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What’s the Best Way To Teach A Child To Read?

By Tate Johnston on January 19, 2014 in Teaching Reading

Like a lot of parents, I want to help my children be prepared for school (and beyond).

Of all the skills that parents often help their kids learn in childhood:

  • how to tie their shoes
  • how to a ride bike
  • how to swim
  • How to Train Your Dragon

It seems like helping them learn to read is one of the most crucial skills because of it’s potential to impact multiple aspects of their life, if not their entire future.

Dr. Diane McGuiness goes so far as to say that “the teacher of a young reader is the custodian [keeper] of that child’s destiny [emphasis mine].”

Whoa! No pressure.

It also seems like a skill on which parents can have a significant influence.

Again, Dr. McGuiness: The second most important factor in “[p]rogress in learning to read … is … the amount of one-on-one time each child receives.”

She goes on to point out that “Parents have the advantage of working one-on-one with their child. Teachers have to manage a class of twenty to thirty youngsters.”

So I set out to teach my kids to read, pretty confident that I could do it myself (and happy for any help from teachers (pre-school or otherwise), grandparents, cousins, friends, etc.).

This confidence probably came from multiple factors:

  1. I learned to read. (It’s easier to teach someone something that you have learned to do.)
  2. I know the names of letters of the alphabet.
  3. I know the sounds of the letters of the alphabet.
  4. I could read when I was pretty young.
  5. I like reading about child development and helping children learn (so I’ve learned a lot of paradigms, theory, pedagogy and jargon).
  6. My mom was primarily the one who taught me to read (so I had evidence that parents can be the primary teacher for their child learning to read).
  7. And to top it off: When I was in elementary school, my mom was a reading specialist, specifically teaching children who were having difficulty learning to read.

Okay, so I made some big assumptions, and I didn’t think about the fact that #7 meant that my mom had specialized training that I didn’t have.

I just figured I’d do what made sense and whatever I thought my mom might had done when she was teaching me.

Not that I actually remember how I learned how to read!

I remember that my mom read to me a lot.

I remember Bill Cosby and even had some Picture Pages at one point.

But other than that, I don’t remember learning to read.

I remember having a set of encyclopedias which took up about six feet of shelf space in the toy closet/cupboard under the stairs.

I remember that in first grade (UK Year 2), for reading time with the teacher, I would lug around a book about as big as me. (It was a fourth grade reading textbook complete with vocabulary and comprehension questions. I think I remember it because it was HUGE.)

Sometimes, I read the dictionary.

For fun.


My initial confidence that I could teach my own child to read was confirmed as I (along with my wife and supported by my son’s amazing pre-school teacher) taught my older son to read short books independently by the time he was about 3 1/2.

(btw, no prizes for reading at any particular age, and I’m not trying to brag either, simply to share how I got to where I am now and also contrast that a bit with what happens a few years later. There’s a sign in my son’s classroom I appreciate: “Childhood is a journey, not a race.” though I’m not sure if this is primarily for the children or the parents!)

I just sensed that my son was ready to start learning to read at that age because he showed interest in letters and figuring out written words.

So, in a way I just supported his learning. And managed not to mess things up.

Evidently, he was (and is) a phenomenal decoder. (What’s a decoder? Stay tuned.)

The comprehension part of reading took more time and some more intentionality (and a fabulous kindergarten teacher!).

Firstborn children tend to read earlier than subsequent children, which has held true in our family. That makes sense given evidence that readers learn to read faster with more 1 to 1 instruction, and with a second (or third, etc. if you have them) a parent’s time and attention is divided, to say the least.

With our second, the decoding hasn’t happened as quickly so far. I haven’t done anything particularly different the second time round, though it’s not surprising that it’s different.  In addition to the difference in parental attention, our sons are different … and, from what I’ve observed, different kids develop differently at different times.

So all this has got me exploring how children learn to read.

A teacher-friend lent me the book Why Our Children Can’t Read And What We Can Do About It. Thus the Dr. McGuiness quotes.

This has given me lots of insights and also some questions, so I want to do some more investigation.

This may or may not have implications for large classrooms or children who have more difficulty learning to read.

At this point, my main question is:

For typical parents who want to help their child learn to read, what’s the most effective way to teach them?

I’m learning about the different theories/methods/strategies for teaching reading, so that is definitely something I want to understand more about and look into further. It also might include questions such as: At what age should I teach my child to read? Is it possible for me to teach my child wrong? (Can I mess this/them up? For example, I think I read that in Finland kids don’t begin to learn to read until 6 or 7 and parents are encouraged NOT to help their kids learn to read before that!) I’m sure there’ll be some jargon to work through as well.

But I’m interested to find out more about current best practices for teaching a child to read, including what the latest research shows.

I’ll be posting about what I’m finding out, questions, and discoveries. I aim to post at least twice a week, so if you’re wondering, too …

Please join me on this journey and let me know what you’ve discovered/are discovering through your investigation, research or experience.

Question: What are you wondering about or have you recently discovered when it comes to teaching your child to read?

Share those and any thoughts with me in the comments and Happy Reading!

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Tate JohnstonView all posts by Tate Johnston


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