PREPARING FOR SCHOOL

Read with your child

Is your child starting school for the first time next week? In a new series, The Straits Times shows you five things you can do to make his or her transition a smooth one.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 30, 2013. 

FOR years now, there has been disagreement on what is the best way to teach children to read.

It is one of the most hotly debated areas in education, dubbed by some as The Reading Wars.

At issue are two dramatically different teaching methods.

First is the older way, termed phonics. It teaches children to sound out letters so that they can make words. For example, using the letters "p" and "h" together make the sound of the letter "f", as in the word "graph".

Second is the whole-language approach where children read books for the story and construct meaning from what they read.

The latest thinking is that both these approaches are not incompatible.

Reading experts, such as Harvard professor Catherine Snow, who led a study of children's reading problems recommend that teachers and parents take the best of phonics and whole-language approaches to teach children reading.

This has been called "balanced instruction".

The practices of good readers bear this out, where they first use rapid and automatic word recognition, then phonics for words that they do not know.

Finally, they use the context to figure out the words that they cannot get from the first two steps.

What parents can do

READ to, and with, your child.

Being read to develops language and vocabulary and also develops children's ability for storytelling and re-telling.

But experts suggest that reading sessions must be interactive.

For younger children, this means developing their phonemic awareness - the sounds in words - through books such as Dr Seuss.

For older children, stop halfway through the story and ask them to predict what might happen.

In the early stages of reading, parents should not focus too much on accuracy.

Instil the joy of reading first, then gradually build up the technical side.

Choose books that have an appropriate level of difficulty.

An easy way to do this is to use the "Five-Finger Rule". Have your child open the book to any page and read it. Each time he comes to a word he does not know, he should hold up one finger.

If he gets to five fingers before finishing the page, the book is too hard. If he does not hold up any fingers, it is too easy. If he holds up two or three fingers, the book is likely to be a good fit.

The books should also have high phonemic capacity and play with a diversity of sounds that help develop a child's phonemic awareness. An engaging story that arouses curiosity and stimulates the imagination of the child helps.

Reading with your child will also help you spot any reading difficulties, such as reversing letters or words frequently.

Lastly, bear in mind poor reading can be due to a host of other reasons such as poor eyesight or hearing problems.

There are several websites that give tips on how to get your child to read, including www.greatschools.org and www.bookitprogram.com

sandra@sph.com.sg