Games to help your child learn to read

Image: Paul Hamilton

by Dr Judy Willis

My research into child neurology has led me to conclude that playing certain games with your children can be great preparation for learning to read.

Reading isn’t a natural process for the human brain. We are born with the building blocks for verbal communication, but not for recognising the written word.

Neuroimaging scans show that reading uses multiple parts of the brain – there’s not an isolated reading centre. The human brain makes sense of new information and constructs memories by looking for patterns and relating new information to what we’ve already filed away in our brains.

For the memory of letters and words to build, the brain must continue to link new information with familiar patterns. Strong patterning skills will help your child recognise and remember the patterns found in letters, words, and sentence structures needed to become a proficient reader.

Here are some pattern recognition games you can play with your child to help boost their reading ability:

1. Learning to observe carefully is the first step toward building strong patterning skills. Help your child recognise patterns by pointing them out in art, nature, and day to day life.  You could do this by playing ‘colour detective’ when you are out together. Have your child say ‘red’ each time they see a red car. Then ask them to be on the lookout for another colour. You can also play ‘shape hunt’ - ask your child to lead you around the house and point to all things that are circle-shaped (or square, etc.)

2.  Help your child practise putting things into categories. Learning to associate previously unknown objects with patterns will help your child develop the skills needed to predict (based on existing memory patterns) the sound of an unfamiliar letter or the meaning of an unknown word.

To work on this skill with your child, invite them to sort objects into obvious categories, such as a collection of pictures or small plastic animals, and give names to each group. Ask your child why they sorted items the way they did.

3. Look for similarities and differences between objects and photos. While driving in the car or taking a walk together, ask them to point to cars that have four doors and those that have two, or houses with flat roofs and pointy roofs. Make the game more complex by encouraging them to tell you other similarities and differences they notice between two objects, perhaps photos of themselves at different ages for example.

4. Play games of ‘What doesn’t belong?’ This will prepare your child to identify how words and letters with shared characteristics can be used to identify new, similar words. Group together three items, like coins, include one that doesn’t belong, and ask your child which one is different. You can make the game more complex by making the ‘different’ item subtler in its differences (pennies with all heads up except one with tail side up).

5. You can then move on to sequences. Line up some coins, for example a ‘penny-penny-five pence, penny-penny-five pence…’ sequence. Ask your child to choose the next coin that would fit with the pattern you set up. This builds both patterning skills for reading and sequencing skills for number sense, the basis for learning arithmetic.

Learning to read is critical for all academic success, but it is often an intimidating struggle for children. Playing patterning games provides them with the foundations they need in order to learn, making the process a little easier and more enjoyable. 

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