Helping Your Young Child Learn to Read at Home

Posted by Andrea Savage, Literacy Specialist on 1/28/16 6:00 AM

Recently, I was catching up with a childhood friend who is now the mother of a three-year-old. “I don’t know how you teach kids to read! It seems so hard!" she said. "My daughter can recognize her letters and can only write an ‘L’.”

You might be like my friend—excited, but wondering how to help your young child learn to read. Maybe you are discouraged because you don’t know how to help or know just a few encouraging phrases like “sound it out.” But, does your child know what that means? What does your child already know? What is he or she ready for?

Learning to read involves many concepts that build on one another. Children can only progress if they are developmentally ready for these concepts and are willing to try them out.

Here are some skills that your child might be demonstrating or working towards, as well as tips for how to introduce and strengthen the skills at home in a developmentally appropriate way.

Concepts of Print

  • Does your child hold the book correctly; turn the pages in the correct direction?
  • Does your child know that each word represents a spoken word?
  • Does your child read text from left to right?
  • Does your child know that the left page is read before the right page?

To strengthen these skills, try the following:

  • Model good reading habits by reading to your child often, introducing books by title, author, and illustrator.
  • Read a variety of books, magazines, recipes, and other printed items around your house and while at restaurants, taking walks, and shopping (environmental print).
  • Have older siblings and other family members reread favorite books to your child.
  • Read books with large, bold print and point to the words as you read.
  • Leave time at the library or bookstore to sit down and model what it is like to pick out new books; discuss things your child notices and likes about the books.

Listening and Language Skills

  • Can your child retell a story in his own words?
  • Does your child engage in the story while reading? Ask questions? Make connections to other stories or to her own life?
  • Can your child tell the story from the pictures even if he is not ready to read the words?

To strengthen these skills:

  • Place familiar items in a bag and have your child pull them out and tell a story with the objects. Take turns and model if necessary. You or your child may even want to act the stories out!
  • Ask open-ended questions while reading together; model what making comments on the story might look like if your child is hesitant to answer.
  • Discuss vocabulary or words your child may not know.

The Alphabet

  • Does your child recognize and name upper and lowercase letters?
  • Can your child name each letter’s sound?

To strengthen these skills:

  • Start by helping your child identify the letters in his or her own name, and then the letters in the names of friends and family members. Challenge your child to find these same letters around the house.
  • Gather different types of alphabet books and games.
  • Practice making and playing with letters. You can use play-doh, wax sticks, magnetic letters, sand, and rice. Shaving cream and foam letters are fun in the bath/shower!

Phonological Awareness

(Identifying and manipulating larger parts of spoken language—alliteration, rhyme, words, and syllables)

  • Can your child reproduce sounds you say with accuracy?
  • Can your child rhyme?
  • Can your child put sounds together to make a word? /f/ + /ish/ = fish
  • Can your child identify the first and last sounds of a word?

To strengthen these skills:

  • Count and identify words in your child’s environment.
  • Count simple syllables in words—like your child’s name.
  • Sing silly rhyming songs and read books with rhyming patterns (for example, Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas).
  • Practice stretching out words while you read—like “moooon.”
  • Put letter stickers on blocks/toys so your child can practice tapping the letter names and sounds while pulling pieces apart or putting them together to make words like c-a-t.


It may be that your child simply isn’t ready for reading, or it may not be on her list of priorities. If children are motivated to learn to read, you can expect the following to be true:

  • They enjoy being read to.
  • They frequently ask you to read aloud.
  • They pretend to read.

How to Help Your Child Get Excited to Learn to Read

  • If you or your child is frustrated, it will not end well. Relax and take a breather!
  • Try to introduce reading in other ways. Get your child involved in reading a recipe, making a to-do list, reading directions for games, or writing a letter or email to friends and relatives.
  • Let your child choose books at the library, store, and bedtime.

A List of Books for Your Child

Tips for Learning and Playing with High Frequency Words

  • Build words with play-doh, wax sticks, magnetic letters, sand, and rice.
  • Write or add words on an old Jenga or bowling set.
  • Make word dominoes.
  • Add words to Twister circles.
  • Play tic-tac-toe with words instead of Xs and Os.
  • Make your own Go Fish decks with two of each word.

Dolch High Frequency Words for Pre-K and Kindergarten:









































Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Parenting, Teaching & Learning, Reading and Books