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Should You Teach a Preschooler to Read?

Updated on September 20, 2014

Consider the source: peer pressure vs. peer wisdom

Teaching a preschooler to read was never in my master parenting plan (not that I had one!). But there I was, chatting with the other moms at 4-year-old preschool pickup time, and a parent I respected -- a witty, grounded mom not known for helicopter parent tendencies -- asked if my son was reading yet. "No, should he be?" I asked. "Well..." she said, "I've heard the kindergarten and 1st grade reading programs aren't that great. I figure let's just knock this out over the summer."

It got me thinking. My son was a bright little kid. We'd been reading to him since his first week of life, and he loved books. We had a relatively laid-back summer ahead, with less on the family plate than we would have during the school year. Why not give it a shot?

So we did it, and it worked, and we did it again with our twins a couple years later. But we had a subtly different reason for teaching each of the three kids. I now believe those three reasons make a pretty good "screening" tool for deciding whether one should teach a preschooler to read. Three questions to ask yourself...

1) Is my child ready to read?

The experts might disagree, but I think this is more about attention span than about a specific prereading skill like knowing the alphabet and writing their name. Those things can be taught fairly easily to most kids, but if they can’t sit still with you and a book for more than two minutes, they probably aren’t ready for a structured learn-to-read attempt.

That doesn’t mean a more active approach wouldn’t work — like labeling items around the house, then pointing & reading them to your kid in day to day life as you pass the items or use them. (This always seemed a little over-the-top to me, but I know people who did it, with good results.)

Some children, especially in the preschool years, just need to be on the move, and there’s nothing wrong with that :)

On the other hand, if your child likes nothing more than to snuggle up with you and a pile of books, (s)he may be ready to start tackling this skill. Some preschoolers even ask to learn to read — especially those with bookworm big sibs.

2) Is my child already starting to teach him/herself to read?

I realize that if the answer to this is “yes,” the next logical question would be “Then why do you need to teach him?” Just check that off the list, right?

Well, maybe. What I noticed with my one twin who started teaching himself to read around age 3 is that he was relying totally on recognizing / memorizing words by sight. It was cool to see, but instinctively I thought maybe he should balance that out with some phonics, too, so he’d have a couple different strategies in place as he got older.

If nothing else, you kinow that if your child is teaching him/herself to read, (s)he is ready to learn. There’s no wrong answer — just roll with it and see how it develops on its own, or jump in with some instruction if you’re so inclined. Just be prepared to back off if your kid doesn’t respond well, ’cause the last thing you want to do is squash the self-propelled learning (s)he was engaging in before you got involved!

Will teaching my child to read improve the quality of his/her life, or our family's life?

My other twin, as a preschooler and even to some extent years later, is one of those kids who had trouble entertaining himself without the TV. His sibs would do Legos, draw, play ball …. but for him, having fun without some structure or a “goal” was always kind of tough. And the job of providing that usually fell to an adult — namely me.

Yes, this is a parent’s job, but I’ve always done at least some work (paid and volunteer) that makes it impossible for me to spend every waking second interacting with my kids — even if that was a good idea, which is debatable. My son and I both clearly needed an activity that was non-electronic but that wouldn’t require my direct involvement — so that I could not only pursue my freelance jobs but make dinner, shower, etc. Teaching him to read was an investment in happier days for us all. I noticed, too, that reading had a mild calming effect on him that a children’s DVD rarely delivered.

Reading also gave him something to do on those verrrrry early weekend mornings (funny how the kid who needs you most is always the earliest riser), on long car rides, at his brother’s soccer games …. all of those times where boredom would have otherwise caused frustration and potentially meltdowns — on his part & mine!

So if you have an easily bored, easily frustrated, and/or electronics-addicted preschooler (infinitely more of a risk now than when my children were little, given the myriad, tantalizing iPad apps for this age group!), then teaching him or her to read might be a real stress-buster for all involved.

Going for it? Try this time-tested, wallet-friendly DIY resource

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons
Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons

The secret to "joyful early reading," says childhood literacy expert Richard Gentry, PhD, is fun -- and that means stopping a reading activity when it stops being fun.

What made that easy for us is this book, which I used to teach my preshoolers to read. The lessons are purposely short, and sometimes I cut them even shorter by splitting one lesson into two. As a result, the 100 lessons ended up being more like 150 for two of my children, but we had fun.

Our family's tips:

1) Plan to use this curriculum at a time when you and your family aren't too overscheduled or overcommitted. The lessons won't "stick" as well if you end up having to take a ton of days off in between them.

2) Stop a lesson if your kid gets tired or crabby, but end on a "good note" -- e.g., point to a word (s)he can easily read, and celebrate the moment of success together before you call it a day.

3) Act out the goofy stories in this book (and some of them are pretty silly) after you & your child read them -- even the ultra-short ones at the beginning of the book. It aids comprehension -- remember, reading is more than decoding! -- and enlivens the learning.

4) If, after a few lessons, your child really doesn't seem to be having any fun, put the plan aside for a few weeks, even months, before trying again.

5) Remember that this process should be fun for you, too. If it's not, and especially if it's putting an undue strain on your relationship with your preschooler, it's okay to abandon it. It doesn't mean your child won't learn to read; it just means they won't learn at this time, in this manner. Plenty more chances to come :)



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