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Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Laila Weir

What?! Use fashion to teach early reading skills? Well, yes. When you’re raising little people, buying clothes is something you have to do a lot. Not only do they outgrow things seemingly overnight, but there are also endless stains, tears, and misplacings to contend with. (Buying them adorable clothes also happens to be fun, at least in my book!)

Raising a successful reader is also an important part of the parenting job—as in, critically important. Research shows that childhood literacy is crucial: Students that can read by third grade are less likely to drop out of high school and less vulnerable to poverty and unemployment later on. Conversely, around 70 percent of U.S. prison inmates operate at the lowest literacy level. Yet, before COVID-19, a national evaluation showed that two-thirds of U.S. 4th and 8th graders weren’t proficient readers. So, parents, it’s up to us to help kids get where they need to be.

In the earliest years, learning the concept that language can be expressed through symbols on paper (or fabric!) is key, along with mastering the ABCs—which takes time and practice. Next up is getting familiar with lots of high-frequency words, and comfortable sounding out simple words—which also takes time and practice. Often, the best way to impart these skills in real, busy life with real, impatient kids is to weave them into other daily activities.

And so we got to thinking. What if we could combine these two foundational and yet seemingly unrelated parts of parenting? And it turns out the answer is a fun, low-stress way to build early reading into your and your kids’ busy days. The key is to look for chances to reinforce letter learning and reading skills while shopping for and dressing your child. (Tip: This works with anything! Words on a cereal box? Letters on traffic signs? Point them out!)

Here are some tips for using fashion to foster phonics (sorry, we couldn’t resist!): 

Look for Easy-to-Read Writing

Kids’ T-shirts and other clothing often feature cute phrases, slogans, and even brand names all over them. Look for items that use a font kids can read, not curlicue script. This alone will open up the opportunity to show letters to your child, whether or not the words are anything they’re near ready to master. 

Point out the letters to your child, tell them what each is and what sound it makes. Then discuss how the letter is formed—like, “See how you draw a curve to make a C?” or “Look! A line down and a line across makes a T.”—and trace it with your finger. Help your child trace it with their finger, too. Just remember this is best done before they put on the clothes, or when they take them off. Showing them in the mirror won’t have the same effect!

Seek Out Easy Words and Phrases

When possible, also opt for clothing with simple words on it. Even better, scoop up any items with a whole phrase that your child could learn to read. But if that’s not readily available (or it’s not cute, comfy, or quality), look for something that has a few words your child can sound out, or a few high-frequency words your child could start getting familiar with. 

Lots of T-shirts and sweatshirts have the words and or the on them, as well as other important words to start recognizing. Some brand names and slogans are also great for beginning readers. (Think: Just do it.) 

Then point out the words to your child. Meet them where they are: If they’re just mastering letter sounds, remind them what sounds the letters in question make, and then demonstrate sounding out the words. If they’re a little further along, let them try for themselves, but give them plenty of support and encouragement. 

You can read to them any words they can’t read for themselves, tracing your finger along under the words as you go. Even the youngest kids will benefit from learning that these combinations of letters represent words they know and that we read words from left to right.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Ok, so this tip isn’t unique to using fashion to teach your child reading skills. It’s fundamental to our whole approach to raising a reader from day one through … well, forever! 

If you can forgive the play on words, Rome wasn’t spelled in a day. It takes a whole lot of repetition to help kids master the alphabet, remember letter sounds, commit letter combinations and spelling rules to memory, and internalize the many common words that strong adult readers have memorized. (Let’s just say that if we had a nickel for every time we repeated to what seemed to be deaf ears “Remember, a silent E makes a long vowel,” we’d treat you all to a back-to-school shopping spree.)

So repeat the lessons every time your child wears a readable outfit (or you do!), and stay patient. Even the millionth time your sweet little thing reads “make” as “mack.” They’ll get there—with your help.

Get Clothes You Can Write On

glow-in-the-dark shirt with 'Wow' written on it

Various small vendors sell T-shirts with a blank patch you can “write” on using a pen light. The writing shows up great in the dark, then fades away, so you can use it over and over. These make a super fun novelty gift that’s sure to keep the wearer and their friends entertained at any sleepover or campout! Just don’t forget to encourage them to practice writing their name, and to learn to write simple messages. Wow! Yes! and Fun! would be perfect, easy places to start.

You can also find “write-on-me” T-shirts with blank spaces or speech bubbles intended for adding a permanent message of your own, which are an easy starter version of our next tip…

Make Your Own

Why not craft your own ABC hats or spelling words T-shirts, too? Craft stores are full of colorful blank clothing items, fabric markers, and fabric paint. If you can’t find just the right fashion for raising your reader, go ahead and make your own! 

Mischief Manage written on a shirt

Invite your beginning writer to join in the fun, too. As they get older, you can help them stencil favorite quotes from books onto their creations, like this adorable Harry Potter quote shirt. (Tip: Book-quote T-shirts also make great gifts.)

We hope this post will inspire you to keep reading skills top of mind as you shop for your kids this year. 

How else are you weaving reading skills into life with littles? Let us know in the comments, or connect with us on social media!

Laila Weir has written and edited for a variety of publications around the world, is raising three readers, and loves to shop for cute clothes with or without sight words on them. Shirt pictures by Laila Weir.