Children begin their literacy development at an early age. In fact, language acquisition, an important precursor for learning how to read, begins for babies in utero. Therefore, it’s never too early to teach your children reading skills. To teach your child to read, it helps to know the process of how children learn to read as well as the necessary phonemic awareness skills they need to acquire before they can learn to read successfully. There are many great programs, online tools, and apps that can help your child build essential phonological awareness and phonics skills, as well as programs that can help strengthen reading skills for students who are already reading, or to help a child who is struggling with reading. Knowing what to look for in a program will help you choose one that will best help your child with their reading needs.
How Children Learn to Read
When children can recognize and repeat letter sounds and words, they begin developing phonemic awareness. Children need to first learn that words have meaning. Then they learn that words are made up of letters. Once children learn the ABCs, they then can be taught that letters (or graphemes) are written symbols for sounds (phonemes). This is essential for learning to decode. But phonemic awareness and phonics, or applying letter-sound relationships to sounding out words, are only two components of learning to read. Another component is recognizing sight words, or the most common words that occur frequently in text, many of which are irregular. In addition to having a strong sight word vocabulary and decoding unknown words, good readers also use picture and context clues to derive meaning from text. Being exposed to new words and building background knowledge also helps build a student’s vocabulary, and this helps with reading comprehension. Another important component of reading is oral reading fluency. The more fluent a reader is, the better able they are to understand what they are reading. The five components, or pillars, of reading, as identified by the National Reading Panel – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension – are essential for becoming a successful reader and should be part of any good learning reading program.
Phonemic Awareness and Phonics Skills
Phonemic awareness and phonics are both necessary steps to learning how to read and are often interchanged, but they are not the same thing. Phonemic awareness is auditory and focuses on the sounds in words. It is being able to identify, isolate, and interchange the sounds in spoken words. This is an essential step before phonics instruction can begin. Having a strong grasp of phonemic awareness will lead to greater success with reading fluently and being able to spell. Phonics instruction is both auditory and visual. It is being able to match the sounds to the letters, or combination of letters, to blend them into words. This is an important step for decoding, or sounding out words. Both phonemic awareness and phonics instruction are necessary to help kids learn to read and should be part of any good reading program.
What to Look for in a Reading Program
Now that you know the process that children go through as they learn to read and the components of reading that should be taught, here are some other features to look for in a quality reading program:
- Systematic Instruction: When selecting a program to help children with reading skills, it’s important to find one that matches their level and needs. Learning to read is a continuum, and children go through five stages of reading development on their way to becoming expert readers. Look for a program that matches the stage of reading your child is in and helps them move systematically to the next level.
- Engaging: No matter how instructionally rigorous a program is, it isn’t going to benefit your child if it’s not interesting. A great reading program for your child will be one that is both meaningful and fun for them to undertake. Ideally the program will also offer fun ways for your child to track their own progress and keep them motivated.
- Developed by Experts: There are a multitude of programs that are available to help children practice reading skills in isolation, but not all of them have merit. A quality reading program is one that is developed with the help of professional educators, researchers, and learning designers who know how children learn to read and how best to teach this process.
- Research-based: As educators and scientists learn more about how the brain works, they better understand how kids best learn to read. The best reading programs are ones that are backed by science and are based on proven educational practices for teaching children how to read.
- Affordable: Because of the number of easily available (and oftentimes free,) online reading programs and reading apps to teach your kids phonics, phonemic awareness, spelling, and other reading skills, there is no reason to break the bank when choosing quality programs or reading apps for kids. Knowing what to look for, it’s easy to find a program or app that is within budget to help your child with their reading needs.
Helping Struggling Readers
Many educational apps and reading programs are designed for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergartners to teach phonemic awareness, phonics, and other pre-reading skills. But what about older kids who struggle with these foundational skills? For these students, you want a program that emphasizes the core components of reading, but that is not geared toward young children. If you want to help a school-aged child with reading skills, look for intervention programs that are specifically designed for struggling readers. Whether or not a child has dyslexia— a disorder that involves difficulty in learning to read—or any other reading disability, the strategies for working with students with reading difficulties are often the same. The Dyslexia Help website offers great resources and a list of programs that can help these readers. Another site that lists useful apps to support older kids with reading disabilities is The Literacy Nest. For tools for struggling readers, check out Really Great Reading. If you have questions about your adolescent child’s reading, you can ask an expert through AdLit. And for a library of literacy apps to help struggling readers of all ages, check out this list from Reading Rockets. It’s important to be optimistic with a child struggling to read: difficulties learning to read are common, but most children can become great readers with early, quality intervention.