So here’s a big secret that most mama’s don’t know. Reading shouldn’t start off with drilling letters and sounds. Reading shouldn’t start off with drilling at all. In fact, drilling should be a word we pretty much wipe off the face of the Earth when it comes to teaching your child how to read. You want them to LIKE reading, yes? No more drilling!
So if reading doesn’t start out with the letter of the week, flash cards for memorization, or drill & kill, then what?
The foundation of reading is phonological & phonemic awareness.
To put it simply, if you want your child to be a good reader, you must first train his or her ear. This ear training can start off even as early as 2 years old. And you’re just having fun, and being intentional in the way you talk and read to your child. You are NOT sitting down and trying to teach your toddler to read! You’re just changing the way you read stories.
What is phonological awareness?
According to Wikipedia, Phonological awareness refers to an individual’s awareness of the phonological structure, or sound structure, of words. Phonological awareness is an important and reliable predictor of later reading ability and has, therefore, been the focus of much research.
Here are the different stages of phonological awareness (phonemic awareness is a part of phonological awareness). It works like stair steps, with each step growing in difficulty:
- Rhyming (age 2+)
- Syllables (age 2+)
- Awareness of onset and rime (age 3 +)
- Sound isolation (age 3+)
- Phonemic blending (age 4+)
- Phoneme segmentation (age 4+)
- Phoneme manipulation (age 5+)
Rhyming- Ages 2+
Rhyming is a really difficult concept to sit down and teach to a child. That’s because rhyming is ALL ear training! Here’s the advice I give to parents when their child struggles with the concept of rhyming: Read rhyming books and after rhyming pairs are read exclaim, “Oh! _____, ______! Those rhyme!” or “Wow, did you hear those rhyming words? Listen, _____, ______!” One day your precious little prince or princess will turn around and look at you BEFORE you say anything and say, “Mommy, those are rhyming words!”
Seriously, that’s it. Just read, and be intentional to name words that rhyme.
(Sidenote: if they go through a phase where they say things rhyme and they actually don’t, that’s NORMAL. And GOOD. It means that your child is starting to listen for the concept. Gently say, “Do those rhyme? I’m not sure… what about ____, ____?” and use one of the child’s words to create an actual rhyme.)
Syllables- Ages 2+
When your kids are really little, like 2-3, you can clap words with them. They love to clap at everything, yes, or is that just my two little 17 month olds?! So start clapping the syllables of people’s names. Objects in your house. Things you see while waiting in the car pool line for your older children. Clap those syllables, and tell them what you are doing. “Mo-mmy. 2! Mommy has 2 parts of her name!” “Mo-tor-cy-cle. Wow, that word has a lot of syllables! It has 4!”
When your littles get a bit older, 3-4, you can start doing syllables on your body, sort of like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”. This is one of my favorite ways to teach syllables in pre-k and kinder, because they’ll eventually have the number associated with the body part and not have to count. Here’s what I do, touch each body part as you say the syllabes: top of head-1, shoulders- 2, fists on hips (like an angry mommy stance)- 3, hands on knees- 4. touching toes- 5. This is great for getting those little bodies moving, and kinethetic learning helps solidify concepts in those growing brains.
Awareness of Onset & Rime- Ages 3+
Onset and rime are teacher terms that are really quite simple– the onset is the first sound in the word, the rime is the part at the end of a word you would use to create rhyming words with. For example, in the word cat, /c/ is the onset, and /at/ is the rime. In the word black, /bl/ is the onset, and /ack/ is the rime. Do you see how we’re slowing working our way to smaller and smaller bits of words? We’re training their ears to slowly become more and more detailed when hearing words.
When you’re reading a book, ask your child what sound they hear first in words. Ask them to rhyme with that word. With their rhyming pair, ask them if they hear parts that are the same. Ask them to tell you the beginning part and the ending part of a word. No need to teach them the actual words “onset” and “rime”.
Sound Isolation- Ages 3+
This is a big fancy term for teaching your child the beginning, middle, and ending sounds in words. Note how we just got more specific, from just the beginning chunk and ending chunk, to now telling the 3 parts of words. Beginning sounds are easiest, so start with those, in the similar way you would do onset & rime. “Hey, what sound does that start with?” You can do it while reading, while driving, while cooking…. any time! Note, that the focus is on EAR training, so when you ask what sound it starts with, you want them to give you the SOUND, not the letter name. If they give you the letter name, simply say, “S, yes, but the SOUND is /s/.”
After beginning sounds, start playing with ending sounds. Once they’ve mastered that, move on to the most difficult– middle sounds.
Note: By age 3-4 I would recommend introducing the actual letters in some way. Not drill & kill again, but have them available. Magnets, blocks, etc. And play! And while you build, or draw, or arrange magnets, simple drop in conversation like, “Wow, did you see that B! That b makes the sound /b/ like in ball!” or “Oooh, look what I found! I found a K! K starts just like Kenzie, listen- /k/!” Not the focus, just a casual drop in.
Phonemic Blending- Ages 4+
Blending is the term teachers use for listening to the sounds of a word and putting them together. Blending should first be taught ORALLY. Do not shove a book in front of your 4 year old and insist that he or she sound out the word! Again, the key is play, play, play- with intention! “/C/ /A/ /T/… hmm… what does that make? Oh, it’s cat!” Break common names down- names are a great way for a child to connect with a concept! “/M/ /O/ /M/, who is that? Mom!”
You’ll be absolutely amazed to know that once your kiddos know the letters and sounds, and can orally blend, all you have to do is put a simple book in their hand and tell them excitedly, “Did you know that you know how to read?!” And guess what? As long as you give them simple readers with all short vowels, they DO!
Phoneme Segmentation- Ages 4+
Segmentation means to be able to pull apart a word. So you just practiced blending them together, now you’ll do pulling them apart the same way. “Hmmm… what are all the sounds I hear in mom? /m/ /o/ /m/, those are the sounds!” You can also get a slinky and pull it apart slowly as you break a word down– stretching it out.
Segmentation is important for your child as he or she begins to write. The ear needs to be able to break the words into different sounds so that the child can begin inventive spelling (spelling phonetically, based on what they hear).
Phoneme Manipulation- Ages 5+
This is definitely the most difficult, because it requires your child to not only hear the sounds, but remember a new instruction, and apply that to the word to change it. Again, this is a mostly oral activity. “What’s happens when I take the /tur/ off of turkey? What’s left?” “Can you change the /m/ in mouse to a /h/?”
Word ladders are also great for this skill. The words change as you move up the ladder. Here is an example, but unfortunately you have to have a membership to download. 🙁
So there ya go, this is how you get started! Just a few teacher notes to help you, your kid, and their teacher out:
- DO NOT teach letter sounds with an “uh” at the end. This will make it harder for your little one to blend. Here’s what I mean: The letter “s” makes the sound /ssssss/ NOT /suh/. B says /b/ not /buh/. Think if your child is trying to blend and says this: /cuh/ /a/ /tuh/. That’s a lot harder than just /c/ /a/ /t/.
- When a letter or chunk I write has // around it, that means it is the letter’s SOUND.
- On a totally unrelated note, but a drive me crazy as a Pre-k or K teacher, please DO NOT teach your child to write his or her name in all capital letters. When introducing letters, show the upper & lower case together. And teach them that their name starts with one big capital letter and then all the others are little lower case letters. Yes, it’s harder. But it’s a lot easier than un-teaching them in school! I always call them “big tall capitals” and “little bitty lower case” when teaching letters.
Check out all the whole “Read, read, read” series, linked below:
The Ability to Read the Text
Read, Read, Read- Part 1: Phonological & Phonemic Awareness
The Ability to Understand the Text
Read, Read, Read- Part 5: Fluency
Other Ways to Boost Reading
Read, Read, Read- Part 6: Read Novels
Read, Read, Read- Part 7: Write
Read, Read, Read- Part 8: Use Technology