Road to Reading:
Two Skills You Must Teach Your Little One to Master

Learning to read is challenging. If we start early and do it often we will help our children with this vital skill. We have the mom advantage in helping them learn to read in those early years.

With Kristie Shelley

Crissy Fishbane: Kristie Shelley is the founder of The Mom Advantage where she curates easy, fun research-backed activities that moms can do with their little ones so that they can impact their reading later. She has a master’s in education, is a former teacher and literacy educational director, and a current language product director. She is also the former VP of her own language company that she started and sold to a major ed-tech company. An impressive resume and we are so honored to have you join us so that we can learn from you.


Kristie Shelley: Thank you! I always love to start with gratitude. So thank you to all of you. Number one, to Crissy and Cindi for having me. I’m super excited to be here. Number two, for those of you that are up still. After these long days, kids and working, trying to keep the house clean. My daughter is really into building forts right now, with the sheets and the books stacked… oh my goodness, I’m tired. She told me before I came to this, “Mommy, I hope you stay awake for this” and I said, “Yeah, me too because I have to talk!”


Thank you for that awesome introduction. I will elaborate to that slightly and while I do what I want you to do is go into the chat and tell me the age of your children, that way if we have a lot of 7-year-olds I can swing that way, if we have a lot of 3-year-olds I can swing that way, or if it’s all over the map I can just keep it kind of balanced out.


Learning to read is a long journey. There’s a lot of things we can do along the way to help them with that.


Before we start, just a little more about me. If you just joined, I do live in the Boston area. We actually just moved from the city into the ‘burbs, so this is a new life for us. But we have space and we also are under full construction. We demoed our house and we are living in it while we are building it.


As Crissy mentioned, I was a teacher and then I spent a lot of my career as an educational consultant and sadly spent a lot of my time teaching teachers how to intervene in reading. Most of my career was helping them with kids that couldn’t read in third grade, sixth grade, that still hadn’t quite grasped that concept. I had a lot of time to reflect on this.


Wow, this is really interesting. Why has nobody fixed this yet? Why is this still going on?


Fast forward and I became a mom. I realized there is so much you can do now that can help them in the third, fourth, fifth-grade years. So, why aren’t we starting now?


In between becoming a mom and that consulting career I did start my own company with my friend and we wrote curriculum for English Language Learners. We were eventually bought out by an ed-tech company that I actually still work for, so I have a day job. This is my side gig, but it’s actually my volunteer space. I was having a hard time finding a space to volunteer and I thought I want to do this, but I have this job over here that I love, why not volunteer here.


I was the one that all my friends would come to ask for advice, so I decided to create a space where everyone could come and see what I’ve done with my daughter and that I tell my friends to do with their kids to help prepare them for reading.

The Mom Advantage

So, with that evolved The Mom Advantage. The Mom Advantage to me is backed by research and love. Research shows that 90% of a little one’s brain is developed before they enter kindergarten. In fact, for some, it’s around age four and some even age three. Everyone’s different.


To me, that’s saying okay this is my responsibility in those years to give my child everything I can. What’s one thing that goes with them everywhere? It’s reading.


If I could give him or her the foundation they need to be successful, I have an advantage, right? It’s the Mom Advantage. I have them at this time and I can make the most of it.


I think the mom advantage can go in so many different directions. You can teach your little one to be happy, or kind, there is a lot of things you can do during these early brain-development years that no one can ever take from you.


It just so happens that reading is my jam. That is the direction that I’ve gone with The Mom Advantage.


There are so many ways I could take this, but for our purposes tonight I decided to just focus on two skills that will help you teach your little one to be ready for reading.


If we start early and we do it often our kids will be ready to read.


There is a really really sad statistic that sometimes I don’t like to share because it can scare people, but 65% of fourth-graders in our country do not read at grade level.  Can you imagine what is going to happen with all that is going on right now in our world today?


There is a saying, the “summer slide” and now we have the “quarantine slide” where because kids aren’t learning and they’re not in educational environments that the slide is going to be even steeper.  There is a lot of people doing statistical analysis on it right now to figure that out.


But, there is good news. As a mom, as a parent, you have an advantage. You have them with you right now and there are so many things you can do to help them.


Learning to read is really hard. It’s very complicated. We’ll talk about some of those aspects, but laying the foundation is really easy. Helping them at an early age is really easy to do.


You just have to know a couple of things and some fun activities we are going to do today and you are going to be in really good shape to help your little ones.

Research shows that 90% of a little one’s brain is developed before they enter kindergarten. In fact, for some, it’s around age four and some even age three. Everyone’s different. To me, that’s saying okay this is my responsibility in those years to give my child everything I can. What’s one thing that goes with them everywhere? It’s reading.

Becoming a Reader

What does it take to become a reader?


When you think about all the steps and processes you need to become a reader you can kind of narrow it down to these five things.


  1. Print and book awareness – What is a book? How do I hold it? How do I turn the pages from left to right? Reading left to right, front to back. Those are things that you just do naturally. Little ones usually pick up on those things. There are specific activities you can do, but those usually get picked up in a natural environment just simply by reading with them. 
  2. Language and Listening Skills – Just talk to them. There is an awesome study – I’m going to try not to get too academic because I can go down a rabbit hole – that was done in the ’50s by Hart and Risley. They went into littles one’s homes from when they were born until when they were three years old once a week and they would tally every word that little one was spoken to. They followed a bunch of learners. Once they got into third grade, they checked in on those same kids again. Those little ones that were spoken to more from 0-3 years old were better readers. Just having listening language skills – can they tell you how they got that boo boo? Can they ask for a cup of water? Those are things that are naturally going to come in through conversation and simply talking with them. 
  3. Alphabetic Knowledge – the alphabet! Hint, hint, that’s one of the things we are going to talk about today. 
  4. Phonological Awareness – this might sound like a really fancy word, but it includes things like rhyming and understanding phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word. Like “cat”  – “c” is the first phoneme in cat. 
  5. Interest in learning to read – this is the big one! But that comes from you! That comes from your sharing and loving books with your little one.


Of these five things, some of them come really naturally just by you reading with them, writing in front of them. But there are two that actually need extra support and these are the two that we are going to focus on today.


Alphabetic Knowledge and Phonological Awareness are academic terms you’ll hear in the classroom and on academic papers, but we are going to make it even easier than that because we are also going to bring in really easy activities that can support these particular areas.

Skill #1: Letter Awareness

Let’s start with an easy one, that’s actually not that easy. I think we take for granted the alphabet. If I were to ask you how many letters are in the alphabet you would probably say 26.


Pretty easy, right? But, that’s not the answer. There is actually 52. 


If you think about it and just look at the words on the screen. Does that uppercase “A” look the same as the lowercase “a” below it?


If you think about fresh young eyes that know nothing about letters, it would be just like you learning a new language. If you were learning the characters in Chinese you have to learn each and every aspect of that. Think about learning the letters of our alphabet like learning Chinese.


Children need to learn that the uppercase and lowercase “A” are different and are used in different places. They are learning 52 letters and it is a long process. You are probably reading them an ABC book in the womb. By the time they get to kindergarten they should know most of their letters, though not every child will. It takes a long time though, that’s five years spent learning that because it’s hard.


They need to know the letter names, the letter shapes, and eventually, the letter sounds. The letter sounds come a little bit later. Some kids pick up on them super quickly. But, if we don’t know the names and the shapes first, the sound will actually get confusing. So we focus on the names and shapes first so they can really have that solid foundation.


If they don’t have this letter awareness, learning to read is going to be really hard. You’re using so many different skills. You’re taking this visual of letters, you’re taking what you’re hearing from the sound, you’re taking vocabulary and trying to bring all of this together and it’s a big cognitive load.


If they can master the shapes and names of letters before they get into kindergarten, learning to read is going to be a breeze.


Kindergarten teachers are often trying to catch up. They are trying to do it all at once. If we just slow down and talk about the letter names and shapes before kindergarten, learning the sounds and connecting that together will be so much easier for them.


Let’s jump into some of the activities we can do to support this.

Letter Awareness Games

We all know the ABC song. That’s fun. That’s a great way to learn the letters. But, how many of you thought, “LMNOP” was one letter when you were younger?  A lot of these activities get them to think about the letters as individuals versus just a song.


Song is important because you’re also teaching them rhythm and rhyme and all of those wonderful things, but let’s talk letters.


With Silly ABC’s what I’m actually doing is when I get to a letter, instead of saying the letter I’m saying a word that starts with that particular letter. I try to do it in the purest form – goat has that “guh” sound.


What this does is it gets them to really listen first. First and foremost, just purely listen.


I probably started doing this with my daughter around age two. She didn’t quite get it at first. This video is of her at almost four. It’s something that tunes their ear. We want them to get that sequence but also listen for each individual letter.


For the itty bitty little ones another way you can get them to listen for each individual alphabet letter is to just simply clap as you say each letter. This will help them make that physical connection to those letters.


You can also have them clap out their name. This will help them make a connection between clapping out the letters of the alphabet and clapping out the letters of their name. Then you will take that a step further and physically teach them the way their name looks written. The way it is written on their blanket and the wall and talking about specific letters.


You can do an alphabet hunt where you’re looking around the house, you’re looking in books, in signs. Those are all natural things we do, but you can really help them look at letters for meaning this way. There is a reason these letters are sequenced in this particular way in my name. There is a reason that sign has those letters sequenced in that way to spell the name of that store. You’re starting to connect letters with meaning for them.


With all these activities you’ll notice there is no stuff. I don’t have you cutting out letters or glue and scissors anywhere. These are all things you can just do while you’re sitting at the dinner table.


Another game is Sing to ABC. I actually love this activity so much I’m writing a book about it. It is so helpful.  I didn’t introduce this to her until about age three or four. She’s seven now and still loves to play this. 


You’re singing and you’ve picked a letter that you will sing to, then you have them stop when they get to that letter. It’s getting them to focus in on particular letters rather than looking at it as this global song. It’s showing them that there is actually meaning to the ABC song.


These next games in Letter Awareness take it a little farther along to where they need to understand the letter shapes. Getting them to know the letter in their name, family member’s names, the dog’s name. They don’t have to know every single letter before they enter kindergarten, but it’s really important that they know their name and at least a few other letters. They usually know about 18 of the 26 capital letters. But then you can also bring in sounds.


So for Virtual Letters, let’s say we are using the letter “D.” I might draw a D on their hand as I make the “d” sound. Give them that tactile feel. I can’t count how many times at night as my daughter is laying in bed I’ve drawn letters on her back or her face just to get that physical feel in. 


For Beginning Sounds, you would think through all the words you can come up with that start with that particular letter.


I pull back a little from going too heavy on the sounds because I really feel that if they don’t know the actual physical letter and can say it and recognize it, the sounds shouldn’t come in quite yet. They’ll come in naturally and they’ll do it as they learn, but I wouldn’t push it until they are really secure in understanding those letters.


These are probably a lot of things you already do because that’s what moms do right? Come up with awesome fun games to play with your kids!

Brain Science

Let’s take a step back for a second and talk about Brain Science. They say our brains are wired for language. We know that because babies come out with language right away, their language is crying. Eventually, they start to babble and then they fit all those words together. Reading on the other hand is a learned skill. That’s not something we come out just able to do.


So what we want to do at this age and stage is take advantage of what we are wired for and that is language. That’s why phonological awareness is so important.


I often say phonics gets all the credit for being the most important thing in reading, but the most important thing in reading is phonological awareness. It’s that rhyme and that phonemic awareness. If you don’t have phonemic awareness, which I’ll talk about in a second, reading won’t happen.

Skill #2: Sound Awareness

I’m going to call this second skill sound awareness and it is totally different from what we were talking about with sounds and letters. The fancy name is phonological awareness. Phonological Awareness is an umbrella that includes rhyme and phonemic awareness.


So, we are going to take advantage of language. There is a reason you sing songs and do nursery rhymes. You probably don’t know why, you just do it because that’s what we do. But there is a reason for it.


What you’re doing when you’re singing songs and doing nursery rhymes with your little one is you are tuning their ear to sound.


When we learn a language we have to first tune our ear to the sound of that language. One of the ways to do that is through rhyme. Rhyme is really important because it gives that “things are alike” mentality, so we can say this is a cup and that is a pup and recognize some similarities between those words.


First, we master this in oral language. You have to master the oral language before you can master the written language. We are going to do that with rhyme.


Rapid Rhyme they don’t even have to say real words. When you’re rhyming it’s just about rhyming. They know in a three-year-old their future reading ability if they can rhyme.


Another game we play is I Spy A Rhyme. You can take I Spy and do anything with it. Another important thing I want to note is I used to play these rhyme games with her all the time. I thought she was good and she had it, so we stopped playing them. When I picked it up with her later she had completely forgotten how to do it. So it’s one of those things that’s use it or lose it. So I’ve gone back to doing it weekly with her. She’s still learning, even at age seven.


We just go back and forth and again it’s just tuning their ear to that sound which is so important when it comes to reading. 


The second half of Sound Awareness is the phonemic awareness I mentioned before.


People think that if you have dyslexia you are seeing letters backward and that’s not true, it’s actually not having phonemic awareness. But they’ve found if you start doing these activities and those rhyming activities I just showed you early then those kids that have dyslexia will do better. If you train and rewire their brain for phonemic awareness they will do better. People that are born with dyslexia — their brain is just wired differently so they have to work extra hard in phoneme awareness, hearing those sounds in the words that we speak.


There is a ton of things you can do, like counting the words in a sentence. You won’t know how many words a person said if you were just learning a new language. “I went to the store.” If we count those five words out loud that can help kids grasp the concept.


Clapping syllables can help them get into the sounds and rhythms, even just of the syllables in your names.


Tugboat Speed Boat is for those older kids, six or seven, even older. You’re getting them to master that oral language. I’m going to say a word really slow and then have you say it fast. That’s getting them to practice reading without reading. It helps them orally blend words together.


This helps them with spelling, it’s called First Sound. It helps them think about what that first sound is. Notice she doesn’t say the letter, just the sound. We are teaching letter and sound skills separately. Eventually, they will come together and that’s what reading is all about.


I hope you understand the value of laying the foundation with that letter awareness and sound awareness. I could probably go on for two hours about sound awareness and there are a lot of fun games you can play with it.


You can find many more videos on The Mom Advantage website.


You can always reach out to me at


The best thing you can do is talk, and ask questions, and have them talk back to you. Then play with it. Just start being silly and working in rhymes and sounds. It does get a little more complicated as they get older with things like spelling

Question & Answer with Kristie

Cindi Michaelson: My daughter struggles a lot with spelling.


Kristie Shelley: I’m open to you emailing me with any questions.  We could talk a lot about that. I can show you where to start, but that initial sound is so important. I see with my daughter now, she’ll go to spell a word and the first thing I ask her is how many sounds are in the word. The only reason she can do that is because I’ve trained her with all these activities that I’ve showed you up to this point. It’s not something they can just do right away. I say train and that sounds horrible. But, you do, you train their ear to be able to work through it.


Like the word “chat.” How many sounds are in chat? Ch -a- t. There’s only three sounds. But. now let’s spell each of those sounds. First sound “ch.” How do you spell it? Ch. Second sound? a. How do you spell it? A.etc.  If you can get them to break down words it will be much easier for them.


I grew up in a whole-language environment, that’s what the ’70s and ’80s were. I was a horrible speller until I became a teacher and started learning this process. Oh, there’s sounds! Oh, there are rules! But you have to start tuning their ear now.


Cindi Michaelson: I think it’s the rules that start to trip them up as they get older. My oldest still spells phonetically, so she misses a lot of silent e’s.


Kristie Shelley: You know what though, I would tell you that that’s better. At least the phonetics are there. That’s a good thing. That tells you that she’s actually sounding things out. That’s a great path to be on. Now she’s at the point that she has to start following those rules. That’s hard. English is such a hard language.  You have the silent e’s, the ei’s, the ai’s. There’s so many rules that they have to learn. That’s exposure.


There are some rules —  and I’d love to help you — that you can teach that is really helpful. The English language is only 84% phonetic and rule-following, then you have to memorize all the other stuff.


Member: One of mine is starting kindergarten next year and I hear a lot about sight words. How much of that just comes on its own and how much is more specific, in addition to the fun games?


Kristie Shelley: I’m so glad you asked that. High frequency or sight words are really valuable.


I will never forget being at my daughter’s kindergarten orientation and I raised my hand and asked the teachers when they started teaching sight words. They didn’t give me the answer I wanted, but that’s beside the point. Another parent came up to me and said, “Hey, what did you just ask?”


She had no idea what a sight word was, and I’ve found that is the norm.


Sight words are so important. There are high-frequency words that are words that most commonly come up in our language. A majority of those are called sight words, which you cannot phonetically sound out. Like “was.” That doesn’t follow any of the rules. “Also” “Where” “Were” — there’s a lot of them that don’t always follow those rules.


I know this is going to sound a little intense, but start making flashcards.  We make a word wall. She’ll pick the words out from the wall. We will do a word hunt while reading a book and anytime she saw a word while we were reading she’d have to point it out.


I would do the routine of say it, spell it, say it.


To — T. O — To.


Don’t ask your little one to write it out, it’s just about reading. But if they can have those words in their back pocket when they get into kindergarten, it will help with automaticity. They won’t have to stop and try to figure those words out and they can just worry about all the phonetic things they are learning.


Crissy Fishbane: Kristie, how early would you start with sight words?


Kristie Shelley: It depends on how advanced they are, but they can start as early as three-and-a-half or four. Really basic. You can google it. Look up the Dolch sight words, they have it by age.  It will tell you: here are five words a three-year-old can learn, here’s twenty words a four-year-old can learn. By the end of first grade, it’s up to 120. Kindergarten I think is 75. It’s a lot of words.


The earlier the better. They are sponges. They will pick up on them so fast. If you teach them ten and they only pick up on two, that’s two better than they would’ve learned before.


I think the most natural way is to point it out in books, obviously. That’s a fun way, but you can also do all kinds of activities with them. They even have a free sight word app they can play on. All kinds of sight word activities.


Member: I have a question. My four year old has been in a phonics program since she was two and she’s right on the cusp of figuring out how to read, which is really exciting. Do you have any tips to get her there?


Kristie Shelley: On my site, there is a video called sound by sound blending. So you are taking a word and writing it out, so let’s take that words “chat.” So you would write out “ch” and ask her what sound that is. Write out the “a” ask her what sound it is. Ask her to blend the sounds of “cha” and so on. You’re teaching her very systematically to look at each sound and put it all together. Once you have a few words up there you have her read through them at a rapid pace.


She sounds like she’s at a point where she’s starting to test fluency which is where they’ll read out words. There are other activities on my website that I think would be helpful. Do phonemic awareness activities. Anytime you see something on my sight tagged phonemic awareness, do that with her that will keep her ear in tune with the sounds.


Member: Any advice for bilingual children?


Kristie Shelley: Yes, I do! But I’d have to know how intense the bilingual is. The best thing you can do is have one parent speak one language and the other parent speak another language exclusively. That’s it, that’s all they hear from those parents. They never switch over. They will be absorbing it all. They will likely lean into one more than the other, probably whichever parent they are around the most, totally natural. You may even find them not speaking any language.


When it comes to reading and academics, I would focus on one. You want them to learn rules and have a really solid academic foundation in one unless they’re sending them to a Hebrew School. But they have to have a good L1 language. Bilingual kids have special brains, they are able to multitask, are smarter – a lot of research backs that up.


Crissy Fishbane: Kristie, thank you so much. We are so grateful for you joining us. We are so excited to dive into these games!


Kristie Shelley: Yes, thank you so much!

Kristie has her MA in Education Specializing in Communicative Disorders/Learning Language and her MA in Education, Curriculum & Instructional Design. She is a former teacher, former literacy educational consultant, and former VP at her own language company that she started with a close friend and sold to a major ed tech company.

Kristie launched The Mom Advantage to combine her love of helping moms and her knowledge in language & literacy to curate easy, fun, researched backed activities that moms can do with their littles NOW to make an impact on their reading skills later.

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