Thinking like Your Early Reader
Hooray, you’ve got an early reader on your hands! Watching your child start sounding out words and putting together sentences is such a joy. And with that joy can come a host of other feelings: amusement, pride, confusion, frustration—and a lot of curiosity.
Why does my child have the letter “d” down cold one day, then mix it up with “b” the next?
How did they figure out that word?!
Why do they keep trying to guess words that make no sense?
Why do they act like reading is torture?
Why do they want to read the same books over and over?
Why do they ask for help but bristle when I actually try to help them?
The start of the answer to all these questions is that learning to read is really complicated. It’s not a natural process like learning to walk and talk. And this is a double-edged sword for parents of young readers. Reading is a skill that requires infinitely more direct instruction than many other life skills, and every single literate adult has forgotten what learning to read feels like.
We All Forgot What Learning to Read Feels Like
Seriously. Learning to read literally changes your brain. And once you can read, you can never go back. So, let’s take a moment to appreciate what your brain learned to do decades ago and what’s going on in your child’s left hemisphere right now:
The brain is working hard at connecting the sound processing and image recognition abilities it naturally had at birth with to the phonological assembly region (aka the Pareto-Temporal Region) using super cool neural pathways called white matter tracts in a triangulated superhighway. This is how we all learn to convert visual input (letters) into audio output (sounds and words).
And here’s the kicker: once those white matter tracts are nice and strong, reading becomes second nature. So, it’s really hard for fully literate adults to understand the struggles of their early readers. And add to this tricky dynamic, most parents—even the most voracious readers among us—didn’t have great reading instruction ourselves.
We All Got Pretty Patchy Reading Instruction
I can’t actually take you back in time to experience your actual early reader brain, but here are a few questions to get you in the right mindset. I’ll start you off easy:
What sound does the letter S make?
But what about in words like toys, his, or reserve?
So, if we have Z to make the zzzz sound, why don’t we just use that for toyz, hiz, and rezerve? (Side note: what is that E doing at the end of reserve?)
And if we have S to make the ssss sound, why does C sometimes make that sound, like in city or notice?
And if C usually says the same sound as K, why do we even need the letter C?
And what the heck is going on with using C and K together in words like back, rock, and tick?
Maybe, like me, you didn't get the most complete reading instruction as a child. You were left to (hopefully) fill in the gaps in your phonics, morphology, and etymology instruction through intuition, experience, and memorization.
Only when our children ask us something like “Why is there an ‘e’ at the end of ‘give”?” do we get a reminder of how often we had to “make do” with a part of written English that we never really understood. And you can’t teach what you yourself never learned.
We All Assume Learning to Read Is Straightforward
Written English is complex, with numerous rules, patterns, and contexts your child has to keep straight in order to read and spell. And as children go from very simple reading rules to more complicated ones—say, reading two-syllable words instead of just one-syllable words—they often take some time to apply familiar skills to harder texts.
Fortunately, there exists a perfect analogy to help us adults relate to this process: driving a manual car versus an automatic transmission.
If you’re like me and got to experience the thrill of learning to drive stick after years of exclusively using an automatic car, you know exactly how much you can suddenly forget about driving just by adding in a clutch and a few more gears to choose from.
While having lots of experience driving meant I picked up using a stick shift somewhat easily, I still am not confident driving one in traffic or stopping at an uphill intersection. But if I suddenly only had the option to drive a stick shift, I’d quickly overcome these issues with practice.
And that’s about what it feels like for young readers for about two to three years–except learning to read is way more of a cognitive challenge than learning to drive. So even though sitting through countless literary stall-outs with your child can get tiresome, the more you practice with them, the sooner they’ll be cruising through harder and harder texts.
A Little Sympathy Goes a Long Way
Now that you have a newfound appreciation for how hard a young reader’s brain is working, this next statement will probably go down easier:
Most parents give their children texts that are too hard at home.
Imagine if all you were allowed to read at home were medical journals, law books, or HTML coding manuals. And someone forced you to do it every day. You’d come to hate reading time pretty quickly.
See where I’m going here?
One of the best things you can do for your child is to balance the challenging reading material they’re getting during instructional hours with books that seem almost “too easy.” It helps them focus on other skills like reading fluency and comprehension. Plus, it builds their confidence.
If your child is struggling with more than a couple of words per page, that’s a strong sign the book is too hard. And if your child is a very early reader, their reading vocabulary is so small that they’ll almost always require help on the first couple of reads.
But you don’t have to become an English orthography expert to bring your A-game to your child’s reading practice. Simply showing sympathy and patience when your young reader runs into trouble goes a long way to help keep both of your calm and make reading a positive experience.
Even if you don’t know that the reason there is an “e” at the end of “reserve” and “give” is because English words do not end in I, U, J, or V (I promise, that’s the actual reason), you can still help your child by saying something like:
“This is a tricky part, and it takes lots of practice. One day, you’ll be able to do this without even thinking about the rules, but for now, I’m here to help. Now let’s look at this word together…”
We Are All Natural-Born Learners
You were born learning. And so was your child. In fact, all children start learning the language of their biological mothers in the womb. You can’t stop your remarkable kiddo from learning, but too often, the act of learning how to read gets soured somewhere along the way.
As tempting as it is to start playing the blame game for why and how learning to read can become such a fraught experience for so many children, the reality is that’s a waste of time for us at this point… because you’ve already got an early reader on your hands! And these years, the crucial ones where they develop their foundational reading skills and their attitudes toward reading, are going to fly by.
So, my last piece of “professional advice” is simply encouragement: you’ve helped your child acquire every other life skill up until now. Sure, reading is more complicated than learning to walk or talk. But just like you’ve learned about every milestone through your child’s years, you’ll learn how to be a fantastic reading support for your child through a combination of study, experience, and curiosity.
And if you show up and present yourself as your child’s partner in learning to read, they will be excited to learn with you—just like they have since the day they were born.
If you just read all this and your reaction was, “Well, that was a fun read, but unless this Lauren lady can come to my house and work with my child and me, I’m not sure this will work,” I have happy news! I put all my reading knowledge and teaching experience into Ello, the first-of-its-kind hybrid of a leveled book subscription and an AI reading coaching app.
Whether you’re concerned about your child’s reading growth, have a child with a learning difference, or just want to nurture a love of reading in your child… Ello uses evidence-based, research-proven reading instruction and motivation to help your child become a confident, independent reader.
And if you’d like to learn more about “Thinking Like an Early Reader” or Ello, you’re cordially invited to attend my Colearn presentation on Thursday, September 1st, or watch the recording anytime.
More about our featured blog writer: Lauren Sittel has been teaching and tutoring in the reading field since 2004 and has worked with students from preschool through college. She has a B.A. in English from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, and her M.S. in Education with an emphasis in Reading Instruction from California State University, Fullerton. Lauren has training in the Orton-Gillingham method of instruction and is actively involved in the Science of Reading movement so that all children, including those of diverse backgrounds and neurologies, can become strong, motivated readers.