Whether it’s to expand our knowledge or purely for enjoyment, reading is one of the most important activities a person can do, no matter their age.
Various studies have shown that reading is hugely beneficial to our wellbeing and development; as well as exercising the brain and increasing general knowledge, reading is known to improve concentration and focus, reduce stress and improve sleep, and teaches us empathy.
And yet, we are facing a challenge in attracting children to read. According to the Literacy Trust, less than half of children in the UK aged 8-18 say they enjoy reading - the lowest number since its study began in 2005. In fact, 175,000 children in the UK did not meet the expected standard of reading in their SATs in 2022, meaning a quarter of children entering secondary school have a reading age below their actual age of 11.
With a seemingly constant stream of new technologies and platforms competing for children’s attention, how do we inspire a love of reading from an early age?
The two biggest factors are making it an enjoyable experience from a young age, and to teach them to read well.
Dads and reading
Reading to children is one of the best things a dad can do. In 2017, a study conducted by Imperial College London found that a more engaged father helps to improve cognitive development. And a 2015 Harvard University study claimed that dads reading to their children spark more imaginative discussions - although that could be because it happens less often.
Unfortunately, the reality is that mums tend to read to their children more than dads.
It sparked the FRED campaign - Fathers Reading Every Day - which focuses its messaging on utilising reading to help the father-child bond, as well as developing their reading skills.
Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanada Spielman, has stressed the importance of the role of parents in teaching reading to their kids, even well into their primary school years. She said: “Parents can play their part, by reading to and hearing their children read out loud throughout primary school - not just when they’re little.
“Parents can pick up if their children are pronouncing words correctly, and can ask questions about what they’ve just read, to check they understood the story. It’s great when children read for pleasure, but they will only really enjoy reading by themselves when it stops being a laborious effort.”
What goes into 'Reading instruction'?
Reading instruction is simply the methods used to teach reading.
Developing reading skills doesn’t just come from reading over and over again. It’s definitely a learning process that doesn’t just take place in the classroom. As a parent, it can be easy to let school do the teaching and view reading at home as practice. But there are certainly things we can do at home to help our child to read.
Reading instruction has often been a contentious issue in the worlds of education and child development, with differing views on the best approach. In fact, it was once viewed as something learnt at a young age, but it is now seen as something that is continuous throughout childhood based on expanding knowledge and skills.
While many practitioners and academics may argue and debate about the best approach to teach reading, most agree on five key basic principles of reading instruction:
1 - Phonemic Awareness
Phonemes are the collection of smaller sounds that make up our language. Phonemic awareness builds understanding of these sounds - e.g ‘ay’... hay, bay, tray, clay, may, say etc - and helps children to blend them together with other letter sounds to identify words.
2 - Phonics
Phonics is the relationship between spoken words and written language. Phonics instruction helps children learn to decode words they don’t recognise by sounding them out. It can help to differentiate certain sounds that are spelled different ways, for example the sound of a 'k', which can be spelled as a ‘c’, ‘k’, ‘ck’, or ‘ch’.
3 - Fluency
When children are really developing their phonemic awareness and phonics skills, they can start the journey to fluent reading - the ability to read at a quicker pace with accuracy, while also expressing the appropriate tone.
4 - Vocabulary
Vocabulary is the pool of words that we know and understand. Introducing new words and building a child’s vocabulary is a vital component of their reading comprehension and understanding of what they are reading.
5 - Comprehension
Once kids learn phonemic awareness, phonics, new words, and start to read fluently, they will also begin to develop reading comprehension - the ability to understand and take meaning from the words they are reading. The best way to understand a child’s comprehension of a text is to ask them questions about what they’ve just read.
The importance of Phonics instruction
Phonics instruction has become an increasingly popular method of teaching children to read, and has become the mainstream method of choice in the UK’s reading curriculum.
A sound understanding of the relationship between written and spoken language is key to helping kids learn. Systematic phonics instruction is so important because the English language is so complex, and can be confusing for adults who’ve been speaking, writing and reading it for so long, let alone children.
That’s why there are also a set of phonics rules to help kids learn the sounds we should make when certain letters are grouped together in certain ways.
For example, if a ‘c’ is followed by an ‘e’, ‘i’ or ‘y’ it produces a soft ‘c’ sound like an ‘s’ - city, certain, ceremony and so on.
Good understanding of phonics and letter sounds will help turn struggling readers into strong readers. And that’s why phonics is the centre of reading curriculum in many countries around the world.
9 simple steps to get your child reading better
Now that you have an understanding of the basic principles of teaching a child to read, we can look at some of the simplest (and most effective) ways to help improve your child’s early reading.
1. Start young
The best thing you can do is to make a start on reading early. I’m not talking about having phonics worksheets with you at labour, but reading to your child from an early age is proven to improve cognitive development. In fact, studies show that reading to your child while they’re still in the womb increases brain activity and improves literacy skills in those early years. It also promotes early bonding.
2. Reading systematic phonics instruction
There are plenty of phonics instruction programmes out there both paid and free, on apps and online. Most provide a myriad of tools and tips to help your child learn to read along with visual and auditory aids.
These programmes can be particularly effective if you’re looking to dedicate time and effort into a structured way to help your child to read, rather than a more casual approach.
3. Songs and nursery rhymes
Singing nursery rhymes is something most parents already do with their children, but you might not realise that they’re brilliant for beginner readers. By the time they’re learning to read, your child probably already knows a bunch of nursery rhymes - and so starting to read them from books will help to build their phonemic awareness and fluency.
4. Learning sight words
Sight words are a collection of high frequency words in our language that we use so often, we don’t want a child to waste time decoding while they’re reading - words like a, at, an, if, is, I, are, we, he, she etc etc.
Teaching sight words is one of the really early reading skills. There are hundreds of sight words, but your child’s pool of sight words will start small and increase as they get older and their skills improve.
5. Word cards
Words cards, also known as flashcards, are considered to be one of the most effective methods of reading instruction, teaching letter sounds, introducing new words and oral language skills. Commonly used for letter sounds and everyday items like ‘apple’, ‘dog’, ‘ball’, they are especially effective at teaching sight words and word families.
Word cards designed for younger children will usually accompany an image of the word, whereas they may just have the word itself for older children.
6. Word games beyond the home
Think about all the places you read away from books; we read just about everywhere we go. Teaching kids to read doesn't just happen at home with a books. There's plenty we can do to teach reading out of the home in a fun way. You could look for sight words when travelling in the car (like a modified version of 'I Spy'), improve phonemic awareness by seeing how many sounds you can spot on a day out, or ask them if they can read words from a restaurant menu. This is the chance to get creative with how you do this.
7. Reading together
We've already recommended reading to your child from an early age, but as they really start to learn to read it’s important to spend time reading together. As their skills really develop, it’s time to put them into practice by actually reading books and stories. Not only is it a great bonding experience, you can be on hand to help them with any words or sounds they’re not familiar with, and ask them questions about the story to improve their comprehension.
It can be really difficult to know which books are suitable for your child’s reading level. Schools will often attribute different books to match your child’s reading level, but that’s no use to you when you’re in a book shop.
Luckily, we’ve got a range a handy guides and lists of our favourite books for different age ranges:
8. Letter magnets
Many of us will have grown up with letter magnets on the fridge, perhaps displaying the family names or even an important reminder for one of the parents. But they’re also brilliant for helping kids learn to read through hands-on play. Being able to feel the shape of a letter can help them to recognise them in written form, and this recognition is linked to reading fluency.
9. Turn on the Subtitles
While screens are taking up more of our children’s attention and arguably taking them away from reading, no one is going to tell you to get rid of the TV. In fact, there is a really useful hack that can help your child learn to read while they watch TV. Turn on the Subtitles (TOTS) is a campaign that encourages parents to…turn on the subtitles when their children are watching TV.
Based on the results of an academic study, the campaign argues that 70% of children become good readers when exposed to 30 minutes of subtitled film songs compared with just 34% who relied on schooling alone.
Obviously there are delays with the subtitling on live TV which isn’t particularly helpful. However, most streaming platforms have the subtitles pre-programmed in so they appear in sync with what is being said on screen.
Advice for dads
Teaching reading is not just a job for nurseries and school. Kids learn through practice and work at home with mum and dad, too.We already know the benefits of a dad reading to and with their child, but we also have the opportunity to teach reading as well. So here are some tips to help you blend that role of dad and teacher.
Be positive and patient
Teaching kids to read isn't easy. Beginning readers could even be as young as two-years old, while some struggle to read well into their school years. It's important to recognise that it's a learning process and they might not get it straight away.
What can seem so simple to us is actually pretty darn confusing when you're starting out.
Being positive is a huge part of teaching kids to read. Because it can be so difficult, it's really important to praise them when they learn new letter sounds, letter patterns or start to read words. Equally, it's super important to be encouraging and supportive, even if they are struggling or getting one thing wrong.
Just talking to and with your child is honestly such an amazing way to teach reading. Although it's spoken language, children are naturally inquisitive. The more you talk to them, you'll find yourself using a greater variety of words and they'll likely keep asking you what this word and that word mean. Introducing new words will aid their reading comprehension and increase the number of familiar words they have in their vocabulary.
Work with their school or nursery
Most education settings in the western world, especially the UK, a teaching kids to read through phonics instruction and phonemic awareness. Engaging with your child's school or nursery gives you the opportunity to better understand their methods, how your child engages with them, and any particular areas you can focus on.
What are the methods of teaching reading?
There are three core methods of teaching children to read, with some additional methods designed specifically for children with learning difficulties.
The three main methods are:
Phonics - Understanding the relationship between sight and sound, and how to decode unfamiliar words
Whole Word - Also known as ‘Balanced Literacy’ or the ‘Linguistic Approach’, it focuses on teaching children to recognise (you guessed it) whole words, often in families of similar words. They’re not taught the relationship between letters and sounds like phonics, and irregular words and spellings are introduced as their skills develop.
Language Experience Approach - This method focuses on the child’s own experiences to develop both writing and reading skills simultaneously. It helps to create a link between the spoken word and written text based on a real-life situation, whereby a child or children will recount a story and the teacher or parent will write it out for them.
The additional methods designed for children with learning difficulties are:
Multisensory - Multisensory recognised that some children with learning difficulties learn to read best through a variety of modalities. It combines visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile methods and can be used in conjunction with phonics or whole word approaches.
Neurological Impress Technique - This technique sees a teacher or reader read text at a fast pace. It is designed for children who have learned the mechanics of identifying letters and words, but have not achieved reading fluency.
Reading comprehension support - There are a number of techniques used here such as skimming or scanning a text to help a child understand the broad premise of the text. They will then use the ‘Cloze’ procedure to focus on the detail, which sees the fifth to eighth word removed for the child to fill-in.
What age should a child read fluently?
While the speed at which kids develop can vary child to child - and can even vary between countries due to different curriculums - most children start to read fluently around the ages of 7-8.
How do you teach a struggling reader to read?
There are a number of tips and tricks you can use to help a struggling reader along their journey.
1 - Use a ruler to help them follow - Some children struggle to decode and read text because they lose their place. Using a ruler, something similar, or even just a finger can help to keep them focused on the words ahead of them.
2 - Focus on sight words - As we’ve explored, sight words are the most common words we see throughout different texts. Your child should find it easier to read if they immediately and almost subconsciously recognise a higher proportion of words, and can give greater attention to decoding the words they don’t recognise.
3 - Try different fonts and sizes - Smaller font sizes, and even the font themselves, can make it harder to read. Wacky fonts might be visually appealing or creative, but they might actually make it harder for children to identify letters and words. Try using books with decent sized fonts and clear fonts.
4 - Re-read - Repeated exposure to words can help to improve fluency massively. It becomes easier and easier to decode words the more you see them, and so reading a book more than once is a big help. It also helps with comprehension, too.
5 - Create the right environment - Children who struggle to read may not find it an enjoyable experience. In fact, reading might actually make them feel stressed and anxious. Creating a comfortable, positive environment will help to relax your child and make the experience much more enjoyable. Things like teepee tents are a great way to set up a safe, comfortable place to read.
How do you teach a 4 year old to read?
By the ages of 4-5 years old, most children will have started to develop some early reading skills. They will likely have started to develop some phonemic awareness and recognise some sight words. They will probably be able to spell their own name, and can identify letters of the alphabet.
This is the time where schools typically start the first stages of reading development. So the best thing you can do at home is to read with your child, both at bed time and during the day, and talk to them. Most 4-5 year olds have a vocabulary of 1,000 - 2,000 words. And so talking throughout the day is only going to increase their vocabulary and improve their reading skills.
And make it fun! Remember, you’re not only trying to teach them to read but also help them fall in love with reading. And so after a long day in school, it’s important that they don’t feel like they’re back at school when reading at home.
How do you teach a 5 year old to read?
Many of those same principles apply to teaching a five-year old to read - just read with them, and make it fun.
At this age, you can expect their reading skills to be that little bit more advanced as well as the teaching they’re receiving in school. It’s probably worthwhile having a conversation with your child’s teacher to understand what level they’re at and if there are any specific things you can do at home to support what they’re being taught in school.
They might suggest you focus on certain letter sounds or sight words to help their development.