My smallest son is 5, and he has recently started to read for himself. It is truly a delightful thing to watch him begin to crack the reading code for himself, piecing his understanding together to sound out words he sees around him. At home, we are able to go slowly, at his pace. There is no rush, no pressure, no comparison. He tends to do little short bursts of these activities, and we stop as soon as he has had enough.
People sometimes ask me how children can learn to read by themselves and, the honest answer is, I don't know exactly how it happens. But, if a child is surrounded by a literate world, he or she will acquire the skills needed to thrive in that world. By that I mean, if we are prepared to read with our children, to support their learning and answer their questions, to encourage their efforts, they will learn. That is what they naturally want to do, to become competent and empowered.
We have many books around our home, from picture books loved from babyhood, to more advanced chapter books. We read together several times a day. His current favourites for me to read aloud to him include the Mog books, Roald Dahl and Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories", obviously stories far more advanced than he can yet read himself. Through these shared experiences, however, he knows that reading unlocks stories, and reading together from the youngest age fosters a love of story which can last a lifetime, and open a door into new worlds of wonder and imagination.
My smallest son is a digital native and, for some time, he has enjoyed the Reading Eggs programme on his brother's iPad, which has helped him with his letter sounds, and with beginning to put sounds and words together. However, his interest in reading for himself has definitely been running second to his interest in numbers, which have clearly been fascinating to him.
A few weeks ago, he asked me to write some labels for items around the house - sofa, window, bookshelf etc - and he stuck these labels around the house. I think this whole process of playing with words is important. He is clearly building on the concept that things have a corresponding written word associated with them, and this must be a precursor to reading. Recently we acquired some of the Oxford Reading Tree reading books, which he has begun to pick up and start reading. Sometimes at story time now, he asks to read to me before I read to him, but I don't force this if he doesn't want to. Sometimes he will just say he is too tired, and it is important just to keep it fun and to celebrate the success. He loves it when he manages to read successfully - albeit with a bit of help sometimes.
Alongside, the developing reading skills, he is beginning to write words more accurately by himself. He developed a series of characters the other day with simple names - Big Ben, Bad Bob, Big Jo - which he took pleasure in writing on to his pictures. We also have some Oxford Reading Tree common word cards, which correspond to the early reading books, and he has been getting those out to make his own sentences with. When he needs a word which isn't there, he will make his own word cards, and delight in making funny sentences and then reading them out to me.
Note that none of this is planned by me. It is child initiated learning. But I am strewing resources around, engaging with him in the process, supporting and encouraging his interest.
Simultaneous to this interest in cracking the reading code, my son seems interested in other codes, too ... the mathematical symbols for addition, subtraction, equals. He will play for ages with a calculator, and loves pressing the different buttons and seeing what numbers he can make. He is writing down mathematical problems and then reading these out to me. He will draw logos - Under Armour for example, as featured on his brother's tennis gear, another kind of symbol. And, most recently, he has been sitting beside me at the piano and asking me to teach him music. Today, since he opened the book and asked, I dove in and talked to him about the stave, the clefs, the time signature and semibreves and minims. Not only has he been talking about this since, and using this new vocabulary, but he wanted to write his own music for he and I to play together. He wrote out his own semibreve and minim shapes for me to play on piano, explaining, "This one should be played in the bass, and this in the treble," whilst he tapped out some accompanying percussion on his wooden loom (An 'instrument' he called the 'knocker'). He had thereby created a different type of communicative code which translated into music. It's fascinating to observe the growing web of understanding and I look forward to seeing how it develops.