Wanting the best for your child is hardly an unusual desire. Life can be tough enough with extensive parental support, so it’s no surprise that most parents are keen to give their children the best possible start.
Education is a common concern for parents, perhaps because they felt they could have benefited from more in their own childhood, or simply wanting to pass on the same jump start they feel they gained from their own parents.
When most people think about their children starting school, learning to read is almost always right at the top. It’s a skill that parents almost universally possess, something that wasn’t true a generation or two before them. When it comes to providing a good start with starting to read, parents tend to fall into two categories.
Be The Best
We all know about pushy parents, the ones that are constantly encouraging their children to do this and do that, to the point where it’s easy to wonder if there’s any fun left in a game or activity. That ‘be the best’ mentality can be incredibly damaging, not to mention really destroy any enthusiasm your child has for what you’re doing.
There’s a fine line between supportive encouragement and being too pushy, so how do you know how much is too much?
Build A Foundation
That brings us nicely to the better approach – give your child an introduction to what they’ll do more formally at school. Again, this is a balance – overdo it and your child may feel bored as it’s all too easy once they make their way through kindergarten and beyond. If your child attends preschool or pre-k, you’ll know that typically learning is based around fun games and song to introduce them to learning. For those that don’t know, pre-school refers to an educational setting before formal schooling, with the pre-k period being more specifically the final year before that formal schooling begins.
Is Raising An Early Reader A Good Idea?
There’s very few experts who say that children shouldn’t start reading before school, but it’s the definition of reading that varies dramatically. In a nutshell, familiarity with books is a great start. If your child associates books with stories, understands that you’re reading the words on the page, and comprehends that the tale ends and the book is closed, that’s better than nothing.
If they find story time fun and enjoyable, looking forward to bed time for example, that’s a really good sign.
Being able to recognize words, following a long with a story is the next step up, even if they’re making up the story as they go along. We talk about this in more detail in our article on the age children should learn to read, but very briefly, it’s an important milestone towards becoming a competent reader.
Finally, actually knowing letters leads to reading words, and that ability by the time they start at school will give them a head start without making things too easy.
Is There Such Thing As Too Easy?
Let’s take a moment to examine what we mean by too easy in more detail.
Children need to be challenged once they reach school age, and that’s something that most teachers are very good at. By the time they reach high school, they’ve all spent years in parallel classes, learning broadly the same information and techniques in different subjects. That’s not true in the early school years though.
When young children arrive at school for the first time, they’ve got a very diverse range of experiences, leading to skills developing at different rates, and different amounts of effort to learn in their few years on Planet Earth to date. That means that teachers need to be mindful of keeping the class as together as possible. This creates an interesting problem.
Children with little support from parents will, on average, find the first year or two tougher than those with more support from home. Conversely, those who have the most help will typically find learning much easier, allowing more of their head space to focus on developing social connections – they’re learning more about friends and shared interests!
As time goes on, though, children with a head start a more likely to get used to finding things easy. Sooner or later the other children will catch up, and the danger is that they’ll be overtaken. It’s important to point out that this is the extreme case. Mostly, good parents continue to support children throughout their education, rather than hand them over to teachers and consider their job done.
As a rule of thumb, getting your child to a level that’s above average but not pushing them too hard is wise. You can always provide more support later as needed, rather than pushing them to achieve as much as humanly possible before they start school. That time is best spent being a child – having fun!
It All Sounds Logical, But What Does That Mean In Practice?
Let’s start this section by reminding you that there are no correct answers when it comes to children starting to read – certainly not in the sense of getting to the point where they’re reading on their own.
There have been hundreds of studies over the years, some more radical than others, but if you look at the reputable ones you’ll soon see that the trends show that early reading with your child will help a lot.
Children who have parents that rarely read to them are far more likely to struggle at school. Children with parents that frequently read to them from birth tend to do better all the way through their education. Of course, there’s an argument to say that that latter group of parents probably spend more time with their kids on all sorts of tasks to develop skills, but it’s a fairly clear correlation.
Starting Reading Stories Young
If you’re looking for a specific age to start the journey to learn to read, you’re going to be disappointed. Reading at bed time should begin as early as possible, probably with the last feed of the day. Those first few books will likely have a handful of words, or maybe a nursery rhyme. Of course, babies have no idea you’re reading a book – they don’t know what a book is. What this does is starts to form a regular routine. Children that always go to bed with a book associate reading with bed time, and it can be a relaxing way to finish the day for years to come.
Those simple books will gradually become simple stories, and those simple stories will get a little longer, and reach the traditional fairy tales. Children’s books are more numerous than anyone imagines until they become a parent. Some you will enjoy as much as your child, others you will come to hate with every ounce of your being. The unwritten rules of the universe generally mean that the one your child wants to read most will also be the one that grates most, but it’s about them, and try not to dampen their enthusiasm!
Let Your Child Subconsciously Tell You When They’re Ready To Move On
While those stories begin as soon as you start to read to your child, their development will almost entirely determine when the right time is to move on. Again, you can refer to our earlier page on kids learning to read here, but you will hopefully instinctively pick up on some of the more obvious signs. When you see them trace their finger along a sentence copying you as you read, it’s clear that they’ve made the connection that the words tell the story. Don’t worry about them not pointing at the right word at the right moment, all that’s important is they’re making the connection between the words on the page and the story being related.
Making the jump from listening to you reading to starting to read themselves is one of the biggest leaps of learning they’ll need to do for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, it’s something that most children do simply with practice. That’s not to say you can’t encourage things along though.
The best approach is to make things exciting, bright colors, friendly cartoon style pictures on flash cards will help those first words stick, and learning how letters sound and look on paper are the essential first building blocks. That leads into how they fit together and form words, which is where opinions begin to separate on the best methods of learning. More recently, a lot of research has shifted recommendations towards phonetics and phonemes, which most adults won’t have a clue about until they do a little research. Luckily for you, we’ve got a bit of help for you here at Roving Fiddle Head, and can also point you towards other places to broaden your familiarity.
Read Frequently, Build Routines
Returning to the most important point here, reading to your child is critical in fostering their ability both now and in years to come. There’s no day when reading to them should stop, certainly until they’re well into their formal education at school. It will morph from you being the reader gradually over time to them reading to you, but even then, there’s not reason not to read yourself at least occasionally. It’s hard to overstate the gift you’re giving to your child by reading to them regularly, ideally daily, from a young age. Studies suggest that parents enforcing such routines are more than twice as likely to end up with children that are strong readers and in addition, much more likely to voluntarily read throughout their childhood and beyond.
Consistency Is Key
Routine is where children excel. Time after time, studies show that kids react well to clearly defined boundaries, as it helps them know where they stand. The best teachers in the best schools all have a clearly defined system of consequences when rules are broken, and that’s designed to reinforce positive behavior. It’s easy for parents to say that schools are too harsh, but there’s sound logic behind these systems.
The same can apply at home, children who know what’s expected of them tend to be happier and demonstrate better behavior as they develop. in the same way, routine means they know what to expect and when throughout their day, which will reduce the tantrums in earlier years when they’re told to do something that they don’t want to do (at that moment).
It also means you do a little each day, building up a foundation of knowledge gradually, which is a surprisingly effective way to make your child’s sponge of a brain soak up a huge amount of knowledge.
Above All, Learning Can Be Fun
Finally, it’s an obvious point to some, but not everyone. Making learning fun and exciting for children will make it far more effective.
Songs, games, art and other practical learning works far better than sitting with a pen and paper writing notes from a lecture. That latter type of learning associates with schools and universities in the past is now seen as an archaic method by the majority of educators, particularly for young children.
Think back to your own years at school. The best teachers you remember will be the ones that captured your imagination as they delivered lessons, which probably weren’t droning on in a monotone voice at the front of the class.
Make learning fun and your child will want to join in. Conversely, a bored child will resist learning, lose attention frequently and continually want to do something else. It’s better to come back to something later with a different approach than try to force a young child to comply.
In summary, get creative and read often with your child. That will eventually learn to a recognition of letters, words and sentences, giving you the building blocks you need to start learning to read with gradual and progressive steps.
Use the routine and structure that children respond well with to your advantage, and you can give your early reader a strong head start without pushing them so hard that they’re turned off learning or bored with things being too early when they reach school age. Have fun with books, and enjoy the stories with your young child – they won’t be little forever!