British Libraries run a Summer Reading Challenge each year to encourage kids to read. I'm a bit on the fence about encouraging activities by rewards since you ultimately want children to do positive things through intrinsic motivation rather than because they expect a reward. However for this challenge the reward of stickers and a poster is a little extra fun and I don't think anyone would be doing the challenge solely for the promise of a sticker.
The challenge is designed for anyone who would be due to start school in September and older. The aim is to read a book a week for six weeks. Each time a book is returned stickers are given out to add to a poster. The theme this year is 'Mythical Maze' and includes fun mythical characters and information about them.
Since this is for a challenge, Ollie and I decided that he should pick one book each week to learn to read for himself. He reads the book each evening as part of our normal bed time routine and then Matt or I will read a couple more books to Ollie. The books we pick for him to read are obviously ones that are pretty short in the word department since he is just four (and a half, as he keeps telling everyone - that half is important). We also look for books with a lot of repeated words. For example 'baby goes...baa'; 'baby goes...moo'. The idea is to build confidence and cement word and sound recognition.
Most children who learn to read at home do so by the traditional mechanism of 'sight recognition' where whole words start to be recognised - you read to you child with your finger running along under the words and eventually the child starts to associate the written and spoken words. They essentially learn to recognise the 'shape' of the whole word. Then, when I was at school myself, a new system was brought in which works better for a teacher trying to teach a whole class - synthetic phonics. Phonics is the system where children learn the sound a letter makes, and then how to combine them into whole words. Some people love phonics, some hate it, but the practice of sounding out the letters of words to decipher the whole word can be helpful for simple words when children are starting out.
The age at which children should start reading is a subject of much debate, with some advocating pre-school introduction of phonics and others saying learning to read and write should be held off until the child is 7. For my own thoughts, just read to your children every day from when they are a new baby and if you fancy doing writing and reading activity books and magazines with them when they can comfortably hold a pen that's great. The age at which they are ready for such things varies hugely, with some kids starting to read and write at as early as two, and other much much later. Being read to every day, and seeing family members enjoying reading, is the biggest assurance that your little ones will enjoy reading themselves. It's not a competition though and in my opinion reading together and instilling a love of shared time together enjoying a book beats drilling kids with flashcards.
Here's my tips then, based on what's working for us:
1. Read to your little one every day from the minute they are born, when they are newbies you can even just read out loud whatever book you have on the go at the time. You are teaching them that reading is pleasurable because you are enjoying your book.
2. Don't rush into reading long chapter books as the only reading you do with them - a chapter a night of a childhood classic is a lovely bedtime routine, but including lots of picture books that you can point out words in will help to make the connection with seeing and hearing words. If there is a particular word that will catch their attention, help them to find it and say it from a really early age (In 'The dinosaur that pooped Christmas' for example even Toby at two likes to find and shout out the word 'Poo').
3. Writing and reading are so connected that we find learning to write the letters in sand, or shaving foam, helps to cement learning to recognise them when written down in a book.
4. Be guided by your child - we read to both our boys every day, but Ollie has a thirst for books in a way that Toby doesn't so we naturally tend to spend more time reading with Ollie and more time doing other things with Toby that he likes, such as building train tracks and doing puzzles.
5. Don't rush through books - stop, look at the pictures together, ask your child to pick out something from the picture, or as they are ready find a word on the page, question about what they think will happen next. The purpose of reading is to comprehend what is happening and you don't want a little one who can mechanically read out words but with no understanding of what the story was all about (hence another reason I'm not keen on flashcards)
6. Tied in with the comprehension statement is guesswork - your little one will try to guess what the words mean based on the pictures and what has gone on before. As much as we try to get them to concentrate on looking at the actual letters in the words, this guesswork is actually important because it is how we read confidently later on. I read a lot of popular science books and textbooks and often have to guess the meaning of words based on the context they were in if I don't want to interrupt the flow of every book by looking up words in the dictionary (although I'll often look up words later). A confident reader will read around the words they aren't sure of and make an educated guess - a reader lacking in confidence will read up to the unfamiliar word and stop, struggle with it and either lose track of what was happening or give up altogether. It's important in learning languages too I think - I might not understand every word I read in French or German, but I can sometimes figure it out from the context. Your little one is naturally trying to do this, so an encouraging "good guess, but the letter here says 'llll' so we're looking for a 'llll' word not a 'mmm' word" is helpful.
7. Keep reading with your child even when they can read for themselves, that tradition of reading at bedtime is a commitment to finding time to spend with them in amongst the business of life and is something they will cherish. I read about a Dad who made the commitment to do this, even when he had to read over a telephone on business trips, right up to when his daughter left home.
Note: I'm a teacher, but not an early years or literacy expert. All I have is a lifelong book addiction, passed on by a mum who read to us every day and loves to read herself, and at least one small boy who seems to be following in our footsteps as being an early and prolific reader. I firmly believe my Dad's philosophy that teaching a child to love to read is the single most important thing you can do because once they can read, they can discover everything else for themselves as they become interested in it.