There are many steps to becoming an independent reader - one who can pronounce an unfamiliar printed word or get its meaning in other ways. Some of these steps can be taken during the preschool years. Children who have had these prereading experiences are usually ready for the teacher's regular instruction in reading.
Some definite suggestions for parents have been given by Paul McKee. These, he insists should be carried out in a game atmosphere - no pushing, no shoving, no staying at it until the child becomes bored or restless or inattentive.
1. Practice in guessing the word from the sentence in which it occurs. The mother would say, "Teddy, I'm going to say something to you and leave off the last word. See if you can tell me what the word might be." Then, keeping busy with her housework, she would give him sentences such as:
"I'm washing the dishes with hot ___."
"Let's put the clothes out in the sun to ___."
"It's time to give Spot his ___."
She would accept any word that makes sense - not require him to give the exact word she was thinking of. In the last sentence, she may have been thinking of "dinner", but if Teddy said "bone", that was a sensible answer, too.
This game directs the child's attention to the meaning of a word in a sentence. Later, in school, his first step in getting the meaning of a printed word he does not know will be to inquire what the context seems to demand.
2. Practice in distinguishing the initial sounds of words. During the preschool years there is plenty of time to learn them gradually, one at a time. Key words for each sound help the child to remember them:
b as in ball j - jump, etc.
c - come ch - chilly
d - daddy sh - show
f - fun wh - what
g - go th - thumb, and so on.
h - help
This exercise is oral. No printed words or letters are shown. The child sees small objects or pictures of things. Those that begin with the same consonant sound may be grouped for practice: m for man, milk, mailman, etc. Several groups of objects or pictures may be put in a box, and the child may be asked to take out all those that begin with an m sound or an f sound. We must be sure that the picture or object represents the word intended; for example, we should not confuse wheel with bicycle.
The child may recognize sounds in words but not know what we mean by "begin with the same sound". This he learns as we repeatedly show him, orally, that ship and shop and shoe begin with the same sound.
3. Practice in distinguishing letter forms from one another. The child needs to know the letter names so that he can talk about them. He can learn the names of letters as easily as he can learn the names of objects. A is the name we give to this shape: A, and also to this shape, a.
At this stage it is not necessary to teach the alphabet in sequence. Later, as an aid to looking up words in the dictionary, he will learn the alphabet in segments - the letters he will find in the first quarter of the dictionary, then the second, third, and fourth.
4. Practice in associating letter forms with their sounds. This is phonics. Parents may well leave this step to teachers, and merely reinforce the child's school learning by means of games like this:
"I'll say three words: toy, tell, ten. Do they all begin alike? Yes, they begin with the letter t." After the t sound has been thoroughly learned, as it occurs in familiar words, you can say, "Now see if I can catch you. Do these words all begin with the T sound: top, toy, boy? Which begin with t; which begin with another letter sound?"
We must be careful not to make a child feel that he must hurry up and do these exercises and get them right. They should be seen as fun.