For parents with children aged 5-7 years

Parents know that for children to be successful in literacy, they need to be able to work out new words, sounding them out for reading and spelling.

Yolanda has trained over 20,000 teachers in New Zealand and overseas on how to help children do this. Her ideas can also be used by parents who want to actively support and help their children read and write.

School ready literacy check

Being school-ready for literacy means starting school with the skills in place to optimise your child’s first formal literacy learning experiences.


Have they engaged in the experiences outlined on the Under 5s page? If not, start now. It is never too late.

Can they read and write their first name? (N.B. their name should be spelled with only lower-case letters other than the first letter which is a capital letter).

Can they hold a pencil correctly? Use the Nip Grip Flip method.

Can they handle a book correctly?

Can they listen to a story and talk about it?

Have they had repeated experiences with playdough/ drawing/ painting/ colouring/ sandpit? These experiences are vital for writing.

Understanding phonics

Phonics is not just knowing how to hear, read and write sounds/letters. It is also knowing how to use these sounds (phonemes) for blending and segmenting for use in reading and writing.

The starting place, once phonological awareness is developed, is the alphabet. Children need to know all the letter sounds, names, and word associations. As the brain is wired for story, it is helpful to tell children little stories (mnemonics) about each letter to teach the sound, word association, and letter name.

Yolanda has written a free alphabet mnemonic scheme with short letter stories and word associations that you can download for use with your child.

You can also buy the stories in a handy pocket-sized card pack.

Also available are letter/mnemonic flashcards, and an alphabet wall frieze that could be used in their bedroom for a fun and colourful wall decoration. Reinforce the letters whilst developing motor skills and muscles in hand necessary for writing with Yolanda’s alphabet playdough mats.

A smart tray with the Phonemic Awareness card set offers a hands on way for children to practise their phonic skills.

Yolanda’s Alphabet Sounds (NZ) App allows children to hear, read and write the letters for the alphabet sounds. it is available in both the Google Play and Apple stores for a $3.49 annual subscription.

High-frequency words

High-frequency words are the words that appear most frequently in text. E.g., the, is, my, go, come. Did you know that only 100 words make up half of all reading? When children learn these common words (also called sight words), it frees their brain to attend to and work on the other words in text they don’t yet know. Over time, children develop an ever-increasing bank of these words until eventually almost every word is known and they have an extensive graphic knowledge. Reading is much easier when you recognise all the words and don’t have to work them out.

It takes time to develop good graphic knowledge. This is why we teach phonics. It gives children a way to get a word that they don’t yet know. But some words (e.g., was, come, saw, my, I) are not easily decodable. And for many such early words, it is more efficient to teach the child to recognise them by sight.

Yolanda has developed a programme called Early Words for teachers and parents to do with their children to help them learn these basic sight words. Yolanda used this programme to teach her own four children before they started school and has also taught it to many students and teachers. It has been taught in the U.K as well as many schools in New Zealand.

The Early Words book has all the instructions for how to teach the programme but parents are also welcome to attend Yolanda’s online Early Words courses for teachers.

Children reading

Here are useful suggestions of what you can do if your child is having problems and feeling stuck when learning to read.

Ask them to get their mouth ready for the first sound and check the picture to help them get the word.

Blend the sounds to make the word, but first check that the word can be sounded out easily, i.e., ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ are easy to sound out; ‘said’ or ‘there’ are not. Just tell them these words.

Encourage them to check that the word that they have sounded out makes sense in the story.

Encourage them to re-read the sentence again. Using the sentence structure can help them get the word plus it confirms what they have read sounds right.

If the unknown word is a high-frequency word (i.e., a common word such as ‘the’, ‘is’, ‘my’ etc.) just tell them the word. Such words are best learned by memorising rather than phonics.

If your child is challenged by more than one word in every ten, the book is too hard. Either you read the story to them or take turns reading each page or unknown word so reading does not feel like a struggle. Struggling does not help children learn to read.

Encourage your child at this early level to read with their finger (drop it later once they have the idea of the one-to-one matching). Encourage them to re-read the books again and again to develop fluency and expression.

Watch Yolanda teach her nephew to read a simple guided reading book.

Yolanda has written 50 little guided reading books, the Early Words Readers, for children’s first reading experiences. These books are used in schools, but you also can start teaching your child to read with the first book in Set One (Mum). The next day, teach the second book in the set (Mum is Exercising). Then work your way up the reading levels, book by book. Children love the Early Words Readers stories. And they feel confident and successful being able to read their own little book.

Listen to Yolanda talk with Jesse on RNZ about writing the Early Words Readers.

Children writing

Here are useful suggestions of what you can do if your child is having problems spelling a word when writing.

First check that your child wants to spell a word that can be sounded out easily. Words such as ‘saw’ and ‘here’ are best spelled by you for beginning spellers and then learned by memorising.

Tell them to say the word slowly. Ask your child to tell you the first sound they can hear in the word. After they give you the sound, then tell them to write the letter for that sound.

Ask the child for the last sound they can hear. Help them to say the word slowly to help them hear it. Leave a gap after the first sound is written down and then write the last sound.

Ask your child if they can hear any middle sounds. Write the letter for these sounds in the gap between the first and last sounds.

Praise them for their good work.

If your child needs to sound out more than one word in each sentence, just give them the other spellings so that writing does not become a struggle focused entirely on spelling. Working on one or two words is enough. You do the rest. Struggling does not help children learn to write.

After they have written each sentence, encourage them to reread it to check that what they have written sounds right and makes sense.

Specific Learning Difficulties (SLDs)

Specific Learning Difficulties affecting literacy learning can include dyslexia, dysgraphia, difficulties with memory, organisation, auditory and visual processing, time management skills, and more.

Yolanda is a mother of children with severe Specific Learning Difficulties. Knowing that the education system is not resourced to properly help children with SLDs, in addition to their regular schooling, she taught them herself. She also enrolled them in external learning and support programmes and activities throughout their education.

Yolanda’s advice to parents of children with SLDs


Get a diagnosis as soon as possible. Early intervention helps though usually an official diagnosis can’t be made until the age of 7. Unfortunately, the testing for a diagnosis can cost at least $500 and funding is difficult to come by. But having a diagnosis means your child understands why reading is harder for them than their classmates and they know it is not their fault or a sign they are not intelligent. Intelligence is not an indicator of literacy outcomes!

Take your child to a behavioural optometrist for an assessment there too. Although the evidence for behavioural optometry is mixed, Yolanda has seen dramatic positive effects with her own children and for many of her students after getting glasses from a behavioural optometrist.

Did you know that children can be both intellectually gifted and have SLDs? This is called Twice Exceptional or 2E and it is likely to be picked up when the SLD assessment is done. If your child is 2E, help ensure they are still stimulated intellectually and join your local Association for Gifted Children. It will be packed with other 2E kids!

What can help

The number one effective resource for a child with learning difficulties is a parent who supports and understands them and will knock on every door to get help for their child.

Get your child involved in some kind of musical activity whether it be singing, kapa haka, learning an instrument, or all of these. Sing together. There is much evidence showing that music helps all learning.

Focus on developing phonological awareness as soon as possible. Phonics is a very helpful tool for children with SLDs such as dyslexia. It isn’t a cure, but extra support with phonics. has been shown to specifically assist children with dyslexia. But also, be mindful that children with reading difficulties and dyslexia cannot learn to read just by learning phonics. The evidence clearly shows that these learners benefit when a range of approaches to teaching reading are used alongside phonics.

Learning with an SLD is tiring on the brain. Be aware of this and make sure your child has rest times.

Keep up reading to your child and don’t stop. Make sure reading is still pleasurable. It will be if you keep reading to them.

Have the subtitles turned on when watching movies.

Encourage physical activity, especially just before doing learning.


When parents think there is something wrong with their child’s learning, they are usually right. If you think your child has a learning difficulty and the teacher does not, ask for a second opinion. But if the teacher thinks there is a learning problem and you do not, the teacher may well be right. Listen to what they say.

Communication with school is key to get the most help for your child but remember that NZ schools are not properly resourced to help children with SLDs. Have realistic expectations of your child’s teacher and what they can do. Keep communication positive and constructive.

There are supports for children with SLDs that can make learning easier. E.g., software that converts language to text, having instructions on the board and not just given orally, reader/writers for tests, extra time in tests. But not all accommodations suit all students. Find out what supports your school can offer. Ask your child what works best for them.


Don’t look for one magic cure. There isn’t one. A multi-pronged approach is the best course of action. Different children will need different supports, and these will vary over time.

Ensure your child has at least one area in their life they excel at (any hobby or interest that can be developed) so that the focus isn’t always on what is hard.

Remember that children with SLDs can still learn to read and write. It is going to take longer and they’ll have to work harder but they can get there. Whatever the end results are, they will be better for any extra support received along the way.

There is a lot of conflicting information on the internet and even amongst professionals about ways to help children with SLDs. Keep an open mind.

Acknowledge to yourself that it can be emotionally hard being a parent of a child who is bright, intelligent, and wants to learn, but finds learning hard and sometimes, is not understood by their teachers.

Read How My Brain Learns to Read by Duncan Milne to your child.

In this Ted talk, educator Anita Collins makes a passionate case for music education as an indispensable part of learning, describing how learning to play music is the neurological equivalent of a full-body workout.

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