Is your child ready to read?
Should your child be able to read before going to school? Michelle Shaw investigates the importance of pre-reading skills
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Children who can read before going to school are invariably a source of pride to their parents. However, parents whose children cannot read by the time they enter Grade 1 often worry that there may be something wrong. But is this a realistic concern?

Some children are fascinated by letters, sounds and stories, and have very little difficulty developing reading skills. If a child wants to learn to read, then encourage him all the way. But don't pressurise him. Children develop very differently, and putting pressure on a child to read before he's ready can cause anxiety and may even result in a mental block against reading. Learning to read early in life is also not necessarily a sign of intelligence or maturity. Teachers point out that a child may be able to read beautifully, but may be lacking in other areas of development such as motor skills or emotional maturity. And importantly, being able to read does not necessarily mean that a child understands what he's reading.

Experts say what is important however, is that preschool children learn preread skills, which form the foundation that a child needs to be able to read. Preread skills range from training a child's eyes to 'read' from left to right (depending on the language the child is learning), being able to distinguish sounds from one another (that a 'b' and a 'd' sound different, for example) and how books work (that they're divided into chapters, that one starts reading in the top left-hand corner and finishes in the bottom right-hand corner, and then you turn the page). That's where parents can play an important role. Cape Town-based educational psychologist Brenda van Rooyen, stresses however that when it comes to preschoolers, learning needs to be fun above all. 'Preschool children don't need formal teaching. There are many early literacy games that parents can play with their child that encourage an awareness of shapes and sounds, but the emphasis must always be on play.' She also stresses that certain skills are developmental.

'Parents may be concerned because their child seems unable to grasp a particular concept or skill, but that may simply be because the child has yet to reach that stage of development.'

When should I worry?
'Generally speaking, it's very difficult to determine whether a child will have a problem with reading before they enter Grade 1,' says Brenda. 'There are certain warning signs, however, which could indicate a possible problem, such as a family history of learning difficulties (including dyslexia), a child who clearly has a problem with visual or auditory perceptual skills, or a child whose language development is not adequate for his age.' If you are concerned, chat to your child's preschool teacher or take your child for a learning assessment.

What parents can do
The most important thing you can do is to read to and with your children regularly. This will not only nurture their preread skills, but will hopefully also encourage them to develop an interest in and a love for reading.

  • Make reading enjoyable. Cuddle up. Research suggests that having physical contact with your child while you're reading together can help him to develop an emotional bond with reading because he'll associate it with something pleasurable.
  • Ideally, parents should take turns to read to their child so that he sees that both mom and dad enjoy reading. This is particularly important with boys so that they associate their dad with reading too.
  • Read interactively. Ask questions about what you're reading. 'What do you think the little bird is thinking? What do you think will happen to Pooh next?' Allow your child to take the lead though. If you see him becoming irritated with all the questions, rather stop.
  • Start young. It's never too early to start reading to and with your child. There are countless brightly coloured plastic or cloth books for babies, and hardy toddler-proof books ranging in topics from dinosaurs to fairies.
  • Give your child his own bookcase or let him use a low shelf on a family bookcase where he can store his own books to 'read' and look at whenever he wants to.
  • Visit the library regularly and let your child choose his own books. Many libraries are now open in the evenings, which is a great plus for working parents.
  • As you read, follow the words with the tip of your finger so that your child can begin to associate sound and meaning with certain shapes.
  • Ensure that your child has adequate reading and writing materials.

Spark their interest
But what if your child really isn't interested in reading? Tempt him with a Batman or Spider-Man comic book (or a Barbie magazine if you have a girl) and read it together. The combination of spending one-on-one time with you and a favourite comic book hero might just spark his interest.

Take out books from the library on topics that interest your child – whether it's trucks, dinosaurs or other animals. Even though he may not be able to read himself, he'll probably enjoy looking at the pictures and that will expose him to books, the shape of letters and words and, at the very least, the realisation that the words relate to the pictures he's looking at.

Do your children like reading? Do they spend more time with their Wii than Winnie the Pooh?

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