Learning to read requires the mastering of three basic skills: syntax, semantics and phonics. Syntax is the way words, phrases and clauses go together to create sentences and paragraphs. Semantics is how words and sentences in a group relate to one another. Phonics refers to the sounds letters make and the relationship between written and spoken words.
As your preschooler learns to read, he will develop in all these areas. Most children, however, start understanding syntax and semantics before phonics. For example, he will learn that sentences in a book run from left to right before he understands what the letter combination “sh” sounds like. The best thing you can do to help your child grow in all three areas is to expose him to books and reading every day, whether by reading aloud at bedtime, going to story time at your local library or simply reading from the recipe as you make his dinner.
A child who grasps syntax has an awareness of written language. Syntax skills begin with an understanding of the structure of a book and the words and sentences within it. For example, when your preschooler was a baby, he held books upside down, sucked on them or used them as a mat to sit on. As a toddler, he started to understand that a book has a front and a back, that words are read from left to right and that the book progresses page by page. Once your child grasps the structure of a book, he’ll begin to understand what’s inside: words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. As your preschooler tackles new books, he’ll start to get to grips with the stops, starts and pauses in a sentence and the purpose of punctuation.
Here are some ways to develop syntax skills with your preschooler:
Read aloud books that rhyme. There are some great story books that rhyme, such as The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson. Or try a book of nursery rhymes. As you read, follow the words with your finger. This will show your preschooler how a sentence progresses, that a full stop represents a pause in the flow of the story and other relationships between written and spoken language. Write a letter with your child. Emphasise the different parts of the letter: introduction, sentences, paragraphs, closing.
Semantic skills include an ability to recognise and define words, to predict the plot of a story, understand the characters, to talk about the meaning of a whole paragraph or section of a book and to discuss a book as a whole after reading it. It also means being able to substitute words and differentiate words with similar meanings too. For example, “cup” and “mug”.
Here are some ways to encourage semantic skills with early readers:
Read books that tell stories. Fairytales are great for this.
Talk about the book as you read it. Ask your child to predict the end of the story.
Keep the flow going. When your child starts learning to read aloud, don’t stop mid-sentence to labour over a difficult word. If your child is stuck, say the word, explain the meaning, and then move on with the sentence. This encourages comprehension of the sentence and the rest of the story. Go back and review the word another time.
Phonics is the mechanical part of the reading process. It includes being able to sound out words and recognise word families, such as “ph” words and “th” words. Being able to differentiate between words that look alike, such as “big” and “bag” is part of it too. As well as being able to distinguish words with different letters but similar sounds, such as “four” and “phone”.
Here are some ways to encourage and develop phonics skills with early readers:
Go through rhyming books, nursery rhymes and songs with your child. With each rhyme, point out the words that look alike and discuss the difference in meaning. For example, how is “hat” different from “cat”?
Use alphabet books to discuss words that are the same and different in their beginning and end letter.
Write down the names of family members and friends, and sound out each name with your child. Group the names by first letter.
Get your child to read to you. When he comes across new or difficult words, pronounce and define them for him, and then let your child read the sentence again. Keep a mental note of any recurring problems.
Don’t name letters, sound them. When you are teaching your child about letters, use the sound: “a” as in apple, “b” as in banana, “c” as in cat.