The ultimate goal of reading instruction is to enable children to understand what they read, so reading instruction has to be about more than simply matching letters and sounds -- it also has to be about connecting words and meaning. It is clear from research on emerging literacy that learning to read is a relatively lengthy process that begins very early in development and clearly before children enter formal schooling. Children who receive stimulating literacy experiences from birth onward appear to have an edge when it comes to vocabulary development, understanding the goals of reading, and developing an awareness of print and literacy concepts. Children who are read to frequently at very young ages become exposed in interesting and exciting ways to the sounds of our language, to the concept of rhyming, and to other word and language play activities that serve to provide the foundation for the development of phoneme awareness.
As children are exposed to literacy activities at young ages, they begin to recognize and discriminate letters. Without a doubt, children who have learned to recognize and print most letters as preschoolers will have less to learn upon school entry. The learning of letter names is also important because the names of many letters contain the sounds they most often represent, thus orienting youngsters early to the alphabetic principle or how letters and sounds connect. The earlier you begin working on language with your child -- simply speaking to your child, reading to your child, and then listening and responding to your child's communications -- the better off your child will be when the time comes to learn to ready. Studies show a strong connection between early language development and reading. Language and reading require the same types of sound analysis. The better babies are at distinguishing the building blocks of speech at six months, the better they will be at more complex language skills at two and three years old, and the easier it will be for them at four and five years old to grasp the idea of how sounds link to letters. However preparing your child to become a reader needs to go beyond this to cognitive readiness.
Cognitive readiness is essentially making sure your child has the essential foundations for reading. This includes the development and understanding of language, such as vocabulary, sentence structure, and grammar; but also includes background knowledge and experience. For example, a child can easily make the transition from seeing the neighbor's cat to the parent connecting the word "cat" with the animal. Then later when the child is learning the alphabet and connecting sounds with various letters the cat is again brought into play. Finally, when it is time to begin reading text the child is already well on her way to understanding the written word "cat" through her experience of seeing and hearing it. However children need help learning these concepts. A child will not learn the names, sounds, and shapes of letters simply by being around adults who like to read and who engage in reading. Children learn these concepts when adults take the time and effort to share experiences with oral and written language.
Preparing your child to read must take a step beyond this as well. Children's cognitive skills and knowledge are frequently thought of as core ingredients in the recipe for success in school. Children's language/literacy refers to both their oral communication (language) and understanding of the written word (literacy). The concept of general knowledge refers to children's conceptions and understandings of the world around them. As children enter kindergarten for the first time, they differ in their cognitive skills and knowledge. Studies of first-time kindergartners indicate that children's reading, mathematics, and general knowledge are related to their age as they enter kindergarten, the level of their mother's education, their family type, the primary language spoken in the home, and their race/ethnicity.
The undisputed purpose of learning to read is to comprehend. Even before children can read for themselves, it can help them to build vital background knowledge by having adults read to them interactively and frequently. This means not only is the book or story shared with the child -- but then the reader and the child discuss the book and the world, characters, and events it introduces. It is important for parents who want to build their child's cognitive readiness to actually choose of variety of texts that will expand what their children know about the world around them. Further, comprehension is enhanced through discussion of the text which in turn might lead to seeking out further text on this or related subjects. Effective instruction will help the reader actively relate his or her own knowledge or experience to the ideas written in the text, and then remember the ideas that he or she has come to understand.
Helping your child become cognitively ready for reading will also include giving your child diverse experiences in the world and with events and people so they can make connections between the real world and their reading. This does not have to mean extensive travel or expensive outings. Many times simply taking children to various events and places within your community can provide experience with people of different ages and ethnic backgrounds, for example. Ultimately, children's ability to understand what they are reading is inextricably linked to their background knowledge. Very young children who are provided opportunities to learn, think, and talk about new areas of knowledge will gain much from the reading process. With understanding comes the clear desire to read more and to read frequently, ensuring that reading practice takes place.
Some things you can do to help cognitively prepare your child for reading:
Read new stories and reread old stories every day.
Help extend their experience with the words, language, and ideas in books by interactively reading to them every day.
Relate information in books to other events of interest to children, such as holidays, pets, siblings, and games. Engage children in discussion of the topics.
In both stories and informational texts, encourage wondering. For example, "What will happen next?" or "Have you ever seen someone do that?"
Point out how titles and headings as well as text when you are reading.