Learning to read can be an exciting adventure for some children and an extremely difficult decoding exercise for a few others. It falls on the shoulders of the care-givers how they would approach each and how best they inculcate the reading habit in the young. It is this ability... skill, if you may, that is a prerequisite for performance in a majority of tasks later in life. Unless a child decides to become a Dancer or a Barista, he or she will need to read (and write) in most life situations. And he may need to do so even in the two mentioned choices.
Early reading is typically a fun exercise of recognition and recall. A child first begins to recognise the letters of the alphabet and understand that they denote separate sounds. These sounds can be put together and new sound combinations are produced. Each time a sound combination is put on paper, it says the same thing. These revelations may be unrecognised but are dramatically coded into a reading ( or early reading ) brain. The facts that the typical print is read from left to right ( except Urdu and some related languages when it is read from right to left) and that the page has a right side up which does not change are indeed vital pre-reading skills that make reading a possibility.
The human brain was not built to read. In fact, reading (and writing) are skills acquired very late in our evolutionary life. It was as recent as perhaps 6000 years ago that we learned to wrire and read while we have been around for nearly five lakh years. The areas of the brain that light up when we simply visualise certain shapes on a surface are the areas of the visual cortex at the back of the head- The occipital cortex. However, when we recognise these squiggles to be symbols denoting sounds, a virtual forest fire starts off in the brain, lighting up several areas radiating from the visual cortex and involving right up to the front in the frontal cortex and also involves, significantly the language area of the brain hidden in the temporal cortex. There are, thus, no specific neurons involved in the task (or the skill) of reading but several connections that have evolved over the past few centuries making language a refined system of communication in its written and spoken form.
Reading does not start automatically. It has to be taught. Once the process has kicked in, however, reading is so automatic that it really cannot be turned off!
Reading has been traditionally taught by two major methods- the whole language method and the phonics method. Both have their supporters and detractors. As a mother who is a voracious reader and who has taught two enormously different kids how to read, I would like to propose a good and heady mix of both, blending them into an elixir that the child finds almost as exciting as chocolate!
The phonics method teaches the child how to read letter sounds rather than letter names ( aa, b, k) and then build from short vowel sounds ( cat, ten, hit, pot,bun) and moving onto combinations or blends. It is an extremely effective method for early readers. The children are always excited at being able to decode newer words on their own simply because these consistently follow the phonics principle. So the child rapidly and dramatically progresses from mat to mate to material and the thrill is matched by acquisition of few other acquired skills.
At the same time, it helps the child to understand that the English language does not always follow this principle and introduce them to the concept of sight words. The earliest sight words introduced to children are often number names and the simple words he, she, be, to do, no, go, so. As the child advances in his skill, so does he in acquiring new and more complex sight words.
Both these methods rely heavily on the child's ability to retain and recall from memory. Thus, a child who knows the words in spoken language finds it much easier to recognise them and form memories for the written representation. Thus, early reading skills are greatly helped by the exposure to a rich linguistic environment at home sooner better than later. The habit of reading stories especially bedtime stories to children exposes them to new words and magical journeys. The words they hear are the words they will be able to recognise and read much easier.
Brightly coloured picture books that introduce a few words and use the method of repeating them ( especially good are the Early readers of the Ladybird series- Chicken Licken!) exploit this principle to the fullest and produce fluent readers almost effortlessly.
There are a few who need more effort than simply recognising the print. These children need special and patient teaching.
Reading may be better understood as being composed of three main components- decoding, comprehension and retention. Decoding itself is a highly complex neural activity. This involves perception of the written signal ( letter) , identifying it, putting the several letters together, 'speaking' the same group together in the mind and then constructing a word out of all these activities. Then comes the difficult task of remembering each preceding word with the next, retaining it in the short term, making sense of each word combination- making meaningful sentences out of the written material.
That does not look too simple, does it?
Therefore, the earliest beginnings to promoting reading lie in preparing good pre-reading skills, building reading from phonics, helping with sight words and repeating, repeating, repeating.
Most importantly, material selected for these early readers and pre-readers MUST be colourful and fun, exciting and enticing.
So- go ahead and enjoy the early tottering steps in the road to reading with as many smiles and as much support as you do for early walking trials of the little ones. Be patient and encouraging and allow the children to proceed at their own pace. Do remeber that those who cannot see or hear properly may not be able to acquire language easily and it is extremely important to see a specialist ( Eye/ ENT doctors) who may identify an organic cause of failure to acquire these skills by otherwise able children.