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Nurturing Early Reading Skills

by Stephanie Ward

How does a child learn to read and write? Is it a specific set of skills that we teach him, or does this ability evolve naturally, in much the same way that he learned to talk? Do we need to take a purposeful, structured approach to teaching reading, or are we less “teachers” than facilitators, providing a language-rich environment in which young learners can blossom? Is teaching phonics - helping kids learn specific letters and sounds, then read words - the best approach, or should we go at it the other way around? There are many perspectives on this subject, along with a wealth of information and experience for us to draw upon. I suggest that you consider all these ideas, give yourself time to absorb them, evaluate what seems to work best with a particular child at a certain time, and be flexible in trying different approaches, perhaps combining bits of all of them. Above all, this learning experience should be relaxed and fun! After all, you are nurturing the roots of a lifelong love of words, books, and ideas.

A Environment Rich in Language and Life Learning

While disagreements abound as to the “best” ways to teach reading, virtually all of us agree on one thing. The best thing you can do for your child, in terms of fostering literacy skills, is to surround him with words, books, and a love of literature. The most fundamental part of this is something you already do daily, reading to your child. Mary Griffith, in The Unschooling Handbook writes:

“Reading aloud will do more to turn your kids into readers than any other single thing you can do. Reading aloud can be a daily event for the entire family, it can be a private time for one parent-child pair, or older children can read to younger ones. Many families continue to read together, long after all the children have learned to read, simply because they have come to enjoy the ritual of sharing books.” (pp. 80-81)

Let him see you reading, too. Even if you feel you haven’t had time to as much as read a soup label since your kids were born, try to make time to peruse books, newspapers, magazines, and other print materials. Our children have an infallible instinct for absorbing, through our actions, what activities are truly important and exciting.

Choose a variety of reading materials, including simple old classics. Traditional stories, including folk and fairy tales, nursery rhymes, poems, finger plays, and songs are filled with ancient, intuitive wisdom about how children learn language. They are repetitive, filled with basic learning concepts, and predictable. By predictable, I mean that something is repeated so that it is easy to remember: a rhyme, rhythm, or a story pattern, such as the sequences in "The Little Red Hen," "The Three Bears," "The Three Little Pigs," or "The Gingerbread Man."

Repeat favorites again and again. Margaret Phinney, in “Whole Reading” writes

“This can become tedious for you unless you keep in mind that children do not ask for repeats unless they are in some way benefiting from hearing a story again. Children do not seek boredom! You can spruce up the reading by using different tones of voice or by encouraging the child's participation by stopping before the end of a line and inviting the child to fill In the last word or two.

Encourage memorization of rhymes, songs, and predictable stories. Memory of material provides the base from which a focus on print is later built. “

Another way we can provide a firm basis for later reading comprehension is by providing a rich array of life experiences to our kids.

Mary Hood, in The Relaxed Homeschool writes:

“Another thing you can do for your children is provide them with a variety of background experiences. These are absolutely vital to children who are learning how to read. If a child has never been to a zoo to see an elephant, he will not be able to make sense out of a story like “Dumbo.” If he has never seen the inside of a train station, he will have difficulty understanding The Train To Timbuctoo. If he has never been to a farm, he will have trouble visualizing the life portrayed in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series.” (p. 53)

This does not mean it is necessary – or possible - to have your child experience everything first hand, and you should not feel guilty if you lack the time or money for excursions such as zoo trips. But do not underestimate the importance of living experiences for literacy development. A simple walk through the yard, observing the habits of squirrels or the setting of the sun can provide abundant experiences to which he can later relate a story of a chipmunk or a tale about the cycles of the day.

Beginning by Learning the Letters

Learning to read typically begins with learning the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make. There are many excellent alphabet books, and these are fun way for children to learn the letters. My older daughter, Sarah, and I wrote and illustrated our own alphabet books when she was young. The premise of one, which was her own idea, was that Sarah had been invited to a Halloween Party with all the letters of the alphabet, and each letter was dressed in a silly costume. Many families enjoy making a “lapbook” for each letter of the alphabet. The Lapbooking yahoo group offers its members many examples in the Photos section.

Alphabet puzzles, large magnetic letters, and games are other fun activities. You can devise many games to reinforce learning the alphabet. Toss a bunch of magnetic letters into a box or laundry basket. Attach a magnet to one end of a string, then tie the other end of the string to a dowel to create a “fishing pole.” Your child may enjoy “fishing” for the letters, then saying the name of each letter and the sound it makes. Commercial magnetic letters can work. Even better is a collection of metal juice can lids with a letter written on each lid with a permanent marker.

Montessori schools have offered terrific strategies for helping kids learn letters through their tactile sense, as well as through their eyes and ears, using sand. I understand this is done two ways. One method is to provide a cookie sheet covered with a thick layer of sand and have the child trace a letter in the sand, while saying the sound it makes. Another technique, which I have used with my daycare kids, is to cut out letters from sandpaper, and encourage kids to feel them.

When working on letters, many parents and teachers concentrate on upper case letters, which are most commonly seen in alphabet books. I suggest that you emphasize lower case letters, as these are the ones found most often in printed materials.

Other Ways to Begin

Most reading instruction begins with teaching children the letters of the alphabet, and the sounds they make. However, some writers discourage this approach.

Phinney writes:

“I am what is known as a "whole language teacher." This means that I teach reading from whole to part. I do not start with letters and letter-sounds; l start with whole stories, poems, chants, and songs, which I gather from the rich sources of literature available in bookstores and libraries.”

John Holt, in Learning All the Time, advises parents not to try to teach letter sounds in isolation, believing this causes confusion. He points out that only about 7 consonant sounds can be pronounced alone. For instance, if you try to make the “b” sound, it actually comes out as “buh” (/b/ alone is actually the movement of the lips pressing together, and doesn’t make a sound. If you try this, you will see what he means).

“B does not say “buh” or “d” “duh.” Big does not say “buh-ig,” nor rub “rub-buh.” (p. 24)

The constant sounds that can be pronounced alone are: /s/ (sometimes spelled with c, as in nice), /z/ (sometimes spelled with s, as in rise), /m/, /n/, /v/, /f/, and /j/ (sometimes spelled with g as in giraffe), plus the consonant blend /sh/.

Holt does feel, however, that exposing children to basic phonetic concepts, including word “families” (such as cat, bat, fat, etc.) can help children learn to read. He advocates doing this is a very relaxed manner, rather than teaching these skills directly.

“All we have to do then is to expose children to the two basic ideas of phonics: that written letters stand for and “make” spoken sounds and that the order of the written letters matches the order of the spoken sounds. The first we can do very easily by any kind of reading aloud, whether of books, or signs, or whatever. The second we can do by writing down, and saying as we write them, words that use the 6 or 7 consonants that we can sound alone and so can stretch out in time. Thus we could write Sam, saying the s as we write the s, the a as we write it and the m as we write it.” (p. 24)

The latter activity can be seamlessly interwoven into your family’s school day. It is not something that needs to be done in large doses, but scattered throughout a number of weeks, so that it begins to feel natural to your child. My son and I write stories together: I write as he dictates. Sometimes we do this slowly, using simple words and I say each letter aloud as I spell it. He is thrilled when I read his words back to him, and he enjoys illustrating his work. Often, he draws the pictures first, then asks me to write the words explaining the pictures.

Holt suggests that a parent might write the consonants in one color, the vowels in another, so the child gets a sense of the way that vowels and consonants combine to form words.

Do not be concerned if your child does not “get” these concepts right away. Keep showing him how letters and words work, playing with these concepts, and having fun with it every day. Your goal is not to whiz through a set of lessons or a phonics program, but to nurture the roots of lifetime learning. According to Holt:

“It is not a lesson to be completely learned and digested the first or second time. That is not how children learn things. They have to live with an idea or insight for a while, turn it around in some part of their minds, before they can, in a very real sense, discover it, say “I see,” take possession of the idea, and make it their own-and unless they do this, the idea will never be more than surface, parrot learning, and they will never really be able to make use of it.” (pp 24-25).


Using phonics is essentially an auditory skill, which involves being able to “hear” the sounds in words. Peggy Wilber suggests spending fifteen minutes a day of playing auditory games and reading a good book aloud to your child, to develop her language and auditory processing skills. Some areas these games can reinforce are:

  1. Listening
  2. Rhyming
  3. Understanding Syllables
  4. Joining Sounds to Make Words
  5. Taking Apart Sounds in Words
  6. Playing With Sounds in Words -and – once again –
  7. Reading Predictable Books

Wilber; Donat (p. 12)

Listening You can devise many fun activities to help your child develop the skill and habit of listening carefully to sounds. Here are a few to get you started.

  1. Name That Sound My son enjoys a game called “Audiodetective.” It is essentially a bingo game. The child listens to sounds: such as a knock on a door, a baby’s cry, or a dog’s bark, randomly played on a CD. When he hears a sound, he covers the space on his Bingo card with a picture representing the thing that made the noise (such as a hand on a door, a baby, or a dog). Dorothy Donat suggests a similar game in which you play a tape of familiar sounds and let the children can identify them. You could do something similar, without electronics, by having your child close his eyes while you knock on a door, start the blender, or tap a nail with a hammer, and let him guess what you’re doing.
  2. “Echo” Say a sentence and have the child repeat it, word for word. Then you take a turn being his “echo.”
  3. Where are You? Have the child close her eyes as you move to a different part of the room. Make a noise (such as an animal sound) and let the child try to figure out exactly where you is standing. (Donat, p. 12)


Learning to recognize and invent rhymes is something we intuitively teach children through poems, songs, nursery rhymes, rhyming books, and finger-plays. You can also play rhyming games. Wilber offers these examples:

"Begin by modeling how to rhyme. Put the sounds of rhyming into your child’s ear first. Point to parts of your body, say a body part and a rhyming word. This puts rhyming into your child’s ears with a visual cue (pointing). For example, point to your nose and say: "Nose/rose—they sound the same, don’t they?"

Here's a list of body parts and rhyming words:

  1. ear-dear
  2. toe-go
  3. eye-bye
  4. hair-bare
  5. cheek-peek
  6. nail-pail
  7. thumb-gum
  8. chin-pin
  9. neck-deck
  10. arm-farm
  11. back-sack
  12. foot-put
  13. knee-see
  14. hand-band
  15. heel-feel

When your child is able to rhyme using body parts, say to her:

'I'm going to say a word and you say a word that sounds the same. Let’s see how many words we can think of. I say bee." Your child might say "he." You then say "tree," and so on. (me, free, she, me, knee, we) Choose one-syllable words that are easy to rhyme such as had, rat, man, fall, ten, red, big, fill, hop, dog, bug and sun.

Help your child 'catch' the idea of rhyming by reading rhyming books together.'

  • Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss, 1963.
  • Where’s My Teddy? by Jez Alborough, 1992.
  • Cat Traps by Molly Coxe, 1996.
  • Geese Find the Missing Piece by Marco and Giulio Maestro, 1999."

Donat offers these ideas of rhyming games:

  1. Picture Rhyme
    • Say two words to a child and ask him whether they rhyme
    • Show the child some pictures of rhyming and non-rhyming words, and ask which ones rhyme.
    • Play concentration with sets of two rhyming words.
  2. Crazy Pot Rhyme Say four words and have three of them rhyme. Have the child tell which word does not rhyme with the others.
  3. Beanbag Rhyme Say a word, then trhow a beanbag to the child. Have a child say a word that rhymes with your word as he catches the beanbag.

Understanding Syllables

Donat recommends that you next help children become aware of how words are divided into syllables. This prepares him for recognizing phonemes (separate sounds) in words. Here are several of her suggested activities:

  1. Hidden Objects Place some objects into a bag, ensuring that some have names with multiple syllables. The child pulls an object from the bag then counts the syllables by clapping (example: the object is a stuffed monkey: two claps (mon-key).
  2. Syllable Links Link connectable objects (such as unifix cubes, Cuisenaire rods, or Legos) to show how many syllables are in a word.
  3. Puppet Talk Having a puppet “talk,” stretch words into syllables (example: mo-tor-cy-cle) and let the child guess the word. (p. 13)

Joining Sounds to Make Words This skill involves combining sounds to make words.

  1. Guess My Word Gives clues such as “I’m thinking of a word that begins with /s/ and you wash with it.” (soap)
  2. Musical Onset/Rime Blend onsets (the beginning sounds) and rimes (sounds within the words) to the tune of “A-Hunting We Will Go.” “A searching we will go, a searching we will go, we’ll find an /h/ and add a /orse/, and then we’ll have a horse.
  3. Turtle Reading Read the child a story, then pretend to have trouble reading a word. Say each sound slowly, one at a time (m –on-key), and have the child guess the word.
(Donat, p. 14)

Taking Apart Sounds in Words A related skill is “segmenting” or taking apart the sounds in words.

  1. Slinky Segmentation Have the child stretch a slinky while slowly saying each sound (/t/ /a/ /ble/).
  2. Animal Phoneme Count Show pictures of animals, and help the child group them by the number of separate sounds he hears in the name of each animal.
  3. Clap and Eat Phonemes Have the child count the separate sounds he hears in a word, using grapes, candies, or goldfish crackers. Let him eat them at the end of the lesson.
(Donat, pp. 14-15)

Playing With Sounds in Words At this stage,according to Donat, you introduce a word “family,” such as the “-at family.” Add a letter to the beginning of “-at” and get “cat,” “fat,” etc. Also experiment with phoneme deletion. Say the word “cat,” then find out what happens when you remove the “c” (“at”) and the “t” (“ca”). Make rhyming words by changing the beginning sound. We played “pin the tail on the donkey” with word families, an idea given to me by my friend Kirsten. I put the letters “at” on the donkey, then made tails with separate consonants (b,c,f, etc.) My son “pinned the tail on the donkey” then read each new word he’d made. We also play a dice game, which I purchased at a teacher supply store for about $5. Each die has a rime (such as “at”) on each side, and you can experiment with adding the “at” to different beginning sounds.

Reading Predictable Books

Two-year-old Addie can "read" the picture book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? aloud, by herself. This book is a delight to toddlers and preschoolers and easy to memorize. Addie is learning about language, rhyming, rhythm, and the love of words - all before she has learned one letter of the alphabet. For more information on predictable books, see the article Using "Real Books" in Your Program, by Mark Thogmartin(a chapter from his bookTeach a Child to Read with Children's Books), and ABC's of Beginning to Read by Penny Gardner, which provides excellent list of predictable books for young kids.

I hope the process of helping your child learn to read will create many wonderful memories of books, stories, songs, games, and other experiences. This will help him develop a strong foundation for his future education, a love of words and books, and joy in learning that will last a lifetime.


    • Donat, Dorothy J. Reading Their Way: A Balance of Phonics and Whole Language, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993.
    • Griffith, Mary, The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World as Your Child’s Classroom, Prima Publishing, 1998.
    • Holt, John, Learning All the Time Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1989.
    • Hood, Mary, The Relaxed Home School Ambleside Educational Press, 1994.
    • Phinney, Margaret, “Whole Reading,” Published in the Winter 1987 issue of Mothering, and in the book Schooling at Home: Parents, Kids, and Learning, 1990, John Muir Publications, PO Box 613, Santa Fe, NM 87504. Reprinted on the Natural Child Project web site:
    • Wilber, Peggy, “Reading Begins in Your Child’s Ears,”

    Other Resources

    • Starfall
      This site offers many on-line and print resources for emergent and beginning readers. Thse include on-line games, stories, and videos on basic skills such as vowel sounds, word families, basic phonetic rules, and sight words.
    • Webbing Into Literacy
      This site offers a wealth of reading resources for young learners including downloadable alphabet books, reading lists, and downloadable activities.
    • Brightly Beaming Resources
      A site with free curricula on letters and sounds (phonemic awareness). It includes complete cross-curricular lesson plans based on each letter of the alphabet and on 36 consonant and vowel blends.

    copyright 2004 Stephanie Ward

    Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2, page 9

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