21 “Sense-ational” Ways of Teaching Early Reading Skills

Girl reading aloud to her teddy bears

We know that teaching early reading skills using methods that utilize the senses—not just by looking at printed words on a page—is very effective. The good news is that you can do this easily at home. Added bonus: it’s fun, too!

Hands-On (Kinesthetic)

This active approach helps engage your child both physically and mentally. Young children learn quickly through play and movement; take advantage of this preference with activities like these.

girl cutting paper letters

Sensory Letters

  • Cut letters out of interesting textures like sandpaper, brown paper bags, or foam board.
  • If your child is old enough, you can trace the letters and have him cut them out.
  • When you play letter games together (like talking about letter names and sounds), have your child pick up the letter and trace it with her finger.

Letter (or Sight Word) Twister

  • Using a Twister mat (or a homemade version), tape index cards with letters or short words on each dot. Then play Twister using the letters or words instead of the usual version.

Sidewalk Chalk Letter Practice and Word Building

girl practicing her letters with chalkWrite individual letters on the ground. Then…

  • Call out letter sounds (“NNNNN!”) and ask your child to run and stand on them.
  • Call out a letter name (“P!”). When your child runs and stands on it, ask him to say the letter’s sound.
  • If your child is able, call out short words (“cat!”). Have your child run to each letter, pause, and then go to the next. Then have her write the word herself with the chalk.

Alphabet (or Sight Word) Scramble

  • Scatter foam or magnetic letters on the ground. Ask your child to pick them up as you call them out, and then tell you the sound of the letter.
  • Older kids can see how many words they can build out of the scattered letters in 30 seconds for a fun challenge.

Taste and Smell

You can really get creative in this category as your kids eat (and smell) their letters and words!

  • Put some pudding or yogurt on a cookie sheet. Ask your child to trace letters or short words on the tray. Licking fingers is encouraged!
  • Letter foods like cookies, noodles or crackers are great for practicing letter sounds and building short words. Yum.
  • While you’re preparing a meal, ask your child to identify the ingredients or menu items–and then ask them to name the first letter sound and name. “Macaroni starts with M and sounds like MMMM!
  • Visit new places together that relate to stories you’ve read. For example, visiting a farm exposes your child to lots of smells and sights (and maybe even tastes) that he may have only read about before your trip.

Auditory (Listening)

  • Songs are one of the most fun ways to integrate sound into early literacy. Sing together, make up riffs on your favorite songs or rhymes, and let your child hear and say as many sounds—especially rhyming words—as you can.
  • Listen to audiobooks on your favorite device (or CD).
  • Read aloud to your child!
  • If your child is beginning to read, record his voice as he reads aloud; then let him follow along in the book as you play it back.
mother and boy playing with magnetic letters

Visual (Seeing)

  • Label everything! Write words like “door,” “wall,” and “window” on index cards. Walk around your house with your child and allow her to tape them where they belong. Leave them there until she can confidently read those words on her own.
  • Watching good educational television helps build your child’s literacy skills too. Almost anything on PBS Kids is a great bet.
  • Take a picture walk before you start a new book. Show your child the pictures in the book before you read, and share your ideas about what might happen in the story.
  • Magnetic letters on the fridge–a classic for a reason!

Let these suggestions get you started. Bring in your own creativity or things you have around your house to keep it going—and have fun as you help support your child’s growth as a reader using all her senses.

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