Toddler holding a book and reading

How to help children learn to read

We all know that language is a powerful tool that humanity came up with. And it's pretty easy to understand how children learn to speak. We talk to them; they listen to songs and TV shows; they babble to their peers and observe the world around them. 

But what's the science behind reading? 

If you find yourself Googling "when should children start to read" too often, you might want to dig deeper. It's essential to understand when it's beneficial for a child to start reading and how to help them. 

Experts say that there is no such thing as a standard readiness to start reading. Some children are ready to read in first or second grade, and some start way earlier, at 3-4. 

AnnMarie Sossong, a reading specialist at Ocala Preparatory Academy in Florida, says she has worked with both cases. "By age 12 or 13, they are reading at the same level, which seems counter-intuitive, but it is not. When they are ready, they are ready, and everything clicks," she added.

When do children usually learn to read?

Kids develop reading skills at different paces. Here's how experts usually describe the stages of learning how to read:

  • Toddlers (ages 2-3) start repeating the words they hear in TV shows and the words they see in their favorite books. They start associating pictures with words (here's where the flashcards work the best); 
  • Preschoolers (ages 3-4) can already recognize the letters of the alphabet. It's a perfect time to teach them nursery rhymes. 
  • Kindergarten students (ages 4-5) start learning phonics. At this point, children start recognizing words without having to sound them out. 
  • School students (ages 6-7) mostly can already repeat words, recognize letters and read simple sentences. 

Although this stage list sounds and feels familiar for most of us, remember that not every child develops the same way. Don't worry if your baby takes a little bit longer to learn how to read. 

How do kids learn to read?

To understand how children learn to read, we need to understand what reading is. 

One theory suggests that reading is a natural process, similar to speaking. We know that if we talk to our children regularly, they can gradually develop their language skills. This theory implies that if you surround children with books they will eventually learn to read. 

But that's just a theory. 

According to research, "reading is a cognitive process that involves decoding symbols to arrive at meaning. It's an active process of constructing meanings of words."

Reading is written code with combinations of letters representing certain sounds. It means that if we can teach our children to "decipher the code," they can learn to read and understand sentences. 

So how do children learn to read? 

There are two general methods for teaching kids to read:

  1. We emphasize the word and its usage in the sentence. This way, we can teach kids the meaning of the word. 
  2. We teach kids phonics and what sound represents what letter. It is a way of "decoding" the word. 

Teachers usually use the combination of both methods. That's why we often come across flashcards, phonics lessons, nursery rhymes, and reading sessions while teaching children to read. 

How can parents help children learn to read

You can help your child learn to read or improve their reading skills by implementing certain habits and sessions in their routine

  • Schedule regular reading sessions with your toddler - Read to your child, repeat words, point at the pictures, and let them repeat the words they hear. It's also a good idea to let them hold the book and give them a chance to participate in the reading session as much as possible. Experts suggest keeping reading to your children, even after they can read themselves.  
  • Play language and phonics games - Create a fun environment where the stress of learning a new thing doesn't bother your toddler. To become a reader, children need to have phonemic awareness. So play the games that involve voicing out the words they hear and the names of the objects they see. 
  • Let your child read out loud to you - This will help them understand the content of the text. By engaging your child more in the reading process, you can also help them broaden their vocabulary. 
  • Put sticky notes on objects in the house with the corresponding words written on them - This is a simple trick many adults use to learn a foreign language. It will help children to start identifying objects with their names and their representing "code" of letters. 

Why sometimes kids may struggle to learn how to read

Learning how to read is a lengthy process with many milestones. It can be a challenging task for children. Give them time and enough support to improve their reading skills. 

Be aware of little signs kids display when they have a tough time understanding how language works. They might avoid doing their homework or say they don't want to go to school. They'll need a little extra support to keep on learning. 

If you think your child is having a hard time, look into the reasons why children struggle with reading


Remember that learning to read is a process, and it happens over time. Surround your children with books and language learning games, and support them as much as you can.