Reading Begins in Your Child’s Ears

by Peggy Wilber, M.Ed., author of Reading Rescue 1-2-3

Picture this: You are sitting with Regis, and your hands are sweating. Here comes the $1,000 question: “How does a young child learn to read?”

a) through the eyes
b) through the ears
c) from Big Bird
d) by eating Alphabet Soup

This is easy. You have seen the title of this article, and you choose:

b) Children learn to read through their ears.

Congratulations! You win $1,000.

Here comes the $2,000 question: “What’s a major reason why many children are poor readers?”

a) They misread letters d and b.
b) They see words backwards.
c) They are lazy.
d) They have auditory processing issues.

Hmm… Do you need a lifeline?

Let’s call some scientists for help.

Neurologists at Yale have peeked inside children’s brains while they did reading tasks. From MRI brain scans, scientists discovered that the auditory/language centers of children who read well light up with lots of blood flowing. Other children with less blood flow in those areas had difficulty in reading. In other words, children who have a strong ear-brain connection tend to be good readers.

Additional studies suggest that children with multiple ear infections, a speech impediment, or weaknesses in auditory skills are at risk for having reading disorders.

Here’s the good news—even though your young child has one or two or even three of the risk factors mentioned above, don’t rush out to buy him a talking pen or talking computer programs. We now know that children can improve in auditory skills, with proper help.

In just fifteen minutes a day of playing auditory games and reading a good book out loud to your child, you can improve her language/auditory-processing skills. In fact, every child will benefit from doing these activities. She will gain the tools, such as rhyming and auditory memory, needed to become a great reader.

Do these activities for a few minutes each day, in the car, at bedtime, or while supper’s cooking, and your child’s language center in the brain will light up like a Christmas tree. The rule of thumb is: Keep it short and make it fun!

Rhyme With Me (Rhyming is a major language skill. It will be used down the road to help your child learn to read word families, i.e. bat, cat, mat, rat, pat.)
Begin by modeling how to rhyme. Put the sounds of rhyming into your child’s ear first. Point to parts of your body, say a body part and a rhyming word. This puts rhyming into your child’s ears with a visual cue (pointing). For example, point to your nose and say: “Nose/rose—they sound the same, don’t they?”

Here’s a list of body parts and rhyming words:


When your child is able to rhyme using body parts, say to her:

“I’m going to say a word and you say a word that sounds the same. Let’s see how many words we can think of. I say bee.” Your child might say “he.” You then say “tree,” and so on. (me, free, she, me, knee, we) Choose one-syllable words that are easy to rhyme such as had, rat, man, fall, ten, red, big, fill, hop, dog, bug and sun.

Help your child “catch” the idea of rhyming by reading rhyming books together.

Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss, 1963.
Where’s My Teddy? by Jez Alborough, 1992.
Cat Traps by Molly Coxe, 1996.
Geese Find the Missing Piece by Marco and Giulio Maestro, 1999.

Put The Word Together! (This auditory memory game will help your child remember word parts and blend them together to make a word. This skill will be helpful when he is “sounding out” new words.)
Begin by modeling for your child, “I’m going to say some sounds. Put them together and say the word. If I say b-u-g, you’ll say bug.”

Here are compound words for you to say in two parts:


Then do multi-syllable words such as:


Finally, do word parts:


Teach the Alphabet Letter Sounds (Even three-year-olds can learn the sounds of the alphabet!)
Get an alphabet chart and pin it up at your child’s eye level. Point to each letter, say its name and sound. Ask your child to repeat what you say.

Be careful not to add an “uh” sound at the end of a letter. Letter s says “sss,” not “suh.”(You can see that “kuh,” “ahh,” “tuh,” sounds don’t add up to “cat!”)

Teach the short vowels first—before the long vowel sound:

“A, ahh, apple. E, eh, elephant, I, ih, igloo, O, aw, octopus, U, uh, umbrella.”

Do the letter chart once a day for three minutes, and in a few weeks your child will be able to do it by herself!

Read Predictable Books
Predictable books have repetitive segments that are easily learned, allowing a young child to “read” along. Read predictable books to your child, running your finger under the words, until he can “read” it from memory! Here’s a short example of a predictable reading selection:

Baby eats yogurt.
Baby eats cheese.
Baby eats ice cream.
Baby eats bananas.
Baby eats peas.
Baby gets messy!

Predictable books will do wonders for your child. They teach the cadence of language. They will help him match sounds to the sight words. He will practice holding the book upside up and looking at words from left to right. Best of all, your child will experience enjoyment and success in reading at an early age.

Here’s a short list of predictable books:

Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? by Bill Martin Jr., 1991.

The Napping House by Audrey Wood, 1984.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, 1981.

My Barn by Craig Brown, 1991.

Is your young child ready to read? This is how you will know:

She reads already. (Don’t laugh! I didn’t know my four-year-old son could read until one day, in the doctor’s office, he picked up a book and read it…)

He knows the alphabet letter sounds.

She can “read” a bunch of predictable books from memory.

He has good auditory memory and plays auditory games well.

If these tools are in place, your child will not likely suffer from a reading disorder.

Now, back to Regis: “For one million dollars, here’s your final question: Which of the following activities will get your child ready to read?”

a) learning alphabet letter sounds
b) rhyming
c) reading predictable books
d) all of these

You are nervous, but you’ve read this article, so you blurt out, “My answer is D!”

Yes!—and someday, your child can win by becoming a million-book reader!

Peggy Wilber is the Instructional Coordinator of Pikes Peak One+One Tutoring Program in Colorado Springs. One+One matches primary grade students with trained volunteers, and on Tuesday evenings volunteers play auditory games and read books with the students. Peggy Wilber has authored, Reading Rescue 1-2-3, a complete manual helping parents, grandparents, teachers and caregivers to teach children to read. Reading Rescue 1-2-3 contains phonic sets, fun auditory games, and cartoon stories that will help even the most reluctant reader enjoy the process of learning to read.