Is your child reading or just sounding words?

Parents should focus less on their child's ability to sound letters and words, and instead concentrate on encouraging their children to understand and relate stories.

Reading is not about the sounding of letters and words. This is the message that Zaliza Alias is trying to drill into parents.

The founder of the Genius Aulad Pre-School says that very often parents equate reading to an ability to sound out letters and words rather than comprehension or understanding of context, or even the ability to relate a story.

She says parents should stop being preoccupied with how fast their children can learn to sound letters and words, and instead encourage reading in any form. By reading, she also means being able to relate a story from pictures.

“Some children might like to read bottle labels or even pictures. If it involves language, content and communication – that is reading. Reading is not the sounding of words. This is something I want to advocate. I find that generally parents' expectations of their child's ability to read is about the sounding of letters and words.

“They think that if their child can sound 'Peter is here' then their child knows how to read. But, that's just it – that's just the sounding of letters; it doesn't go beyond that. Maybe your child might know the meaning of 'Peter is here' but will your child know how to put it in context or elaborate?” she asks.

Reading is a skill that is increasingly lost as the child goes to primary school where the emphasis is to do well and score high marks. At that point, children very often read more school books and give up on storybooks.

“They won't read for leisure or to seek knowledge, but for homework, because they are afraid of the teacher; afraid of the school grades and report card. They would have lost the pleasure of reading which begins from young when parents expect schools to make their child sound the words.

“I always tell parents not to keep asking when their child will start reading when they enrol in our school. It is actually a long process for a child to start reading,” informs Zaliza.

She believes that parents should not look at reading as the whole development – that when your child can sound words, he or she is clever and has a bright future.

“Increasingly we see that children don't do critical thinking, especially when they start going to school, and even more so when they are asked not to question and just follow what the teacher says,” laments Zaliza, who has 16 years' experience in the education line.


According to Zaliza, just looking at pictures and coming up with a story is part of the reading process; this is what is sometimes called pre-reading.

“Pre-reading can take a long time. It goes on until they grow up and become adults and read novels, even. If they have good pre-reading skills, if their pre-reading skills are mature enough, they can read better. It's like when you cook and really prepare all the ingredients well rather than using the instant ingredients. Cooking is fast but the preparation takes a long time; it is the same with reading,” she says.

The preparation in reading involves the bonding between child and parent, communication and the use of imagination. When children are pre-reading, they are not just looking at pictures, they also point at things in the picture – that involves hand-eye co-ordination. Pointing is an important part of reading, explains Zaliza. Some children can't focus long. They can only read short paragraphs of text before they lose interest. Practising hand-eye co-ordination for a longer time will help them maintain their attention span, especially if they spend more time pointing at all the items in the pictures.

Zaliza says that parents should also teach children to look at the details rather than merely looking at things on the surface.

Once they start reading, parents could encourage children to read labels at the supermarket or sign boards. This way, car rides and trips to the supermarket could be turned into educational and fun activities.

However, Zaliza says it should be a family practice without it being too intentional.


The ability to read is the same as other developments – each child moves at his or her own pace. Parents should not expect their child to read just because the neighbour's child of the same age can already read.

Zaliza stresses that there is no fixed age for when children should start reading.

Children will start sounding letters and reading when they are ready. And, as they grow up, they develop their reading style, which is influenced by the environment and how they are nurtured.

Zaliza expresses hope that parents would not be so quick to deduce what type of learner or reader (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) their child is based on whether the child likes to see picture books or books with text.

“Their learning behaviour evolves and it keeps developing. Don't confine the children to just one way of learning and reading. Keep giving them all sorts of exposure to books and reading. As parents, you know your child best so don't confine your child to terminologies,” advises Zaliza.

Parents should also not confine their child's reading material. According to Zaliza, boys seem to prefer manuals, magazines and comics rather than books. Rather than chide them for spending too much time on comics and magazines, parents should encourage any sort of reading.

Health issues

While each child develops at his or her own pace, parents should also notice if their child has other issues which affect their reading development.

For example, a child could have an eye problem or a learning disability. These typically come with other signs and symptoms and parents will have to monitor their child to notice them.

“I would encourage parents to keep looking for reasons (for why their child is developing at a different pace) as they observe their child,” says Zaliza.

Tips for parents

Here are her tips to parents:

- Don't limit reading to the mere sounding of letters and words.
- Don't confine reading to just books.
- Do spend time with your children and observe them. As you do various types of reading with them, you will observe more things about them.
- Focus on what your child can do, rather than what they can't do. Your child might learn differently from other kids. He or she might be better at storytelling, which is also part of the building blocks of communication.
- Have a routine for reading – a certain time of the day when the whole family reads.

“Read anywhere, any time, anything and have the right expectations of your child because reading is a whole development and not just the sounding of words,” concludes Zaliza.

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