How Do I Teach Reading to My Preschooler? Phonics Worksheets, Picture Books, Toddler Games?

Most parents understand that one essential life skill is knowing how to read. It is true that individuals who do not read well are often limited in their choices in life.  And those that do read well benefit all of their lifetimes. 

Mother and toddler reading a picture book together. This is the most effective way of preparing your child to read and ensure lifelong success.
Photo by Lina Kivaka from Pexels

It is stunning that an investigation that followed 17,000 people in England over 50 years found that 

“Reading well at age seven was a key factor in determining whether people went on to get a high-income job. Reading level at age seven was linked to social class even 35 years on. Children with higher reading and maths skills ended up having higher incomes, better housing, and more professional roles in adulthood,” the authors concluded. (Timothy Bates and Stuart Ritchie, at Edinburgh University). Huffington Post.

So,  it is not surprising that most parents would like to start their toddlers off on the journey to become capable readers. The question is to know what are the best strategies, based on current practices. 

Some parents rely on phonics worksheets. Others use picture books. Toddler games or online activities are very popular also. What is a busy parent to do?  What methods are the most effective? How will parents be able to measure success? 

The Advice from the Experts

Based on research, there is a clear path to teaching reading. And the foundations can start very early in life. Here are 4 key areas according to the National Institute of Health. 

“The panel’s analysis showed that the best approaches to reading instruction have the following elements:

1)   “Ways to enhance comprehension  (reading stories together, asking the right questions, predicting what will happen)

2)   Explicit instruction in language awareness (rhyming words, number of syllables, alliteration – Sammy, the slithery snake, etc. )

3)   Systematic phonics instruction (beginning sounds, ending sounds, blends, vowels)

4)   Methods to improve fluency  (vocabulary development, choral reading, pattern books)”

The words in the parentheses are my own to explain the techniques.

While these are very general concepts, the effectiveness lies in the details. 

Over-riding Principles

a) Motivation to Learn

One over-riding principle in all of your endeavors to help your child learn to read is that your son or daughter enjoys the experience.  Parents have the luxury of time. They can try an experience, and if they sense that their son or daughter is not engaged, they can leave the lessons or experiences for another day. To become a competent reader, it is essential that your son or daughter participate in the process. Without motivation and engagement, the progress will be dubious. So, whenever you try an activity, be constantly aware of making the experience as positive as possible. Stop any activity when your child signals disinterest. Incredibly, just 10 minutes a day is effective.

b) All 4 Components are Necessary

Some approaches to learning reading emphasize one approach over all others. What is clear is that the 4 aspects must be combined to be effective. Learning the sounds of the letters without sharing stories is ineffective. Also, the stories shared must be engaging for the child. Some systems emphasize sounding out words to gain meaning. However, stories that include a sentence such as “The fat cat sat on the mat,” may have limited appeal to children, although they limit the number of known sounds for the child. It is far better to use nursery rhymes than a strictly phonics-based approach alone.

Children indeed have a variety of styles for learning how to read. Some just tend to understand the process better than others. Many children are unconcerned with accuracy, while other individuals prefer a set sounding out approach so they can depend on the skills they have acquired. You will get a feel for what your child prefers.

Try many different methods to see what works best for your child. But realize that using all 4 of the basic components will achieve success. The degree to how often the different approaches are used will depend on your child. 

Let’s take a look at these  4 components of the best approaches to teaching reading. Examples of specific strategies will be beneficial in clarifying what parents can do.

Where do I start?  

1) Enhance Comprehension

Start with reading to your child. Overwhelmingly research has identified sharing the reading experience as fundamental to learning how to read. And you can start reading early in your child’s life. Some mothers begin during pregnancy. 

“Children’s academic successes at ages 9 and 10 can be attributed to the amount of talk  (including reading) they hear from birth through age 3. Hart and Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.”  according to Ferst Readers. 

What Do I Read?

Picture Books, Silly!

At first, select the picture books that are engaging to you. Your enjoyment of the experience will transfer to your child. 

“According to Jim Trelease, author of the best-seller, The Read-Aloud Handbook: “Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a ‘pleasure’ message to the child’s brain… You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure” (”  

The Baby Stage

Father reading a picture book to a baby. This is the most effective method of teaching the joy of reading.
Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

When reading to babies, do not just read the words on the page, but marvel at the different aspects of the book. Comment out loud on how brilliant are the rhyming words, or how silly the characters are. For very young children, you can start the process of questions by saying, “I wonder if mother duck will find her babies. She is looking everywhere. Where could they have gone?”  Point to the different parts of the illustrations and make comments. “Baby bear has something behind his back. Will Daddy bear see it? You are immersing your baby in the entire experience of reading: words, illustrations, and the reader’s reactions to the text.


Photo by Mark Zamora on Unsplash

Gradually your monologue surrounding the reading of favorite stories will be shared with your toddler as they learn to express their ideas more clearly. It can start with your child repeating small parts of the book or responding to the illustrations.

Do not turn the pages quickly.

Let your toddler explore the pictures. You can engage them in the illustrations by asking obvious questions such as “Is Mother Duck worried?” Why is she worried? And then draw them into the small details by saying something like, “I can see some yellow feathers peeking out from behind the weeds. What is it?” “Do you think the ducklings are playing a trick on Mother Duck?”


1 –Over and Over

And buck it up! You will be reading some stories over and over until you are bored to death. But for your child, he or she will love the familiarity. Some toddlers will even begin to “read” some of the text on the page because they remember the story. At that point, you can celebrate! And if your child is interested, you can select a significant noun on the page to work on some phonics work, as long as they have read the book before.

It is vital that on the first few readings of the story that you do not interrupt the flow of ideas with phonics work. Your first few reads of the story should be for the pleasure of enjoying the experience.

And with repeated reads, your questions should focus on the flow of ideas.  Only after your child is very familiar with the story, should you concentrate on other aspects of language such as phonics?

2 –How Often is Optimal?

Many parents read a book every night at bedtime as this activity relaxes many children. 

“Children who are read to at least three times a week by a family member are almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading compared to children who are read to less than 3 times a week.” Denton, Kristen and Gerry West, Children’s Reading and Mathematics Achievement in Kindergarten and First Grade (PDF file), U.S. Department of Education, NCES, Washington, DC, 2002, according to Ferst Readers.  

Continue to understand the value of reading by investigating all 50 statistics about reading to children on this website. Ferst Readers. 

3 –Comprehension First

Why do you focus on the flow of ideas first? Reading is communication. That is the most crucial concept that you can share with your child. 

Unfortunately, for the beginning reader, they also have the burden of decoding the symbols to unearth the ideas that are being presented. 

Some older children feel that just saying the words is what reading is. That is totally a false idea. You want to avoid having your child misunderstand what reading is. It is not just saying all of the words right. Reading is a form of communication.

Reading is understanding the words first, but it also includes comprehending so much more. The competent reader takes time to pause and ask themselves questions or to examine how the illustrations link to the meaning. Or they delight in the turn of phrase that the author has chosen to express a concept. 

So, when you are sharing a book with your toddler, you are always modeling the process that competent readers use to understand the concepts being presented. After all, baseball players first learn the skill of handling the ball and bat, but the thrill of the sport is in playing the game. With reading, you work on phonics to benefit from the joy of reading. 

You need to demonstrate the thrill of reading to your child: how it can delight you or inform you or entertain you! And if it becomes boring for your child, stop the activity before your child associates negative feelings with reading or working with sounds and words. 

You can evaluate if your child has understood the story through questions.  With the following questions, I am basing the examples on a story about Mother Duck, who lost one of her ducklings. Unknown to Mother Duck, a duckling wanders off from the nest. By the end of the story, Mother Duck has found all of her ducklings. For a toddler, your questions need to include details from the story.

Have You Seen My Duckling? 

Here is the very book that can be ordered on Amazon but you can also see the entire book on a YouTube channel. Have You Seen My Duckling?

4 –First Read

When you first read through a story, it is essential to focus on the overall message of the book. In the book “Have You Seen My Duckling?”  one surprising feature is that there are very few words. The message of the story is carried through the illustrations. The whole experience of the book will be highly enriched by the conversation between the parent and the child.

5 –Pause often to Reflect

If I were to use this book with my child, I would stop the Youtube video on every page to discuss what is happening. At first, Mother Duck realizes that she is missing one of her babies. She gathers together all of the family to go on a search. As you turn the pages, you see that she asks all of the neighboring animals about her baby duck. One of the charms of the illustrations is that her baby duck is on almost every page. Your child will take delight in discovering where the lost duck is hiding. The lack of words to read encourages parents and children to interact to delve into the meaning of the story.

6 –Question Time Follows the Enjoyment of Sharing

Since many children ask for a story over and over, you will have opportunities to ask those probing questions after you are finished sharing the book several times. Certainly, you will not ask all of the questions listed here in one sitting. Perhaps you will stretch the exploration of the book over a dozen readings of the story. The following questions are presented as examples so that you can apply them to other stories.

Excellent Questions

(known professionally as guided reading prompts)

Mom and Dad sharing questions about a book with their toddler. Questions are at the heart of comprehension.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Here are some examples of questions that competent readers ask themselves as they are engaged in the communication process and are at a level some toddlers can answer. For a toddler, you need to make the question as concrete as possible by including details from the story. These are based on the “Have You Seen My Duckling?” book.


What do you think will happen next?    EXAMPLE: Where will Mother Duck look now?

What will the character do about this situation?     EXAMPLE: What will Mother Duck do to find her lost duckling?

Was your guess (prediction) right?   EXAMPLE:  Did Mother Duck do what you thought?

Check for Understanding

Are there any clues earlier in the story that leads to an event?  EXAMPLE:  Why did Mother Duck look all over the pond area? (That is where the ducks always play.)

Why do all of the other ducklings have to come along in the search too? 

When you look at the picture, do you notice how it does not match the words?  EXAMPLE: How do you know that Mother Duck misses seeing her duck that is hiding?

What is the conclusion of the story? How does Mother Duck finally find her lost duck? 


Why is the character feeling so mad (sad, upset, blue, happy, confused)?  EXAMPLE: Why is mother duck so upset? 

When the character said ______ what did she really mean?     EXAMPLE:  Where Mother Duck said, “ Have you seen my duckling?” she meant my baby is missing, and I am looking for him.

What do the character’s actions tell you about them?    EXAMPLE:  Mother Duck is looking everywhere. How does she feel?

Making Connections

Have we ever been in the same situation? EXAMPLE: Has this happened to us? Have I had to look for you?’

Do you know any other story like this one?     EXAMPLE:  Have we read another story about missing kids?

By the end of the story, how do you feel?    EXAMPLE:  When Mother Duck is hugging her ducklings, does it make you happy or sad?  Why?


What do you remember about the story? EXAMPLE: How did Mother Duck find her lost duck.? 

What have we learned after reading this story?  EXAMPLE: Has Mommy ever looked for you? What happened? What do we do now?

More Questions to Explore As your Child Matures

These are just a few questions to ask. You can locate some more examples by searching for guided reading questions or look at this link “Guided Reading Prompts and Questions to Improve Comprehension.”  Note that many questions will be too difficult for toddlers to answer at their stage of development, but these are the type of questions teachers ask. As your toddler matures, you can add more sophisticated questions to your discussions.

Your questions for your toddler will be more successful if you add details about the story you are reading. 

Two Different Types of Books to Read

There are picture books that you read aloud to your child. And then there are those picture books your child reads to you. These are very different types of books, each with their own purpose and structure.

1 –Read-Aloud (Picture Books Made for Children to Listen to)

These books are written by children’s authors to be read aloud by parents. The stories teach moral lessons, entertain, familiarize children to a story format, and build the child’s vocabulary. They are not created for the child to read by him or herself. These read-aloud picture books are the children’s versions of adult fictional stories. They can be non-fiction too. Many boys prefer non-fictional books to storybooks. With toddlers, you can introduce both types of read-aloud stories, fictional and non-fiction books.

Here are a few of my favourite read-aloud books.

Any picture book by Leo Lioni is superb. The illustrations are outstanding and so are the morals of the story.

This National Geographic series is non-fiction. Many boys prefer non-fiction books to stories. If your toddler doesn’t want to listen to stories try a nonfiction book.

Any book by Richard Scarry will fascinate the future engineeer in your life. You can explain so many different concepts through these diagrams.

This book has the added attraction of a peek through section. Toddlers are fascinated with surprises. This is a also an early learning science book.

2 –Story Books for Children to Read (commonly known as leveled books in education)

Beginning Leveled Books: These books at first may look like the standard read-aloud picture books, but they are written with limited vocabulary. The very easy to read books may have no more than 10 or 20 words to tell the story. They are made so that the child with limited phonetic knowledge can read the sentences to make sense. Many educational systems rely on these leveled books. Children in school progress from level 1 or level A throughout at least 30 progressively harder books, while learning how to read.

First Little Readers A level is a way to get your child started to read aloud with books that have limited vocabulary to ensure success.

Bob Books are a different set of early readers. Parents are thrilled with the success they can achieve with these books. Bob books follow the preferred introduction of letter sounds. (not ABC order)

Grades K to 3: In many of the first 3 grades in schools, you will find versions of leveled books. Several developers offer a wide range of level 1 or level A books for interest and variety. So, there are a wide variety of stories and non-fiction books ranging from the very easiest of text to much more complicated versions. The books are very carefully constructed to increase the amount and difficulty of vocabulary from easily sounded out words to more difficult words (known as sight words). Besides, these books move from very short individual sentences to include longer sentences and many different forms of communication, including questions, paragraphing, conversations, and other literary formats. 

 Grades 4 to 6: In the junior division of school, in many educational systems, the reading program depends on easy to read to more challenging books. Still, by then, most children do not need such a controlled environment to understand the story or non-fictional concepts of the books. They can understand storybooks written by real authors instead of reading stories that are written to enhance reading skills. In grade K to 3 the focus is on “learning to read. From grade 4 onward it changes to “reading to learn.” Teachers do work on comprehension, vocabulary building and introducing different genres.

Both of these types of books, parental read-aloud books, and child read-aloud books,  have very different purposes, and it is essential to distinguish between the 2 types, so that you can use them appropriately.

In Summary: Parent Read-Aloud

With the parent read-aloud picture books, parents read the stories and ask pertinent questions. These books are written to entertain, to teach moral lessons, and to build sophisticated concepts.

In Summary: Child Read-Aloud

The child read-aloud books are designed to provide practice for developing reading skills. With the child read-aloud stories, children who have mastered some vocabulary, depend on leveled books to read aloud. They are growing and practicing independent reading skills.  


Continue your Understanding

To continue to investigate the 3 other aspects about helping your child learn to read, please request the rest of the article. There is much more to understand about helping your child learn to read. It is important to include all 4 aspects of an excellent reading program. So far, you have information about one out of the four aspects: ways to enhance comprehension.  

Along with the information about the 3 other aspects are many more resources to support your efforts.  And the rest of the article outlining these 3 different parts of learning to read is offered at no cost. 

2)   Explicit instruction in language awareness (rhyming words, number of syllables, alliteration – Sammy, the slithery snake, etc. )

3)   Systematic phonics instruction (beginning sounds, ending sounds, blends, vowels) NOT ABC ORDER

4)   Methods to improve fluency  (vocabulary development, choral reading, pattern books)”

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