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The Secrets to Raising a Smarter Child
- By Inderbir Sandhu, Ph.D


How Can I Help My Child to Read?

By Andrew Loh

Most parents with children would have heard the words "read me a story". Unfortunately, not many children have their bedtime story read to them nightly. The emergence of things like the Internet and television has in some instances stolen the time that might be spent reading with children.

Why reading to your child is important?

Difficulty with reading does not just affect your child's ability in school, but carries over as low self-esteem into every aspect of life. Surveys of adolescents and young adults with criminal records show that about half have reading difficulties.

When you read a book to a young child, at any age, you enhance his visual, vocabulary and listening skills as well as develop an important foundation for your child's language development. Your child's world will be forever expanded and enriched if you develop his imagination and curiosity through books. Studies have shown that children who are read to early are more likely to be successful in school and in life. In fact, many school-age children who are good readers had parents who read, and read to them. Indeed, reading starts at home!

Home Environment

Home environment plays an important role in the development of early readers. According to Jim Trelease, author of "The New Read-Aloud Handbook", two major studies (one from the 1966 and one from 1975) have been done on early readers as well as students who respond to early education without difficulty. These studies show that the following four indicators were present in the home environment of nearly every early reader.

  1. The child is read to on a regular basis. This reading included not only books, but billboards, signs, labels, and more. The parents, by example, were avid readers.
  2. Books, newspapers, magazines, and comics were always available at home.
  3. Paper and pencils were also available anywhere because the starting point of curiosity about written language was an interest in copying objects and letters of the alphabet.
  4. Adult in the child's home answered endless questions, praised the child's efforts, used their local library frequently, bought books, wrote stories that their child dictated and displayed their child's work prominently.

Having setup a good home environment for reading, you have to ensure your child has good hearing!

How does a child's hearing affect his reading?

Neurologists at Yale have peeked inside children's brains while they did reading tasks. From MRI brain scans, scientists discovered that the auditory/language centers of children who read well light up with lots of blood flowing. Other children with less blood flow in those areas had difficulty in reading. In other words, children who have a strong ear-brain connection tend to be good readers.

Additional studies suggest that children with multiple ear infections, a speech impediment, or weaknesses in auditory skills are at risk for having reading disorders.

The auditory skill is phonemic awareness. Reading starts with phonemic awareness -- the ability to notice, think about, and manipulate the individual sounds in words or phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in our language that can make a difference in the meaning of a word (like cat versus rat).

Phonemic awareness can be developed in young children in a variety of ways.

1. Speak to your child, clearly and directly
From the time he is an infant. There is no substitute for live human interaction.

2. Play rhyming games.
Make up rhymes to go with your child's name, or with the activity you are about to start. For example, Joe, let's go for a walk in the snow. Then encourage your child to add on rhyming words.

3. Make up funny words by substituting letters.
"Apples and Bananas" is a great song for substituting vowel sounds.

4. Isolate certain sounds in words.
Stress the beginning sound and the ending sound. Exaggerate the  vowel sounds. Make it sound silly and then repeat it correctly.

5. Recite Nursery Rhymes with your child.
You can use a nursery rhyme any time for a diversion. For example, when you are dressing or changing a young child, a song or nursery rhyme stops the squirming and adds a bit of fun. Repeat the same one each time and soon you will find that your child will sing along with you.

Suggestions on how to teach your child to read

The author of "The Reading Lesson", Dr. Michael Levin suggested the following simple steps that you can follow to teach your child to read:

1. Teach the sounds of the letters together with their names.
The sound (or sounds) of the letters are often different from the name of the letter. In reading, it is the sounds that count. Do not be rigid in how the child pronounces the sounds. Regional accents and sometimes weak auditory skills make it hard for children to say most sounds in an academically correct fashion. Accept a reasonable effort. Recognize that learning sounds is only an intermediate step to learning to read.

2. Teach lower case letters first.
Capital letters account for only five percent of all letters in written English. Therefore, pay more attention to teaching the lower case letters. Lower case letters are far more important in developing reading skills.

3. Do not worry about grammar at this point.
Preschoolers, kindergartners, and first graders are very concrete in the way they think and cannot handle complicated concepts. It is not necessary at this stage to teach them about consonants, vowels, long and short sounds and such grammatical constructs. Young children can learn to read just as well without these rules.

4. Teach your child writing along with reading.
Children learn to read faster and easier if they learn to write at the same time. The motor memory of the letters, listening to their sounds and seeing them in writing will reinforce new learning. So, teach your child to write letters and words.

5. Limit the initial reading vocabulary.
Reading is a very complex process. Not all words can be read using simple phonic rules. Many important words need to be learned by sight. Teach only the simple and common words at first. The knowledge of 300 to 400 key words often called Dolch words, is all a young child needs to be able to read well.

To really learn to read, your child needs the most important tool of all - the kitchen table - where you sit together and spend about ten minutes a day working through the process step-by-little-step.

How to select the book for your children to read

Books used for reading to young children should be age appropriate and 'real'. In an article by Lynn K. Rhodes (1981) titled "I can read! Predictable books as resources for reading and writing instruction," she discusses the characteristics of predictable books. They are as follows:

1. Predictable books have a repetitive pattern.
Children can quickly follow and read along with the book after the first few pages.

2. They are about concepts that are very familiar to most early readers. 
The children can easily identify with the story line and the characters.

3. There is a good match between the text and its illustrations.
This is an important key in a book's readability. The pictures that accompany the text essentially tell the story for the child after he has become familiar with the pattern.

4. Many predictable books use elements of rhyme and rhythm to increase the overall predictability of the book. 
Once the child catches the rhythm or the rhyming pattern, it  enhances his ability to predict what will come next.

5. Many also use a cumulative pattern as the story progresses. 
A familiar example of a story that has a cumulative pattern is "The Gingerbread Man" where each of the fugitive cookie's pursuers is added to the narrative as the story reaches the climax.

6. Stories that are familiar to a child also enhance their predictability. 
It is easy for most children to predict what the wolf will say in "The Three Little Pigs" because of their prior experiences with the story.

7. Familiar sequences are often characteristic of predictable books. 
Eric Carle, in his book "The Very Hungry Caterpillar", uses two sequences that are familiar to most young children: numbers and the days of the week:

             On Monday he ate through one apple.
             But he was still hungry.

             On Tuesday he ate through two pears,
             but he was still hungry.

Do you want to try one of the world's most advanced phonics software that used by thousands of US schools? The answers are Hooked on Phonics and ClickN' READ Phonics Alternatively, if you would like to learn more about a simple, effective, step-by-step method of teaching phonics and phonemic awareness here.

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