On The Road To Reading

understanding how children learn to read

Car seat manufacturers announced changing their installation instructions because the reading level was too difficult for over half of their customers in the United States. How high was that reading level? A fifth grade level.

As a young mother, I had a knot in my stomach when reading this kind of article, along with a cold fear that my children might be among those people who can’t read basic instructions.

Today my children have graduated from college and more. I have taught hundreds of children how to read, and confidence replaced my fears. I know parents make a tremendous difference in their child’s success.

How can you assure that your child will be a successful reader?

First, be aware of human development and how children learn. Enrich your child’s spoken language opportunities and target specific language skills that lead to reading success.

From birth through six years, children are in a critical period of language development, when the spoken word develops naturally.

Ninety percent of our adult spoken language is in place by the age of six. If a child does not speak by age six, it is almost impossible for the child to acquire spoken, written or sign language beyond a two-year-old’s comprehension level.

We don’t have to teach children how to walk or talk. Children only need an environment that encourages walking and talking during this critical stage of development. In normal development, a child will say his first word around twelve months and by thirty months will be talking in sentences.

When you are aware of your child’s built-in developmental abilities, you can be of invaluable assistance by making sure your child’s surroundings meet his developmental needs.

How can you assist your child in language acquisition?

Create a quiet environment with clear and meaningful communication for the child from birth. A television blaring from every room is a huge obstacle to a child’s language development. Clearly spoken language with lots of repetition is important. Make sure your baby can see your face and mouth when you are speaking. Speak “to” your child, not “at” your child. Make the everyday language environment rich by reading stories aloud, singing, and including home activities such as age appropriate chores, crafts, and games.

By two-and-a-half years of age, language is fully developed in the child.

By age three, a child should be able to clearly speak in full sentences, with correct basic syntax (meaning words are spoken in meaningful order), and each sound in a word should be clear and intelligible. Unfortunately, for many children this is not the case. Ear infections, a long illness, separation from parents, physical and environmental challenges can cause language delays.

Luckily, the critical period for language acquisition continues for another three years.

At age three analyze your child’s spoken language for areas that are weak and not fully developed. Once you recognize areas for language development, you can begin to enrich your child’s learning in purposeful ways.

If you see speech difficulties, make sure that your child has no physical problems receiving or communicating information.

Your pediatrician should be able to help you determine if your child has poor vision, hearing loss, or weak muscle tone in the mouth and tongue. After correcting any physical situations, you can begin to enrich your child’s language environment and target specific skills.

If your child cannot make certain sounds, sing songs two or three times a day using a word that contains that sound.

For example, if your child cannot say the “F” sound, sing the tune to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” using only the word “fish” over and over again. Sing the word “fish” to work on the initial sound, the word “gift” for internal sound practice, and the word “off” for ending sound practice. Make it fun and silly and in a few days you will begin to see an improvement in your child’s “f” sounds. If your child needs work with multiple sounds, concentrate on one at a time, adding one new sound per week while reviewing the previous ones.

To enrich the language environment, be sure that siblings, grandparents, and grandparents, everyone, speaks to your child using normal clear speech and not “baby talk”.

Some of the mispronounced words children use are cute and funny, but don’t incorporate them into your own speech. A four-year-old student of mine had difficulty with the “D” and “S” sounds and would say “pie-na-thor” for dinosaur. His siblings and parents mimicked his speech, so that he came to believe that “pie-na-thor” was the correct pronunciation.   Remember to use the correct word and no “baby-talk”. If it’s not cute on a thirty-year-old, don’t let it be cute on a three-year-old.

Another four-year-old student of mine would use the word “me” instead of “I” and omit prepositions. “Me go slide.” and “Me go eat” are examples of things she would say. I knew her family didn’t use “baby talk” and when I did some investigation I found her caregiver spoke to her that way. Fortunately, after some consultation with her family, she was using pronouns and prepositions correctly in a matter of a few months.

If your child is having difficulty with sentence structure, restate your child’s sentence in a clear and kind way.

For “Me eat” restate, “Yes, you are eating. I am eating too.” There is no need to force a child to repeat words or sentences after you. If your child sees and hears it the right way, he or she will soon be speaking it correctly.

In summary, to assure your child’s reading success, be aware of  the following:

  • How children naturally develop speech.
  • Analyze your child’s speaking skills at age three.
  • Keep language rich in your home and target specific skills.

Then relax a little and let your child’s natural ability to create language do its job.

This is the first article in the Kids Talk Children’s Literacy Series

Next: Reading Begins At Birth

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6 Responses to “On The Road To Reading”

  1. We are from China and speaks Chinese at home. I was told it is necessary for my kids to acquire Chinese. Can it be possilbe to hold back the English development of her? How to help her to be an indepent reader?

    • What we normally see in young bi-lingual children is this:

      At age three we may think there is a language delay in both languages, since the child’s vocabulary may not be what we expect.

      When we step back and take a careful look, we usually see that the child has a combined vocabulary in these two languages that far exceeds what we would expect a three-year-old to have.

      Around 4.5 years children have a natural tendency to gain new vocabulary and can learn up to 250 new words per week when given an enriched environment. It is at this 4.5 year age that we start to see a wonderful language consolidation in the bi-lingual child.

      By age six, about 90 percent of our adult spoken vocabulary is in place. For the bi-lingual child we see that spoken language is quite large when the vocabulary from both languages is considered.

      Your daughter should learn and absorb the languages she is hearing. What a gift for her to grow up to be fluent in both Chinese and English!

  2. Thanks for your prompt reply! Yes, I am probably too anxious. Considering of enriching the language environment, I may probably continue speaking Chinese at home since it is the only opportunity for her to hear it! Her beloved teacher Nancy (we are at Woodland Hill Montessori school in Albany) just told me she is now working very hard with big kids at the writing workshop. Hopefully she will be able to do what she wants very soon! Will let you know then! Thank you!

    • Children under the age of seven are in a sensitive period for learning language.

      It’s the easiest time in our lives to learn a second, third (or more!) language.

      Take advantage of the Chinese opportunity for your daughter.


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