My wife and I have been reading to our 6-year-old son Oliver ever since he was born. This tends not to surprise anyone. As a neuropsychologist, I think about and evaluate children’s reading on a daily basis—and so, in many ways, I’ve always been set up for reading with my son. But being a neuropsychologist hasn’t made Oliver’s language and reading development any less remarkable to me. It’s one thing to assess children’s reading. It’s another thing entirely to help your child, every day of his life, play with the sounds of language, grapple with the alphabet, decode words on a page, and gradually, word by word and week by week, learn to read with greater speed, efficiency, comprehension, and feeling.
I want to tell you about my son’s reading process—what it has looked like from my perspective as both dad and neuropsychologist—to bring alive the idea that reading happens in stages. There’s a continuum, we say, in neuropsychology. Kids learn to play with the sounds of language, and then they layer on the tasks of talking and reading. They learn to relate sounds to visual symbols. They listen and hear, look and see, play and practice.
Here is a glimpse of my journey with Oliver—mixed with what I know about how children begin to read.
Ba, Ba, Ba, Ba, Ba
We started with simple, colorful books, some with only pictures or pages with one word. My wife and I watched Oliver looking—at a picture of a crab, for example, or the word “ball.” Even when he just put a book in his mouth, we could see that he was stimulated. He was engaging with a book in a way that he could.
Parents ask me all the time, “Should I read with my baby?” I tell them it’s good for our babies to see books and hear words. It’s important that we speak to them and give them attention as they start making sounds. It’s not that I’m an advocate for pushing kids to be precocious. I’m not saying, “Oh, it’s good idea to read to babies because that will lead to early reading.” I don’t think a child needs to read before starting school. What I’m endorsing is exposing kids to written language—having fun with something that will ultimately be very important.
Everything our kids do with the sounds of language sets the stage for speaking—and later, learning to read.
Coo, Babble, First Word, Two Words, 400 Words, 10,000 Words
In my work life, I often ask parents about milestones in language development. “How is your child speaking?” I ask the parents of a 1-year-old, 2-year-old, 4-year-old. “Does she say hello? Does she wave goodbye?”
We know that normally developing kids reach certain milestones.
They “coo” around 2 months.
They babble around 4 months.
They say their first word around 12 months.
They put two words together by 24 months.
They know 400 words by 2 ½ years old.
They know 10,000 words by 6 years old.
Oliver’s first word was “fish.” I can’t remember whether he was looking at a fish tank or the television. What I do remember, though, is how quickly that first word led to another and another.
Book, Cook, Look, Took…
Oliver, of course, is the new reader in our family, but when I think about rhyming and alliteration—an essential precursor to speech—his 3-year-old sister Sadie comes to mind. My daughter Sadie is fascinated with rhymes and rhyming. Whenever she hears words rhyming, she says, “That’s a rhyme, Daddy.” And she tries to come up with her own. Sometimes her words are real; other times they’re nonsense. What matters, in this case, is that she can point out rhymes and generate rhymes.
If a child is developing language normally, he or she will start shaping sounds into words around two and three years old. In neuropsychology, we call this “developing phonological awareness.” Slowly but surely, kids learn how sounds make up words. They learn that sticks and circles mean something, and that you can decode them.
A child’s phonological awareness at 2 and 3 years old provides important clues to how he or she will read at later stages of development.
Sticks, Dots & Circles
Most kids learn the alphabet around 3 years old. Some learn it earlier, of course, but they don’t necessarily learn it correctly. L-M-N-O-P is always a challenge. Kids want to say L-N-M or M-N-O-it’s just hard getting the sequence of sounds down. “X” and “S” can also be trouble. Kids tend to say S twice.
And then there’s the song. Oliver got the letters and the tune down before his fourth birthday. Sadie, who is 3 years and 3 months, can sing all the letters, but she still stumbles on the second half of the song. She sings, “Now I know my ABCs…” And she’s says, “What’s next, Daddy?”
The Rules of Language
When a child learns a new word, he or she is actually learning a rule of language—a rule that can be applied to other new words.
Think, for a moment, about past-tense verbs—the “how” and “when” of adding an “-ed” to different words. I remember Oliver learning to do this, and sometimes, in the beginning, he made mistakes. He might have said, “I runned,” for example. It wasn’t that someone had said “I runned” to him. He was simply applying a rule that had worked with other verbs: walked, jumped, played, cheered.
Most children fumble but eventually master the rules of language.
And the key to mastering the rules is this: readiness.
The human brain has to be ready. Certain things must be in place neurologically, cognitively, and socially.
Linking Sounds & Symbols
Oliver began making sound-symbol associations around 4 years old. He was in pre-kindergarten, and his teacher had sent him home with a book called Dad.
Dad was a book that Oliver could read—without actually knowing howto read. There was a picture of Dad running on one of the first pages, and then the words, “Dad is running.” On another page, Dad was sleeping; there was a picture of Dad sleeping, and then the words, “Dad is sleeping.” That was the format of the entire book.
Dad. So when he saw a “D” on page after page, he began to recognize the “D” in Dad. Pretty soon he knew, without even thinking about it, what the sound of “Dad” looked like.
This was really the beginning of his phonological awareness, his understanding of how the sounds of language relate to symbols on a page.
This was also his first experience reading without adult help.
Linking Sounds & Syllables
Oliver had a classmate named Maroon. He and Maroon were in Kindergarten together, and one day their teacher said to the class: “Okay, how many word parts are in Maroon?” All the kids sounded it out: Ma–roon. “Two syllables in Maroon,” the teacher said. She was showing them how to break down one word into smaller word parts.
Next, she wrote Maroon’s name on the board and said, “Look, there are two word parts in Maroon, but how many sound parts?” All the kids made sounds: mah-ar-oo-nuh. They were breaking Maroon’s name down further, learning the sounds that single letters make as well as the sounds combinations of letters make.
I tell this story because one day Oliver came home from school and, when he saw the word “moon” on a magazine or advertisement, he casually read the word aloud to his mom and me. Just like that, he said, “moon.” We were really surprised. We said, “Oliver, how do you know that word says moon?” And he said, “Because my friend at school is named Maroon, and his name makes the “oo” sound, too.”
If you want to teach a child sound-symbol associations, you have to make it interesting. Oliver and his classmates cared about names. Maroon was their friend. So Oliver learned Maroon’s name—and after that, he was reading “moon,” “zoo,” “food,” “too,” and so on.
Kids start pseudo-reading spontaneously. They want to do what they’ve seen other kids doing. They want to be involved, so to speak, and so they do what they can.
In my work, I meet kids who are master memorizers—the trickiest of pseudo-readers—and they can be very, very funny. Imagine watching a little girl “read” three-quarters of a book—but then, suddenly, you realize she isn’t reading at all. It could be that she is a page off, looking at one page and saying the words that appear somewhere else. Or it could be that you’ve introduced a new book and she doesn’t know how to start.
Parents often think that their kids are reading, but their kids are actually memorizing. I’ve watched Oliver fly through books, pretending to read, and then I’ve seen Sadie memorize books in order to “read” like Oliver. At least, I think, Sadie is very motivated to read.
Neuropsychologists often make reference to the “see-it-say-it loop” in a child’s brain. This means that, as a parent, I imagine an image or word or object comes in through Oliver’s eyes, wraps around his brain, and then comes out through his mouth. He wasn’t born with this capacity, but I know it’s developing.
And why does it matter?
He can’t take three seconds to think of the name of each object he sees. Object after object, word after word—he’d never learn to be an adequate reader if that was the speed at which he saw words and said them.
His “see-it-say-it loop” must to be developed, along with his phonological awareness. This happens gradually—on a continuum. As with every other part of a child’s development, there’s no “on” switch.
Trial & Error Decoding →→→ Narrative Skills
Kids must learn to decode words. Once they can decode words efficiently, they can devote more mental energy to comprehending stories and paying attention to narrative, word choices, grammar, and all the richness of language.
Each night before bedtime, Oliver reads a book to his mom and me, and then we read a book to him. We take turns because, when Oliver is reading to us, he’s exerting an incredible amount of mental energy to decode or sound out all the new words he encounters. He gets exhausted, not quickly, but after concentrating very intensely for ten or fifteen minutes. Some nights he says, “I just can’t read anymore.” And that’s totally reasonable. As he gets older, this will all get easier.
Another thing we do sometimes is have Oliver read a page, and then we read that same page back to him. This way he can relax, look at pictures, and take in the story. When he’s spending so much energy decoding words, his comprehension can sometimes go by the wayside. So even if he reads a page perfectly, he usually likes to hear his mom and me read it again—so he can think about the meaning.
Here’s what to remember: learning to read involves tremendous concentration.
Watching Oliver read has really deepened my understanding of the challenges faced by kids who have attention problems. Oliver has good concentration and attention for his age, and yet it can be very difficult for him to focus for an extended period of time. He has shown me how important it is to be able to put forth sustained mental effort—I mean, if you want to read. And I know he does.
As parents, we have to be patient, and understand that none of this is easy. Reading is wonderfully rewarding, but it’s a hard-won skill.