Helping a young child learn to read is stressful, but helping them while they're learning from home can seem like a nightmare. You love the kid(s), but sometimes you just want to scream because they've mispronounced the same word three times in a row. Hey, we don't all have the temperament to be a kindergarten teacher, and most people weren't expecting to suddenly have to juggle their remote work AND their child's remote learning. This can be especially hard for early grades when much of a child's foundational learning comes from social interaction.
At its best, online learning will provide one-on-one time for a few minutes a couple times a week for your kid to practice reading. Unfortunately, this means the rest of the responsibility falls on you. Don't sweat it!! Even when your kid is physically in school, most schools ask that you read with them at least once a day and keep a reading log. So maybe you're reading this post-pandemic and just want some tips to help your child succeed. Whether you're a parent, a tutor, a guardian or a babysitter-you can help a young learner feel comfortable with a book in their hands.
[These are some things I've picked up while working with kindergartners. These strategies are not necessarily universal, and the specific needs of your child should be accounted for.]
1. Get a Library Card-And Use it Well This seems like a given, but hear me out. You probably have a library card already. YAY! That makes the rest of this easier. I don't need to tell you children's books are expensive. You know that. And unless it's a child's favorite, you probably don't want to purchase it. Early reading paperback books are generally cheaper, but your child will advance to the next level faster than you expect. I've lived in a small town and a big city and in both, the local library offered me a wealth of materials to provide for the kids I tutor. But staring at a wall of children's books figuring out what to get can be daunting. Ask the child's teacher what reading level the child is at, and go from there. Many schools have a lettered or numbered system. When in doubt, start with a level A or 1 book and keep increasing the level until it's a challenge for your student. Since you're reading this, you're already doing research, so your next Google Search can be for books at your child's reading level. Choose a couple titles that you think will interest your child and use your library's online catalog to place holds on the books you want. Then all you have to do is grab the books and get to reading!
2. Let Them Take a Stab at the Word First When your child pauses while they attempt to read a word, it can be so tempting to feed the word to them. Don't. At least let them try to say it themselves. Even if their pronunciation is completely off, praise them for trying and highlight the sounds they got correct. Sometimes you can simply guide them by telling them to change a vowel sound or to remember a letter. For example:
The word is "drop.” Your child says "dop.” You tell them "Don't forget the 'r'!" They say "drop". (If they have a hard time with combined letter sounds like "dr" or "St" you can have them isolate the sounds and practice them.)
The word is "hop." Your child says "hope." You tell them "Almost there, but try saying "ah" instead of "oh". They say "hop."
It also helps to have them tap out each letter sound individually, then blend the word together. This takes a lot of patience, especially at first, but the more you allow them to figure it out on their own, the quicker they'll be able to figure out new words in the future.
3. Encourage Them to Use the Pictures To put it simply, English is a silly language and sometimes words don't make sense. A child I was working with was reading "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" to me, and got to the word "comb." They were stumped, and understandably so. Why does “comb" need a “b” at the end? Just cuz. Instead of encouraging them to sound it out and having to explain the silent b, I told them to look at the picture. In the picture, a child is doing a small animals' blue hair. The child in the picture holds a brush and a comb. My child had already read "brush,” so I asked them what else the child in the picture had. After looking at the picture and the word, they said "comb". Let the pictures inform your early reader so they develop an affinity for discovering context clues. It’s also beneficial to prompt them to use the pictures and the words they’ve read to figure out the big picture of the story. Questions you can ask the child while you are reading with them are “How do you think this character feels in this moment?” “What has happened so far?” “What do you think will happen next?” Engaging them on what they’ve read will help them commit the words to memory.
4. Help Them With Sight Words The child's teacher will be working on sight words with them, but it's incredibly helpful if you help your child review them. Sight word flashcards can be used as a reading warm-up. If teachers don't provide them and you want to keep costs down, write the word clearly on a quarter piece of paper. You can find multiple lists of sight words online. I've also found it useful to keep a running list of words they have struggled with when reading a book and will filter them in to the flashcard pile. A great game for them to practice sight words with is Zingo, but if you want to save money, you can make your own version of the game using Microsoft Excel.
5. Practice Digraphs and Glued Sounds This is another skill your child will learn in school, but the sooner your child can identify certain letter combos, the easier it will be for them to read new words. The most common digraphs are sh-, ch-, wh-, th-, ph-, and -ck. You can introduce "Transformer H" to your child for the first five digraphs so they remember that the "H" transforms the consonant sound it's attached to. Common glued sounds are -ing, -ly, -ish, -ink, -igh, -ough, -ang, -ong, -ay, and -oy. Having a chart with pictures is useful for practice. When a child is sounding out a word, remind them to use their knowledge of digraphs and glued sounds. You can isolate groups of letters in the word and ask them questions like "what does i-n-g make?" It may take a couple tries before they confidently say "ing," but they will get there and will be read-ing before you know it.
6. Look Out For Silent E! When an e is attached to the end of the word, it makes the preceding vowel say its name: cap → cape; hop → hope; kit → kite; cut → cute Most educators refer to this as "silent e." The Electric Company has great (and catchy) songs you can watch with your kids to help them remember. Once I've introduced silent e to a child, when we come across a word with a silent e l'll ask them "What's at the end of the word?" They'll say "silent e!" to which I'll respond, "which means what?" and they'll say, "the vowel says its name!!!" They pronounce the word correctly, and we move on to the next.
7. Use Words They Already Know Sometimes a child can get overwhelmed because there are so many words to learn. The beautiful thing about early reader's books is that many of them have rhyming words. This is a really simple example, but let’s say the child is struggling to read the word "bat". Two lines before, they sounded out "hat” with no issue. Point out both words and ask them what's different between the two (one has an "h" and one has a "b"). Ask them to read "hat" again, and when, they do, have them replace the "h" sound with a "b" sound. Voila, now they say "bat." Additionally, when you come across a large word, you can break the word down into words they already know. Let's say the word is "anything." I'll cover up "thing" first, and the child sounds out "any.” Then I'll cover "any" to reveal "thing" and look-- a digraph and a glued sound! They say "thing” easily, and then are able to put the two words together to say "anything."
These seven simple strategies can make a huge difference in how quickly your child is able to use word clues on their own. Most likely, your child's teacher will go over these strategies with your child in class. The more familiar you are with learning strategies, the more help you'll be able to give the child you're working with. Don't forget—attitude is half the battle. No matter how frustrated you may get, do your best to encourage your child to keep trying. They're probably just as frustrated as you are.
I can tell you from experience that there's nothing quite like seeing a child’s face light up when they are able to read a full page on their own.
Do you have any tips, tricks, or strategies for emerging readers? Let me know in the comments below!
Ashlyn is a certified substitute teacher in NYC and works individually with students as a tutor and babysitter.