Reading skills are one of the most important sets of skills we can give our children to help them become happy, successful adults. Study after study shows that people with better educations are, on average, significantly happier and more successful than their less educated peers, and that reading skills are one of the single most important factors in a child’s educational success. Children who are strong readers become better educated — both by gaining admission into better schools, and by making more effective use of instructional time — which means they tend to become happier, more successful adults.

We all want our kids to grow up to be happy, successful adults, and so we do our best to provide them with all the tools they need. The problem with teaching our kids to read, though, is that reading is a very complicated set of skills. Potty training was bad enough, how in the world are we supposed to wrap our little person’s head around the idea that all those little marks on the paper mean something? Factor in how important reading is to their future, and it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed.

There’s no need to panic, though. A combination of common sense and general parenting know-how will keep us moving in the right direction, and a few reading specific strategies will help fine tune the process, for more gain with less pain.

Build Your Foundations

One of the difficulties in teaching your child to read is knowing how to foster the right attitude – namely, a love of reading. It’s almost as difficult as figuring out when they’re ready to start learning to read. For most kids, a love of reading starts long before they ever pick up a book. A love of reading usually starts with a love of stories, and a love of stories invariably starts with being read to. Before you ask, it’s never too early to start reading to your kids. Even if your little one is not yet verbalizing, hearing your voice reading the story helps to develop and strengthen language skills and provides a wonderful bonding opportunity.

Reading to your child won’t automatically turn him or her into a super reader, of course, but it does lay the foundation upon which their future reading skills will rest. By spending some time every day reading to your child you are also setting up exactly the right conditions for engaging your child’s natural curiosity about the reading process. Eventually, when they’re ready, they’ll ask about the strange marks in the book that you run your finger under when you read a story. That’s when you know your little one is ready to start learning how to read.

A before B, and Then Followed by C

Once your child expresses an interest in reading, the first step is, of course, learning the alphabet. How you approach this task will color your child’s entire opinion about reading, so it is important to keep one rule firmly in mind; make it fun.

It’s unfortunate that most parents, when teaching their kids the alphabet, immediately reach for the flashcards as their first (and often only) resource. Flashcards are boring. This is especially true for someone with the attention span of a preschooler.

The best strategy to keep in mind when trying to make the alphabet fun is to keep learning the letters secondary to another activity. If your child enjoys coloring, alphabet themed coloring pages are great resource. If Play-Doh is more the thing, challenge your munchkin to make the same letters you are making. Incorporate letters and activities your child already finds enjoyable and enjoyment will transfer directly to learning the alphabet.

Once your child starts getting more familiar with some letters, you can also start playing games like “Letter Hunter”. To play “Letter Hunter” you simply pick a letter your child knows before you leave the house and challenge each other to spot as many of that letter as you can on signs, the sides of buses, and so forth.

Phonics vs. the Whole Word Approach

Once your child has gotten the hang of the alphabet, it’s time to start tackling words and sentences. Current advice on the best methods for teaching children to read firmly favors of a strictly phonics-based system, and tends to discourage whole word learning as little more than useless, rote memorization. The truth of the matter is that both systems have their place, and that the best results are to be had by combining them.

Phonics is, and should be, the foundational skill set when it comes to reading. A firm grasp on the principles of phonics allows children to sound out new words, including words they are seeing written down for the first time, as well as enabling them to approximate the spellings of words they’ve never written before.

The biggest problem with phonics-based reading, though, is that it’s slow. This is where whole word reading helps. Some more modern approaches to teaching children to read acknowledge the existence of “sight words” — very common words that it is useful to recognize by sight. Most children will start to recognize the more common words by sight on their own, but pointing out a few of them as they show up naturally (in your child’s books) can help get the ball rolling.

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Reading can be pretty hard work, especially when you’re just learning how, and it will be difficult to convince your child that reading is fun if they never see you doing it. Children are more likely to enjoy reading if they live in a household where the adults read. If you don’t read very much, neither will they.

In the same way that you should incorporate letter learning into activities your child already enjoys, you should also choose reading material with subjects that your child already finds interesting. Interesting subject matter is more important when choosing books for young readers than just about anything else, so if you’re little one is crazy about cars, or goes ape for animals by all means take advantage of that.

Finally, remember that the goal is to transition smoothly from reading stories to your child, to reading stories together with your child, to your child reading stories to you. There is no set or ideal pace for this process to happen — every child is different, and every child moves at their own speed. Pay attention to your child’s individual needs and abilities, apply common sense, be creative, and above all keep things fun and your little one will be reading before you know it.