Simple Ideas with Profound Impact

Teaching your child to read – The Basics

Let’s talk about teaching a young child how to read. People have debated back and forth for decades as to which reading method is the best one to use – teaching phonics or teaching whole sight words. So, which one do we believe is best? The truth is that both have their place and both methods work if they are done correctly. Some children learn best with one, some with the other, and most children will at some point use both.

Before getting into our approach to reading, I want to emphasize that reading is a neurological function just like understanding, speaking, writing, and walking. Therefore, the first step in teaching a child how to read is to provide plenty of opportunity to develop good basic brain organization in the first year of life. If a child’s brain is healthy and well organized, the method used to teach reading becomes much less important because the child will be ready to learn no matter which method you choose to use.

Now, having said that, when it comes to babies or toddlers there is no question in my mind that teaching the whole word is the more sensible and effective way to go. Think about it, children learn to understand spoken language by hearing whole words over and over again! Eventually, as their understanding increases and becomes more sophisticated they begin to understand abstract thought and emotions. We do not speak to children by spelling out a letter or using one sound of a letter at a time. We say the whole word, right?

Recognizing a whole word in print or written form is the visual equivalent of the spoken form. Letters by themselves have no meaning. So, with the very young child showing a whole word instead of letters or sounds is best because it means something to the child. We just need to make sure we follow the same principles that we follow when developing understanding. Remember them? See them here.

When it comes to teaching reading, we want to make sure we use Frequency, Intensity, and Duration in a way that is appropriate for the child’s level of development. How do we do that? Let’s go through it step by step.

INTENSITY – The younger the child, the more emphasis we need to place on intensity. Why? A young baby does not yet have well developed visual and auditory pathways to the brain. Therefore, the information needs to be big and bright so the message can easily reach the brain. So the words should be in the color red on a white background. And, they need to be big.

Can you see how much easier it is to read the word Mommy when it is big and red? We want to always make it easier for a child to learn. The younger the child, the higher the intensity needs to be. It even needs to be bigger than it is above. Let’s say 1 ½” to 2” for a baby or young toddler.

FREQUENCY – The next step is to show the words very frequently. High frequency. Children first understand the words that they hear most often. Words like his or her name, mommy, daddy, no, nurse, hug, kiss, bottle, water, and so on. Again, the same principle applies to written words. Your child might need to see and hear the word twenty, thirty, or forty times before she begins to recognize it. The younger the child the higher the frequency needs to be.

DURATION – When it comes to duration, it is the opposite of intensity and frequency. The younger the child the shorter the duration should be. Attention span is directly related to brain organization and brain maturity. We cannot expect a 6 month old to have the same attention span as a 1 year old, and the 1 year old does not have the same attention span as a 2 year old.  This is because they are not at the same level of brain organization. Young children will switch their attention from one thing to the next faster than an older child. Therefore, you should only show a few words at a time. Ideally, we want to stop showing the words before the child is ready to stop. It is good to leave the child with an “I want to see more!” feeling. When we do this they are eager to see the material the next time around. So, only show 1 or 2 words at a time.

If you pay attention to how you use Intensity, Frequency, and Duration you will be well on your way to developing a happy reader and learner.

Here are a few more things that are important to pay attention to:

  1. If you are going to show words to a baby or young toddler, it is more fun if you include pictures. However, never put the picture and the word on the same page. The only way we can be certain that the child is looking at what we want them to see is to show one thing at a time. So, first show a picture of Mommy and say Mommy. Then, show the word Mommy and say Mommy. One followed by the other, not side by side.
  2. Pictures, just like the words, should be big and precise. When showing the picture of Mommy there should only be Mommy, not Mommy in a group of other people. The picture should be pasted to paper or cardboard of a contrasting background. If the picture is colorful, a white background is best. Make it clear!
  3. Make the material you are showing pretty and of good quality. Children are attracted to bright, colorful, nicely made things. No one likes to look at things that are sloppy.
  4. Show material with enthusiasm! If you are excited to teach your child, she will be excited to learn. It is that simple!
  5. Resist the urge to test your child! Teaching is input, not output. We are all guilty of showing a book to a young child and then asking them to point at different pictures to see if they know them. We have been trained by our schooling that output must follow input so we know if the child is learning. Relax. Trust your child. Remember, if your child is having fun and is eager to look at the material, she will learn it and at her own pace!

Finally, keep in mind that if you are having fun so will your child! Enjoy the ride!

Make the first three years count!

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