Developing early reading skills



We all know how important reading is for children. But reading with comprehension does not start in Grade R or 1 when your child is first introduced to phonics.  By investing in the foundation of your child’s pre-reading skills you will enhance their reading skills and other aspects of their development.

Here are Educational Psychologist Marinda Botha’s top tips on how to focus on the first five years of your child’s life in order to prepare them for reading skills.  She also provides practical activities that can be adapted according to your child’s age.

1. Develop strong eye muscles. Your child’s eye muscles should be strong in order to move from left to right on a page in a fluent manner.
Use mobiles to stimulate your baby’s eye movement. Make sure their eyes follow objects from left to right, up and down and further and nearer from them in order to develop their focus. Make eye contact, show them real life objects to explore and give names to what they see.

2. Encourage rich language development. Your child’s brain is at a sensitive age for language development up until the age of six, with emphasis on the first two years of their lives. Instead of baby language, rather use descriptive language and the correct grammar and pronunciation. Teach your child your mother tongue, since this is the only language you will really ever speak perfectly.

Read stories, sing songs and learn rhymes. Describe the pictures and situations in the books; explain the context and why something is happening, point out the sequence of events. For example, the sun in this picture is round and yellow. Focus their attention on the sun’s smile and ask why they think the sun might be smiling. Maybe the sun is feeling happy. Why do you think he is so happy?

3. Develop good listening skills. Listen to different sounds and try to identify them. Try to determine how far away they are, in which direction they are moving and if things sound the same or different.

4. Broaden general knowledge. Having a broad understanding of the world around them, improves a child’s understanding and interpretation of text. If a child has a good general knowledge, their reading comprehension will automatically be better when they start to read.  Reading fluently does not mean that your child understands what they are reading. The focus must thus be more on the understanding of contexts, situations and in the end then texts.

Tell them about the world. Take a walk and talk about what you see and always explain how something fits into the bigger picture. Tell them about world events, read different texts to them, let them listen to the wisdom their grandparents have to share while sitting on their laps.

5. Encourage curiosity. Inquisitive children learn and read better. Raise your child with the awareness of how and why things work.
Answer all of their relentless ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions with detail and patience. Challenge them to think about your answer and to add their own interpretation.

6. Recall knowledge and attach meaning to something.
Ask your children to retell a story or event. Ask them about their day and how they felt when something happened, why they think someone did something in a certain way and what that could mean. As a bonus your child will feel that you are interested in them and that they are important to you.

7. Predicting the meaning. Logic reasoning and providing meaning from what they already know.
Read the name of a story or the heading of an article and ask your child what they think it is about. Then read the story and see which parts of the story line they could predict. Discuss why certain things in the story happened and what could’ve happened differently.

8. Encourage physical development. Get your child to move and develop physically from a very young age. A strong core and strong muscles support proper body posture and eye stability, which is very important for smooth eye muscle movement and reading.

Don’t put your baby into contraptions that restrict their movement. Floor time on their backs and tummies, fighting gravity and strengthening their muscles are the most beneficial form of physical stimulation. Get your child to climb jungle gyms, play hopscotch, run around outside and push them like a wheel barrow holding them by the knees and letting them walk on their hands.

9. Don’t pressure them into early reading without having an understanding of phonetics and without having the physical abilities that ate needed. Research shows that doing this through things like flash cards and other formal strategies, could in fact have a negative impact on reading comprehension later on.

Rather read to them and make it a positive experience. You can point to the words when you read to give your child the understanding that the letters they are seeing carries meaning when grouped together.

Include different senses when reading to them. Children learn better when more than one sense is engaged.

Books with textures that children can feel excite them and include another one of their sense in the process. You can also, for example, make them smell the tomatoes in the kitchen after you read about tomatoes in a story.

Do not use the television as a baby sitter. Children learn when you help them to attach meaning to something. Although you get educational programmes and DVDs, nothing compares to the real life interaction.

Let them choose a book in the book store or library that they would like. You might also want to read more about library vs digital reading. Be the role model and show them that you enjoy books and written texts in various formats.

TOP TIP: When you spell a word to a child in the early reading stage, don’t use the alphabet name for the letter, rather sound it out phonetically. This promotes phonological awareness and understanding.

Download our reading logs, under downloads on the right top hand side of this page, to help your child track their progress.



Please share your tips about reading or engaging your child in pleasurable story time.