If I Read Aloud to My Children, Can I Be Sure They Will Be Good Readers?

Common knowledge dictates that reading aloud to our children helps them become good readers. So, one might ask why some children struggle even when their parents have been reading to them since birth.

Interesting question. It turns out that reading aloud to young children is a necessary but not sufficient activity when building proficient readers (Seidenberg, 2017, Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t and what can be done about it, 114). In other words, reading aloud is important - and it helps - but it will not do the job alone.

Learning to read is very different from learning to speak. Babies learn to speak when surrounded by people speaking. They spend months listening to the words that others are saying. They start babbling and then gradually make sounds that have meaning: Mama! Bah-bah! No! Bye-bye! Nigh-nigh! As they grow, they combine words into phrases, and sentences: Go bye-bye! Want bottle! No go night-night! We teach our children the names of things, but we don’t actually teach them how to speak.

Reading is different. You can surround most children with books and read aloud to them daily without having them actually learn to read. Why? Because most children must be taught to read. Reading aloud can instill a love of books, introduce children to new ideas and places, increase their vocabulary, and help them begin to experiment with manipulating sounds through hearing rhymes and alliterations. It can help them begin to associate the printed letters on a page with the words that come out of someone’s mouth. So, read aloud – it’s a great start. But don’t stop there.

There are many other concepts and skills that children need to become proficient readers. Acquiring these skills requires direct and explicit instruction for most children. And while schools are expected to teach children to read, many parents want to support that effort and do everything they can to raise a skilled reader. Here are some tips for parents with young children (4 years through second grade) and/or older ones who are struggling (third and fourth grade).

Help your child get to know the correct sounds associated with each letter. Use this helpful link to be sure that your child is saying the sounds correctly:

Be sure your child can name the letter that comes before and after each letter without having to go back to the beginning of the alphabet and say/sing it. You can make this a table game with a set of alphabet tiles or magnetic letters. Scramble them and pick one out. See if your child can name the letter that comes immediately before and after it. Then let him/her pick one out and you do it. Or, if your child is action-oriented, play the game while playing catch. The one throwing the ball selects the letter. Use your imagination and make up your own game – the important point is to familiarize your child with the order of the letters and make it fun.

Play sound and word games. Read The Alphabetic Principle: every child needs this insight to be able to read for some links to quick and effective games that can be done in short periods of time.

Give your child opportunities to read aloud. It doesn’t always have to be a book. Words are everywhere. Most children know the sounds of individual letters by early first grade. They should be able to start decoding and blending for simple consonant-vowel-consonant words such as cap, hot, mad, and cat. Maybe your child likes to cook and can read parts of the recipe. Or simple directions to a game. Or a sign.

Talk about what is read. Whether you are reading to your child or your child is reading to you, take a few minutes to discuss the story. Ask questions. Can your child describe what the story was about? Can he/she relate the events in order? Does he/she know who the characters are? What is the point of the story? Is there anything in the story that is meaningful in his/her life?

Work with your child’s interests. Use your child’s interests as a guide for discretionary reading. One child I work with loves sports and sports statistics. Our read aloud time incorporated opportunities for picking out an athlete in a sports statistics book. After reading it aloud, we’d discuss it.

Communicate with your child’s teacher. Even if your child is doing well, it is helpful to have a good, ongoing relationship with his/her teacher. I was never satisfied with "He/She is doing fine!" because my experience in life taught me that this type of status can change very quickly. I wanted to know what my child was learning so I could monitor their progress. If you notice that your child is having difficulty with a concept, ask how you can help him/her at home.