At the time of this post, a quick Google search showed 388,000,000 search results for teach my baby to read. If you change my baby to first grader, you’ll find fewer than 12,000,000 results.
Websites and books promise that you can get your baby to read following a simple formula, and a now-out-of-business reading company promised that your baby would learn to read in just a matter of months if you reached deep into your pockets for their program, of course. The-earlier-the-better mindset has firmly taken hold in the world of reading instruction. But what some people tend to ignore is that children need to develop specific skill sets before learning to read.
When a young adult goes to college, he or she typically has to take prerequisites before beginning their course of study. Pushing students into a biology major without the prerequisite science courses can lead to confusion and failure to succeed. This is the same with reading instruction. If we push our children to read when they are too young and not developmentally ready, the learning to read process will take much longer, can lead to confusion, and it might even make children dislike reading. Some studies even suggest long-term behavioral and development issues when children are pushed into academics too soon.
The beautiful thing about homeschooling is that WE get to decide when our children are ready to learn to read. This is not an age milestone, but a developmental one. Long before we teach our children to read, we can prepare them for reading in simple, playful ways. Here are five things your child should do before learning to read.
1. Play Outside
On average, kids of today spend far less time in nature than children of past generations. With this deficiency of Vitamin N (as author Richard Louv coined it), comes differences in child development. Skills that children used to develop while playing outside just aren’t being developed anymore. Outdoor play helps children strengthen their vision in ways that are necessary for reading. When they balance their bodies on a wobbly log or a play set, their eyes learn how to track from side to side, which is crucial for reading.One study found a correlation between balance problems and reading problems.
Children who play outside are better able to focus their eyes, because they shift their vision from things in the distance to up-close objects. Staying inside the majority of the day forces children to look at things up-close all day, which can lead to near-sightedness. Because people in general are indoors much more than people in previous generations, near-sightedness has become much more prevalent.
Vision isn’t the only necessary reading component that outdoor time produces. Children can develop their attention spans by observing things in nature, and improve their body’s ability to pay attention by increasing core strength. Before learning to read, your child needs to be able to sit up straight without slumping over!
If these reasons aren’t enough to convince you that outdoor time is crucial for your young child, you can find 101 more reasons from Blossom and Root here.
2. Explore Language
One of the strangest things about this teach your baby to read movement is that babies have very limited language development. Language is a key function in literacy. If you open up a book about nuclear fission, there’s a good chance that you won’t understand much of it (unless you are a nuclear physicist)! In the same way, a child needs to know about 90% of the words on a page to make meaning of them. Before learning to read, help your child develop a rich vocabulary. You can do this by reading good books to him or her daily. Books that are a little above their comprehension level are good, as long as they can understand them enough to have it still be interesting!
Read nursery rhymes and sing songs. Rhyming is one of three crucial early literacy skills that children should develop through experimenting with language. Rhyming words teach children to listen to the sounds in each word, and also sets them up to understand word families in the future.
When your child starts to grow curious about words, play with the sounds you hear. Say each sound out loud and notice which letter sounds words start with. This helps children develop phonemic awareness, another necessary skill that needs to come before learning to read.
3. Play With Letters
Playfully introducing letters before your child officially begins reading instruction is an important and fun way to prepare your child for reading. The key is to give plenty of time for this so that your child doesn’t feel pressured. Have a box of letters available for your child to explore, complete alphabet puzzles, and notice letters in books and print around you. Approaching letters this way instead of a high-pressured approach will help your child’s interest grow naturally. (You can find my Charlotte Mason approach to introducing letters and their sounds here.)
4. Do Hard Things
Help your child learn that he or she can do hard things. Instead of saying, “I can’t do that,” encourage them to change their thoughts to, “I can’t do that yet.” Showing a growth mindset like this will help them persevere through hard things like learning to read without quitting and getting overly frustrated. A growth mindset believes that it’s possible to learn and grow, while a fixed mindset thinks that learning is a you either have it or you don’t sort of thing.
5. Have Free Time
Before dedicating lots of time to teaching your child how to read, allow him or her to have freedom to play and even to be bored. So often we’re tempted to fill up every minute of our child’s time with activities that will help them learn. But, children learn naturally through every single moment of the day. Allow them to have a vintage preschool experience, filled with play and real-life activities. When you run errands and chat with the grocery store cashier, your child is learning language and social skills. When your child is at home and feeling bored, he or she has the opportunity to practice creative skills.
There’s no denying that literacy is important for children. But a well-balanced childhood means gradually building up the skills that are necessary for reading, and not rushing them through the beautiful stage of emergent literacy.