This fall, my five-year-old daughter started kindergarten—and learning how to read. While she had plenty of practice with letters and their sounds in preschool, she’d never sounded out words before.
Like any parent, I want to support and encourage her reading at home, but don’t really know how. Luckily, many of my NWEA colleagues are experts at understanding how kids learn. I turned to Cindy Jiban, our principal academic lead for MAP® Reading Fluency™. She has a PhD in educational psychology and is an expert in how kids acquire foundational reading skills.
I’m excited to share Cindy’s advice with others who may be wondering how to help their young reader.
I want to help my daughter build the basic skills to be an adept reader while also cultivating her love of reading. How can I do that?
First of all, yay, Derrick, for leading with the love! Luckily, your two goals don’t have to be at odds at all. And if they start to feel like they are at odds, just err on the side of love.
Have snuggly times with interesting books: you read aloud, she sees where you are reading from, and you both pause to chat with each other about the story along the way. It’s quality time, where you get to exchange thoughts. “I’m a little worried about that snowball. But maybe he has a refrigerated pocket?”
Follow her lead on what to read, most times, too. Hit the library together!
Kids develop their language skills when people talk with them, listen to them, and read to them.”
But how about those letter sounds, that sounding-out-words type stuff? Sure, have a little fun with that now and then, too. Just keep it safely in the zone of playful and fun. This is where some parents can get a little flashcard-y, which turns this reading stuff into work. And work is not what kindergarteners like to do. They do like pretending to work, especially if it involves a hat or apron!
What should families know about the research on how young students learn to read?
The recipe for good reading has just two big ingredients: language understanding and decoding. Those start off as separate pieces. But eventually, they come together in reading with understanding.
Kids develop their language skills when people talk with them, listen to them, and read to them. For a kiddo whose family only speaks another language at home, or a kiddo who had chronic ear infections or hearing loss, English language development can be an especially critical focus in school. But for all kids, a language-rich, interactive home life helps language development.
Decoding is what most parents think of as learning to read: it’s breaking that “code” of squiggles on the page and turning them into language. To get a good start, kids need to know their letters and what sounds they make, but they also need to be able to separate sounds in spoken words (like s-a-l-t) and blend them back together.
Most parents know that learning the letters and their sounds is a thing. Fewer parents know that the skill of hearing and manipulating individual sounds is important, too, even when there is no printed text around at all. Those sound skills are called phonemic awareness.
Do you have any tips for helping to develop decoding skills at home?
Yes! And so does her teacher, by the way. Ask her teacher for a new idea anytime.
Tip 1: Go for fun. Tip 2: Set up lots of successes. Here are some specific ways to go about that:
- Play with sounds, even without text. Make a special secret language by stretching out spoken words into their individual sounds. Ask her to “Please pass the s-a-l-t” at the dinner table. Wonder aloud what people’s names would be if every one had to start with a B sound. (We would be Berrick and Bindy.)
- Play with pairing letters with those sounds. Have a contest to label the most things that start with D in two minutes. You have to put a Post-it on each one, with a D on it. (Will the dog cooperate?) If that’s too easy, find things that have the E sound in them, like in red: a bed, a fence, a blender.
- Get a clipboard and fat markers for both of you, and write notes. As she sounds out words that she wants to write down, she’s getting some of the best practice with these skills. Don’t worry about correct spelling in kindergarten. When she writes PNTBUDR for peanut butter, that’s OSUM because she’s captured all the sounds. (Pro tip: Frame that writing and hang it on the walls, alongside her drawings. You will cherish it forever.)
Her mom and I have noticed that when she’s working to sound out new words, she gets fatigued. How long is reasonable for young children to focus on sounding out words? How can we help build her stamina?
Sounding out words is really, really demanding. It takes all of her mental energy, and she has none left for taking in the meaning or enjoying the story. And remember: kindergarteners are like puppies—they would always rather be playing. So, if she just read the word hop, take a moment to play. Say, “Show me how you hop!” If you’re reading a book, take turns. But her turn might only be one sentence, because that is a big enough challenge for now.
Eventually, she will start to recognize words and just say them more automatically as she comes to them. That automaticity is critical, down the road, because that’s how she will make room in her brain for taking in the meaning. It’s also what makes it possible to read for longer.
[T]he skill of hearing and manipulating individual sounds is important, too, even when there is no printed text around at all. […] Play with sounds.”
You know how your daughter can drive you crazy by choosing the same book YET AGAIN, that book that you now could recite for me on the spot? (I feel your pain: I can still recite I Love Trains! to this day, and he’s in high school this year.) Well, it turns out that repeating books is a good thing. As she learns to sound out words, repeating the same ones over and over is super helpful. It’s not cheating to have some memorization helping—it’s real practice. We want to set up lots of successes because this is tough stuff. So, yeah, read that same favorite book with her AGAIN. Sorry about that.
I’ll be honest: when my daughter doesn’t want to read or isn’t engaging in an activity, I feel like I’m failing. What words of wisdom do you have for when kids are aggressively exerting their sense of free will?
Well, when my son “exerts his free will” too much, I start threatening to dance in front of his friends. But hmm… Kindergarten… I guess dancing might be a reward, in your case!
Remember that kids have a LOT of play to do, to learn how to be bigger people. They are developing their motor skills, learning to regulate various emotions, figuring out how to make and tend to friendships. Reading is just one of many things they need to play on. (Not work on, but play on.)
Does she like to ask you things, sing, play games, have her toys talk to each other, listen to a podcast while she plays with her Legos? Those are all helping language development. And while those aren’t decoding, we have plenty of research evidence that they are helping her future reading comprehension. Notice those language-filled times and remind yourself: we’re building a great reader here.
Derrick, just remember: You’re the guy who leads with the love. Stick with that love of reading, love of fun and play, and love of your child. You can’t go wrong with that!