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Parent: Help Your Child Become a Reader

Help Your Child Become a Reader


If you’ve ever watched a child learn how to read, it seems magical. One day they are struggling through letters and sounding out words and the next they are reading full sentences.

But it isn’t really magic. It’s actually a complex process that can be boiled down to two parts of reading comprehension. The first is the technical part of it--the letters and the sounds they make. The second part is vocabulary and understanding what the words mean when all the letters are put together.

And, as a parent, you naturally help your kids develop both parts of the reading process. You may not even know you’re doing it! (See a list of While We Wait games. These are a fun way to practice learning the “sounds” of words.)

As a parent you naturally help your child develop both parts of the reading process.


I hope you’ve heard it before, but reading to your child is critical for their reading success. Why is that? Well, a big part of reading comprehension is knowing words or having a large vocabulary. And YOU play a huge role in helping your child learn words by talking to them. That’s it. Having a conversation is the best way to help your child learn and use words. (check out for sentence prompts)

And the easiest way to have rich conversations--by reading a book. As you read, pause and talk about the pictures, the characters, the questions your child has. Talk about how a book is put together. Talk about what happened in the beginning, the middle and the end. Never rush to get through a book. Instead, think of reading as a three-way conversation between you, your child, and the book. (Watch a video about how to read books with toddlers here and check out Commit to just 15 minutes every day!)

Another important thing that kids need to know in order to read is that words are made up of different sound parts. So, for example, the word “cat” is really “c” and “a” and “t”--all smooshed together. If kids can’t hear how a word is put together, they’ll have a harder time seeing and reading how a word is put together.  

You can help your child learn that words are made up of different by playing word games, like “Stretch It.” This game is pretty simple and you can play it any time you’re waiting. You say something like:

“We’re gonna play a game where I’m going to stretch out a word into just the sounds and you try to guess what word I’m saying. So for example c……a……t... and you would say, “cat” or if I say s…l……ow…..l…y, you would say, “slowly!” Let’s try.”

Another one, we call  “Which One is Not Like the Others?” helps kids notice the different parts of a words.

"Ok--in the words cat, dim, rat--which one is not like the others? (dim it has a different vowel sound) What about bed, ball, cat? (cat starts with the K sound instead of “buh” sound) What about walked, cooked, sang? (walked and cooked have the same ending sound but sang does not)." 

Remember these are all sound games. Your child shouldn’t be writing or spelling them. The most important thing is to be able to hear the sounds that make up a word. And if English isn’t your home language—no problem. These skills transfer so if you play in Spanish, it will still help your child learn to read in English and Spanish. (See a list of While We Wait Games. And these work with older kids, too.)

There are different books that will help you help your child learn that words are made up of different parts. For example, alphabet books, books that build into a series of repeated phrase (Like I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly) and rhyming books. I personally, find these types of books a little boring to read aloud but knowing that they are helping lay a foundation for reading makes them more palatable.


When kids “officially” begin to learn how to read in school, it might seem overwhelming. As teachers talk about “phonemes” and “diagraphs” your tendency may be to retreat and think, “Ok—the school can take over now.”

But don’t forget, you make a big difference in helping your child with the two parts of the reading process--learning how the sounds of a word work together and understanding what the words mean when all the letters are put together.

First of all--even when your child starts reading, you should continue to read with him or her. (Read and share other common myths of reading here.) Books and interesting conversations help build vocabulary and knowledge about the world. That way, when kids do learn how to read words they’ll know what they actually mean. Talking with your child as you read is the perfect way to help support their long-term reading skills.

Secondly, even though the teacher might throw around unknown reading terms, the idea is the same--words are made up of different sounds. So continue to play games and experiment with moving the letters and sounds of words around. (Check out the While We Wait Games and more in the Toolbox)

Once your child has learned their letters and sounds, one of our favorite games is Bananagrams. It really helps kids see how switching around letters and sound makes different words.

When you do start reading those early books with kids, always encourage them to sound out the word first, letter by letter. That should be their first instinct, even if it means they get all those pesky sight words that don’t follow the rules wrong at first. (Here are some other activities from Great Schools. I love!)

One of the best things to do with beginning readers is to reread and then reread the same thing over and over again. (Read 5 Tips for Reading with Beginning Readers). Think of reading and rereading as the difference between driving in a new part of town versus driving in your neighborhood.

When you're driving in a new part of town, you feel anxious and confused. You aren’t sure where to turn. You have to double check the map app several times. In short, driving in a new place is interesting but not very enjoyable. It’s hard to take it all in.

When you’re driving in your neighborhood, you can relax a little. You look to see if your neighbor is home. You take it slow because you know which houses have little kids out front. You might even try a different route home because you’re sure you won’t get lost. In short, you can enjoy it and do something other than just arrive at your destination.

New readers often experience reading like driving in a new part of town. They are constantly being bombarded with new words, new sentences, new ideas. They are trying hard to remember their training but it’s hard to have fun and look around.

But each time they reread, they can grip the metaphoric steering wheel a little less. They can get more confidence in their skills and even enjoy the reading process.

And finally--provide opportunities for your beginning reader to read. Here are some great book suggestions and don’t forget about your local library.


Hooray your child has turned a reading corner! (Of if they are still struggling, read here--link coming soon) Now you can help them cement these reading skills by doing three things:

1. Keep your child reading (here is a great searchable list) Practice, practice, practice! Set aside some time every day. In our house, you can stay up 15 minutes “past bedtime” if you are reading. A friend of mine has 20 minutes of “reading time” where everyone in the family sits down with a book or magazine (including parents) before they head off to bed. However you fit it in, there is no substitute for reading.

Don’t just read books. Read signs, read cereal boxes, read articles (I like Newsela and Continue to talk about words wherever you find them.

2. Keep encouraging your child to reread. As I mentioned before, rereading is a great way to cement the skills that kids are still working on. And as the texts get harder, rereading becomes a life-saving habit.

3. Keep reading to your child (forever) Here’s the thing—your first or second grader may know how to read but they can only read books that are at certain level. Think Junie B. Jones. They are great books for kids but the series is not very complex and doesn’t use rich vocabulary. But your child can listen and understand a book like Hatchet or Island of the Blue Dolphins, which are both tales of a child surviving on their own in a strange and unknown place. With these two classic books, your child will learn new, interesting words and build knowledge about the world around them—two super important parts of reading comprehension. Heck—you will probably learn something new, too!

This is true for older kids, too. Just because they can sound out the words, doesn’t mean they can full grasp the concepts. (Maybe that’s why I cried like a baby when I was reading Sounder out loud to my 5th grade daughter and she kept asking what was so sad).

Not convinced you should keep reading aloud to your kids? Check out this Q&A by Jim Trelease. If he doesn’t convince you, no one will (Watch a videos showing how you might read with grade-school kids here)

Start here: Commit to reading with your child everyday for 15 minutes, no matter what.

Challenge yourself: Check out the videos of a real mom (me!) reading to real kids (mine!). Toddler, Pre-school, and Grade-schooler. 

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