Frequently Asked Questions - Reading for Early Readers

The information below has been adapted from Helping with Reading at Home, a SPELD SA information sheet written by Rose Price and Karen Hodson, Adelaide psychologists, and Dyslexia – Action Plans for Successful Learning (2003), by Glynis Hannell. The use of the first person indicates that this is the author’s professional opinion.

How can I tell whether my 4 year old is at risk of reading difficulties? There is a family history of literacy problems. top

Reading and writing are derivatives of speech. Hence key indicators are:

  • a history of speech or language delay
  • difficulty identifying sounds in words and recognising rhyming words (phonological awareness skills)
  • history of recurrent ear infections
  • family history of literacy learning problems

A test of phonological awareness will reveal whether your child’s skills are appropriate for their age. Speech pathologists are the specialists in this field.

Other symptoms include:

  • muddling sounds in words eg ‘hostipal’ for ‘hospital’
  • enjoys being read to but no interest in looking at the words
  • has no interest in being read to (may be described as an ‘outdoor kid’)

For a comprehensive checklist, see How to tell if a young child may be at risk of dyslexia

What can I do to get my child’s reading off to a good start before they go to school? top

Pre-school children.

Read to your child daily top

Spend five minutes a day reading to your child. Short stories, with pictures that your child can look at, are ideal. Make this a relaxing and enjoyable time together. While children may have favourite books you would like to buy, your local library has a wide range of picture books for borrowing.

Read, sing, recite nursery rhymes together top

Nursery rhymes play a vital role in the development of pre-reading skills. Reading and spelling rely on the ability to recognise the sequence of sounds in a word. The use of rhyme (rye/pie and sing/king) and alliteration (sing a song of sixpence) in nursery rhymes focusses attention on the sounds in words. Pre-school children usually enjoy the repetition and word-play in nursery rhymes.

Sing a Song of Sixpence includes both rhyme and alliteration:

Sing a song of sixpence A pocket full of rye Four-and-twenty blackbirds Baked in a pie. When the pie was opened The birds began to sing Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the King!

Google ‘modern nursery rhymes’ for examples of traditional and modern nursery rhymes.

Show your child how books work top

How to hold a book the right way up/open a book/turn the pages/read from left to right/ word by word/ line by line.

If you have the time and want a chuckle, have a look at for an amusing introduction to ‘the book’.

Talk about symbols and words seen regularly in daily life top

This creates an understanding of symbols and words as representing a particular meaning: E.g., traffic signs, shop names, symbols on the doors of public toilets, name tags, product names

Reception children

Continue to read to your child daily top

Play word games that focus on the concept of words and sounds in words. The aim is develop awareness that speech is made up of words and words are made up of sounds. At this stage, work orally.

Word games (in developmental order):
  • Word counting. Say a sentence or phrase and ask your child how many words they hear eg, My dog. A big, red ball. The sea is blue. We went for a swim. They have a big garden. I like chocolate cake. 
  • Tell me the missing word. Say to your child Listen to the words I say: dog, house. Now listen again, tell me the word that is missing, dog (house).
    • Start with two single-syllable words. Gradually increase the number of words and the number of syllables in each word. (Maximum 4 words with maximum total of 6 syllables)
  • Count syllables. There are many ways to count syllables. Syllables can be clapped, tapped on the table… Say to your child We are going to count and clap syllables. Bed has one syllable (clap and say bed), bedroom has two syllables (clap and say the two syllables of bedroom bed/room).
    • Start with single and two-syllable familiar words → maximum four-syllable words
    • Clap the syllables in people’s names
    • Pretend to be robots and talk syllable by syllable
  • Rhyming words.
    • Level 1: continue a sequence eg, bed, head, said (fed, Ned, led, …) Accept rhyming nonsense words.
    • Level 2: Tell me a word that rhymes with run Accept rhyming nonsense words.
  • Play ‘I-Spy’. Start at home with concrete items. Choose three items with different beginning sounds eg, fork, ball, apple. Place the items on a table and say: I spy with my little eye something beginning with /b/ (say the sound of the letter NOT the name). Note. Some children have difficulty with this task. They may have difficulty relating an isolated sound with a sound in a word. They may not grasp the concept of ‘beginning with’. In their efforts to think of a word, they may forget the letter. Don’t let your child struggle. Give reminders and say the sound, immediately followed by the word for each item, as a cue. I spy with my little eye something beginning with /b/. Is it f-fork, b-ball, a-apple?

When playing I-Spy in the car, accept any word that begins with the correct letter. If your child is struggling, give a choice of answers. I spy with my little eye something beginning with /s/. Is it ‘s-sun’ or ‘c-car? Give the answer if they hesitate. It is better for your child to hear the correct answer than to make a wrong guess.

For more word games and the later progression of activities, see Action Plans for Successful Learning by Glynis Hannell, available from the SPELD SA shop.

Teach letter/sound associations top

Ask your child’s teacher which early literacy program they use and learn how it works and what you can do to support your child. Ask the teacher to present a parent session to demonstrate the program. Popular early literacy programs include: Jolly Phonics and Letterland. Different programs present the letters of the alphabet in different sequences.

Research indicates that letter/sound associations (phonics) are best taught as part of a multisensory early literacy program that integrates the teaching of the sounds of the letters, how to blend sounds together to form words and correct letter formation. A multisensory program enables your child to learn through different learning channels (sight, hearing, saying, writing, thinking).

Where do I start? The following skills are in developmental order:

  1. Relating letters to pictures based on the initial sound
  2. Use more than one picture/word for each letter sound so that your child realises that /b/ is for banana, and bed, and boots etc. There are picture books where each page focuses on one beginning sound.
  3. Teach correct letter formation. Teach your child to form letter shapes in the following way:
    1. Introduce the letter and ask your child to provide words which begin with the sound.
    2. Present a large, clear letter on a vertical board and trace the letter, describing the movements aloud as they are made.
    3. Your child traces the letter in the air several times. As they skywrite, watch to see where they start and the direction of their movements.
    4. The use of the whole arm is encouraged as this aids ‘motor memory’.
    5. Your child traces over your model on the board and then copies the letter underneath.
    6. Your child says the sound of the letter before they write it. This helps establish the link between the symbol and its sound.
  4. Children having difficulty may need:
    1. to copy you as you skywrite the letter
    2. you to guide their arm to skywrite the letter
    3. more tracing
    4. their hand guided over the letter on the board
    5. to close their eyes so they concentrate on the motor pattern.

Note: Some students find it helpful to verbalise their movements. Letters can be practised using chalk on a blackboard, Textas or large crayons on newsprint, with a finger in sand, over sandpaper, finger on carpet Is there a special order for teaching the formation of the letters of the alphabet?

For children, learning to write letters for the first time, take the order from that of the program being used for teaching letter sounds at school so your child learns the sound and how to form the letter at the same time.

My child cannot remember which letter is which. What can I do to help? top

Some children have a lot of difficulty remembering letters and their associated sounds. As well as encouraging correct letter formation and saying the sound at the same time (see above), teach letter/sound matching and recognition using the following approach. Adapt the task to ensure success.

The following approach to learning letters and their sounds is in developmental order.

  1. Start with letter matching. You will need two sets of lowercase letters. These can be wooden or plastic, printed on magnetic tiles or written on cards.
    Hold up a letter and say the sound. This is /p/. Find me another /p/. To ensure early success, give only 2 or 3 known letters (that look different) to choose from eg, s, a, p. Gradually, increase the number of letters to choose from.
  2. Letter recognition. Spread up to six of the letters your child knows in front of them and ask them to Find /n/
  3. Saying the sound of the letter. Show your child a single letter and ask What is the sound of this letter?
  4. Writing letters. Ask your child to Write the letter that makes the /m/sound How much practice does my child need?

Some children need a lot of practice to learn new letters and their sounds and repeated revision to remember them. For people without learning difficulties, a rule of thumb for learning a new skill is 100 practices. A person with a learning difficulty may need 10 times more practices for a skill to become automatic.

Blending Activities top

Being able to blend the sounds in words is often a hurdle for students with reading difficulties. Students may be able to give the sounds for the letters but have difficulty blending the sounds together.

Sometimes, they have difficulty remembering all the sounds or remembering the sounds in order.

Sometimes, they can blend the sounds but cannot relate them to a known word.

Pre-schoolers and students who have difficulty working with the sounds in words can benefit from oral practice.

  1. Run the sounds in a 3-letter word eg, m-a-t. Ask your child to listen and say the word.
    Note. A word may be more recognisable if you say the first sound louder than the rest.
  2. Play sound blending games a. Do what I say /s/i/t/, /r/u/n/, /h/o/p/ b. Clap when you hear the name of a toy (or pet or food etc) /c/a/t/, /d/o/g/, /c/ar/
  3. Begin a word and ask your child to complete it with the aid of a picture of the object eg /c/a/…(t)
  4. Sound blend names of objects around the room.
  5. Sound blend words that rhyme with a given word eg What rhymes with /p/e/t/?

My child can read the word elephant but gets short, common words like when, what, where wrong? Why? top

Children can often recognise words like caterpillar, television, electric because they are visually distinctive, they are phonically regular and they carry meaning for a child. We call these words content words.

In contrast, words like then, they, there are visually similar, do not carry a strong meaning and are hard for many children to remember. We call these words process words.

How do I help my child to remember the short, common words that they repeatedly confuse

The following approach to teaching commonly used words is developmental.

Developing sight word knowledge top

Once your child has a firm knowledge of letter/sound associations, they are ready to build up a bank of commonly used words. The Dolch sight word lists include the 220 most frequently used words in children’s books. For a complete list, go to

Note Some of the words have regular spelling patterns and some do not. If the spelling is regular, show your child how to sound it out or divide it into syllables first.

Level 1. Matching words (cards are face up) top

This teaches your child to look carefully at letter patterns.

Choose 3-5 different words and write each word out four times on separate cards. Spread the cards out on the table face up. Choose one word card and show it to your child. Say: This word is “my”. Find another card that says “my”. Hand the card to your child so they have the visual image of the word in front of them. Continue until there are no cards left.

Practice games:

Creating sets Spread the cards used in level 1 on the table. Time your child as they group the words into sets. They need to say each word as they pick it up. Using the same word cards on the following day, spread the cards on the table face up and see if your child can beat yesterday’s time.

Snap for two players Deal 2 cards from each word set (see above) to each player. Shuffle each player’s cards. Players hold their cards face up and take turns to place their top card on the table, saying the word as they put it down. A hand on top of two matching cards indicates SNAP. The person with most matching pairs wins.

Level 2. Matching words (without an example to look at) top

This teaches your child to hold a mental image of a written word.

Choose 3-5 different words and print each word out four times on separate cards. Spread the cards on a table face-up. Choose one word card and show it to your child. Say: Look at this word. It says “my”. Look carefully because I am going to turn it over. Place the word face down and say: Find another card that says “my”. Continue until there are no cards left. If the student has difficulty, return to Level 1.

Practice games:

Snap As above with the cards in each player’s hand face down.

Memory game Spread the cards face down on a table. Take turns to turn over two cards and say the word on each card. The player with most matching pairs wins.

Level 3. Recognising a named word top

This teaches your child to link a written word with a spoken word.

Choose 3-5 different words and write each word on four separate cards. Spread the cards face up on a table. Say: Find me a card that says “my”.

Level 4. Reading words by sight top

This is the most difficult level. Your child is asked to remember how a word ‘looks’ from earlier learning and to name the word.

Choose 3-5 different words and write each word on four separate cards. Spread the cards on a table face up.

Point to the words in turn and say: What does this word say?


Use flash cards and any of the games described above for practice. Revision of all words previously learnt once a week will help your child to remember them. Note. For suggestions on how to teach sentence building using a similar step-by-step approach, see Action Plans for Successful Learning by Glynis Hannell, available from the SPELD SA shop.

My child has difficulty reading many of the words in their reader. I think it may be too hard. What do you suggest? top

I have written a short answer and a longer answer to this question. The short answer follows. For a more detailed response, see Choosing Books for Beginning Readers on the SPELD SA website.

Children need practice reading books they can manage independently.

  1. Choose books where your child is able to read nine out of every ten words. This will encourage fluent reading.
  2. Choose books from a well structured phonic-based reading program, such as the Fitzroy Readers. This will ensure that your child is introduced to new sounds and words in a developmental sequence. The Fitzroy Readers have a controlled vocabulary and each book builds upon the skills learnt in previous stories. They may be found in school and class libraries, your local library, or at SERU, the SA Education Department’s Special Education Resource Unit. SERU supports parents from all school sectors. Fitzroy Readers can also be borrowed from SPELD SA by state members.

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