Elementary school aged children delight in their discovery of the joys of reading. It’s so exciting to watch the light growing inside them as they “break the code” and read on their own. It’s a special time for younger children, too. As they watch friends and siblings hit the books, they are ready to play and imagine themselves in a school environment.
With my 4-year-old daughter, though she does attend a play-based preschool, I like to follow her momentum and curiosity and practice some academic things at home, too. One of our favorite pre-reading activities is to pick up some Sound Box Books from our library. These books by the amazing Jane Belk Moncure, who sadly passed away in July of 2013, are fun and gentle adventures into associations of sounds and symbols that pique interest in the reading process and build confidence as young ones begin to make connections about how it works.
Each book has a character who has a letter name, like “Little S” or “Little P” and each character goes along filling his or her “sound box” with things that begin with that particular sound. As we read through them, the surprises the characters run into are cute and sometimes silly, while the predictability of the text allows me to read slowly and let my daughter shout out some of the words before I can say them. Kids who read along will begin to recognize the word “box,” as it’s mentioned often in each book and has a box drawn around it. And they’ll start to notice things that begin with each letter sound as, for example, Little P runs into a peacock. “Did she put the peacock into her sound box? She did!”
We really enjoy reading the Sound Box Books and I highly recommend them. I also recommend what we like to do after we read them. We grab a box, name a letter, and go around the house putting things that start with that letter in our box. It is such a thrill each time we find a thing to add, and I love to watch the way my daughter’s brain works as she searches. I have to admit that it was not my idea to do this. Back when my son was 4, I read the books with him, too, and one day found him dragging a box around. When I asked him what he was doing, he proudly showed me all the things in his box that began with the letter F!
There are many ways to help small children get excited about reading. It’s helpful to provide them with a language-rich environment: talking about things you see together when you are out walking or in the car or around the house and naming them, sometimes introducing synonyms. It’s also good to help them recognize patterns. Seeing that beads line up “red, green, red, green, red, green” now, will help them distinguish letter patterns that make up different words later. It’s wonderful to read to them all kinds of books and children’s magazines (our favorite is Highlights High Five) every day. And, of course, it’s useful for them to learn their letters!
We LOVE using music to practice letters. The Susie Tallman & Friends version of “the Alphabet Song” (click it to hear it) is my favorite because it incorporates so many things and is so enjoyable for parents and kids at the same time. Not only is it a good sing along for practicing the alphabet, but it also teaches some flexibility as the song is sung in various musical styles (like a cowboy – nice and slow! like an opera singer! like Elvis!) and then, the final style demonstrates how each letter is used to start a word. My kids especially enjoy this part of the music video on the Come On, Let’s Go! DVD. And they try to sing fast enough to keep up with Susie. Another fun reading/spelling song on the Children’s Songs CD and the DVD, is “BINGO.” It’s a good pattern practicer and letter-to-word association that helps build a foundation for future readers.
Along with the music, now that my daughter has become comfortable with letters and the sound each letter makes, we like to use alphabet refrigerator magnets to take it to the next step to practice a little spelling and reading. She has fun stringing letters together and asking me what they spell. Usually, they don’t spell a real word, but I pronounce what she’s created as best as I can, most often resulting in both of us laughing. Sometimes she actually produces a real word and that delights her! We also play a game with the magnets, where I’ll put, for example, the “a” and the “t” together and tell her. “This says ‘at.‘ If I put a ‘b‘ here at the beginning, what do you think it will say?” Her first guess might be way off base and I just keep it positive saying, “That’s a good guess. This actually says, ‘bat.’” Then, when I change the ‘b‘ to an ‘h,‘ and ask her, “What do you think it says now?” She’s more likely to catch on and say, “HAT!!” Then I can ask her, “What do you think we would have to do to make it say, ‘mat’?” And she thinks for a minute and then switches the ‘m‘ for the ‘h’. If we’re going for “cat” and she puts a ‘k’ up there, I can say, “You’re right! K does make that sound. Do you know another letter that can make the same sound?” And we can work together to figure out we need a “c.” This is very exciting for her every time she gets it and it really builds her confidence to go to the next step.
The next step for us is another series of books called, Bob Books. These books are fantastic because they are tiny and keep it very simple, while still saying something silly that gives the kids a laugh. The first book uses only 3-letter words and the neat thing about it is that, as the child works through to discover what each page says, she suddenly comes to the page that says, “The End” and realizes she’s just READ A BOOK! It’s a huge confidence boost that opens the door to much more trying. Once we’ve made it through the Bob Books, which are also available at the library, we are off and running to the Easy Reading section. She still needs lots of help, but she now reads a few words here and there and takes such joy in it!
Except when she doesn’t take joy in it. And here’s the real secret to this whole thing: if it’s not fun, don’t do it. Or at least try something different. It’s been really important in this pre-reading journey for me to recognize when my child wants to play with letters and words and when she does not. I know that if I push her to do it or make it a chore, she will resent it and look at reading in a very different way in the long run. My cue from her lately is when she says, “I’m too tired right now. You read this one.” Then I know this is not the day (or sometimes the week or month) for us to practice. And that’s just fine. Fostering a lifelong love of reading matters much more to me than developing all the skills right this minute. We’ve got time.
So, take some of these ideas and see what’s fun for your kids. If they like it, great! If they don’t, no worries. You can always wait a month or two to try again, or come up with some other ideas. Most of what works for an interested 4-year-old would work just as well for a child who is older. We’d love for you to share your ideas and tips with us in the comments below.