Q&A: teaching a preschooler how to read

Danielle writes:

"I know you touched on this briefly in a previous post, but I'm very interested in finding out more about how to best teach my daughter how to read. Actually, I really want to know how to teach her babysitter how to teach her to read.

Dylan, my daughter, is 4.5 years old. She is very stubborn and very opinionated. While we have a great relationship, I am the first to admit that it is often hard for me to sit down with her and calmly show her something. We end up bickering, and nothing gets accomplished. Plus, I've found that she is much more willing to listen to adults who aren't me. (Are all kids that way?)

Long story short, we have hired a full-time babysitter to watch Dylan and her baby brother this summer while I am at work. She is starting in July. In the mornings, she will be taking the kids on adventures to the pool, the park, the library, etc. In the afternoon, she will be hanging with them at the house so that the baby can take his long afternoon nap. I thought it might be nice for Dylan to spend maybe 1/2 hour a day working on her reading with the sitter (who has a degree in education) while the baby naps. She knows her alphabet, can write every letter, and knows the sound that every letter makes. She is very interested in reading and has told me that she would like to work on her reading with the sitter. Are there any books that you would recommend I pick up that they could use for their lessons? I thought she might like to have a little workbook of her own. She is very enamored of binders (she calls them her "folder work"), so printouts that I can hole punch would be great as well."

The previous post Danielle is referring to is this links roundup with a link to a PDF on Synthetic Phonics, a new way of teaching phonics from Scotland that seems to be more successsful than regular phonics teaching, especially with boys.

I don't have any specific recommendation for books for your babysitter to use with your daughter. But I asked my mom, who is a former second grade teacher and reading specialist (including working with remedial reading and kids with learning disabilities back before anyone knew anything about learning disabilities). This is what she said about teaching preschool kids to read:

1) Separate the reading from the writing. Kids this age don't always have the manual dexterity to write well, and they don't need to write to be able to read. So work on the reading and if she's able to write well she'll start doing it on her own anyway.

2) Use manipulables instead of worksheets and books. The most entertaining and simple manipulables are letter blocks, magnetic letters that you can do on the refrigerator or a file cabinet or just on a table or floor (you might have to buy 2-3 sets to get enough letters to make the words you want to spell), and sidewalk chalk.

3) Let your daughter type words on the computer. (We do this by putting on Word, then setting the font size to 26 or 28 and turning on bold. We used to put on Caps Lock until we move on to lowercase letters, too. When I was a preschooler and learning to read my mom let me type letter by letter on her manual typewriter.) This is also a way to let a kid "write" who doesn't have the physical ability to write, or to write quickly enough to get his or her thoughts down.

4) The best texts for reading are the things your daughter sees every day--cereal boxes, signs, all the words that are at her level.

5) Make sure to emphasize phonetically regular words so that she starts to internalize the rules.

6) Don't forget to cover vowel and consonant clusters as well as the 26 letters. If you start out teaching that "th" makes the th sound, for example, you won't have to have her struggle through sounding out t and then h and then having it not be the correct sound.

What my mom emphasized most is "It needs to be a game. If you push what the child is ready for you'll only end up frustrating you both." In her experience, kids who had reading problems later on were usually the kids who were pushed to read before it really clicked in their heads. It sounds like Dylan is totally ready for it, but your babysitter should be alert to make sure she lets Dylan take the lead and backs off if she's tired or distracted or just not into it that day.