When a child learns to read, he or she must build and strengthen connections between several different parts of his brain. He needs to connect those strange squiggles he sees to sounds, and connect those sounds into a continuous word, and then connect that word to a meaning. Some children find this whole complicated process a lot harder than others.
When I was little, my parents took in foster children. One time a 6-year-old boy came to us who had several problems - in addition to the family problems he had been taken away from - and one of his problems was that at the end of first grade, he couldn’t read at all. He didn’t even know his letters. So my mother took him under her wing and over the summer worked hard with him every day to try and teach him to read.
After much effort and many different strategies, how did my foster brother finally learn how to read? Stop signs! A stop sign has a color and a shape on the outside, it is repeated many times, and every time you see it, you do something in reaction to it. Every time we would come up to a stop sign, my mother would point it out, read it, and of course, stop the car.
Now that I’m a Children’s Librarian, I can put the technical term of “Print Awareness” to what she was doing with the stop signs. It is one of the 6 pre-reading skills that kids need to have before they learn to read. Reading is more than just books or magazines. Printed words are all around us, from food labels to store signs to billboards to, yes, stop signs. Starting when the child in your life is very young, you can point out these words in passing, and encourage them to “read” them. At first, they will use the colors and shapes as clues to the words, but as time passes they will build those brain connections and start to truly read them. You don’t have to wait until your child has reading difficulties; by pointing out the words around you, you are showing them the importance of reading, and helping them to connect those strange squiggles and shapes to sounds and meaning.
By the way, I was evidently jealous of the time my mother spent with my foster brother. So at age five I paid attention and learned how to read, too.