Since Anita Lavine's daughter, Faye, had been an early and avid reader, the Seattle mom figured her 5-year-old son, Owen, would follow suit. The early part happened, but not the avid. "He wasn't interested in the books that were at his reading level," says Lavine. So she brainstormed creative ways to help him practice his new skills, like reading the back of his favorite cereal box, learning the names of familiar birds in a Pacific Northwest nature guide, and flipping through family cookbooks for cool recipes.
"Kindergarten and first grade lay the foundation for how kids feel about books throughout their education," says Annemarie B. Jay, Ph.D., director of graduate and doctoral reading programs at Widener University, in Chester, Pennsylvania. "It's important not only for them to learn to read -- but for them to like doing it." How can you make letters, sounds, and words seem as fun as playing a board game or building with Legos? Dr. Jay and other experts offer easy, engaging ideas that are tied to crucial literacy skills. Read all about them!
Early readers are still absorbing the notion that letters are symbols that stand for sounds. A good way to reinforce the idea is to start with the most familiar word of all: your child's name. "Challenge him to find things around the house that start with the same first letter as his name," suggests Dr. Jay. To familiarize him with ending sounds, read poems, nursery rhymes, and rhyming books (like Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham) together. For overall sound recognition, Rachel Payne, coordinator of early-childhood services at the Brooklyn Public Library, recommends the game "Beginning, Middle, or End": Hide a raisin in one of three cups, and ask your child where a letter falls in a particular word, such as the m in camel. The goal is to look in the right cup -- in this case, the middle one -- and then to eat the raisin inside.
If your child doesn't comprehend what a story is about, she's likely to regard reading as a chore. By engaging her in the book when the two of you have storytime together, you can help her follow the plot and find the meaning. Before Sarah Lendt, of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, starts reading the text with her son, Isaac, 6, she tells him to look at the illustrations and asks him questions to get him excited about what's coming: "What do you think the story is going to be about?" "What do you think the character will do?" Questions like these help kids predict the story while illustrations often give them clues to words they're having trouble sounding out, says Kathy Barclay, Ed.D., a literary specialist at Western Illinois University, in Macomb. Still finding that your kid can't follow the plot -- or doesn't give it his full attention? Dr. Barclay suggests reading nonfiction books that reflect your son's passions, like fire trucks, dinosaurs, or pirates.
Building a broad vocabulary is essential to reading comprehension now and later in school. One way to expand your child's vocabulary is to read aloud to him, choosing books that are a couple of grade levels above his. "He'll be acquiring a knowledge bank of rich words, and when he eventually comes across them on his own, they won't be 100 percent new," says Dr. Barclay. Find books that are likely to offer unique words. "There's great vocabulary in poetry, classic fairy tales, and nonfiction," notes Payne. "Stop occasionally if you come across a particularly unusual word, but don't talk about individual words so much that you interrupt the flow of the story," says Jill Allor, Ph.D., chair of teaching and learning at the Simmons School at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. Instead, go back to them after you've finished reading the book.
To truly enjoy reading, it needs to become second nature. "Children should read both silently and aloud," says Judy Cheatham, Ph.D., vice president of literacy services at the nonprofit group Reading Is Fundamental. That's where a child's fluency -- the ability to read smoothly and expressively -- comes in, says Dr. Cheatham. Since kids gain fluency by practicing familiar text, don't worry if your child chooses the same book over and over again. If your kid is anxious about reading aloud to you, let him read to himself or into a recording device and then play it back for himself or a younger sibling. Or encourage him to entertain an even more forgiving listener. A study from the University of California, Davis showed that second-graders who read aloud to the family dog improved reading skills by 12 percent over ten weeks. Another surprising help: audio books, which reinforce the flow of words. Natalie Wahl, of Las Vegas, started buying them a few years ago for her son Benjamin, now 8. Says Wahl, "After just a couple of months of listening to the books, I noticed a big improvement in Ben's ability to read aloud."
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Parents magazine.