Inside: Here’s the best tip on how to teach a child to read. Start with phonemic awareness – it is unbelievably important.
“My 4-year-old knows their letters! I’m ready to start teaching them to read. How do I begin?”
The road to reading is a long one.
It’s windy, it’s complicated, and it’s full of unbelievably difficult learning that is more complex than we “current readers” give the process credit for. Often, we don’t remember all that went into our own learning-to-read process, making it easy to think this seemingly basic human skill is as easy as 1-2-3… or rather A-B-C.
But it’s not. It’s hard.
It’s not intuitive. It’s clunky.
It’s not simple. It takes massive brain power, loads of foundational skills, and years to develop.
Which is why the road to reading doesn’t go from learning the ABCs to learning to read books. It doesn’t.
There are so many stops along the way (and years of brain growth and learning) before our kids are ready to read printed words on paper… and it is of paramount importance that we give this process, our children, and their development all the time it needs.
As odd as it may sound, learning to read starts with listening.
Here are your buzz words: Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness aka the ability to hear sounds in words and break apart those sounds by listening without ever reading the word, seeing the word, or spelling the word.
This magical skill happens by listening.
And this is where the road to reading actually starts.
Long before a child ever pushes letters together on paper and decodes a new word fluently, they first need phonological awareness, and more – the subset phonemic awareness.
(Don’t worry, I have more definitions, tips, and even activities for building phonemic awareness coming soon).
Children who have a solid foundation in phonemic awareness ultimately do better in reading (W. Heward et al., 2017).
This is why it’s so important.
And really, memorizing letters names is just that – memorizing. While reading is a complex developmental skill that’s dynamic and multifaceted. It’s a bit like apples and oranges. It may seem logical to go from memorizing letter names to direct reading instruction, the path isn’t nearly that short.
It can be hard for adults because this part of the learning-to-read process isn’t as tangible as memorizing the ABCs was or as black & white as reading a book is.
Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness have to form first.
Kids form these critical skills by listening. By hearing.
So, if your preschooler knows their letters and you want to continue to help them towards a bright future of independent reading – awesome! Start them listening.
Your best next move as a parent of a child in preschool is to lean hard into phonological awareness and phonemic awareness, but especially the latter. And even if your child DOES NOT know letters yet, phonemic awareness is the bee’s knees and this learning starts even before they can identify letters and names.
Here’s the truth: if we rush our children from letter names right into full on reading education instruction, we risk them missing crucial skills that they will need in the complicated reading education process, to make reading fluent, and for reading to be fun someday.
This isn’t a road we want to take short cuts on.
Kids need phonemic awareness in order for reading (and spelling) to make sense. Otherwise, reading can be a really clunky, difficult process.
Children need to learn phonemic awareness skills by ages 5-6 years old (Heward et al, 2017), making preschool and kindergarten the perfect time to keep pushing these “listening” skills to prepare your child for their reading future.
As parents of preschoolers, we can help the road to reading so effectively at home by giving our children the time to fully develop their phonemic awareness before they’re asked in kindergarten and first grade to begin learning to read.
So, what is Phonological Awareness? What is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonological awareness is the ability for the child to hear the sounds of speech, acknowledge the rhythm of words (the syllables) and identify words that rhyme. This part of the reading process is completely wrapped around hearing and listening to how words sound and how letters sound in words.
Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness and far and away the most important pre-reading skill. This is the skill to hang your hat on.
Phonemic awareness is a child’s ability to break words apart into each individual sound (this doesn’t mean knowing the letters or knowing their names, this just mean hearing and identifying the individual sounds).
If a child can’t hear the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/ in cat, how will they ever be able to read that word on paper?
If the child can’t hear the difference between the words cat and cap, how will they be able to read those two words in print?
If a child doesn’t understand that sit and bit rhyme, how will they learn to decode word families?
Phonemic awareness matters a whole lot.
This is the foundation for reading. This is the spot on which actual reading will be built. So, we spend time developing this foundation – a lot of time. Years of time. Because it really matters.
You can’t rush a good foundation.
5 Way to Teach Phonemic Awareness:
You can do this. You can be a huge influence in your child’s reading education by focusing on phonemic awareness. Full on reading will come. It will happen for your child when your child is fully ready. Until then, here’s what you can do:
You already do that, don’t you?! This is a big part of phonological awareness. Give your child the chance to “guess” that rhyming word and go off on tangents (“Oooh, the word is great. What are other words that rhyme with great?”).
Looking for some new books that rhyme? Check out this list!
A big part of phonemic awareness is being able to isolate each sound within a word and name it. “What sound do you hear at the beginning of made?” Start helping your child identify initial sounds. They need to be able to tell you the sound, not the letter name. Remember, this is all about listening.
After initial sounds, try ending sounds. “What sound do you hear at the end of can?”. And after ending sounds, work on middle sounds. “What sound do you hear in the middle of hop?”.
Looking for an easy activity that helps with this? Try this sound matching activity.
This is a tricky one. In this game, tell your child a word (jump) and have them replace the first sound with a new one. Again, this is tough.
“The word is jump. Change it to a /b/ sound and now it’s…(BUMP!).” Keep changing the initial sounds – again, sounds. This isn’t a spelling game, it’s a sound game, and it’s a hard one. My kids and I most often play this in the car and work through work families (bump, jump, lump, dump, stump, hump, pump, rump).
Play this game with your child to help them separate and isolate all the sounds in a word. They need to hear how many sounds build a word: “Let’s bump the sounds in the word sad: /s/ /a/ /d/. I hear three sounds!”.
This is such a complex skill and one that kids continue to work on as first graders.
The purpose of this activity is helping your child to identify words that have the same starting sounds. “Which word doesn’t fit? Make, mad, mat, nap, milk.” This is all about those listening skills and hearing the difference between similar sounds.
Helping your child on their road to reading is actually pretty easy…
And we can do it in such simple, but important ways.
If your toddler or preschooler has learned their letter names and sounds, know that there is still a long road ahead with plenty of groundwork to lay before they’ll be fully ready to read. And that’s fantastic.
Remember: this isn’t quick work. This isn’t do an activity once, check they can rhyme, and call it good.
Take. Your. Time. Take some years even.
This is the foundation of your child’s reading future. If there was EVER a moment in life to slow down, please let now be that time.
Heward, W., Alber-Morgan, S., & Konrad, M. (2017). Exceptional children: An introduction to special education (11th ed.). Pearson.
Wittmer, D., Petersen, S., & Puckett, M. (2016). The young child: Development from prebirth through age eight (7th ed.). Pearson.