Let's start by remembering how your child learned to talk.
First were months of listening, along with laughing, cooing and crying. Then came months of simple babbling and experimenting with sounds, which led to babbling that was starting to sound a lot like real talking. All along the way, you gave your child positive feedback, acted as if you knew exactly what they were saying, and encouraged them to tell you more.
And then, they spoke their first word. The grown ups were thrilled. Your child had a light bulb moment –"This time, they really know what I am saying!" From that moment, your child's motivation to learn more "real" words was strong and genuine.
Learning to read has much in common with learning to talk.
There is one big difference: reading involves letters that stand for sounds, and they add up to words. In order to read, a child needs to decode these letters into the sounds they represent.
Not long after a child learns to talk…
...he or she realizes that the funny marks in the books that you read aloud are the things that tell you which words to say. And children quickly see that the ABCs they have begun to learn are part of the way this works. In their preschool years, children have a natural inclination to learn. They love to figure things out. And they love to "do it themselves". The natural way that preschoolers learn is through play, discovery and exploration. Any attempt to add directives or rule-bound lessons work against this, and may stifle their motivation.
It's not that complicated.
You may have heard about the "reading wars", debates that have raged for years over the most appropriate way to teach children to read. There are fanatic believers in phonics – teaching kids to read by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters in the alphabet. And there are those just as passionate about whole language – teaching kids to read by having them learn whole words and phrases in the context of well–selected literature.
We suggest you ignore the drama. Phonics "won" the wars, but that is beside the point. We believe that to the pre-reader, this outcome makes little difference. A child's brain is wired to figure things out, and a curious preschooler will use whatever tools are at hand to accelerate their ability to decode and use written language. They want to read and they are willing to try it all. We believe the truth is...
Every little bit helps.
Learning phonics works. Recognizing whole words and phrases in context works. Building a sight word inventory works. Learning words by recognizing pictures works. Many other mental devices work, and that is because...
Every child is different.
This means that each child will need to find the decoding tools that work for him or her. And you don't need to worry – they will learn. Your role is to give them lots of possible tools, and then to encourage them through this natural period of trial and error.