Learning to read is a process, one that requires mastering three basic skills. These skills are syntax, semantics, and phonics. Syntax (grammar and punctuation) is the way words, phrases, and clauses go together to create sentences and paragraphs. Semantics is the way 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, or comprehension.
As your child learns to read, he will develop these cue areas as a group, not one at a time. Most children, however, start understanding syntax and semantics before phonics; that is, your preschooler 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 a recipe for making cookies.
A child who grasps syntax has an awareness of written language; that is, he understands the grammatical structure and the relationship of words to each other. Syntax skills begin with an understanding of the structure of a book and the words and sentences within it. For example, when your child was a baby, he held books upside down, gnawed on them, or used them as a mat to sit on. As a toddler, he started to understand that a book has a cover 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, eventually, chapters. As your child tackles new books, he'll begin to understand the stops and starts and pauses in a sentence and the purpose of punctuation.
Here are some ways to develop syntax skills with early readers:
• Read rhyming and word pattern books aloud. Authors such as Dr. Seuss are great for beginning readers. Books with repetitive word patterns such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss are good choices.
• As you read a book with your child, follow the words with your finger. This will show your child how a sentence progresses, that a period represents a stop in the flow of the story, and other relationships between written and spoken language.
• Write a letter with your child. Emphasize the parts of the letter: introduction, sentences, paragraphs, closing.
Here are some ways to encourage and develop syntax skills with intermediate and advanced readers:
• Continue to work on syntax skills with poetry. Try reading aloud books by poet Shel Silverstein.
• Read aloud with expression. Stop at all the stops, emphasize exclamation and question marks, pause at commas. Exaggerating these cues will help your child develop an appreciation for syntax.
• Practice sentence tenses. Take a favorite book and try to change the tense of the sentences. For example, change the text from "Today we're going to the park," to "Yesterday we went to the park." This technique will highlight grammatical structure.
Semantic skills include an ability to recognize and define words, to predict the plot of a story, understand the characters, and talk about the meaning of a whole paragraph or section of a book, and to discuss a book after reading it. Once your child masters semantics, he will grasp the meaning of long blocks of text and understand synonyms and antonyms. He will be able to substitute words ("bucket" for "pail," "cup" for "glass") and differentiate words with similar meanings.
Here are some ways to encourage and develop semantic skills with early readers:
• Read books that tell stories. "I call them paragraph books," says Janet Dynak, reading specialist and dean of the school of education at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. "Look for books with meat to them, books where the narrative is a story." Good choices for early readers include fairy tales, Stellaluna by Janell Cannon, Madeline's Rescue by Ludwig Bemelmans, and The Story of Babar by Jean De Brunhoff.
• Talk about the book as you read it. Ask your child to predict the end of the story. Ask, "How do you feel about what's happening? What do you think will happen next?"
• Keep the flow going. If your child is learning to read aloud, don't stop mid-sentence to labor 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.
Ways to encourage and develop semantic skills with intermediate and advanced readers:
• Again, read books that tell stories. Encourage developing and advanced readers to read longer books, especially ones that must be read over the course of a few days or weeks. Longer books encourage children to remember what was read (characters, events) and to predict what might come next. Less advanced readers might need to review material before they move on to a new chapter.
• Talk about the books as you read them. Even if your child is reading independently, discuss the book before and after story time. Ask your child to predict the end of the story and to explain the theme or moral. Ask, "How do you feel about what's happening?" "What do you think will happen next?" If your child is reading a chapter book gradually, you might want to review the material in each chapter before moving on to the next one.
• Create a personal dictionary. If your child has trouble with vocabulary, write down unknown words in a homemade dictionary as your child reads a book. Look up the words together later, write down the definition, and encourage your child to review the unknown words.
• Read to your child. No child is too old for this. Read part of a longer book aloud and with expression. Discuss the story at the end of each chapter, and encourage your child to ask questions about the story as you read, especially if your child doesn't understand a certain word. Or you can take turns reading: you read one page, your child reads the next.
Phonics is the mechanical part of the reading process — your child's ability to understand the sounds letters make in relationship to each other. Phonics ability includes being able to sound out words; recognize word families such as phwords, -at words, and th words; differentiate like words such as "big" and "bag"; and distinguish words with different letters but similar sounds such as "four" and "phone." Phonics skills also include an understanding of roots, prefixes, and suffixes (for example, knowing what non- or un- does at the beginning of a word) and differentiating homonyms, for example, "their" and "there" and "way" and "weigh."
Here are some ways to encourage and develop phonics skills with early readers:
• Go through rhyming books, nursery rhymes, chants, and songs with your child. With each rhyme, point out like words and discuss the difference (how is "cat" different from "hat"?).
• Use alphabet books to discuss words that are the same and different in their beginning and end.
• Write down the names of family members and friends, and sound out each name with your child. Group the names, for example, by first letter (Grandma and Grandpa, Mommy and Me, John and James).
Here are some ways to encourage and develop phonics skills with developing and advanced readers:
• Introduce your child to new reading material daily, such as newspapers and magazines. Use phonemic skills to sound out words and semantic skills to figure out meaning based on the context of the sentence or paragraph.
• Have your child 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. Keep a mental note of any recurring problems.