and birthday cards.

If your child is developing fairly typically, you don't need a formal reading readiness curriculum. You should discuss any concerns about your child's development-such as visual problems, hearing impairment, sound sensitivity, sensory integration or speech delay-with your pediatrician. Even if your preschooler is facing developmental challenges, one-on-one language games with a parent, sibling, or grandparent can be powerful therapy. You can also find answers and encouragement through networking with families that are homeschooling children with similar challenges, as well as the special needs section of my website.

More testing for tots isn't the answer to the reading crisis. According to the Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education in the Executive Summary of their 2000 report, Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers, "Assessment of young children poses greater challenges than people generally realize. The first five years of life are a time of incredible growth and learning, but the course of development is uneven and sporadic. The status of a child's development as of any given day can change very rapidly. Consequently, assessment results-in particular, standardized test scores that reflect a given point in time- can easily misrepresent children's learning... As a consequence, misuse is rampant, as experience with readiness tests demonstrates."

Try not to compare your child's development with anyone else's. Most children gradually work on skills, including potty training and reading, for years before truly becoming proficient.

One parent may say, "My child is potty trained," when really it is the parent who is trained, and without constant nagging, the child has constant accidents. Another parent says, "My child is potty trained," and means their child completely "does it all," and is clean day and night.

Reading is the same. A parent may say a child is "reading" when he or she starts recognizing the M in a fast food restaurant sign. But children aren't really reading well until they can sound out unfamiliar words in any book. One child could appear to make little progress in reading for many years. One day, that same child could make a developmental leap and appear to suddenly jump several grade levels in reading ability.

Remember, previous generations didn't even begin learning letters until first grade, and their literacy rate was higher than today Just as in the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, it is the final result that counts.

Helping your child learn to see, hear, touch, and explore language and reading can build precious memories, with warm cuddles and fun games. As your child nears kindergarten, seamlessly transition into a little more structure if your child is ready. For now, just have fun. Happy reading!

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