Reading is the single, most important activity for the mind. Brain imaging studies of children show a remarkable correlation between reading exposure prior to kindergarten and a child’s ability to processes stories and predict future reading success.1
There are many reading kits, books and apps out there that guarantee to turn your child into a lean and mean reading machine. But what if I told you that it is a waste of your time and money? I managed to teach my 3 year old how to read in a matter of weeks using scientifically proven brain hacks and a single $18 book. Forget the flash cards, site words and expansive ABC interactive gadgets. Let’s dive right in and learn the 5 steps of teaching a young child how to read in the most effective way.
Why is Reading the Most Important Skill for a Young Child to Learn?
In the United States, children begin learning the ABCs around the age of 4 and transition into reading simple words around the age of 5. Typically, children transition into reading easy books by age 6, and loosing valuable time in shaping the mind at these early ages. What if we could introduce the letters at an earlier time point in a child’s life, while balancing imaginative play and physical activity? These are the secret sauce for the creation of a marvelous brain.
Like a sprouting seed in need for a balanced environment containing water, nutrients and sunlight, the growing brain requires the right conditions to reach optimal development. Capitalizing on the fact that children are naturally curious, why not teach them how to read at a very young age, when their mind is most plastic and adaptable? As the brain matures, exposure to language, rich in complex vocabulary, syntax and intonation, will strengthen the connections in higher order thinking brain centers, thus building a more efficient and intelligent brain.
“Books train your imagination to think BIG.”Taylor Swift
Language in a young kid’s brain is located in the left and right hemispheres, allowing them to soak up information like sponges and learn effectively, an ability diminished with age.2
Mistakingly we deemphasize the importance of academics and promote an unfocused mind, lacking the ability to remain still for short learning intervals. This pattern hurts children as they enter grade school and advance in their learning. A disciplined mind is the key to academic and life success. While play is essential to a growing child’s brain and provides the scaffolding for social, emotional and didactic learning,3 it is time to realize that our children’s immature brains crave additional stimulation to develop to its fullest potential. We can strike a balance between learning and play.
Along with a child’s basic needs for food, water, physical activity, free play and a loving home comes the important need for mental stimulation. We always follow this golden rule in our household: exercise and mental stimulation per day, ensures that we are our best selves in every way!
Reading Transforms the Growing Child’s Brain
One of the most interesting brain imaging study in preschoolers illustrates how reading is incredibly beneficial to the developing brain. Reading is known to integrate spoken language, comprehension and the visual system with higher cognitive functions. In today’s technologically advanced society, what is the impact of screens on the immature brain?
Tackling this important question, researchers compared brain images of 4 year old children who read to those who spent time interacting with screens. The results were astounding! The white matter tracts connecting brain cells (neurons) to one another in a complex system of “highways” formed in a disorganized manner in the preschoolers exposed to 2 hours of screen time (blue brain). In contrast, the children who read with their grown ups at this early developmental age (red brain) had organized and coherent white matter tract patterns.4
The researchers concluded that reading exercises the brain by promoting the healthy development of white matter tracts. Reading is a powerful tool stimulating brain to operate with greater efficiency, similar to a supercomputer. The creation of a coherent and efficient brain through reading will set your child on the fast track to life success.
Preparing for Successful Teaching
Simplicity is the key for getting great results and turning your child into a life-long learner. Curious how my 5 year old can read 3rd grade level books? Read on for insightful brain hacks.
You are your child’s best teacher. We now know that another important aspect of proper development is the interaction between a caring adult and a young child. By spending quality time with your child you are strengthening the social, emotional and cognitive brain networks that underly proper development.
In 2020 my daughter was only 3 years old. The COVID pandemic was spreading rapidly all over the world and all pre-schools were quickly shut down for 6 months in our home state. Quickly scrambling to figure out what to do with her at home for 10+ hours, I had to get creative. So instead of sticking to a set curriculum and purchasing expensive learning materials and the latest apps like some of my friends, I came up with an alternative plan:
- Choose a few subject areas that will be most beneficial for the child, based on their natural curiosity. We chose reading, music and dance to enhance mental, creative and physical development. Take a closer look at the remarkable effects of music and physical activity on the developing brain.
- Establish realistic weekly learning goals. For example: the goal could be learning the alphabet letters using sand paper letter finger tracing, combined with an all out sprint across the floor to arrange them in order.
Prioritize and focus on the most important subjects that you can comfortably teach, relying on your own skill set and expertise. As a neuroscientist mom, I understood the importance of exposing the developing brain to disciplines that turn on multiple brain regions, simultaneously, thus maximizing our learning time together.
My efforts have paid off and my daughter began reading at the early age of 3! I believe that any child can become a reader. All it takes is a patient, loving adult, a nurturing environment, acquiring a few teaching materials mentioned in this article and the mindset of a warrior soldier!
Now that you understand the importance of developing the growing mind through reading, you are ready to get started.
The 5-Step Practical Guide of Turning Your Child into a Reader
Before you begin a learning session, make sure that your child’s brain is primed for learning. Is the child calm and in a positive mood? Did they have a good night’s sleep? Were they active throughout the day and received plenty of fresh air and exercise?
The best learning occurs when the mind is relaxed and receptive to new knowledge. BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is the brain’s natural learning drug. Produced in the brain and elevated during exercise, BDNF enhances learning and the long-term storage of memories by strengthening the connectivity of brain cells to one another.5 Sleep is another powerful tool for optimal learning. Memory consolidation and storage occurs at night during Slow Wave Sleep, in an efficient mechanism integrating and storing the information learned throughout the day.6 Find out more about the transformative effects of sleep on learning during childhood.
Early mornings and mid-late afternoons as the ideal times for working with a young child. It is better to skip a day than to attempt teaching an exhausted or unfocused child. Consistency is the key when it comes to learning any skill. All you need is 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted time per day, dedicated to working with your child. Young children have shorter attention spans. Gradually increase the session’s complexity and duration as the child progresses.
The key to future academic success is to promote the love of learning. Our job as adults is to serve as guides. Encourage your child gently and often, correcting their mistakes by having them repeat any misread word. Your objective is to create an independent thinker and an avid reader, qualities that will set your child on the path to reading mastery.
Wherever your child is on their reading journey, pick up where is most relevant to their learning process.
Follow this 5-step guide to achieving reading success:
1. Learn the ABCs through Song and Play
Daily repetition is essential for success. Take a few minutes to review the ABC song first. Songs are powerful learning tools. The auditory system integrating sound and emotion in a song also activates paralleling verbal memory pathways along the way for a comprehensive learning experience. It is no wonder that musicians are known to have such a superior working memory! Continue with play based learning of the letters through fun games. For example, you can have the child arrange letter cards in order, bring things around the house that begin with a certain letter in the alphabet or match lower and upper case letters together.
2. Engage the Brain through a Multisensory Approach
Recruit and integrate your child’s higher brain centers involved in learning and memory formation by involving all of the 5 senses. Information is encoded in the brain more efficiently and for a longer duration if the senses are integrated during the learning session. The more senses that you can manage to integrate throughout the learning process, the better the results, so go ahead and give it your best creative effort!
- Touch – Tracing alphabet letters in beach sand or store bought corn starch using the fingers. For an enhanced sensory experience, have your child trace sand paper letters.
- Sight – Working with color coded letter consonants (B, G, K, L, M) and vowels (A, E, I, O, U) allows our brains to pay closer attention to the newly presented information that is then transferred to permanent storage with greater ease. This movable wooden alphabet set is perfect for incorporating color into the learning experience.
- Smell and Taste – These two senses have paralleling pathways. You can teach fractions to a child by slicing a delicious pizza in fourths, spray a memory boosting scent in the room such as lavender or rosemary or have your child enjoy a food tasting session while reading the kitchen recipes out loud .
- Hearing – Poems, songs and short stories are powerful teaching tools. This remains as true today as it was hundreds of years ago through through rich story-telling traditions passed on to future generations. Daily reading of stories to your child will help with language pitch, intonation, grammar and vocabulary.
3. Put it all Together with Phonetics
Phonetics, the production of speech sounds, is the foundation to reading. By combining unique letter sounds, you are establishing the prerequisite neural pathways that will translate the formation of sounds into words.
The Alpha-Phonics Primer for Beginning Readers is the only book you need to solidify the connections between the letter sounds and the reading of words. Use this book as a structured curriculum and review the teachers’ guide in the back.
The young child might have a hard time reading many words on the page at once. A trick I use is to cover up the entire page with blank pieces of paper, excluding the word or sentence that the child is reading. Later on, when the brain is more fluent with the reading task, remove the paper and ask the child to place a finger underneath the word as a place keeper.
This is the beginning of early reading. Once your child masters integrating sounds into words, a strong foundation for reading is built, which will strengthen with consistent practice.
4. Dig Out the Baby Books
Begin with simple short stories. Baby board books are great because they are filled with pictures and are composed of fewer words. Have your child read it slowly. Remember, the goal is accuracy over speed, so pause on any challenging words. Make sure your child can pronounce them well before moving on. It is very tempting to intervene and read the challenging word out loud for your child but refrain from doing that. LET THEM STRUGGLE! Struggle is an essential part of the learning process. Only correct them after they attempt reading the word out loud on their own. Then have them repeat the correct pronunciation together with you before moving on. This way you are reinforcing reading accuracy and building vocabulary as you move along. I find that the hardest part for us adults is to hold back and not interfere with the learning process.
5. Daily Reading by a Caring Adult
An accomplished musician learns the language of music by training finger intonation of the correct note, pitch of sound and musical rhythm by training their ear to listen. This engages the auditory cortex, a brain structure dedicated to the integration and processing of sound, including language comprehension. Just like the master musician, your child is absorbing many aspects of language: sentence structure, pitch, rhythm, grammar and new vocabulary. Keep this in mind and make it a daily habit to read to your child. It doesn’t matter what you read as long as it is frequent. In the first 5 years of my daughter’s life, we set a track record of reading every single day from the moment we brought her home!! That is equivalent to 1,825 books!!!
By following the 5-step guide to reading success, you will give your child the most incredible gift – the love of books. You will be amazed at the fast reading progress that your child will be making during daily learning sessions. Creating a multi-sensory learning experience, along with the right learning environment, will allow you both to transition through the process easily and effectively. Your child may become such a proficient reader that one day you might even catch them reading your personal diary!
The marvelous young child’s mind is capable for many incredible feats. It is our mission to bring you the latest science-based research along with tips and tricks that you can apply today to help your child thrive!
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- Hutton et al. Story time turbocharger? Child engagement during shared reading and cerebellar activation and connectivity in preschool-age children listening to stories. PLoS One, 2017. 12(5).
- Olumide A. Olulade et al. The neural basis of language development: Changes in lateralization over age. PNAS, 2020. 117(38): 23477-23483.
- Michael Yogman et al. The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. The American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report. Pediatrics, 2018. 142(3).
- Horowitz-Kraus and John Hutton. Brain connectivity in children is increased by the time they spend reading books and decreased by the length of exposure to screen-based media. Acta Paediatrica, 2017. Vol 107(4): 685-693.
- Carla Cunha et al. A simple role for BDNF in learning and memory? A Review Article. Front. Mol. Neurosci, 2010. 3:1.
- Anna Peiffer et al. The power of children’s sleep – Improved declarative memory consolidation in children compared with adults. Sci. Rep. 2020. 10: 9979.