by Maria Almli

former MHA board member

I am in the process of teaching my fourth child to read. We sit on the couch together, I read her a picture book, then an alphabet book, then she reads me a book. This is not a magic formula, but it does contain what I have found to be three necessary ingredients for learning to read:

  1. enjoyment of reading
  2. knowledge of the letters and the sounds they make
  3. ample practice reading

You can use a structured curriculum, or use the many opportunities for reading around us in our daily lives, or both. Letters and words are part of the landscape, part of our games, part of recipes, and part of both work and play. Sounding out a word on a street sign or a birthday card, a name tag or in a familiar book, are common beginning steps. Words can be spelled with scrabble or banana gram tiles, written in the sand or snow with a stick, or formed out of refrigerator magnets or alphabet soup. Ways to practice reading are all around us. Structured curriculum can add a benefit of building skill upon skill. Some focus on phonics, some focus on sight words or use other approaches. We all figure out how letters go together to make words a little differently, and different approaches may work better for different children.

Even among my own four children, with the same environment and the same parents, each went about it in a unique way. One had to sound things out FOREVER. Another got several sight words right away but struggled with the orientation of individual letter intensely—p, b, d, and q were all the same to her. My second child powered through an entire chapter book at 5, sounding out every word until she’d finished an abridged version of Anne of Green Gables. Our brains are unique, and how they puzzle out reading is unique, as well.

Is there a perfect age for a child to learn to read? I would say when they show interest is the perfect time, regardless of age. If interest is lagging, read to them. Read things they like. Read things you like. Let them see you reading to yourself. For many children there is an ‘aha’ moment when they realize you are doing something other than reciting when you read to them. And most often, they want to do it too. Others become motivated when they realize the freedom that comes with reading for themselves—they can choose what, when, and where to read to a much higher degree.

Learning to read is not linear. There are break through moments, and long stretches when if feels like there isn’t much progress. All of my older kids had a ‘break through’ book—a chapter book they read all by themselves which launched their love of reading for themselves. But I didn’t choose these books, and I couldn’t dictate the timing. It had to be on their own terms. In the mean time, we kept going with the easier books for practice and read alouds to continue to share the joy of reading. After a full year of slowly progressing through beginning readers, suddenly, my son breezed through a huge chapter book his grandma had given as a gift. It even had a line or two in a foreign language—he loved it and wasn’t phased one bit. One of my daughters picked out a fantasy novel for herself at the bookstore for her eighth birthday. I really didn’t think she’d be able to read it but bit my tongue and let her choose. She was on to book two in the series before the month was out.

There is a leap that happens, and it can’t happen if we don’t let them stretch themselves on occasion. Similarly, retreating to easier books, even comic books (especially comic books!), often provides the practice necessary to make those harder books accessible.

Both teaching oneself to read and dyslexia are relatively uncommon. Still, you will likely know at least one or two people on either end of this spectrum of reading aptitude. If you are worried about dyslexia, be sure to check on vision and hearing, as well. If your first child taught themselves to read (or if you yourself learned to read on your own), keep in mind that most of us need a little more guidance. Happy reading!