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Teaching Your Child to Read: A Parent's Guide

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Easy tools to help your child learn how to read by our Literacy Experts

How do you best support your little one with their early literacy? We ask our Literacy Experts from SailAway Reading.

Your little one may be interested in reading, letters, sounds and books...or they may not. If your little one is starting school this year, you may be keen to give them some tools to help that transition. In this article, our Literacy Experts share some practical, research-informed information and child-friendly tools that you can use at home to help establish the foundations for reading with your child.

Why is reading important for children?

Let's begin with some information about the how of reading, specifically, what is happening in our brains as we learn to read. One of the world's foremost experts in reading, Professor Stanislas Dehaene, a French neuroscientist and author of the book "Reading in the Brain", has some answers.

We will simplify and summarise some of his findings here:

Reading is first, recognising the letters and how they combine into written words. Second, the task is connecting them to brain systems for coding speech sounds and establishing meaning. Our brains are changed by reading!

There is a lightning-fast and highly complex process occurring in a number of regions of the brain when a child is reading. Dehaene's research also shows that the brain itself is changed by learning to read:

The first significant change shows that there are areas of the brain that are dormant until a learner is learning to read; these areas require activation.

Naturally developed, highly sophisticated brain areas include the visual and spoken language systems. These systems are already in place for most human beings. Therefore, it is crucial to create a connection between these already developed areas and the area that Professor Dehaene calls the letterbox" because it is where we store our knowledge of letters.

Predictors of learning to read

It is widely understood that the predictors of learning to read in young children are: how well they know phonics - the understanding of the sound systems of language, and how large the size of their spoken vocabulary is. If they know a large number of words, they will learn to read faster.

How to teach a child to read with vocabulary building

As parents ourselves, we know that finding ways to connect with and support our kids while making it fun, and engaging and avoiding it becoming all too 'teacherey' is key to maximising learning. Here are some low-cost, high impact strategies:

Let's start with helping to build vocabulary.

Children's educational games for vocabulary building

Library Visit

We can build vocabulary by exposing children to LOTS of books ranging in topic, areas of interest and writing styles. Books provide words children may not encounter in everyday conversations because the language of books is often more complete and formal than when we are talking.

Head to the library and borrow a variety of books. Think rhyming, short stories, information texts, and nonfiction books (flick to the back to find the glossary!) and picture books with beautiful illustrations because they never fail to get kids talking!

Out and About

Plan a trip to the museum, zoo, botanical gardens or local historical site. Here you will encounter tons of information, markers and signs. If you take the time to read the information with your child, you can help clarify word meanings while connecting the meaning to what they are seeing. Make it playful by choosing a word, using it in a sentence and asking for an opposite word or another word with a similar meaning.

Here is an example of how you might practice expanding your vocabulary: You visit a coastal place on the holidays and decide to check out the lighthouse. You and your child read some information on a sign and you help them with a word they don't yet know, for example, beacon.

Word to explore: beacon

Sentence: This lighthouse is huge! The light is a beacon for ships at night.

Similar meaning: a warning signal

Opposite meaning: a dark shadow

If your child doesn't want to have the conversation then and there, keep the

word up your sleeve for a chat later on.

How to teach Phonics

So, how should we help our children with the phonics aspect of skilled reading? There are a few considerations to this, and as teachers, we have many explicit educational tools we use when working with children. However, we want to provide families with games and activities that are easily understood and implemented.

We teach letter sounds first to avoid some common confusions that children experience if they have learned to recite the alphabet. We know that having both letter names and sounds is important, but the evidence shows that sounds first are an advantage.

Muffin Tin Animals

Place some animal figurines in a muffin tin.

Ask your child to pick one. Either you or they say the name of the animal, try

and stretch out the first sound.

For example, say "sssssnake". Ask them to listen carefully for the first sound. Then you can show them what the letter looks like by writing it down or showing it on a flashcard. Once they have learned a few of the letters, you may want to add a few flashcards for them to pick from when listening to the sound.

Other sounds that can be stretched out are f, l, m, n , r, s, v, z (these sounds are known as continuant sounds), we suggested starting with these. Fffffffish, rrrrrabbit, lllllion etc.

Sand Play

At the beach, you say a sound and your child finds something beginning with that sound. For example, you say /s/, and they find seaweed, you say /l/, and they spot a lifeguard. If they have already learned how to read and spell some letters and sounds, they can have a go at writing the symbol in the sand. If not, you can show them.

Children who already know lots of letters and sounds can have more challenging sounds like /sh/ for shell. You might ask them to tell you all the sounds in the word boa; then they can spell those sounds: /b/oa/t.

Sound I Spy

In this game you pick something that you see and don't tell the child what it is. The child has to guess using the sound given to them. "I spy something beginning with the sound /b/".

They guess things they can spy beginning with this, bat, ball. For an extra challenge, you might offer an end sound. "I spy something ending with the sound /k/". They guess socks, book, bike etc. These are a small selection of games that support the evidence-based idea that children building sound knowledge and a broad vocabulary will enhance their ability to learn to read.

Our Literacy Experts wrote this article they provide the SailAway Readers preschool classes are dedicated to supporting children to learn letter sounds, build vocabulary and oral language, phonological awareness skills, further develop social and emotional skills and

enhance fine motor control for handwriting. When children are confident

in these areas, their transition to school is smoother.

For primary school learners, we run after-school sessions that follow an evidence-based approach to supporting children to read, write and spell.

For more information, visit our socials @sailawayreaders or

For more expert articles, guides, videos and demonstrations, purchase our Parenting Portal, or learn more by booking one of our upcoming parental education masterclasses.

Mother teaching child how read with literacy education, vocabulary and phonics


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