Read This! How to get your kids to read at home

Month one: Kindergartners.


It’s back to school! Spiffy outfits, a new backpack, sharpened pencils — the excitement of starting fresh and learning more. There’s nothing like it. So what can you do to help your newborn through high schooler develop a strong, lifelong love of literacy and the skills that go with it? Each month I will share tips and resources, and in honor of the first month of school we’ll start with those bright-eyed kindergartners.

Everything you have said and done with your child up to now has laid the foundation for future learning. But if you’re like many parents, you may be thinking, “I’m not a teacher. I don’t know what else to do.” Guess what? You are a teacher — your child’s first and best. So let’s talk about some of the key activities, or prereading skills, that help a child learn how to read and write. Most everything can be done in playful ways while you’re driving, cooking dinner, or giving your child a bath.

It’s rhyme time … Nothing beats Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, and songs like Twinkle, Twinkle. Read them, clap them, sing them, drum to their beats. Make up sentences, like “The frog sat on the _____.” If your child isn’t sure of the missing rhyme, give suggestions: “Does cat rhyme with frog? How about log?” until he comes up with these on his own.

Wordplay is a hoot! Experiment with changing up sounds in words. Bag, bun, and bat begin with b. Now change the b to another letter, and see how many new and silly words you can make (rag, run, rat;tag, tun, tat, etc.). Remember “Cindy, Cindy bo-bindy, bananafana fo-findy. Fe fi fo-findy. Cindy”? It’s a perfect example of playing with sounds. Try it with your child’s name and the names of everyone in your family. Young children need plentiful opportunities to hear and manipulate letter and syllable sounds.

Now for the alphabet. Plaster your house with letters. Write the alphabet on strips of paper and tape them to a wall, the refrigerator, or a crafts table so your child sees letters everywhere. Put magnetic letters on the fridge. Write letters on index cards to play Concentration (AKA Memory). Make letters with Play-Doh, glue and glitter on paper, dough, finger paint, or anything your child can safely put her hands on and into. Touching, forming and saying letters will deepen her learning. Start with the ones in her name. Sing them, sing the ABC song, make an alphabet book about your child or your family with a photograph or picture on each page.

Next up, writing. Let your child see you write, and ask him for help. Letters to Grandma, shopping lists, menus for a pretend restaurant, or label objects in the house. Can’t read what he wrote? No problem. “What a beautiful shopping list. Would you read it to me, please?” Now your child is making the connection between print and spoken words. He’s on his way!

Words, words, words: Did you know that just by your talking with your child she can learn nearly one thousand new words in a year? So go ahead and narrate your day! Here’s what it might sound like in the supermarket. “Let’s get a carriage to carry our groceries. Would you like to push it? First on our shopping list is pineapple. It’s in the produce aisle.” You might be amazed at fellow shoppers smiling when they hear your child pipe up, “What other produce do we need in this aisle?” The next best word time is when reading books together and telling stories at bedtime or on car rides.

The impact of your involvement in your child’s literacy development cannot be underestimated. Learning to read and write starts well before a child goes to school. Engage in conversation. Model being a patient and active listener, ask open-ended questions, and explain the meaning of new words you use. Write together.

Most important, read to your child 10 to 15 minutes every day, while dinner is cooking, waiting in the doctor’s office, or at bedtime snuggled up together. With him close to you, he experiences reading as a warm, loving, positive thing. Ask him to turn pages, guess what’s going to happen next, finish sentences that rhyme or fill in a word he knows, ask her to point to a letter she’s learning, use silly voices once in a while when reading, and substitute your child’s name for the main character. Learning to read goes well beyond books, too. Street signs, license plates, money, cereal boxes, store signs, food labels, sorting mail — engage your child by reading all around. Look for letters everywhere you go! Let your child see you reading, too!

A few favorite books to share with your new kindergartner are The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, Cool Dog, School Dog by Deborah Heiligman, I Dont Want to Go to School! by Stephanie Blake, Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate, and Kindergarten Rocks! by Katie Davis. Your local librarian is ready and waiting to help you find books for your children.

If you gravitate toward online educational web sites, I always (Between the Lions) for games, stories, and more. While there are a growing number of apps and Internet games marketed as learning tools, remember that there is no substitution for interaction with you. And it’s free!

Children’s author Emilie Buchwald said it all: “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” Happy learning, kindergartners and parents! It’s an exciting and precious journey.

Up next month: Writing the college application essay.

Deb Dunn is a mom and the literacy coordinator at the Marthas Vineyard Public Charter School. She has been teaching for more than 20 years, the past 10 as a reading specialist. Deb welcomes questions and comments at