A child’s learning to read is a tremendous achievement and one with which I have quite a bit of familiarity, as it happens. It’s been my experience that learning to read is like learning to talk – it will flow naturally out of a child’s inherent curiosity if the adults around him don’t push it. Like toilet training, a kid can’t learn to read until he’s physically ready to make that leap; when he gets there all it takes is a little gentle guidance.
When some of my kids were still little-ish, I ran a program in an elementary school for children in grades 1-3 who hadn’t learned to read yet. This program paired kids one-on-one with adult volunteers who’d been trained to encourage without forcing and make the whole “reading” experience more fun and less stressful. It’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done (besides parenting) and the experience instilled in me a firm conviction that most children who read learned to do so on a lap.
When choosing a book for an early reader, pick something that will hold his interest. Frankly nobody gives a crap about Spot or The Cat on the Mat. Let the child work the words out for himself as often as possible, giving a little quiet correction or a “boost” here and there if necessary to avoid frustration. You’d be surprised how hard it is for a beginning reader to keep his place on the page, so teach him to point at one word at a time with the end of a pencil (or a feather or what-have-you). Be sure the book is good enough to make all this effort worthwhile!
Anything by Dr. Seuss. During the 3 years I ran that reading program, the number of kids whose first “I read it myself!” book was by Dr. Seuss outnumbered all the others two-to-one. This infuriated some of the adults, who had gone into it thinking that made-up words and odd rhyme structures put an unfair burden on a beginner—but not one kid ever had that complaint. My own Jack learned to read with One Fish, Two Fish so I recommend that as a good starting place.
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. This book is so full of rhythm and rhyme that I defy YOU to read it without ending up singing and chanting – a little kid doesn’t stand a chance. This is a particularly good book for wiggly kids or kids in a wiggly mood - it lends itself well to silly voices and clapping along with the “song.” The illustrations are bold and bright and the characters themselves are letters, which gives a helpful visual “clue” to a beginning reader. Warning: this is one of those books that you will tire of hearing LONG before your child tires of reading it out loud.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka. John Scieszka is brilliant and kids think he is HILARIOUS. By the time a kid hits grade school he’s heard all the fairy tales a million times, and this book makes fun of each of them in turn. Lane Smith’s illustrations are fantastically irreverent and there’s a lot of sarcastic by-play on just about every page. This book is just fun.
Good Families Don’t by Robert Munsch. Robert Munsch uses repetition in a lot of his books (which is good for early readers) but never so much that it gets boring, so anything by him is sure to be a win with this age group. This book has something the other books don’t have, though – it’s about a fart. Need I say more?
The Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. In general boys find Captain Underpants funnier than do girls, but that’s by no means universal. The books are full of raucous little-kid humor (some of it actually pretty clever, but a lot of it booger-and-butt based) and intersperse short, easy-to-read chapters with a few pages of “comic book” supposedly written and illustrated by Harold and George, the grade-school heroes. Here again, some adults will be infuriated by the misspellings or grammar mistakes in the “comic book” sections—but it doesn’t seem to phase the kids. The bottom line is kids think these books are hilarious and will read them ON PURPOSE.
One final note: don’t stop reading aloud to a kid just because he can read to himself now. Where’s the fun in that – for either of you?