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How to Teach a Very Young Child to Read

Updated on September 17, 2016
Van Eyck - Madonna with the Child Reading
Van Eyck - Madonna with the Child Reading | Source

What a Thorny Subject!

Parents, teachers and child psychologists the world over are divided on the matter -

* Can it be done?

* Is it damaging to the child?

* Why do it it, anyway, as they will learn soon enough!

* If you do, then how should you go about it?

I will try to answer the above questions, but please bear in mind I am neither a school teacher nor a child psychologist. I am, purely and simply, a mother!

Can it be done?

My son, now 29 learned to read a long time ago - over a quarter of a century, to be precise.

He was just 20 months when he took his first tentative steps into the happy world of reading and all the benefits that go with it.

So the answer to my first question is a resounding 'Yes' it can.

Is it damaging to the child?

As I am not a qualified professional I can only comment from personal experience, but my guess is probably, on balance, 'No'.

Young children as part of their development are naturally very curious about the world around them, and as every parent knows, ask endless questions.

They are also capable of skills which require a high level of functioning. For example, if you want to operate a dvd player, simply ask a 2 year old! They have few negative preconceptions so are not so worried about how things work as many adults are! They just go ahead and do it!

Of course children vary greatly according to

* their genetic make-up

* their natural intelligence and curiosity

* the environment into which they are brought

* their parent or carer's abilities, inclination, or time.

* natural interests which can express themselves at a very young age.

A famous concert violinist, who was crippled by polio when he was 2, asked his mother for a toy violin. He took to it immediately and it was one of the few 'physical' things he was able to do from a wheelchair.

In the case of my son books were one of his passions more or less from babyhood, especially cookery books. Incidentally, he has pursued a career in writing and is a talented amateur chef... surprise there, then!

As soon as my son could crawl he made his way over to the bookcase and made it his mission to empty out the books all over the floor and pretend to 'read' them. Mostly he was just looking at the pictures, especially pictures of cakes.

Here we have 2 examples of children expressing a lifelong interest at an early stage of their development.

The sensitive parent/carer will be attuned to the child's wants and needs and will encourage and facilitate learning.

Forcing a child because you have a hidden agenda (maybe an unfulfilled ambition to play an instrument) seems to me so wrong, so misguided.

The project, then, whatever it may be - in our case learning to read early - has to be child driven, or it is doomed to failure and disappointment.

Why do it anyway?

Well, I'd rather ask Why Not?!

The child will gain much benefit from reading early-

* Increased awareness and understanding of the world around him

* Head start at school - literacy skills facilitate further learning

* Stimulates imagination

* Development of linguistic skills including spelling and grammar

Lingusitic skills go hand in hand (in terms of historical and personal) with growth and development of human consciousness.

image by Peter Kemp
image by Peter Kemp | Source

So what was my method?

I will tell you how I went about teaching my son, and it was oh, so simple! You don't have to have a degree, or be especially well educated. As long as you have basic literacy skills you are already way ahead of your child. All you need is patience!

I formed the opinion that words were 'things'.

As a 'chair' is a thing, so the word 'chair' is a thing These two things go together to form a pair. The word 'chair' tells you what the object we call a chair is. Without it, without the linguistic expression it is a neutral unlabelled object that you just happen to sit on.

Language, both vocal (spoken) and subvocal (non-spoken, ie thinking) makes the world real - it creates our reality.

So the word 'chair' is in effect a label. And that was what I did - I labelled things. I wrote 'chair' on a piece of paper and attached it to a chair. I went on to label 5 other household items every night before I went to bed.

In the morning it became an exciting game for my son, like an Easter Egg hunt - 'Find the Words'! This was something we did together, as it was important the words remained attached to the objects so that we could keep going back to look at them during the course of the day.

In the evening the words were gathered up and made into flashcards. When my son was having his bath the words were shown to him to see if he could remember them. He loved doing this, it was a fun game and he felt a real sense of pride when he got them right. There no pressure. (I felt 6 was a reasonable number as any more might have been too demanding).

We played this game several times in the week, though not every day, but we went over the words every day to ensure he didn't forget them.

You can imagine, then, that after a few weeks he knew several dozen words. Indeed, it soon ran into hundreds!

So far he only knew nouns, so I had to teach him a few adjectives, verbs and pronouns, beginning with colours and moving onto words like 'hot' 'cold' 'big' 'little' etc.

When I felt he knew sufficient words I decided the time had come to string a few together to make a sentence.

The opportunity arose when sitting together at the dinner table (I had a captive audience!).

I laid out in front of him 5 words - 'I like nice hot dinners'. Pointing to each word in turn I asked him to read the sentence. He read it twice, very slowly, before the penny dropped. When he knew what he had just read he exclaimed "I read 'I like nice hot dinners' and I'm eating my dinner now, aren't I mummy!"

Bingo! We both knew he had cracked it and at 22 months he had mastered basic reading skills.

We continued in this vein for a few weeks, as well as reading books together, before the next step -

Bringing in a professional

The next step was to get him professionally assessed, which was not as bad as it sounds since his grandmother was a primary school teacher who had taught many thousands of children to read.

I delivered him into her capable, but highly sceptical hands.

"Not possible" she said. "It can't be done".

Ten minutes later "He's reading, really reading, and is the youngest child I have ever come across to do so".

You might say it was a fluke - that he and I struck lucky, for what ever reasons, some of which I mentioned above in this article.

I mentioned it to a friend at the time who was interested in helping her twin boys to read. And it worked. They learned at 3 (simply, I think, because she only heard about it when they were that age. I'm sure they could have read at 2).

How to make flashcards for your baby/toddler

How to use your flashcards

To sum up

My method employed what is known in educational circles as the 'Look and Say' method.

There have been hot debates amongst experts over the past few decades as to whether the Look and Say method or the Phonic method is best.

I obviously plumped for Look and Say as I was teaching a very young child who could not have had the reasoning skills to learn phonics.

Apparently learning to read using phonics encourages logical, analytical thinking and that is one reason it is encouraged., the other being it offers a 'key' to work out a new word.

Some languages are more open to the phonic method than others. English requires both, as there are many anomalies in our pronunciation, for example 'Through', Thought' 'Enough' 'Cough'.

Some languages, like Italian are more phonetic than English. With others, for example Mandarin, I would imagine look and say is all you can do as words are represented by pictures rather than letters.

I hope you have found this article interesting and helpful and that you feel inspired to try teaching your toddler.

Good luck!


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    • just helen profile imageAUTHOR

      just helen 

      4 years ago from Dartmoor UK

      Thank you for commenting, Vicki! Let me know how you get on please...

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Loved this. I am an experienced phonics teacher, but haven't tried the look and say. I might try this with a Down's syndrome child who hasn't been able to learn phonics. It sounds good.

    • just helen profile imageAUTHOR

      just helen 

      6 years ago from Dartmoor UK

      Thank you SO much Christin! Properly encouraged from a young age chilldren can get so much enjoyment and satisfaction from reading. Let me know how you get on!

    • ChristinS profile image

      Christin Sander 

      6 years ago from Midwest

      This is awesome! I am so going to use your technique to see if I can get my 4 year old more interested in reading. My 14 year old loved learning - was exceptionally curious about communication and reading from 2 years old or so. We would sit and read all the time and he just kind of picked it up very early. My little guy is more interested in drawing and telling stories and has no real interest in reading yet, so I am going to try your labeling game with him and see if it helps pique his interest further. Great hub - voted up and pinning/sharing.

    • just helen profile imageAUTHOR

      just helen 

      6 years ago from Dartmoor UK

      Thank you Heather, for your positive reply! Not only did I teach him to read at a young age, but I started him on the piano too.

      I strongly believe that children are so much more capable from an early age than we give them credit for. They are held back by our fears, not theirs! All they want to do is to learn!

    • HeatherH104 profile image


      6 years ago from USA

      You are spot on with this article. I have two sons who both learned to read before two. They feel confident in the world around them because they can read signs and so on to know what's happening. I used a mix of music and phonics as well as showing them Rock N Learn Phonics DVD. I think they picked up reading faster than older children do!

      My mom taught me to read using your method. Wonderful article!!!!


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