Reading Out Loud Is Not Enough

by Ellen M. Shapiro
Owner and Designer, Alphagram Learning Materials

Most everything you’ve read has told you reading out loud is the best 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. Luckily, the the emotionally and politically charged ‘reading wars’ are over, and everyone agrees 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 some parenting magazines, though, you’ve probably been lead to believe that reading out loud to your child from infancy is the secret to early reading success, and perhaps that 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’m 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 specifically teach them to read. It’s can be as ineffective as, say, learning to play a musical instrument by listening to an accomplished musician. Think about it: You want to learn to play the guitar. Eric Clapton is your favorite guitarist. Miraculously, Eric comes over for half an hour every day and plays for you. You thoroughly enjoy yourself. You gain greater appreciation for guitar-playing and his artistry. But at the end of weeks or months, can you play one tune? Probably not. Unless he specifically shows you which string is which, where to put your fingers, how to play a note, a chord, then a series of notes and chords.

Reading is not that different from playing music and learning other skills that are learned one step at a time. Some children learn instinctually, but many 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.

But 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, focus on 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.

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 anywhere. 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 learn to recognize.

5. Begin to use our guides, either the 24-page Ready, Set, Rea! Quick Guide or the complete 60-page Ready, Set, Read! Parent Guide to teach the difference between left and right, above and below, straight and curved. Without understanding those simple concepts, children can’t distinguish one letter from the next a ‘b’ from a ‘d’ or a ‘d’ from a ‘p.’ I wonder how many mis-diagnoses of dyslexia have stemmed from mixing up letters simply due to not understanding that the ‘b’ is the letter with the tall line on the left and the ‘d’ is the one with the tall line on the right?

6. With your child watching and chanting the letter name out loud, write letters on paper, in the air, in the sand, with blocks. Like us, use lower-case letters. Remember that at least 90 percent of the letters we read in books and magazines are lower-case. Capital letters are generally only used the first letter in a sentence and proper names, and can be introduced after the child knows the lower-case alphabet.

Now, associate each sound with a symbol.

7. Next, use our Is It a Word–Or Not? flip-book to teach your child to associate each alphabet letter with the pictogram, a visual cue he or she already knows. You can say: “The letter ‘a’ stands for the sound ‘apple’ begins with.” “The letter ‘b’ stands for the sound that the word ‘bird’ begins with.”

8. Now it’s time to point out the letters and words on the pages of familiar books. When you read The Cat in the Hat out loud, 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.

9. It can be an easy step for him or her to blend two letters, then three, to read syllables and words.

Keep reading out loud every day for at least 20 minutes.

10. 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.

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