happy girl in the carI would love to be able to read in the car. But unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be — even looking at a map sets my head spinning. Lucky for parents like me, though, we can foster our children’s early literacy development from the front seat without having to turn a page.

Learning to read is so much more than decoding words. Good readers rely on many other skills, including the ability to discriminate between sounds, auditory memory and alphabetic knowledge. If you need to sit through car journeys with children who argue, like mine sometimes do, it’s easy to throw on a DVD to keep them occupied — but in the olden days, we played games in the car. Why not bring them back?

During a recent trip to one of my eldest daughter’s classes, it occurred to me that the car is the perfect place to engage children in literacy games. There are very few distractions, so the kids will stay focused: They can learn to read without even knowing they’re learning.

Here are some of my favorite methods for teaching literacy on the go.

Stay tuned to audiobooks

The importance of an extensive vocabulary for academic success is well documented, particularly when it comes to reading. “One of the most robust long-term predictors of good literacy outcomes that can be measured in early childhood is vocabulary,” notes literacy expert Catherine Snow in an essay from Blackwell Handbook of Early Childhood Development (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008). “Children with large oral language vocabularies are very unlikely to have problems learning to read.”

I believe one of the reasons my 9-year-old had a great vocabulary at age 3 was because we listened to Winnie-the-Pooh audiobooks in the car — over and over again. She would quote the books regularly and ask, “What does that mean, Mummy?” Winnie has made his way back into the car for my younger children, along with Just So Stories, which has prompted such questions as “What is a palaver?”

With audiobooks, children can focus on complex texts that would never hold their interest in print. And repeated listenings will help them gradually gain a greater understanding of the language used in the story.

Learning to read in the car

Adopt alliteration

Being able to recognize the initial sounds in words and isolate them from the rest of the word is an important step in learning phonics.

The age-old game “I Spy” is ideal for this. (Here’s a refresher course: “I spy with my little eye something beginning with … [pick a letter or the sound it makes].”) Most children ages 3 and older can play at a basic level. In my family, we often decide that the word doesn’t have to be something we can see; because the car is moving quickly, what’s visible might change in an instant. Older children will be able to play with the letter name or its sound, but little ones will find using the sound easier.

In the Animal Game, kids first choose a letter sound, then complete a sentence using words beginning with that sound: For example, “Bertie Bear is beautiful” or “Harry Hippo has horrible hiccups.” This game can be played by all ages, and it is a fun way to encourage older children to think of elaborate adjectives.

Rhyme and rhythm

We often sing in the car with our kids. Our favorite song at the moment is “The Quartermaster’s Store,” where you pick a name, then find words to rhyme with that name: “There was Dad, Dad, feeling rather sad in the stores.” My 3-year-old also loves the simple song “Apples and Bananas.” In full, the lyrics are: “I like to eat, eat apples and bananas.” But each time you repeat the song, change the initial vowel sound: “Ooh look to oot, oot ooples oond banoonoos.” The girls think this is hilarious.

Another idea for staying in rhythm is to make up alternative nursery rhymes, such as “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch an apple pie / Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill kept wondering why.”

The ability to hold a steady beat is also a key factor in future academic success. We love to listen to Ros Bayley’s Beat Baby, a selection of CDs that are great fun for young would-be rappers. Parts of the album play rhythms in the background with no words, encouraging kids to invent their own verses.

Do the robot

To play the Robot Game, choose a simple word, such as cat, and spell out “C-A-T” in a robot voice. The children try to guess what word you’re spelling, then they get their own turn to play Optimus Prime. (Tip: Encourage your kids to stick with short words, otherwise the game might be a little confusing.)

There you have it: Teaching your children to read can be as easy as buckling up, but much more fun. Wouldn’t it be nice if all homework were like this?

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