How to help children develop into readers

Start when they are babies, literacy experts say. They also suggest watching for certain milestones and warning signs.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Experts say that it’s never too early to start reading with your kids.

According to Reading Rockets, the national multimedia literacy initiative, parents of babies should snuggle up with them and read a book.

Reading researcher Timothy Shanahan also encourages conversation with kids. In a recent blog post, he said, “Too many moms and dads feel a bit dopey talking to a baby or young child, but studies have shown that exposing your child to a variety of words helps in her development of literacy skills.”

He recalled how he “drowned” his new granddaughter in language.

“I talked about her eyes, nose, ears, mouth, and fingers. … I talked to her so much that her parents thought I was nuts,” Shanahan wrote. “But reading is a language activity, and if you want to learn language, you’d better hear it and, eventually, speak it.”

What preschoolers need to know

What children know before they enter school relates strongly to how easily they learn to read in kindergarten and 1st grade.

Three skills that indicate later reading achievement can be learned at a young age, Reading Rocket experts say. These are:

• The ability to recognize and name letters of the alphabet.

• General knowledge about books, such as being able to tell the front of a book from the back, realizing that we read from left to right, and knowing how to turn pages as you read.

• Awareness of the sounds, called phonemes, that create spoken words.

Parents often don’t learn about teaching and practicing phonemic awareness until their child is identified as a struggling reader. The child’s ear needs to become attuned to the discrete sounds – more than 40 of them – that make up spoken English. Shanahan, the researcher, offered this example: the word dog has three sounds within it (duh-aw-guh).

Some tips:

• Using nursery rhymes is one way of helping a child learn to discern between similar sounds.

• Breaking a word apart into its distinctive sections is another: ch-ch-ch-air.

Timing of key word skills

The Reading Rockets website ( and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) offer guideposts showing at what age most children are likely to develop such skills.

From an early age, children need to acquire basic listening skills, a vocabulary of several thousand words, and an ability to speak in whole sentences. They also need to acquire the ability to use language to express themselves, to react to what is happening to them, and to understand what others are saying to them.

• At ages 2 and 3, according to ASHA, a child should know the difference between big and little and up and down and should be able to follow directions (“Put the book on the table”). At that age, children have words to use and can talk or ask about things and can be understood by their caregivers.

• By ages 3 and 4, a child can answer simple questions, can talk in sentences of four or more words, and can be understood by people outside the family.

• At age 4, children enjoy rhyme and alliteration. “Seven silly snakes sing songs seriously” is an example.

• At age 5, they can recognize which words in a series – i.e., stair, steel and chair – rhyme and which don’t.

• At 5½, they can blend parts of a word into its whole (th-umb). They can produce a rhyme (What word rhymes with car?), and they can isolate the initial sound in a word (ride – /r/).

• At 6, most children can blend phonemes into complex sounds (/sh/ /o/ /p/ = shop) and do other manipulations of phonemes and sounds upon request.

Problems and warning signs

Caregivers should watch for vision and hearing problems that might impede learning and should seek advice, if needed, from the child’s pediatrician or clinic. Communication disorders affect about 46 million Americans, according to ASHA, with 28 million experiencing hearing loss and 14 million having a speech or language disorder. A child with even minimal or moderate hearing loss can miss half of what’s said in the classroom, according to the group.

Vision problems can surface at any age. According to the College of Optometrists in Vision Development, the five most common signs that a vision problem might be interfering with student achievement are when the student:

• Skips lines or rereads lines.

• Has poor reading comprehension.

• Takes longer than expected to complete homework.

• Reverses letters (“b” into “d”) when reading.

• Has a short attention span when reading or doing homework.

Other warning signs among children who might have trouble learning to read, according to Reading Rockets, include:

• Difficulty rhyming words;

• Difficulty learning the alphabet, numbers, or days of the week;

• Difficulty following multi-step directions; or

• Difficulty telling or re-telling a story.

Of special concern is the child who does not appear to be making efforts to speak. A pediatrician might recommend an exam by an audiologist, who has expertise in identifying and treating hearing disorders. Another professional that might be consulted would be a speech and language pathologist who can identify and treat speech and language delays.

A concern about cell phones

In recent years, cell phones have surfaced as a possible obstacle in caregivers fully engaging their young children in language development. Parents distracted by tweets or YouTube videos can miss the kinds of interactions that build communication and word skills.

Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair explored this issue in her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. Children ages 4 to 18 reported being “mad, sad, angry and lonely” in interviews with Steiner-Adair. It’s an issue that’s just beginning to be explored.

Working with the school

Reading Rockets also offers guidance for parents as advocates of their school-age children. A parent has cause to be worried and needs to be proactive if the child is not reading in 1st or 2nd grade.

To ensure that your child is progressing as he or she should in literacy development, Reading Rockets experts offer this advice:

• Get to know the child’s teachers and principal and stay in touch between report card periods.

• Save important test results and hold onto samples of the child’s work and any school communications that show how he or she usually performs.

• Ask for help if you suspect a problem. Start with the child’s teacher, but also be ready to talk with the principal, reading specialist, or special education teacher.

Reading: A team effort

Reading Rockets calls teaching reading “a team effort.” According to the website, research shows that “what families do makes a difference, what teachers do makes a difference, and what community programs do makes a difference. … It is our shared responsibility.”