(Last Updated On: October 18, 2022)
Hello and thank you for taking the time to read: How to teach a 3 year old to read. My name is Ken Ray. I am a teacher in Auburn, Washington. I have a Master’s Degree in Early Elementary Education. More important than that, I have taught a wide range of students from Jumpstart Pre-kindergarten to 2nd grade and also served a year as a K-3 reading specialist. I have attended hundreds of hours of training solely focusing on the science of reading and how to help students learn how to read.
My wife and I have two children, eight and ten. Both kids came from us and yet, both were totally different in so many ways. Reading was no different. Teaching 3 year old children to read is unique. Every child is different. There is no cookie-cutter program that will work for everyone, that I know of anyways. If you have one let me know. Our children are perfect examples of this. More on that later! If your child is ready at 2, 3, 4 or 5 these are effective beginning steps that could be applied whenever your child is ready to start!
🎯 The Goal of this Post
Do I have all the answers? Sadly, no, but I have helped many kids improve their reading skills and have tricks and tips to help your child start to read. My goal with this post is to give you ideas and paths to build a strong base for your child to start to read. This post is based on phonemic awareness and phonics principles that will teach your child how to sound out words, not just create a bank of sight words that he/she memorizes.
Some of these steps may be basic, but they build on each other and follow a progression that will tie into more complex steps later on. If your 3 year old already has a skill, you don’t need to start from the beginning and do every step, but it would be extremely frustrating to a child to try to substitute sounds in a word if they cannot isolate the initial sounds.
The last comment I want to leave with you before diving in is this: Make learning to read fun. To teach a 3 year old to read is the hardest thing a child will learn how to do. It will be slow at first. If you see your child or you getting frustrated, stop for a while. Let them absorb the information and come back to it. There are age-appropriate skills that most kids have, some develop faster and some develop slower. Concepts that are hard for a 2 year old, come more naturally for a 3, 4, or 5 year old. If they are not understanding yet, be patient and give them time and love!
🗣️ Before Letter Introduction (Steps 1-5)
Step 1: Talk to Your Child
Our brains are wired for oral communication. We learn to talk and communicate quicker and easier than we learn to read. Children see and imitate mouths and sounds when being talked to. You know there are 26 letters in the English alphabet and 5 vowels. Did you know there are 44 sounds and 19 vowel sounds made by those letters? Exposure to all of the sounds will give your child the sound to attach a name to.
There is a delay in the development of students reading due to Covid. I think this is occurring because of multiple reasons. There are two big reasons. First, screen time is not equivalent to face time. Your kids will not pick up and imitate the sounds in the same way as you are talking, singing, reading to them versus putting them in front of a screen to watch Sesame Street, YouTube or even a live teacher on Zoom. The second reason is the masks did not let them visually see the oral formation of the sounds when in person.
Talking to your babies/toddlers is the first step. Having them imitate the sounds and repeat the sounds is the first step. Enjoy and record the transformation from baby talk to toddler talk to… “Well actually father, you are incorrect.” It goes by so fast.
Step 2: Isolating the First Sound in Spoken Words
Why: You want to teach a 3 year old child to read by starting to realize that words are made of sounds (the technical term is phonemes if you are interested in that kind of stuff) remember there are 44 phonemes. They include the consonants, long/hard vowels, short/soft vowels, digraphs (Ex. /sh/, /th/, /ch/), r-controlled vowels (Ex. /ar/, /er/, /or/) and vowel teams (Ex. /ou/, /oy/, /oo/, etc.). You can move to the next steps once your child gets a grasp of the concept. *** / / indicates the sound the letter(s) makes, not the name of the letter.***
You are now speaking to your child; easy words, complex words. They will start to imitate the words. The next thing to do to teach your 3 year old to read (again it could be at 1 or 2 if they are ready) is to isolate the first sound in the word.
- Say the first sound in a word then say the whole word. For example you could say: /b/ – bottle before giving your kiddo a bottle, you could say, “Sit in the /ch/ chair.” Picture books are great to do this with: hard/long /e/ Eagle, /h/ house and /d/ drum (blends like /dr/ are more complex and almost have a /jr/ sound, stick to easy words in the beginning). You are not introducing letters yet, just letter sounds. Make a game out of it. Look out though, you might find yourself doing it at random times to random people!
Tip: It is okay to move on if they have the concept of first sound but cannot pronounce all of the sounds yet (Ex. for many students before second grade the /r/ sound may sound like a /y/). As long as they can recognize your /r/ sound and they are consistent in their use (all /r/ sounds like /y/) you can proceed to the next step.
Step 3: Isolating the Final Sound
Why: Isolating the last sound is the next easiest sound to isolate. Again you want your child to understand words are just a series of sounds, so that when we introduce letters they can assign the sound to the series of letters (graphemes – again if you are interested in technical terms).
This is very similar to step 2. Looking at picture books or objects and say the word and then the last sound. Ex. holding up a book to your child, say “book /k/.” Be careful, words are tricky. Let’s take the word “little” for example the last sound is not the last letter. Say “little,” the last sound is /l/ not /e/ the grapheme that represents the phoneme /l/ is “le” in the word little. If I got too technical, just remember to repeat the last sound you hear, not the last letter.
Tip: avoid words ending in the letter “x” starting off. “X” makes two sounds /ks/. You don’t want to confuse your kiddo on the verge of getting this concept and giving them “block /k/”, “blocks /s/”, and “box /ks/.” Once they have this concept move to the next step.
Step 4: Highlighting the Middle Sound
Why: Hopefully you are not asking why by now, but why now? Isolating the middle sound is the most difficult of the 3 sounds.
The best time to do this is in a simple CVC (consonant – vowel – consonant) word. These are words like cat, dog, map, bun, fib. You are not isolating the middle sound like in the previous steps, but instead emphasizing the middle sound and holding it a little longer than the other two sounds, like s-aaaaaaaa-d.
Step 5: Teach Your 3 Year Old Order
Why: In order to teach a 3 year old to read, you need to teach order so that you can introduce structure and format.
You can teach (from left to right) first, middle, last. I usually use little patches of colored felt squares, 5 different colors are enough. Start with 3 squares. I usually use red for vowel sounds, so the red square is always in the middle. The others you want to mix them up every time, so your child doesn’t mistake color for first instead of position for first.
- Put 3 felt squares in a line from left to right.
- Push the left square up and say, “first.”
- Put it back in line and repeat.
- Then mix the squares up and put out 3 different colors and repeat the process.
- Mix them up again, only this time have your child say it with you and as you move up the square.
- Mix them up and do it again until they are doing it before you.
- Then mix them up and have your child line up 3 squares and push the left one up and say, “first.”
- When your little one says “first” consistently when pushing up the correct square, you are ready to move on to “last.”
Progression upon mastery, don’t move too on early to avoid confusion
Repeat the same process only this time push the far right square up and say, “last.”
Repeat the process only this time push the middle square up and say, “middle.”
🔠 Letter Introduction and Segmentation (Step 6a, 6b and 6c)
(These next steps can be done concurrently. You can work on the next few steps together until mastery. Some may take longer than others.)
Step 6a: Teach Letter Names
Why: Children at this point are starting to understand words are made of sounds. Now we are connecting sounds to their corresponding letter names.
I bought 2 sets of foam letters that float in the bathtub. One for the bathtub and one for the living room. These worked great and were great for games. I made the mistake of trying to teach my kid all of the letters all at once. I would suggest 3-5 new letters a week.
- Hold the letter up, say “The letter name is __”, then put it down.
- Pick it up again. Say, “Say it with me now, the letter name is __”, then put it down.
- When that is achieved, have your child pick it up and you say, “The letter name is?” and your child should say the letter name.
Move to the next letter. Doing this with only 3-5 letters will go fast and should not lead to frustration. If there is any frustration with you or your child take a break and try later. Make this fun and enjoyable for your little one and for you. 5-10 minutes, 2-3 times throughout the day. In a little over a month your child should be able to recognize most of the letters of the alphabet instantly. Bath time is a great time to do this with the floating letters!
Step 6b: Teach Letter Sounds
Teaching letter sounds are similar to teaching letter names. The week after you introduce the letters and are reviewing their names, you can start to add in the sounds. Letter A makes the /a/ sound like in /a/ apple. The same process of “I do, we do together, you do” can be used if it doesn’t come easily. (use the short vowel sounds and the most common letter sounds; ex. the letter C can say /k/ and /s/ like in cat and city. use the hard /k/ for c and hard /g/ for g).
You can teach letter names and sounds together after the first week. Introduce the new letter names and review the previous weeks letter names and add the letter sounds. They will now have a name to attach the sound to in their brain, known as an anchor.
Tip: Once your child knows a variety of letters, toss the letters on the floor and have them pick up a specific letter and ask them what sound it makes. Ex. pick up the letter “D,” good job, what sound does “D” make? Yes, /d/! Great job.
Don’t teach the letters in alphabetical order. You can make more CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words earlier on as they learn letters if you do it in a different order. I use this order in school:
m a s t p i n k c o d h e f r b l u g w v x j q y z (Once they’ve mastered uppercase, introduce lowercase letters)
Step 6c: Introduce CVC Word Segmentation
Why: While they are learning the shapes of letters, we can also be teaching them to read from left to right so that when they start reading, they will immediately look for the first sound, middle sound and last sound.
CVC words are words made up of 3 sounds, a beginning sound / short vowel sound / ending sound.
- Take the felt squares, put 3 out, run your hand across the bottom of the squares and say a CVC word. “Cat.”
- Say the first sound /c/ as you push up the first square.
- Say /a/ as you push up the middle square.
- Say /t/ as you push up the last square.
- Run your hand under the 3 squares and say the word again “cat.”
Do this with your child in your lap and push up the tiles together. As they start to get it, let them do it on their own. You can do this without letters. Remember these are just sounds right now so words like fish are perfect (/f/ /i/ /sh/). This is where I usually represent all vowel sounds with a red square and usually in the middle for consistency for the kids.
Reinforcing Segmentation with Games
During this time also use the stretch and smash, roller-coaster and beginning sound addition games to reinforce the segmentation concept.
- Stretch and Smash – Put your hands together and say the first sound /c/ as you say the middle sound, stretch apart your hands and when you say the last sound /t/ your hand should stop stretching and then you smash them together saying the word “cat.”
- Roller-coaster – Start your hand going from right to left saying the letter sounds. First sound /c/ and then the roller-coaster hand goes up with the /a/ middle sound and goes down with the final sound /t/. Then go through the roller-coaster faster and faster until you hear the word cat and not just sounds.
- Beginning Sound Addition – Use a CVC word, like “cat.” If your child is facing you, hold your left hand out and say “at.” Motion your hand and have your child bring down their right hand and have your child say, “at.” Then bring your right hand down and say, “add /c/.” Have your child repeat the motion with their left hand and then clap your hands together at the same time saying, “cat.” Once your child understands the concept switch the initial sounds; use single consonants at first, then add blends after it gets easier for your child. (/b/ /h/ /th/… then make it a little harder /fl/ /br/ /st/… they do not have to be real words. After they have figured it out, switch out the ending sounds /at/ and use a different /in/ or /ug/.
Tip: All of these activity movements in the videos are based on your child facing you. If your child is facing you, you must do the hand movements and felt square movements mirrored for all the activities. Sounds easy, but practice first! Look at yourself in the mirror and see if you are doing it right. I may or may not have confused my first kindergarten class on more than one occasion. Shhhhh!
📚 Now Your 3 Year Old is Ready to Start to Read Words
Step 7: Introducing Letters to the Segmenting
Once your child knows a few of the letters and letter sounds and has practiced segmenting with the felt squares, you can now substitute the squares for the letters. Put the letters in a line instead of the felt. M – A – T. Use the same steps from Step 6c only this time make the connection between the sound and the letter, then run your hand under the word and say, “mat.”
The words you make do not even have to be real words. Think about it most words children will encounter when starting to read will be nonsense words to them until they can assign a meaning. Being able to decode the word is what is important. Speed is key in this. Even though they can do this skill, you can always improve on how fast they can do it. When teaching reading, the speed of segmenting is a key indicator of how kids read. This and how fast they can identify different letters in a row will be timed up through first grade.
Tip: Remember kids learn differently. Our oldest daughter was quicker at picking up on this skill than our younger daughter. Be patient, it may click right away, or you may need to revisit the felt squares more until they make the connection. It could even be a matter of motivation. Our youngest needed extrinsic rewards to stay engaged. I gave her an M&M when she did it correctly and she really got into it more. Make it fun however you can!
Step 8: Ready to Read Books!
When you are teaching reading, it is tough at first. There is no payoff for your child learning letters or sounds. It does not do anything for them really, but now is the more engaging part. They don’t have to read every word in the book. You read the book up until CVC words come along and then it’s their turn. Pretty soon they will be doing more CCVC (like “slap” or “stop”) and CVCC (like “bend” or “felt”) words. Now is the time when you will be posting on Facebook… My 3 year old child read his/her first book.
Prepare yourself, your little one may not need help with the picture books anymore. Between the pictures and the first sounds of the word, he/she will figure it out all on their own. You may want to cry for pride and/or sadness that they don’t need you anymore! These words will become sight words and your child’s reading will start moving faster and faster.
My oldest child picked up reading very quickly, she was reading by the age of 3. My youngest was a little slower in developing reading skills, mostly I think because she had a sister to play with and that was more fun than reading. Do not force reading, let it come. Give incentives. My wife started making cookies and she got a cookie after every reading session. I recommend starting with a s’mores cookie!
These are steps every kindergarten and first grade reading program builds around. Parents, I guarantee if your child has any of these steps down before 5 years old they will be better readers than most students entering school. The first 5 years of life are where everyone learns the most. A little work daily will pay huge dividends in your child’s educational future. Kids who enter school ahead, stay ahead and the gap only grows for most students.
Keep it fun, stressless and pressure-free. Only use rewards, the last thing you want to do is make reading not fun. Take breaks. Enjoy the time together and know you are making a huge difference even if you only get one step in!
Once your child gets the basics of reading CVC words, start exposing them to the Magic/Silent “e” and long vowels following the steps. Introduce it as a_e, e_e, i_e,o_e and u_e. After that more vowel teams and alternate consonant sounds, like C that make /s/ and S that makes /z/.
Your child is already better than most for having a parent taking the time to read posts like this!!!
Question: Can a 3 Year Old Learn to Read?
Answer: Yes! While every child progresses differently, these steps can be practiced by every 3 year old. The speed of mastery will be different in every child. I know they were in both of mine.
Question: Is There a Certain Font that is Better than Others to Teach a 3 Year Old to Read?
Answer: There are debates about that. In my experience, as long as it is big enough (14-24) there is no distinct difference. After learning letters well, I like to vary fonts so that children can recognize the letters in a variety of fonts. Time New Roman is the most popular font, so I would use that starting out.
Question: Do I Have to Use Felt Squares?
Answer: No, anything colorful can be used, I just find felt slides across the table and couch easy and my kids didn’t want to put it in their mouths.
Question: Why Teach Them Skills They Will Learn in Kindergarten and First Grade?
Answer: Building this skill early will create more connections in the brain. Going into kindergarten reading books will make them leaders in the classroom and give them more confidence. Knowing how to read will make them more curious about learning and will set them up for future success!
Question: Is This Everything?
Not a chance. There are many learning-to-read programs out there. This is the basic beginning. After this, you can substitute initial sounds, final sounds or medial sounds. You can learn about word families and rhyming. Hopefully, I just started you out down the path to effective and efficient reading. I hope you will end up with the same problem that I now have with my daughters. They can read many grade levels above their age; but the question is, what is appropriate for them to read? Just because they can, it doesn’t mean they should be reading it… but that’s a subject for a different post!
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A husband and father to two daughters, Kylie and Kaycie. Ken is an elementary school teacher with two master’s degrees and extensive experience working with children. When he is not teaching in the classroom, he can also be found coaching kids in sports, being active, and playing with his goldendoodle dog.
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