Helping Children Learn to Read

Learning to communicate

Babies start communicating with their mothers, and others close to them, as soon as they can focus their eyes and move their limbs under control. We parents learn to interpret their gestures and gradually negotiate a language of signs so that we can understand each other. Unless there is real physical pain, hunger or discomfort, a baby will only cry when communication has broken down. If she wants to play with the toy clown she will reach towards it, if she wants to be taken out of the buggy she will make noises to attract attention and then gesture with arms and legs.

A baby who can sit up will already understand some words if you speak clearly and consistently, especially if you make sure your face is in clear view when you are speaking. Very soon the baby will start to make sounds in an attempt to copy speech. At this stage it is essential to listen carefully, repeat the word the child has said, and give encouragement and affection. You will find that your baby is soon speaking words which you understand but which are so different from the normal adult version that strangers would not be able to interpret them : “Cocka gogga” might mean “chocolate yoghourt” ; “Bicka” might mean biscuit. It encourages the child if you meet him half way – don’t say “No, not bicka, biscuit”. , say “Yes, bicka”. You will soon develop between you a shared vocabulary of important everyday words.

It is essential to continue to encourage and develop your child’s communication skills as his mastery of the language develops. NEVER leave a child alone in front of a television set. If you must watch television with a young child always talk about the programme with him, listening carefully to what he says.

Once your child can speak fluently, and be understood by other adults and children, it is good if you can create plenty of opportunities for carrying on proper conversations with other people. It is important to make certain that you are familiar with what he is learning about the world, with his own particular tastes and special ideas about things, and with what he, himself, is trying to learn. Children are always eager to learn about the world, they may not necessarily be interested in what you want them to learn, but they will always be interested in developing their knowledge and skills. Make the most of this special time in your child’s life, the way he learns to use his brain and to manipulate language now will affect his development more than at any other stage in his life.

Learning letters

Let your child see you using written language, such as reading a book or newspaper, or writing a note or shopping list. You might also use letter toys or a large character set on a computer. Provide rag books and picture books. Then, when you feel he is ready, introduce one or two letters by name. Capital letters are probably easiest at this stage.
You might use plastic letters (some with magnets on the back), or letters cut from felt, or you might form letters from spaghetti or play-dough. Just introduce a few letters at a time, don’t rush it, and don’t insist on working through in alphabetical order.

It is too early to expect your child to copy letters, but scribbling with crayons or non-toxic felt-tips is fun and may help younger children feel they are keeping up with older siblings who are already writing and drawing.

Give the name of the letter like this, “This is the letter B. It makes the sound ‘bbbbb’”. Then play games involving thinking of words spelled with the letter B, saying them clearly and stressing the ‘bbb’ sound. Do not move on to a new letter until the child is comfortable with the ones he has learned.

Putting letters together to make words

Three to five letters are enough to start making some words. Stick to short vowels and simple consonants.

The short vowels are:
‘a’ as said in the word ‘cat’
‘e’ as said in the word ‘egg’
‘i’ as said in the word ‘big’
‘o’ as said in the word ‘top’
‘u’ as said in the word ‘pup’

In addition to tricky vowels there are some consonants which can have more than one sound. At this stage we ignore the complications and stick to the simple sounds.
Stick to these :
‘c’ as in cat (not ‘c’ sounding like an ‘s’)
‘g’ as in ‘get’ (not ‘g’ sounding like a ‘j’)

Do not bother with q or x, y, or z at this stage.

Suppose your child has learned B , G, T , U, I, you can use plastic or felt letters to spell several words already: big, bug, tug, gut, bit, but. Make jokes with the words: has Dad got a big gut? Are you a bit of a git? Shall we give the budgie a big tit bit?

The clue to reading is just to understand that each letter is sounded aloud, from left to right across the word, blending the sounds smoothly to make the word. Encourage your child to touch the letters in turn as he sounds them.

Each letter you introduce brings the possibility of more words. But be careful not to try to spell out words where the vowel sounds are different from those above, or where two vowels appear next to one another. A child needs to walk before she can run.

When the child can sound all the letters ( except q, x, y and z ) in the way described above she is ready for the first Elf Book.

Using Elf Books

Start with the RED level books. There are five of them, and they can be read in any order.

If your child has mastered only capital letters turn the book upside down and start at the back. Otherwise start at the front.

Let the child hold the book and move his finger across each word as he sounds out the letters. These are real stories but the child may be concentrating so hard on the words that he is not really taking in the meaning. When reading the book for the first time, before turning to the next page, repeat what he has read in an interesting voice to give him a chance to think about the meaning. Let him study the picture and find the interesting things hidden in it. Then, when he is ready, let him turn the page.

Once your child has read four books at the RED level over a period of several weeks, you can give him a fifth RED level book that he has not yet seen, and listen to him reading aloud. This will enable you to check that he has grasped everything necessary to move to the next level.

There are seven levels of Elf books starting with RED and working through the rainbow colours : RED, ORANGE,YELLOW, GREEN, BLUE, INDIGO, VIOLET. At each level the extra sounds and words new to that level appear in coloured print, so it is easy to help your child with the first book at each level.

Elf books are compatible with the synthetic phonics programmes taught in all English schools, some schools will be using the books themselves.

Remember reading is FUN!

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© copyright Julienne Ford for ELF 2007