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10 Rules for Reading Aloud to Preschoolers

Reading bedtime stories the right way is as important as changing diapers.

Reading bedtime stories is as important as changing diapers, but there’s a right way to do it.

Research shows interactions such as reading and talking to your child can lead to a 30 million word advantage by age 3 if you start early—with huge advantages in language and vocabulary development by 18-months of age. [1] [2] Here’s how to get your preschooler ready for kindergarten now, and avoid early literacy catastrophe.

Recently I talked with parents whose 5-year-old had a massive vocabulary and used adult-like language with statements such as “Follow the map if you want to reach your destination!” (They wondered where he learned “destination!”) But the little guy struggled to write his name fluidly; bewailed the fact that he couldn’t read even though he wasn’t being pressured at home; bemoaned early “failures” in kindergarten and expressed negative feelings about school. Reading aloud and talking had not been enough to prepare him for kindergarten in an era of new standards and higher expectations.

To avoid failure in early kindergarten, here are ten reading-aloud tips for parents of preschoolers. Reading aloud is necessary but sometimes not sufficient. To ensure readiness for kindergarten, follow these read aloud tips plus pencil and paper guidelines that lead to amazing results.

10 Rules for Reading Aloud and Kindergarten Readiness

  1. Start early and make reading aloud a daily routine. Just five or ten minutes a day is a reasonable goal. Kids usually want more if you are doing it right. A favorite children’s book should always be within hand’s reach.
  2. Use a technique called dialogue reading that involves talking to your baby or toddler about what you are reading. Explain, explore, point out, elaborate, and make connections. Use both text and illustrations to talk about what’s happening in the story or what’s on the page.
  3. Make the read aloud interactive and fun. Laugh a lot and show emotion. Let your child choose favorite books from a book box. Use animal voices, incorporate actions, engage the senses, point out pictures, close your eyes and imagine, spice up the story or content with feelings.
  4. Celebrate repetition. It’s great if you have read your 3-year-old’s favorite book aloud 300 times. Watch your child leap forward when he or she memory-reads parts of a favorite book back to you—but be patient. If you started at birth or age 1, there’s plenty of time. It’s harder to start in the “terrible 2’s” or with 3’s when your child desires more independence. If you are starting with a 4- or 5-year-old, spend more time.
  5. When you read aloud slide your pointer finger under the words from left to right as you read with fluency using somewhat exaggerated expression. Finger-point reading helps your child’s eyes and brain make the voice-to-print match. That’s important.
  6. Use flash cards and labels for focusing attention on words. Point out “Stop” signs when you take a walk and other familiar words in your child’s environment. (People who stigmatize flash cards and picture cards for concept development and word games are mistaken. Don’t listen to them. Everyone knows that “drill and kill” with anything is wrong for preschoolers.) Label and read around the room with words like bed, Mom (on Mom’s photo), Dad (on Dad’s photo), red (on red things), box, and the like. Post your child’s name everywhere and on every piece of art.

    When you make home-made label books, read them over and over. Label books can be about body parts, family members, zoo animals, birds, farm animals, trucks, flowers, cats, dogs, community helpers, snakes, insects, tools, frogs—anything your child is interested in or wants to collect. Start out with one word and picture on a page. Use photos or invite older preschoolers draw the illustrations.

  7. Start pencil and paper activity early with baby-safe markers and watch scribbling and random marks emerge into drawing pictures and writing. Remember, kids want to write. Teach lowercase letters first. Trace your child’s name over and over sometimes with your hand gliding and guiding over hers to help her get the feel for the correct strokes. Make it fun. Practice letters in sand, on the fogged-up glass in the shower, on a paper mat at the restaurant, in the snow, wherever you are.
  8. Talk about words and teach your child to sound them out. Focus on two- and three-letter words with a clear letter-sound match. In repeated readings of favorite books call attention to a few easy regular high-frequency words. For example, model how to “chop-chop-chop and swish” the word bus when you read “the wheels on the bus go round and round.” To do this, your child will extend the left arm and use the right hand to karate chop the /b/ at the shoulder, the /ŭ/ at the bend in the elbow, and the /s/ on the left hand. The “swish” is a quick right-hand motion from the left shoulder to the bend in the left elbow to left hand as you blend the sounds to make the word /bŭs/ with the swish. (Vice versa if your child is left-handed.) Start by modeling with your arm; next it’s your child’s turn. After modeling with bus, chop-chop swish us (two sounds) with the /ŭ/ at the shoulder and the /s/ at the bend in the elbow.

    Chop-chop-swish makes it easy for kids to read lots of high-frequency 2- and 3-leter words such as up, in, if, cat, mom, and dad. This is a great way to show kids how decoding and phonics work. Your child can even use chop-chop-swish syllable-by-syllable in names like Ke-vin and words like oc-to-pus.

    [To watch a kindergartner demonstrate chop-chop-chop-swish, click on the link at the end of this post.]

  9. Teach the sounds first—not the name of the letter. That is to say, teach the symbol b as /b/ not /bee/). Tell your child that a letter (and later, a combination of letters) is a “picture” of a sound.
  10. Cuddle a lot. Being the first reading teacher is all about bonding. Remember to smile, laugh, and look forward to this time with your child. Don’t think of it as a lesson. Stop when your child is not interested. Use digital devices and digital screen-based literacy interactively with your child. Digital and screen devices are OK in short doses when used interactively; they often enhance the child’s literacy engagement. Good-quality literacy apps for kids will be transformative. Remember, this is the 21st century and technology is a part of your child’s world. [3]

Send this post to parents (and teachers) you know who have a preschooler. Let’s get kids ready for success with reading and writing in kindergarten.

[Click here to see a smart kindergarten reader demonstrate chop-chop-chop swish for sounding out words: ]

[1] Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1996) Meaningful Differences in Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Brookes.

[2] Fernald A, Marchman V., & Weisleder A. (2013) SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science, March 2013;16(2):234-48. doi: 10.1111/desc.12019. Epub 2012 Dec 8.

[3] Gentry, J. R. (2010) Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach your Child to Read and Write—From Baby to Age 7. New York: Da Cappo Press.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.