Christopher's mom was always on the lookout for ways to motivate her son to head upstairs for bed, to change into his pajamas, or just to finish his milk. So she invented a game: "Get on your jammies before I can say, 'ABC.'" It worked; after all, what kid doesn't love to play games? But something interesting happened around the time Christopher turned 5. He turned the tables a bit, telling his mom one night, "See if you can say 'ABC' before I get into bed." Clearly enjoying this game, he went on to say, "See if you can say 'ABCD' before I get in bed."
The next day, Christopher was sitting in the kitchen, drawing and coloring while his mom prepared dinner. Unprompted, he began to write the letters in large print: A, B, C, D. He wrote them once, then twice, then peppered the paper with these letters in many directions. Delighted, he gave the paper to his mother: "I did it! See the letters? I wrote them all by myself."
When children bring reading and writing into their play, it gives us a glimpse into how and when early literacy begins. It can tell us about that moment when reading "clicks" for children. You know when something clicks — suddenly, what was just a jumble in your head comes together and makes perfect sense. That's pretty much what happens when children finally get that letters and words are ways to communicate. They suddenly see those lines and squiggles on the paper as a means of constructing and conveying meaning.
Of course, learning to read and write is a complex undertaking, but the fact is that literacy begins in surprisingly simple ways: pretend play, games, and even drawing. As children play with letters, they are assembling information about them, and slowly building their capacity to read the words that are formed from them. Later, they'll put that knowledge of words together to comprehend sentences and stories. Reading is not just a rote activity, and learning to read is more than a matter of identifying letters, sounds, and words. As children learn to read, they are beginning to understand the amazing power of words to enrich their lives.
The Click Factor
There is no magical age at which reading clicks. What looks like overnight success is actually the end result of a continuous process of gathering and assembling knowledge about language and print, both casually and systematically. Children have listened to stories and conversations, and playfully engaged in rhymes, songs, and wordplay since birth. They've looked at signs in their environment, and have "read" their favorite cereal boxes at the grocery store. These informal, everyday learning experiences enhance the specific instruction — the times you or his day care or preschool teacher has gone over letters and sounds — that helps children become readers.
All these experiences build to the "click" moment when a child realizes that letters are connected to sounds, as Christopher did. It can happen when you two are sitting down and reading, or copying letters. It can happen as he tries to write his name. It can happen when he is trying to give you a special message, like "I love you." But however it happens, something in the child's brain begins to process the idea — which is simple to us, but profound to him — that there is a connection between letters and sounds. This is what's known as the alphabetic principle, and it's the foundation of literacy.
The Journey to Reading
Once your child has made the connection between sounds and letters, she can begin to read some very simple stories. The next step is moving from identifying or sounding out words letter by letter, to recognizing a familiar word instantly and connecting them to the smooth, fluid motion of reading of sentences. The former is called "glued to print"; your child literally has to identify and sound out each letter as she moves along. The latter is called "reading with fluency," and is the wonderful moment when your child can read sentences with greater ease.
How can you nudge this amazing process along, boosting the natural momentum? Formal schooling will take care of a lot of a child's early literacy needs, but don't underestimate the simple things you can do at home, such as reading to him, and reading around him. In fact, it is remarkable how much children can learn, and how hard some children will work to break the code when they see by your example the rewards of reading.
So don't think of yourself as a backup teacher or homework helper. Instead, see yourself as a loving, supportive coach and guide. Have books on hand and at the ready. Pick up books to read yourself. Try to make the experience as natural and everyday as other household activities, rather than putting pressure on it or making it a task. Don't push your child to perform for others if she doesn't seem interested.
Another great way to encourage reading is going to the library. Have you been to the local library lately? Go! Help your child get a library card. Get to know the children's librarian. While you're at the library or bookstore, help your child figure out what books may be most appropriate for his interests and skill level. Show him how you browse titles to find something new to read; if he sees your enthusiasm, he'll begin to love books, too. By sharing your love of books, by helping him find something wonderful to read, and by cheering his efforts to learn, you make it clear that reading matters to you and will make you proud of him.
The single most important thing you can do once reading clicks is to show your child the next step. Continue to read more challenging books to her. Show her what fluent reading looks like. Help her build on her interest in talking and writing about her favorite books. By continuing this exciting journey in print, you are helping her find the path into a rich and rewarding lifetime of reading.