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The DOs of helping children read better

Submitted by on Fri 10/03/17 15:21

‘I can hold up the cup
and the milk and the cake!
I can hold up two books!
and the fish on a rake!
I can hold the toy ship
and the little toy man!
and look!
with my tail I can hold a red fan!
I can fan with the fan
as I hop on the ball!
But that is not all.
Oh no,
that is not all…’
The Cat in The Hat by Dr Seuss

The rollicking rhymes, nonsense words and rhythmic yarns imagined by Dr Seuss were the first forays many of us made into the joys of reading. Yet Dr Seuss also acknowledged reading as a critical learning tool. In I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, he encourages children with a vision of their future: “The more that you read, the more that you’ll know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

How do we help our children make this leap from pre-reading to skilful reading? There are five main building blocks. Each lays a foundation for the next level.

Reading Pyramid

GROUND FLOOR: Phonological and phonemic awareness (listening skills)

Our first job is to start children thinking about the SOUNDS that words make. To do this we read, we talk about words and different sounds, and we make lots of sounds. We might find words that all start with the same sound, words that repeat ending sounds, or clap out the rhythm of word.  We think about the beginning, middle and end sounds of words like ‘cat’.

These listening skills are a vital first skill on the road to reading. They come before children even know the alphabet or which letters make each sound (our next step)!

Read, read, read for fun with your child! Don’t be afraid of repeating the same book over and over again because this means that your child is enjoying the sounds of the words that are now familiar. Be curious with them about words and play some simple games when you’re driving in the car or enjoying some one on one time.

Play word games:

  1. Let’s think of words that start with m, ch, sh, t, or other beginning sounds
  2. How about we make up silly sentences with words beginning with the same sound? (Is Nelly nasty or nice?)
  3. How many words can we think of that rhyme? (go/no/show/snow)
  4. What sounds can you hear in dog, log, frog?
  5. Let’s clap our hands to the beats in these words! (hel/lo, break/fast, hol/i/day, kan/gar/oo)
  6. How many words are in this sentence? (I/need/to/eat/now. Where/is/my/hat?)

LEVEL 2: Phonics (letter/sound matching)

Once children are familiar with the sounds of words, we teach them to match the letters with the sounds. As they begin blending sounds, this is when that miracle occurs that we typically think of as reading. When they can pull them apart, this is spelling.

Separately and together, letters make different sounds, and sometimes a variety of spellings can make the same sound. This is illustrated in the graph below, which shows the smallest units of sound called phonemes. 


In the classroom, reading and writing develop alongside each other, although reading is often easier to master than spelling.

Explicit phonics instruction teaches children strategies that help them sound out unfamiliar words. While this is their first and most important strategy, we also list some high-frequency words that we expect them to learn by sight (we call them ‘sight words’). Until all of the phonemes have been taught, learning high-frequency words helps children maintain the ‘flow’ in their reading and writing. A good example of this is the word ‘was’. Children in Prep have not yet learnt that the letter ‘a’ can also make the ‘o’ sound (as in the word ‘orange’), so it is best at this stage for them to recognise this word instantly.

Continue reading with and to your child every day. Part of this will involve listening to them read from their reader, which is targeted specifically to their individual stage of reading. 

  1. Be patient and calm.
  2. Talk about the front cover and title, look at the pictures together.
  3. Prompt them to predict what might happen in the book from the pictures.
  4. If your child is a reluctant reader, read to them first. Make a bargain that you read a page, then they read a page.
  5. If they’re having trouble reading a word, cover up each part of the word and help them sound it out or if it was a word on their sight word list, gently prompt them.
  6. Don’t try to make them read a book that they’re not ready for. Nothing succeeds like success! Struggling with a book with many unknown words is pointless. ‘Flow’ and story are lost completely. It becomes a dreaded chore.
  7. Follow the four Ps for helping your child read better: pause, prompt, praise, pose questions. (Merryn Develyn: Teaching Tools for Tots)


LEVEL 3: Fluency (accuracy with speed)

With reading experience, children start to ‘decode’ (sound words out and recognise them) without too much trouble. This is when we want them to develop fluency, the third tier in the five levels of reading proficiency.

Fluency is all about reading accurately while also increasing speed. Now, comprehension also comes more sharply into focus as they begin to recognise and comprehend strings of words. If children don’t master this phase, they never get enjoyment or meaning from reading, which is the whole reason we read in the first place!

In this phase, it’s very important for parents to model the sound and rhythm of a normal pace of reading while continuing to demonstrate how reading can be a joyful experience.

  1. Staying at a moderate pace, have your child track the words with their finger as you read.
  2. Get your child to voice match with you as you read aloud, at your normal pace, short segments of the reader.
  3. Get your child to read favourite poems and books over and over again. Practise getting smoother and reading with expression. Young children especially love this!

LEVEL 4: Vocabulary (knowing more words)

Now we focus on adding words to their bank of useful words. You will find that when you focus on new words, this will also open up new ideas and new things to talk about with your child.

You can introduce new words in any context, reading or playing, but it’s always best to tie them to actual experiences, stories and interests. In doing so, children instinctively learn how new words should be used. They learn from the context surrounding the word, and this is a skill they develop even more in the next phase of their reading development.


  1. Provide simple, child-friendly definitions for new words. For example: ‘enormous’ means ‘really big’.
  2. Use the word in context. You might say: That was an ‘enormous’ carrot we got out of our garden the other day!
  3. Encourage your child to develop their own examples. You might ask: Do you know any other ‘enormous’ things?
  4. Make learning new words fun and make sure you all use your new vocabulary at home.

LEVEL 5. Comprehension (reading for meaning)

Understanding characters, following a storylines, making connections between important facts, events and issues, and picturing images in your mind’s eye are all key to unlocking a love of reading and future of learning.

Encourage your child to ask themselves whether they understand what they’re reading. What about the meaning of some of the less common words? Look them up together. If they’re reading an informational text, talk about what they learned from it.

You can help your child develop comprehension skills by holding a conversation about what they’re reading. Ask about the events in a book and tie them into events in their own life or in another book or movie.

Questions you can ask:

  1. I wonder why the character did that?
  2. How do you think they felt? Why?
  3. What would you have done? Why?


You + school = better readers!

The atmosphere and enthusiasm we generate for reading makes a world of difference to reluctant readers! Don’t underestimate your influence on your child’s literacy success.

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