Should I Teach My Preschool Child to Read?

The problem of whether or not to teach preschoolers and kindergartners to read has always been a hotly contested issue. My personal feeling on the subject is that young children should learn anything they want to learn. If that includes reading and math, teach it to them. If it doesn’t, wait. When you set out to raise a reader, you often–but not always–wind up with an early reader.

My own children did learn reading and math quite early. It meant they were bored in school or had to go to a higher grade for those subjects until we started homeschooling. However, despite the fact that everyone said they would level out in second grade and be the same as everyone else, they didn’t. They were always far ahead of their peers. I didn’t level out either when I learned to read early.

The only important issues to consider are your child’s interest in learning and your ability to teach without pressure. If you can make it fun and not obsess over it or judge his IQ by how he learns, there is no danger in teaching a child to read.

How to teach a preschooler to read

That said, don’t spend too much time on it. We spent fifteen minutes a day on reading and another fifteen on math, not back to back. And we didn’t do it every day. I asked if the child wanted a lesson and acted accordingly. Sometimes they asked me, instead.

Avoid worksheets with preschoolers unless they like them, which some children do. You can also take worksheets and make them more hands-on. Writing is hard for children. We used cards for the numbers and signs (ordinary index cards with a number on one side, and simple pictures on the other). The children laid out the math problems using these and small toys to illustrate the problem.

Reading was done gently. We sat cuddled together somewhere cozy to read from books. We also played games with the flashcards. For instance, my mother used to layout my flashcards in a wavy line. We had a picture of me at one end and a picture of my grandmother at the other. Then I tried to travel to visit my grandmother by getting all the cards right. There wasn’t any pressure. If I got a word wrong, my mother just told me what it was and moved it a few cards down (swapping with another card) so I’d get another chance in a few minutes.

There are plenty of programs available to teach your child, but I used a pre-primer from the 1940s to teach my children. Preschoolers don’t find those stories corny at all. Dick, Jane and Sally’s books are available in reprints. They’re based on sight-reading, so you’ll have to supplement to teach phonics. We did phonics very informally as we learned new words.

Whether or not a child learns academics early has nothing to do with how smart he is. Very intelligent children sometimes have no interest in early academics or may prefer one subject to another. It’s really a personality and interest issue.

If your child can speak in complete, reasonably grammatical sentences and has a good vocabulary, can match, and knows colors and shapes, he can probably start learning to read and do the math–if he wants to.

Raising Readers

It’s getting harder and harder to convince a child reading is essential. Toys talk, television is educational, and computers have voice recognition software. Audiobooks make it possible to get a good story even if you’re an adult. Despite this, children need to learn to read. More importantly, they need to be passionate about reading. This is best done at home by the parents.

When I was learning to read, my mom printed pictures of everyone in the family–even the dragon. Then she made cards with our names on them. I tried to put the right names under each picture. Sometimes we did it with real people–I gave each person his own name card. One time Mommy gave everyone the wrong name and I had to fix it. My brother got the dragon’s name! I wanted to make him keep it, but my daddy talked me into making it right.

Setting a Good Example

The very first step is always an example. Your children need to see the people they love and look up to reading, and not just when they have to. They might get annoyed if you won’t stop and play with them until you reach the end of your chapter, but they will store away in their minds the idea that something in that dull-looking book of yours is extremely fun. Make sure you read for fun and make sure your children know it’s fun. Talk about your reading. Make comments about how much you love going to the library. Reward yourself with reading time, and let the kids hear you promise yourself reading as a treat for good behavior.

Make storytime important

Then make reading equally exciting for them. Reward them with storytime as well. Instead of saying, “If you pick up your blocks, I’ll give you a cookie,” promise them a story instead. Announce storytime with a joyful, excited voice. Make outings to libraries and bookstores major events to be looked forward to and even celebrated.

Of course, the most important thing is to read to your children. We start reading to ours in the hospital the day they’re born. Until they were old enough to stop wanting storytime, they never knew a day without it. Since I didn’t know when they’d start being aware of the fact that I was reading to them, I started at birth so I wouldn’t miss the magic moment. Make storytime magic. Make it as cozy and memorable as you can and try to create some storytime traditions—reading wrapped in a blanket in the winter, and under a tree in the summer, for instance. Make sure a substantial part of your reading is of print books. Children must grow up seeing print books as cozy and comforting, something they want to hand down to their children. You won’t be able to hand down your ebook to a grandchild–assuming the technology to read that particular book still exists. Children need to live in a home overflowing with print books. Ebooks are fine, but I personally wouldn’t introduce them until a child is passionate about the feel and smell of a real book.

Extend the books. After reading a book about an old-fashioned taffy pull, have one of your own. Make puppets and do a puppet show of the story. Hate the ending? Change it! The more time you spend with the book, the more your child will love it and associate it with good memories.

When can you introduce reading?

Start introducing reading long before your child is ready to read. Label bedroom doors with the names of occupants. Point to words you encounter. Write simple lists. Anything that introduces a child to words is good. In my church class, we have a word of the day. I write a keyword from the lesson on my whiteboard, one letter at a time. Those who know letters call them out as I write. Then I tell them the word and set it up in the classroom. Throughout the lesson, I ask them what it says. Sometimes I send the word home with them. I don’t expect them to really learn to read the word—although some do—they are being introduced to the concept in a non-threatening way. This also allows you to discover when they are ready, a time that is different for each child. Remember early academics aren’t bad for children if the children want to learn it and the learning method is fun.