Moms of kindergartners and first-graders, I'm going to warn you: Learning to read is the 5-year-old equivalent of potty training. Your kid might not get it right away; he could show no interest, or flat-out refuse. Then there are those well-meaning but highly annoying parents who will go on and on about their little bookworm-in-the-making. Don't let their bragging stress you out.
"It doesn't really matter very much whether your child learns to read at the beginning of kindergarten or the end of first grade," says Jan Burkins, Ed.D., coauthor of Preventing Misguided Reading and founder of Literacyhead.com, a reading website. "Among older readers, there is little distinction between those who learned early and those who took a little longer. By third grade, most late readers have caught up with early ones." Let your kid's teacher take care of the actual reading lessons, advises Dr. Burkins. And your role? Well, read all about it!
Remember how you talked up the potty and big-kid underwear? Do the same with reading. If your kid thinks books are boring, she's not going to be eager to learn to read. Try these ways to play up the printed word.
Add drama. Involve your child in gathering props and costumes, and even playing a character at storytime. If Pinkalicious is on your reading list, for instance, ask her to collect a bunch of pink objects from around the house or dress in pink clothes before you crack open the book. When it's Knuffle Bunny's turn, bring your kid's stuffed animals to listen to the tale with her. Books with dialogue and intriguing characters, like Frog and Toad or Three Little Pigs, lend themselves to homemade plays, says Lynne Fox, an educational consultant in Cranbury, New Jersey. Read a passage, then act it out with your kid, or create sock or paper-bag puppets and put on a show.
Make up stories. Some children this age shy away from books because they feel pressure to read the words. So instead focus on the pictures. Ask your child to thumb through a book and tell you what's happening just by looking at the illustrations. Or borrow library books that have few if any words. Two good picks: Where's Walrus? and The Lion & the Mouse. "This activity is a great building block for school because teachers encourage kids to look at the pictures to predict what a word might be," says Melissa Taylor, a teacher in Denver and education blogger at ImaginationSoup.net.
Match interests. Read books that relate to whatever your child is into these days. "It's okay if the book is about her favorite cartoon character or the plot is far from award-winning," says Taylor. "If the book excites a reluctant reader, then it's done its job." Princess and dress-up fans will love listening to the Fancy Nancy series and Ponyella while animal enthusiasts will appreciate National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Animals and The Gruffalo. Among books based on cartoon characters, the Charlie & Lola and Berenstain Bears series are particularly well-done.
Once your kid starts to recognize a handful of words, it won't be long until he's actually reading simple sen?tences. Do these fun activities together to boost his confidence with word recognition and decoding.
Play games. Select books such as Hop on Pop, Ducks Go Vroom, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, or Silly Sally with predictable text-rhyming stories, repetitive lines, and simple, easy-to-recognize words. After reading a great story, play "I spy" with words in the book, suggests Kathleen Shoop, Ph.D., a reading and writing coach in Pittsburgh. Say something like: "I spy a word that begins with the 'D' sound (as in 'dog') or "I spy a word that says 'ooooh' in the middle (as in 'food')."
Rely on memory. Reading a simple book from the Fly Guy or Piggy & Elephant series to your kid over and over again may seem boring. But there's a point to it: Eventually, he'll memorize the text and be able to "read" it to you. "When children memorize text, they are learning about language structure, plus it also helps build confidence and adds new words to their growing vocabulary," says Taylor. At this point, you can start to help your child with tracking -- showing him how to point to the words on the page as he says them aloud.
Collect words. In school, your kid will work on "sight words," ones he should immediately recognize by looking at them rather than sounding them out. Some common sight words for kindergartners include: are, the, they, she, is, was, go, went, my, that, and who. As your child's class learns sight words, chances are the teacher will post them on a "word wall" near the blackboard. Do something similar at home. "Children gain a sense of achievement when they see the words they know accumulate in a notebook or on the refrigerator," says Taylor.
Listening to your kid read a book for the first time -- well, it doesn't get much better than that. While you'll want to encourage her progress, resist rushing her into more complex titles. "Some parents expect their child to go from an early reader to the Junie B. Jones series practically overnight, and that can be frustrating for the child," says Dr. Burkins. Move forward at a pace that makes your kid ask for more rather than wearing her out.
Test new titles. If you're not sure whether a book is a good level for your kid, open to a random page and have her read it. "If she misses between one and five words, the book is probably just right," says Taylor. If your kid had trouble with more than five words (even after you made the first sound or two to help), it will probably be frustrating for her to read it on her own. But it still might be a great choice to listen to on CD when you'll be in the car for a while. The Amelia Bedelia series, Charlotte's Web, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are entertaining for the entire family. "Reading along with audiobooks helps children advance when they're bumping up against the limits of their word and understanding skills," says Dr. Burkins.
Keep reading to your child. Just because your kid is a reader now doesn't mean you're off the hook with the bedtime story. "A young reader benefits from listening to stories just as much now as before," says Dr. Burkins. "It'll help her with vocabulary, sentence structure, and comprehension." Plus, she'll enjoy the more interesting and more developed plots in the longer books that she can't read on her own yet. Some fabulous choices that you can read to your child at bedtime over the course of a week: Soupy Saturdays With the Pain & The Great One, the Magic Tree House series as well as their accompanying research guides, and Flat Stanley: His Original Adventure. Or try some nonfiction titles such as Insect Detective, Just One Bite, and Older Than the Stars.
Host a book playdate. Does your kid have a couple of friends who are also big fans of Cam Jansen, Captain Underpants, Katie Kazoo, or another early chapter-book series? Pick a book for the kids to read before they come over, and give them time to talk to each other about the characters, their favorite part of the story, and whether or not they liked the ending. Set out craft supplies so they can draw their favorite scene or favorite character from the book. You can facilitate the activities and discussion, of course, but give the kids a lot of autonomy. If it works out, suggest a monthly book club to the other moms. Set up a schedule (like after school on the first Friday of the month) and agree to rotate houses. "Children can start getting together to talk about books around age 6, or even earlier if the structure is flexible," says Dr. Burkins.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Parents magazine.