The Dos and Don’ts of Teaching Children How to Read

In part three of ‘How to Choose a Great School,’ Peg Tyre shares what kids should be learning in preschool and elementary school.
Unsure what to ask teachers about your child's reading ability? Here are some helpful tips. (Photo: Washington Post/Getty Images)
Mar 19, 2013
Peg Tyre is the author of two bestselling books. She has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic.

A few years ago, there was a late-night infomercial advertising a method of teaching reading to babies. For about two minutes, this guy promoted a miraculous way of getting your still-in-diapers baby to read. From what I could tell, he seemed to be doing it with repetition and flashcards, but at one point, he held up a flashcard that said, “shoulder,” and this bright-eyed kid touched her shoulder. Reading!

Now, I pride myself on staying on top of the research on reading, but my friends, I just about fell out of my chair. It was late at night and insomnia has a way of short circuiting my nonsense detectors. I got very excited and thought, babies who can read? Cool!

Seconds later, a kind of competitive feeling crept over me. My eyes rolled up toward where my then-school-aged children were sleeping tight. And I thought, “Those slackers! How come they didn’t read until the end of kindergarten?”

A few hours went by, and in the cool light of dawn, I remember that, in fact, babies for the most part don’t read when they are still in diapers. What we know is that reading is a neurologically complicated trait, and it takes a while for a lot of systems in your baby’s brain to come on line and make that possible.  

That infomercial is now off the air. The FTC cracked down on the company that produced the “reading” videos. While you can still buy their products, you can’t see their amazing late-night sales pitch anymore. If the babies in the video could actually read, they’d be in a class by themselves.

In real life, children usually start reading sometime between five and seven years of age. But there are things that your child’s teacher needs to be doing to make sure they learn to read well.

The earliest lessons need to come from preschool. Children who hear more words and speak more words tend to read more readily. And I’m not talking about television or words on an app, I’m talking about conversation between a preschool teacher and your child.

The preschool experience should be about eliciting words from the mouth of babes—as many as the teacher can, as often as they can. The teacher should also be reading to them a lot. Not just 15 minutes to start the school day, but before nap time, lunchtime, finger-painting time. Any time.

As the preschool teacher reads, she needs to point out words so kids get the idea there’s a word and meaning connected with that squiggly black mark on the page. In preschool, children should do a lot of rhyming and clapping and breaking up sentences into words and words into syllables, like you do when they sing or chant nursery rhymes.

Why do you want your child to do that? Some children are sensitive to the fact that chunks of sound make up languag,e and others can’t discern the sound of individual words in a sentence. If they have low sensitivity to sound chunks, they can struggle to learn to read. Rhyming helps build that sensitivity. It’s also good for your child’s preschool and kindergarten teacher to begin talking about the letter sound correspondence—the fact that the “buh” sound is the first sound of the word bat.

Once your children gets to kindergarten and first grade, your child’s teacher should not just be a cheerleader for reading, but she should also be making sure that kids are talking, rhyming, and getting lessons that reinforce the sound letter connection. Sometime late in kindergarten or early first grade, your child should start getting explicit phonics instruction so she or he can learn to decode words. 

For those of you who are homeschooling or supplementing at home, go to the National Right to Read website for specific directions on how to teach reading. It’s not updated all that often, but in this case, the oldies are the goodies.

It’s okay for a teacher to teach children about a small list of high-frequency recognize words like “the,” “and,” and “they,” but for the most part, children should not be encouraged to guess at words, look at the pictures on the page to guess words, or be instructed to look at the shape of a words to figure out what it is. The early grades are for figuring out how to crack the reading code. Make sure your child learns to do it!

Making sure your child is reading at grade level is one of those things you really have to keep track of.

It’s crazy, but a lot of elementary schools teachers don’t actually know how to teach kids to read. Some have been taught that it is their job to express enthusiasm for reading but don’t really know how to impart the nuts and bolts of it.

A teacher like that may be fine for your child. In fact, about 25 percent of children seem to learn to read almost by osmosis, but about 75 percent need some sort of instruction. About a quarter of those kids will need systematic, explicit instruction to learn to read or they will struggle. One of the best writers on this subject is Marilyn Jager Adams, a huge figure in the field of reading research—and also one of the advisors for Sesame Street. For solid instruction on how to teach teachers how to teach reading, offers training that is well aligned with the research. 

If you child is not learning to read, and not progressing steadily to harder and harder books once they do, you need to get on it. I’m not in the business of scaring parents. In fact, I think the whole world starts to look a little scary once you have children. But making sure your child is reading at grade level is one of those things you really have to keep track of.

What if your child is not making progress or her progress is flatlined? Seek a meeting with the teacher. Ask her to describe which specific skills your child lacks. This is not a conversation to discuss a lack of attention, or speaking, or whether or not they raise their hand. This should be a talk about skills.

The questions you need to ask are this: What specifically will you be doing in the next six weeks that will instill these skills in my child? How is that instruction method different than what you tried before?

What you don’t want to hear is that 1.) She’ll catch up 2.) Don’t worry, he’s a boy. Boys always learn to read more slowly. 3.) Your child is reading more slowly because you are not speaking English at home. 4.) They just need to repeat the grade to give them more time. 

These are not good reasons for your child to be falling behind. If you do not get satisfaction from your child’s teacher, it is time to seek a meeting with your child’s principal and/or the reading specialist. You want to know what is going to change about their instruction right now that will move your child forward. Make an appointment to follow up in six weeks so you and your child’s teacher can determine if your child has acquired the skills he/she needs. 

Once your child learns to decode, make sure your child’s school has a library or is at least exposing them to books that tell them about the world. Fiction is great but so are biographies (sport figures, famous women, presidents, inventors), books about history, science and art. Comic books—yes! At home, make sure you subscribe to a print magazine or newspaper. Keep plenty of interesting kid-type reading material around the house.

Truth is, no matter how compelling that late-night commercial seems, your child may read the word “shoulder” when he or she is six years old. That’s as it should be. But with the right instruction, they’ll be reading “shoulder” and hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of words in the years that follow.

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