Even before the pandemic, America’s 56 million school children in grades K-12 were not receiving the same quality of education.

Baby with book
Children can develop a love of books long before learning to read. Sturdy board books hold up under little hands.

Now, as the future of public education hangs on partisan conflicts, parents more than ever need to supplement their children’s formal education at home. Because of the disruption caused by the pandemic, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that all children are falling behind in their learning.

Fortunately, even a little intervention can go a long way to equip children with the intellectual tools to acquire learning in adverse conditions. The key academic skill is the ability to read. Parents of any educational background can do much to nurture this skill, beginning during their children’s preschool years and continuing until their children demonstrate reading fluency.

The following article is aimed mainly toward parents of very young children, but parents of school-age children who are having reading difficulties may find it useful.

The four essentials of literacy are spoken vocabulary, mastery of the sounds and symbols of English, basic written vocabulary, and general knowledge.

1. Spoken Vocabulary

Reading is a by-product of speech.

If you want your child to succeed in learning to read when the time comes, speak to your newborn from Day One. Describe your surroundings. Give step-by-step descriptions of bathing, dressing, and feeding—not just once, but every time. Being spoken to is how your child will learn the words that go with objects and actions. As far as possible, speak in complete sentences.

All the speaking should not be on one side. Once your child begins babbling, model the process of conversation by making the sounds back.

Read to your child. For the first few months, what you read is not important. You can read from the newspaper or from any printed text. What’s important is for your child to hear connected speech. When the child is six months old, you can begin reading from children’s books. In addition to changing selections from the local library, provide your child with a home library of a few favorites. As your child grows older, play games that illustrate the meanings of abstract words like prepositions. For example, using a ball or other toy, place it in a box, under a towel, on a table—each time emphasizing the word that shows where in space the object is.

How to build your child’s vocabulary as you go about your daily routine. 

2. The Sounds and Symbols of English

Although English spelling and pronunciation are often ridiculed by people who should know better, the fact remains that English is a language written with an alphabet. An alphabet is a sound code. To become a confident reader, your child needs to learn all the symbols of written English and the speech sounds they stand for.

The English alphabet is a wondrous thing.

Surround your newborn with the letters of the alphabet, both upper- and lowercase. The letters can appear on clothing, toys, dishes, posters, and any other surface. Teach the names of the letters as you teach the names of any other objects or creatures, such as chair, bed, dog, kitten. Teach the sounds as well as the names. Play with sounds like mmmm, zzzzz, and shhhh. The purpose of such games is to prepare your child to recognize individual speech sounds within words.

3. Letter Formation

Because of the emphasis on computer use, handwriting receives little attention in most schools nowadays. Children are not taught the most efficient way to hold a pencil or pen. They are not encouraged to develop a legible handwriting. This is a grave mistake. The act of writing delivers long-term learning to the brain.

Recent studies have shown that college students who take notes by hand learn the material being taught better than students who take notes on a digital device. As soon as your child is able to grasp a pencil, learning to write the letters can begin. Encourage your child to say the sound while forming the letter. Begin with the letters that represent only one sound.

Ignore the cyber pundits: handwriting is not obsolete.

3. Basic Written Vocabulary

Teach your child to write as many common words as possible before beginning school. Not all schools emphasize phonetic learning. Many teachers present basic vocabulary as “sight” words, teaching them as wholes with flash cards instead of as combinations of sound symbols.

Children will be better prepared for beginning reading if they know the sounds normally represented by the letters. A five-year-old can grasp the concept of alternate spellings, such as the different spellings of the long a sound: a, ai, ay, eigh, and ey as in ate, tail, say, eight, and they.

If not taught that English has more spelling symbols than the 26 letters of the alphabet, children understandably conclude that English spelling is unlearnable.

The Dolch List of “Sight” words is more phonetic than not. 

4. General Knowledge

Reading comprehension depends upon more than the ability to identify words on a printed page. It also depends upon what the reader brings to the text.

Children acquire general knowledge by exploring their world, playing with pots and pans, digging in a garden or flowerbox, walking in a park or the woods, paddling in a pond—interacting with physical objects.

Children acquire knowledge of the world beyond their immediate surroundings by means of books.

Books, like the wonderful DK board books, provide in bright, attractive illustrations an enormous amount of vocabulary enrichment.

Prepare your child for reading success with activities and books. “Decoding” skills are of little use without a furnished mind.

Reading provides a delight and refuge to adults as they encounter life’s challenges. Unfortunately, the way beginners are taught in some schools creates fear and dislike of reading, dismissing forever an important source of strength that might otherwise sustain children as they progress through life. Do all you can to instill a love of reading in your children before they start school.

Daily reading begets a love of reading.


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