Reading Out Loud Is Not Enough

by Ellen Shapiro
President, Alphagram Learning Materials

Everything you’ve read has told you reading out loud is the way to teach your child to read. Isn’t it?

You cuddle up with your child in a cozy chair. As soon as you open The Cat in the Hat, her face lights up. The two of you laugh at the antics of Thing One and Thing Two. Your son is sitting in your lap, and together you enter the world of Where The Wild Things Are. You delight in his version of the terrible roar.

These are wonderful moments, a big part of the joy of being a parent (and a child). Of course, you also look forward to the day when your child will be reading on his or her own.

Will reading come easily to your child?

If you are reading this, perhaps he or she is one of the 15 to 20 percent of children who are having difficulties. Newspaper and magazine articles about the literacy crisis and falling reading scores – even among so-called “normal” children who do not have learning disabilities – are frightening, and so are reports of the emotionally and politically charged “reading wars.” Everyone agrees, though, that no skill is more important for success in school – and in life – than the ability to read fluently and with understanding and enjoyment.

If you’ve been following the advice published in many parenting magazines, you’ve probably been lead to believe that reading out loud to your child from infancy is the secret to early reading success, and it’s the only thing that’s needed. As a writer, a designer, the parent of a child who had great difficulties learning to read – and now as the developer of materials that help children learn to read – I am a big believer in reading out loud. But I also believe that reading out loud is not enough.

Think of learning a musical instrument.

For many children, being read to is the perfect bonding activity. It nurtures a lifelong love of books and literature. But it doesn’t teach them to read. It’s can be as ineffective as, say, learning to play a musical instrument by sitting in the lap of an accomplished musician. Think about it: You want to learn to play the guitar. Eric Clapton is your favorite guitarist. Miraculously, you get to sit in Eric’s lap for half an hour every day and listen to him play for you. You thoroughly enjoy yourself. You gain greater appreciation for guitar-playing and for his artistry. But at the end of weeks or months, can you play one tune to show you which string is which, where to put your fingers, how to pluck the strings, how to play a note, a chord, then a series of notes and chords.

Reading is not that different from other skills that are learned one step at a time. Some children learn instinctually, but many kids require what is called “explicit” teaching, the equivalent of learning where to put your fingers to play the notes. They can’t learn just from being read to.

Each year, better reading programs are developed and adopted by districts and states. More teachers are trained in multisensory techniques that help more and more children.

One step at a time.

There is a lot parents can do, even before a child starts school. Here are some techniques that will give a jump-start to pre-schoolers as well as help school-age kids who need extra assistance with mastering basic skills:

First, sounds.

1. Focus the child’s attention on sounds. Talk about different types of sounds (music, rain on the roof, car tires squealing, dogs barking, etc.).

2. Read a story with noisy descriptions (like fire engines) and talk about and mimic the sounds.

3. Point out beginning sounds of words. For example, ‘mouse,’ ‘monkey,’ and ‘mountain’ all start with the sound of ‘m.’ With your child, begin to classify words by sound. Make it a game. Say, “Can you think of some words that begin with the sound of ’sss’?” “Words that begin with the sound of ‘b’?” (Hint: don’t say ‘bee,’ say just the beginning sound, ‘buh’). This is done orally (no printed words), and can happen everywhere. For example, when you go for a walk, you can say: “There’s a fire engine. What sound does ‘fire’ start with? Right, ‘f.’”

Next, symbols.

4. Point out visual symbols for words and concepts. For example, direct your child’s attention to the sign on the pizza store that shows a slice of pizza. Point out the sign that means “auto repair” and the sign that means “bus stop.” See how many different symbols around town your child can recognize.

5. Introduce alphabet letters as symbols that represent a sound. This is an abstract concept, and here’s where school kids sometimes get into trouble. If they memorize “whole words” from the pages of books and don’t understand that a letter symbolizes a sound, they often can’t read the same word when it appears somewhere else, and they can’t read other, different words that are spelled with the same letter. So, as an example, point to the letter ‘b’ and say, “This letter, which looks like a tall line with a circle on the right side, is a ‘b’ and it always stands for the sound of ‘buh,’ like in ‘bird.’” Don’t introduce a new letter until the child is solid (teachers say “firm”) with the one you are working on. And try not to make it seem like work. This activity should be enjoyable for both of you. Alphagram’s Is It a Word–Or Not? flip-book is perfect for this.

6. Teach the difference between left and right. Kids can’t differentiate letters and read words and sentences without knowing left from right. If needed, tie a green ribbon around the child’s left hand, saying, “This is the left side.” Point out things that are left and right. Say, “The steering wheel in the car is on the left.” “The circle on the ‘b’ is on the right.” “We read from left to right.”

7. Write letters on paper; help your child build letters with blocks (pointing out the shapes that differentiate each one – tall lines, short lines, circles); write letters in sand. Find different, tactile, interesting ways to reinforce letter shapes and associate them with their sounds.

8. Use lower-case letters. Remember that most letters we read in books and magazines are lower-case. Capital letters are for the first letter in a sentence and proper names. Capital letters can be introduced after the child knows the lower-case alphabet.

Now, associate the sound with the symbol.

9. Begin to associate each letter with a visual cue the child already knows. “The letter ‘a’ stands for the sound ‘apple’ begins with.” “The letter ‘b’ stands for the sound of that the word ‘bird’ begins with.”

10. Point out the letters and words on the pages of familiar books. When you read The Cat in the Hat, point to the word ‘cat.’ Say, “This word is ‘cat.’” Ask your child to imitate you. Praise her! She’ll say, “I can read ‘cat!’” It’s a moment of triumph, and an important first step. She can recognize a word in its context. Ask her to name other words that begin with the same sound. Look for other words in the story that start with the same letter.
It’s an easy step to blend two letters, then three, to read syllables and words.

11. After your child can recognize each lower-case letter and associate it with the correct sound, the next step is to be able to “blend” two letters to really read a word, not just pick it out of context. For example, if your son knows that the letter ‘a’ stands for the ‘a’ sound as in ‘apple’ and the letter ‘t’ stands for the ‘t’ sound as in ‘turtle,’ try to teach him to “blend” the two letters to read the word ‘at.’ From there, it’s a short step to read ‘cat’ and ‘fat’ and ‘hat.’ Being able to blend three-letter consonant-vowel-consonant syllables is the biggest hurdle many kids having difficulties must overcome. It sometimes takes repetition and practice. After that, the next step, like mastering consonant blends like “br” and “st” and long vowels, may be much easier.
Your child is well on his or her way to reading longer words, sentences and stories.

12. And please keep reading out loud every day for at least 20 minutes! Make the reading meaningful in ways that encourage the child to read on his or her own (Please see expert Marilyn Kay’s article).
And soon, your child could be reading to you, rather than the other way around.

The pleasure of reading out loud is a big part of the joy of being a parent.

If kids memorize “whole words” from the pages of books, they often can’t read the same word when it appears somewhere else.

Teach the difference between left and right!

If your child knows that the ‘a’ stands for the ‘apple’ sound and the ‘t’ stands for the ‘turtle’ sound, teach him to “blend” the two letters to read the word ‘at.’ From there, it’s short step to ‘cat’ and ‘fat.’