If you’ve ever wondered how to teach someone to read, whether you’re a parent, aftercare teacher, babysitter, or even an older sibling, this is the post for you. While you could spend years getting your bachelor’s, master’s, or even Ph.D in reading instruction—you really don’t need that just to teach someone how to read.
Certainly, formal instruction in the practice and theory of teaching reading have value when it comes to planning curriculum, instructing large groups, or training at scale. However, for the everyday Joe or Jane looking for how to teach someone to read, the steps that follow should allow you to make plenty of progress.
Now, anyone—child or adult—is going to have a hard time learning how to read if they don’t know the basic building blocks of words: the alphabet. There are plenty of great and engaging videos on the market that disguise learning the alphabet as part of an entertaining story. A great one, for example, is The Letter Factory.
Young kids will get hooked, and they naturally love to watch the same familiar videos over and over again, so if you find one they enjoy they will practically learn the alphabet by themselves very quickly. It’s a great way to incorporate reading for kindergarten age kids or younger.
But, if you looking for how to teach someone to read that is a little older, or if your kids don’t take to learning by video, here are some tried and true methods of teaching someone to read the alphabet.
Start by teaching the alphabet song. Even for older learners, song is one of the best ways to learn. They’ll quickly memorize the words, and if you accompany singing with gesturing to large print-outs of the actual letters, your learners will know how to recognize the alphabet in no time.
But you don’t want their understanding of the alphabet to be tied strictly to song, so eventually you’ll have to start teaching them to recognize letters individually. A great way to do this is with letter flash cards. Simply hold a letter up and ask the learner to identify the letter. If they get it correct, put it aside. If they get it incorrect, provide the right answer and shuffle it back into the deck.
Another more spontaneous way to reinforce letters is to read aloud to your learner and ask them to identify a few letters here and there. This will begin pairing letters with sounds in context so that they start understanding how the alphabet serves as the foundation of words.
Once your learner has got the basics down and can identify all of the letters on sight, it’s time to start teaching them how to identify the sounds that letters make. As students begin to understand what sounds the alphabet makes, they are achieving what we call phonemic awareness.
Start by teaching very basic and easily recognizable sounds for each letter:
As you provide examples of what each letter says, you should ask the learner to come up with their own examples as well: “The T says ‘t’ as in Train and Tiger. Can you think of a few other words that start with T?”
For vowels, start with the most common sounds and slowly introduce other variations. For example, the A makes a different sound in “apple” than it does in “ate”. The O is short in “octopus” but long in “nose”. Follow this same process for consonants that have hard and soft forms, such as G in giraffe versus goat. Another example is C, which makes a hard sound in “cake” but a soft sound in “city”.
Once they’ve got the hang of the basic letter sounds, begin to introduce digraphs (consonant combinations), like th, ch, sh, and st. Teach these in the same way as the letters, explaining that some consonants combine to make new sounds.
Just like when you were showing them how to identify letters, you can begin to quiz them on letter sounds as you read a book together.
Eventually, if you want to learn how to teach someone to read, you’ll have to move on from letters to words. With the sounds of letters mastered (or at least understood at a basic level), you can begin teaching simple, one-syllable words.
Start with very easy words that sandwich a single vowel between two consonants, such as SIT, CAT, and RED. Ask the student to identify each sound made by each letter in order. Then, have them try to put the sounds together. It’s a good idea to instruct words in groups that let you swap out the middle vowel.
For example, ask the student first to sound out BAT, then BIT, then BOT, then BET, then BUT. This will build their confidence because they will quickly recognize that words constructed in similar ways make similar sounds.
Begin reading books that have interesting stories or rhyme (or both!) using very simple words. Dr. Seuss is best known for these sorts of books, which have delighted budding readers for decades. As you read, allow the learner to sound out words here and there, particularly on the second part of a rhyme, as this will help them to predict what is meant to come next. One of the most important lessons in how to teach someone to read is finding ways like this to let them become independent readers.
Sight words are commonly used words that all readers should be able to identify on sight without sounding out. Words such as THE, TOO, and TIME are all examples of sight words. Sight words often break the common conventions of pronunciation (such as TWO and FRIEND), so they are extra important to memorize on sight.
The best way to learn sight words is to drill them with flash cards and read, read, and read some more! Most children’s books are filled with sight words. If you trace your finger along the words as you read aloud to your learner, they will slowly but surely begin to pick up on the most common sight words.
Being able to sound out words in a slow, choppy manner is one thing. Being able to pick up any book and read it smoothly is another. If you don’t know how to teach someone to read fluently, you can’t say you know how to teach them to read at all.
The most important skills to teaching reading fluency are repetition and encouragement. Have your student read the same books over and over again. If it is your child, buy them a series of their favorite books (Elephant and Piggy are great for this purpose!), and leave them strewn around the house. By reading the same books over and over again, your reader will gain confidence in their abilities and begin to be able to comprehend words very quickly.
As far as encouragement goes, be sure to celebrate every success and don’t put too much pressure on the setbacks. Learning to read takes time, so avoid anything that would make your student think they are too slow or aren’t good enough.
A love of lifelong reading is about the best thing teachers and parents can pass on to the next generation. The final aspect of how to teach someone to read is encouraging them to keep it up forever. Buy them books, take them to the library, read in front of them, and scatter the home or classroom with books (no matter how much mess it makes). Do whatever you can to show them that a love of reading is nothing to be embarrassed about.
Check out the reading program that is teaching children to read as young as two years old!
Check out the reading program that is teaching children to read as young as two years old!Learn More
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