5 building blocks for early reading

Reading building blocks
How young is too young to start encouraging your budding reader? Emily Guille-Marrett, co-founder of Reading Fairy classes for babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers, shares how to go about it.

Anyone who’s ever sat down to read with a young child will know just how much they love books (often the same one, over and over again!). And encouraging an early passion for reading matters: according to various reports, an enjoyment of reading is more closely linked than family circumstances to academic success.

Yet worryingly, one in five of us don’t spend any time reading with our children, and over half of us spend less than 30 minutes on it per week.

It’s never too early to start building the foundations for a life-long love of reading. In fact, the first three years of a child’s life are critical for language development. Talking, storytelling and reading books to your child will help develop their listening, vocabulary, communication and comprehension skills, instilling an enthusiasm for reading prior to starting school.

Reading can also help to nurture creative and imaginative thinking, relationship building, empathy and acceptance of others, self-confidence, and improve wellbeing, too, so where should you start?

Building block 1: start sharing words – both written and spoken

Between the ages of 18 months and three years, children experience an explosion of new words. Sharing books and traditional nursery rhymes at this stage exposes them to a greater variety of words and a richer vocabulary.

As parents we can start by focusing on the building blocks for reading in the early years. These include speaking and listening lots in everyday life: making sure you ask your child questions that encourage them to respond and learn new words, for example, ‘Would you like an apple or an orange?’ Or for older children, ‘How does it taste? What do you like best?’ 

Sharing songs and rhymes is also a vital building block for learning to read using phonics, which begins at pre-school and Nursery and continues through Reception, Year 1 and Year 2. Nursery rhymes are deliberately structured like mini-stories with a start, middle and end so children can learn the features of these quickly and with ease.

Building block 2: a healthy reading ‘diet’

When we think about reading to our children, many of us automatically think of bedtime stories and fairytales. But it’s important to give your child access to lots of different books from an early age, and to think about reading at home in a wider sense.

Try to ensure you have a supply of books in every room: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and more. You might find that a child who won’t sit still to read a book will listen with enthusiasm to a punchy poem or a short story from a comic, or that reading a story while they’re on the loo keeps their attention.

To keep your child interested, balance books with characters from their favourite TV shows with stories from classic and contemporary picture book authors. Why not visit the local library or arrange a book swap with your friends? Greater exposure to books means as your child grows they will make more independent reading choices.

As you read with your child, they'll begin to learn the conventions of reading such as turning the pages, reading from left to right, understanding the purpose of words and pictures and, later, beginning to recognise letters and sounds in the words on the page.

Building block 3: storytelling

Storytelling is another important step in developing a love of reading. It isn’t the same as reading a book; it’s part of our heritage. People have been telling stories since the beginning of time, passing them on orally from person to person.

Creating your own stories with your child is great fun; it’s quick and easy to do, involves lots of imagination and only needs the two of you to make it happen. It’s ideal on long journeys or in doctors’ waiting rooms when you need to keep your child quietly occupied.

There are lots of ways to do this, such as:

  • Asking your child to come up with an imaginary character to be the star of the story.
  • Taking it in turns to make up one line each, in the style of Consequences, but verbally rather than in writing.
  • Taking the basics of a well-known story and reinventing the ending: what would have happened if the Billy Goats Gruff tried to swim across the river?
  • Writing a story in a notebook, featuring the members of your family. Get your child to illustrate it.

Building block 4: word games

Playing with language will give your child confidence with the spoken word, and will also help them develop an enthusiasm for the varied sounds and structures of the English language.

Traditional word games like I Spy are great for helping children to prepare for reading from a young age: if your child doesn’t yet know their letter sounds, you can spy things of a certain colour, or that make a particular noise. Later, you can progress to spying things beginning with a letter (using the phonic sounds) alongside a little clue if needed.

Building block 5: reading for purpose and pleasure

Children need to understand that reading is for purpose and pleasure. We need to be able to interact with the world around us, reading street signs, shopping lists, products, catalogues, maps, menus etc. But we also benefit from the relaxation and escapism of sitting down with a good book.

You can help your child understand the different ways we use reading by showing them examples. When you go shopping, write a simple list (apples, bread, milk, yoghurt) with a little sketch by each word so your child can ‘read’ the list and help you shop. If you’re travelling somewhere by train or bus, show them the timetable and their outbound and return tickets.

Equally important is for them to see you reading: this provides a great opportunity for them to learn through imitation. Why not introduce a 15-minute slot on a Sunday afternoon where you all sit down with a book? If you usually use a Kindle or other e-reader, make sure your child sees you reading a printed book occasionally, as this relates more closely to their reading experience.

Ensuring our children have exposure to these early building blocks for reading will help to equip them with the skills they need to become intelligent, independent and creative thinkers.

Reading Fairy classes and story events for preschool children are designed to develop crucial building blocks for learning to read and loving books, based on the latest research and best early years practice.