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Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Chrysta Naron

“How do I teach my child to read?” 

This is the number one question I hear from parents. They often feel lost or ill equipped to teach reading. But while there are incredible pre-designed resources out there, the truth is that you can totally do this on your own! 

Many of the best tools to help children learn to read are simple things you may already have around the house (though you might not associate them with reading). As an added bonus, most of these supplies are completely reusable. After many years of teaching reading—and teaching how to teach reading—these are my six favorite literacy must-haves to keep at the ready. (And if you need a little motivation, be sure to check out our post on four reasons why parents should learn to teach reading immediately.)

Craft Sticks 

Craft sticks are the BEST. They are inexpensive, easy to find, and adaptable in a myriad of ways. 

For example: You can use them to teach children the shapes of letters (see our post here for one example). They can be held under text in a book to help guide readers and keep their place. You can write letters on the end and swap them around to create words for your child to read, allowing them to practice letter swapping. 

In my classroom, we write simple three-letter words on one side. My students read the word, flip the stick over, and then turn the stick into an illustration of that word. Popsicle-stick cats, dogs, moms, suns, and pigs abound!


You can always use playdough to teach children the shapes of letters, particularly letters that contain curves. (Again, you can see our post about how to do this here.) Children can use cutting toys or alphabet cookie cutters to create entire words. 

Other times, I write down a letter and ask a child to use the playdough to create something that begins with that letter. For children who are starting to read words, I’ll write down a word and ask the child to read the word, then make a playdough sculpture of that word. 

Sometimes I create a phonics sensory experience. If we’re learning the letter C, I’ll pull out toy cars and let the kids play with cars and playdough. We might create homes for the cars or make car tracks on playdough roads. As we play, I bring up the sound of the target letter or ask questions about other words that start with that sound. It’s play infused with phonics at its most simple and subtle.

Stacking Blocks

Stacking blocks are ones that can connect to one another, like Legos, Mega Bloks, or Unifix cubes. I use these blocks to build reading skills by taping letters to the blocks and connecting them together to create words (whether horizontally or by building a tower that reads vertically).

This mirrors the way teachers and parents have used wooden blocks for over 100 years, but with the added benefit that the letters stay together and we can manipulate the words once we’ve made them. 

You can use alphabet stacking blocks in any number of creative ways. One adaptation I like is to tape the letters of a child’s name to the blocks and have them stack those together. With another set of blocks, we create a second person’s name. If you do this activity at home, spell the names of every family member and some friends or neighbors too. Then help kids identify which names start with the same letter or which have a certain letter in their name.

Index Cards 

Index cards are so useful and probably have the most versatility. You can ditch the overpriced store-bought flash cards and make your own homemade ones instead, to practice letter sounds, sight words, new vocabulary, spelling words, etc. 

Or write individual letters on the cards. Combine the letters to practice spelling and reading, like we’ve done in the activities above, or stick them to things around the house that begin with that letter. 

Finally, you can ask your child to practice writing on them. (A great example is in our Lunar New Year post.) For some reason, kids just love writing and illustrating on these sturdy, pint-sized papers. Then hang their writing on the fridge! I love, love, love a good index card.

Letter Tiles

Letter tiles are durable, versatile, and regiftable. You can grab them from board games like Scrabble, Bananagrams, or Gnu, or purchase a whole bucket for as little as $6. After all the ideas I’ve shared above, I know you’ll find plenty of creative ways to teach reading with these cute little tiles. (Feel free to share other ideas you come up with in the comments!)

And you can hang on to these sturdy tiles for years to come. Use them to reinforce spelling skills (an easily overlooked skill that parents really should teach at home — see our post on four things parents need to know about spelling for more info) as your child blossoms from budding reader to bonafide bibliophile.

Comic Sans

This font gets a bad rap, but it was actually created with children in mind. It was made so children could read it more easily. 

Take a look: The letters are probably pretty similar to how you write, unlike other fonts that can be confusing with their hooded lower-case A’s or closed-loop G’s. If you print words for your kids, or let them type on your computer, set that font to Comic Sans.

Teaching your child to read may feel daunting, but remember this: If you can believe in their ability to read, you can believe in your ability to teach.