Teaching reading to 3 year olds

Surprisingly Easy Ways to Teach Your 3 Year Old How to Read

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

— Dr. Seuss, “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!”

On average, your child will learn to read by the time they are 6 years old.1

So why teach your child now at 3 years old? Can a 3 year old read?

No, most 3 year old’s can’t read. But their journey to becoming a good reader began at birth. Literacy (the ability to read a write) doesn’t start in school, your child started to pick it up from the day they were born. Literacy is a complex group of skills that children need to learn throughout their early years. Reading is the end of a long journey of learning.

A recent study has found that toddlers ages 3-5 years old can understand that written words have meanings5. Traditionally, children are taught to read when they start school at 5 years old. But this research shows that they are able to start learning the skills they need for reading much sooner. I didn’t want to leave my children to struggling to grasp reading when they started school and the evidence suggests that putting effort into helping younger children to find fun and explore reading doesn’t go to waste. Quite the opposite, it gives them a massive boost.

“Children who fail to make progress in literacy during the first 2 years of school rarely catch up with their peers and are at risk of becoming low achievers, become alienated with school and drop out at the earliest opportunity.”

— Kennedy et al. (1986)

Reading is a difficult skill that will take years for your 3 year old to master. Your help in developing this skill is critical. The way in which I chose to teach them this skill is important. At 3 years old, their attention span is very limited. So I chose to hide literacy in short fun games. Kind of like hiding vegetables blended into a tomato sauce. The teaching is there, but your child is having too much fun to notice.

At this age, it is crucial not to put pressure on your 3 year old to learn to read. You need to introduce it in a fun way, the goal is exposure to the written word. We don’t want their first experiences of reading to be negative. They need to understand that reading is both a pleasurable and useful activity.

Thankfully, there are simple and easy ways to introduce reading skills to a 3 year old in the form of fun and entertaining games. There are easy to learn skills that will put them ahead of the kids in their class when they start kindergarten and help them stay ahead. Lets give your children the same advantage that I have tried to give mine. I will now show you which skills are crucial and how I taught them to my children.


QUICK SUMMARY OF ARTICLE
Foundations of Teaching Your 3 Year Old to Read
The 3 Key Skills That Help Put Your 3 Year Old on the Fast Track to Reading
Common Questions About Reading at 3 Years Old

THE BEST WAY TO TEACH YOUR 3 YEAR OLD TO READ

Learning with dad
Literacy is a gift

THE BASICS OF TEACHING YOUR 3 YEAR OLD TO READ — FOUNDATIONS

“Children are the ones who make sense of language through learning through play and experimentation. You need to be there to provide the structure and correction. You are the scaffold to their learning experience.”

Riley (2006)

There are crucial skills that your 3 year old will need to work on if they are going to get ahead of their future classmates. But first, we need to look at all the activities you need to be doing with your child that form the foundation for learning these skills. These activities are the basis of their reading development. By 3 years old your child should be familiar with these activities already. If they aren’t, don’t worry. There’s no time like now to get started.


BASIC ACTIVITIES

Reading to her teddy bears
Sharing the love of reading is so important to success
  • “Writing”: Reading and writing are very closely related. Although I wouldn’t be expecting a 3 year old to be able to write, they can certainly practice drawing letter shapes. Another fun activity I do with my 3 year olds is to print cards with words on that form a simple sentence. For example, “The fox drank water”. I then mix up the cards and get my 3 year old to help me put them back in the right order. I never expect them to do it by themselves but I try to involve them as much as possible in finding the right answer. Click here to download your FREE writing game for your 3 year old. It’s easy and fun!
  • Label their world: Grab some sticky notes and label everything around the house (I used blu-tac in the end because the sticky notes used to fall off eventually). This used to drive my wife crazy! As I would go about our day I would show them the labels and read them out to my 3 year olds.
  • Access to books: Being able to explore books and reading on their own is vital. I have a small basket of books in their room. Easily accessible. They can grab a book out of it whenever they want. I often find them playing with a book quietly in their room.
  • Be a role model: Be a reading, writing and speaking role model for your child. Chat to them as much as possible. Ask them questions, see what they understand. Read with them, read for yourself. Let them be around books and reading so that they learn that reading is a worthwhile and enjoyable experience.

If you already do all those that’s great. If not then I hope it has given you some great ideas to get the basics of helping your 3 year old read. Those activities are all the normal and simple stuff that you will read almost everywhere. But now it’s time to take a look at the most important and key skills that will take your child’s development to the next level and put them on track to be a great reader.


THE 3 KEY SKILLS THAT HELP PUT YOUR 3 YEAR OLD ON THE FAST TRACK TO READING

RHYMING

At 3 years old, children start to love rhymes and rhyming. You won’t find many 2 year olds enjoying the same play on words like a 3 year old would. This is a massive advantage for us parents. I encourage my children to enjoy rhyming books, games and songs. That’s not just because my kids find them entertaining. It’s because understanding rhyming is to understand how words work. To find a rhyme funny you have to know why it is funny.

Words can be split into their individual sounds. For example, “Cat” can be split into three individual sounds “C” “A” “T”. So the find the rhyme “The cat sat on the mat” funny, you have to be able to understand each of the smaller sounds that each word in the sentence has in common. These individual sounds that make up complete words are called “Phonemes”. Phonemes are very hard to learn for your 3 year old but they are also very important if they want to learn to read. (Click here to see a list of phonemes).

“Your child’s ability to read depends on understanding phonemes.”

— Shankweiler, D. and Fowler, A.E. (2004)

So how did I help my child learn phonemes? By encouraging their love of rhymes. Rhyming seems to be the first step of a child’s development into understanding phonemes. So much so that understanding rhyming at 3 years old is a good indicator at future success in reading. Rhyming also allows your child to anticipate the look and spelling of other words that have the same sound. For example, mat, sat and cat.

Our way of encouraging rhyming play:

  • Rhyming songs: There is a great Spotify list of rhyming nursery songs that my two used to love. (You can find it here). Singing along together is a great bonding experience, even if like me you can’t sing!
  • Play rhyming games:
    • Rhyming match game: Find, draw or print out pictures of simple items. Take one picture as the one we are going to find a match for. For example, if I have a picture of a hat. We need to find another word that rhymes with hat. Then you show your child three other pictures with the words underneath. Help your child to choose. For example, a school, a cat, and an apple. Say the words and let your child find the rhyming item! (Click here to download a FREE rhyming game for you to play with your 3 year old)
    • Naughty puppet: Use a puppet or stuffed toy that your child likes and get him to say rhymes. The only trouble is that sometimes the puppet is naughty! And he might try and use a word that doesn’t rhyme. Try to get your 3 year old to tell you when the naughty puppet uses a word that doesn’t rhyme.

Learning the alphabet

TEACHING THE ALPHABET

“By far the most powerful predictor of later success in reading was the child’s knowledge of the alphabet, acquired pre-school, incidentally and informally.”

Riley, J (2006)

Research has found that knowledge of the letters of the alphabet and how to say them phonetically (How they sound) is the single most important skill that your child can acquire before going to school that will dramatically increase their chances of learning to read quickly and easily3.

Just knowing the letters of the alphabet isn’t enough, unfortunately. Your 3 year old needs to know how they relate to the sounds in words for it to be effective in boosting their chances of becoming good readers.

Learning the alphabet and the sounds of the letters is the skill to try and give to your 3 year old so they can find success in school at reading. Which should lead to success in education for many years to come. As I highlighted in the introduction to this article. Children who get ahead of their peers in literacy in the first few years of school tend to stay ahead. It is that important. So let me show you how I made sure my 3 year old’s learned their alphabet effectively.

Alphabet Games:

  • Alphabet Phonics: The phonetic alphabet is how you should teach your child the alphabet. It is the way the letters sound rather than how we as adults would say them individually. For example, A is pronounced “AH” rather than “AY” because we say “AH-pple”. It’s hard to explain in text, but we use this YouTube video phonetic alphabet song to sing to the girls and it’s a perfect example of how to say the alphabet phonetically. (Unfortunately, it gets stuck in your head but the girls love it!). (Click here to learn Why I teach the alphabet in phonics?)
  • Alphabet books: Buy some good quality and well-illustrated alphabet books for your house and have them easily accessible to your child. Read them with your child and let them play with the books alone whenever they want to. Here is a list of our favorite alphabet books that our 3 year olds absolutely loved:
  • Alphabet Poster: I also bought an interactive alphabet poster from Amazon to put in their room. It has buttons on every letter that they can push to hear how the letter sounds. It even has a quiz mode. I bought it to increase their exposure to the alphabet, I even bought alphabet placemats for them!
  • Letter Posting game: I created a game for them to play that helps them learn the alphabet in a fun way. First I found a cardboard box, which I made to look like a postbox. Make sure you cut a hole in the box so your 3 year old can post letters. I then bought 26 envelopes and wrote a letter of the alphabet on each. I then mixed up all the letters in a big pile. To play the game, I call out a letter and they have to find it and put it in the postbox. They absolutely love posting those letters!
  • Alphabet fishing: My kids love this game. You will need to buy two things. A pack of foam alphabet letters that float (Amazon link) and a simple children’s fishing net. Then fill up the bath with water and scatter the foam letters in. It’s your 3 year old’s job to fish the letters out and then call out what letter they have caught. If you want to make it harder, sometimes I add bubbles to the bath water so they have to search through the bubbles for the letters.
  • Match big & small: Write or print out all of the uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet. Then keep them in two piles, one uppercase, and one lowercase. Help your 3 year old search through the piles and match the upper and lowercase letters together. You aren’t expecting them to do it themselves at this age, so you will need to help them. That doesn’t mean they won’t be learning lots by doing it. (Click here to download a FREE printable version of this game).
  • Alphabet cookies: Another favorite of our girls was to play with alphabet cookie cutters from Amazon. Then they use their Play-Doh set and cut out little Play-Doh cookie letters. They absolutely love doing this. You can even make real baked alphabet cookies with the cookie cutters!

Child with book
Reading practice

LEARNING THEIR NAME

Being able to write their own name before starting school was also found to be a good indicator of reading success. What better word to start writing with than their own name. Another advantage in learning how to write their own name is that kids love it. They want to learn how to write their name. Let me show how you can use their natural enthusiasm to easily teach them how to write their own name.

Help your 3 year old to learn to write their own name in 6 easy steps!

  • Introduce the letters phonetically: You should spell their name out to them phonetically. Break down their name into the individual letter sounds and how you would say them. For example, “Gavin” would be “Guh”-“Ah”-”Vuh”-”Eih”-”Nuh”. This helps to start to link the letters with the sound of their name.
  • Match the letter to an animal: Take each letter of their name and find an animal that starts with the same letter. For example, Kangaroo Ant Tiger Elephant (KATE). Word association improves their memory of the letter.
  • Write out cards: Write/print cards in a large font with the letters of their name. Include a picture of the animal below the letter. Mix up the letters and help your 3 year old to put the letters of their name back in the correct order.
  • Trace the letters: Draw or print out the letters of their name on A4 size paper. Then have them use a highlighter to trace the letter. This gets them used to the shape and the feeling of writing out the letters of their name.
  • Draw the letters: Then use blank sheets of paper and help your 3 year old draw out each letter of their name individually to practice.
  • Draw all the letters on one page: They have successfully learned how to write out their name!

Take your time with this process, each step might take longer to complete than the previous step. Encourage them to work on it a little every day. I found that my two enjoyed the process and were extremely proud when the finally wrote their name on a single page. I kept the page too.

THE 3 KEY SKILLS SUMMARY

  • Rhyming
  • Learning the alphabet
  • Writing their name

These 3 skills are by far the most important skills that you can teach your 3 year old if you want them to become good readers. In research carried out, children who learned these skills before they started school had an advantage over their classmates3. They were more likely to develop superior reading skills and stay ahead of their friends in class. Once I knew that information, I knew it was an advantage I had to give to my 3 year olds.


3 year old reading quietly
Nothing like a good book

COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT READING AT 3 YEARS OLD

CAN 3 YEAR OLDS READ?

No, at 3 years old it is very unlikely that your child will be able to read fluently. Reading is a very difficult skill that takes your child years to learn. It’s much more likely that they will be able to read fluently at around 6-7 years old.

However, learning to the skills needed to be able to read starts from birth. So there is plenty you can do right now to help your child achieve their full potential.


WHAT READING LEVEL SHOULD A 3 YEAR OLD BE AT?

At 3 years old it is very unlikely that your child will be able to read. So they won’t have a reading level just yet. They should be well on their way to gaining the skills that they will need to be able to read when they are older.

At 3 years old your child should be able to do the following:

  • Handle books well.
  • Show more attention span for stories than when they were younger.
  • Remember familiar/favorite stories.
  • Start to enjoy books that have new words.
  • They should ask questions about the stories.
  • Be able to move their finger left to right underneath the print.
  • Begin to recognize some letters.

SHOULD MY 3 YEAR OLD BE ABLE TO READ THE ALPHABET?

At 3 years old learning the alphabet should be your primary goal. That means that a 3 year old might not know their alphabet yet but they should be on their way to learning. It is important to remember not to just learn the letters of the alphabet but how those letters sound and work within words. Just knowing the letters of the alphabet isn’t enough to give your child the best advantage at learning to read.


WHAT’S THE BEST APP TO TEACH YOUR 3 YEAR OLD TO READ?

My personal favorite and the one I have used for my 3 year olds is the:

Starfall Learn to Read App

The Starfall learn to read app is FREE, it’s fun and well thought out. I think it’s the app they enjoyed the most out of all the ones we tried together. Zac the Rat is a great teacher! It is based on a website that has been teaching kids to learn since 2002. I love the way it highlights the relationship between spoken and written language, which is so important for helping your 3 year old learn to read. It’s a great app and I would definitely recommend it.


WHY TEACH MY 3 YEAR OLD THE ALPHABET USING PHONICS?

The word “Phonics” sounds complicated. I know it sounded complicated to me when I first heard it. But thankfully it isn’t. It is just using the sounds made my single letters and groups of letters to read a word. So why bother to teach your 3 year old the alphabet using phonics? Because research shows that it works! It makes learning to read easier for your child. Why not give them that advantage?

Click here to download your FREE guide to phonic sounds for 3 year olds

Children at 3 years old are soaking up the sounds around them like a sponge. This is the age when they need exposure to as much language as possible. They will start to learn the sounds that make up words and practice repeating them. Splitting up words into the sounds that make them up is crucial to understanding how to read those words. Making sounds from the written words on a page is how we all read. This stage is vital preparation for the next step in their journey to becoming a great reader. Use the alphabet phonics song and you will have it memorized yourself in no time.


TEACHING YOUR 3 YEAR OLD TO READ — SUMMARY

I have given you the most important skills that your 3 year old needs to learn to become a great reader. Having these skills before starting school has been found to predict future reading success. There’s no better time to start working on helping your 3 year old to improve them right now. Use the methods I have shown you to keep the learning fun and engaging. You don’t want to put them off by taking the fun out of learning at this early stage.

I used to think that kids learned to read later on, at around 6-7 years old. But I know now that when they achieve fluent reading skills it is just the end of a long journey of learning that they started when they were just a baby. You can’t sit back and wait for them to learn to read in school. Research shows and I believe that they need to develop their reading skills before they get to school if they want to have the best chance at being successful3.

Become a reading role model. If you don’t read, this is the best opportunity to get back into books and reading yourself. Just read, it doesn’t matter what, comic books, newspapers, magazines. Any reading is good reading. If your child sees you enjoying reading, they will too.

If you only take away one thing from this article: Learning the alphabet and the sounds that letters produce to make up a word is what you should concentrate on at this age as it is the biggest indication to becoming a good reader3.

Show them the enjoyment of a great book.

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.”

— Matilda by Roald Dahl.

REFERENCES

1.https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Helping-Your-Child-Learn-to-Read.aspx

2. Kennedy, M.M., Birman, B.F. and Demaline, R.E. (1986) The Effectiveness of Chapter 1 Services. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, US Department of Education.

3. Riley J. Language and Literacy 3-7: Creative Approaches to Teaching. (2006). Sage Publications.

4. Shankweiler, D. and Fowler, A.E. (2004) ‘Questions people ask about the role of phonological processes in learning to read’, Reading and Writing.

5. Treiman, R. and Baron, J. (1981) ‘Segmental analysis: development and relation to reading ability’, in G.C. Mackinnon, and T.C. Waller (eds), Reading Research: Advances in Theory and Practice, vol.111. New York: Academic Press.