A woman I know recently asked whether it was time to begin formal reading lessons for her preschooler. I realized, as I thought about how to answer her, that experience helps so much here. I have materials on hand to teach reading formally to my little guy who is now three and a half years old. But I’m sure that he isn’t really ready for the sorts of lessons those materials would push. Instead, I’ve stuck mostly to informal lessons because my goal at this point is to keep the learning fun; I want him to grow up loving reading and learning and wanting more.
He learned the alphabet and the major sounds of the letters a long time ago. Watching the Leap Frog video “Letter Factory” over and over and over again made that easy (watched sometimes daily for weeks and fairly regularly for months on end–he just thinks it is a fun cartoon). He’s done a few phonics worksheets–mostly because he wants worksheets sometimes to feel like he’s doing the same sorts of things our teens are. But we’ve worked on learning to find rhyming words, to identify words that begin with a particular sound, and blending sounds together without worksheets or written lesson plans. The first two skills have been learned mostly through playing the game “I Spy” where I’ll ask him to find something in our view that begins with a certain sound (or I’ll name the letter that it begins with) or that rhymes with a particular letter. We’ve played this off and on a lot–particularly when he’s sitting on the potty and needs entertaining to stay in one spot. He’s grown much better at it and I know this will help immensely when he’s ready to have more formal reading instruction.
As for blending sounds together, the old PBS television show “Between the Lions” has helped tremendously. On that show, they often have two knights or two football players or two characters of some other sort run towards each other, each repeating a particular sound, until they crash into each other and their sounds are blended together. Our little guy loves this segment and lately has been trying to make up his own two sounds and then blend them together into a single sound. I’ve helped him by making up sounds to have him try to blend together. We’ve kept it short and fun. I always try to stop playing the game before he’s had too much of it because I don’t want him to grow tired of it.
My next step will be to start intentionally pointing out a word or two commonly used in the stories I read to him until he gets to know them. I’ll begin with pointing out the letters in the word before saying the word; then I’ll make a game out of having him read the word to me when it comes up again. I’ve found that lots of high fives or other encouragement go a long way in helping this game work well. Once he knows those words well (after working on it for a few days with various books), I’ll add another couple of words into the mix. Eventually, I’ll create a simple tic-tac-toe board with the words he’s learned written on the board, and we’ll play a tic-tac-toe game in which each player has to correctly read the word in order to put a playing piece on a square; this is a fun way to keep practicing the words. A bingo board works well, too, once enough words have been introduced.
We’ll add learning word families–groups of words with letters and sounds in common–rhyming words that have similar spellings such as met, net, and jet–as another game and perhaps even put up flashcards on objects around the house, such as a card with the word “table” on a table, to help him learn more written words.
Then, I’ll likely start some more formal reading curriculum. But only in small doses, not expecting him to sit doing lessons for longer than he’s clearly willing and able to do and trying to keep it light-hearted and fun. Keeping it fun works best, in my opinion, with such little ones. We’ll use little treats at times–stickers, candy, maybe even a little toy every now and then–and lots of giggles and silliness to keep it enjoyable. And he’ll be reading before long and loving it.