How to Teach Reading Without Worksheets


When it’s time to start teaching your child how to read, the first thing that most parents do is rush to find a workbook or curriculum. While well-intentioned, worksheets and flashcards are not developmentally appropriate for kids at four or five years old. As a former kindergarten teacher trained in early reading intervention, and homeschool mom of five, I’ve taught a lot of kids how to read. And I can tell you this: kids learn best when you work with their development, not against. If you want to know how to teach reading without worksheets, this post will show you the most developmentally appropriate and effective way to teach kids how to read.

Here’s a quick disclaimer: most kids are not ready to learn to read at the typical age when schools begin to teach reading. Most kids who are between four and six years old are just not ready! And when they are ready, a slow, gentle, play-based approach is the most appropriate. While the system claims that kids are “behind” if they aren’t reading by the end of kindergarten, research does not agree. There is a wide range of ages when kids learn to read, and many kids don’t learn until seven or eight.

How to teach reading without worksheets:

Use Real Life Situations

Where do you use reading and writing in real life? You want your child to know that reading isn’t isolated to workbooks or phonics instruction. It has a purpose for our everyday lives. So let your child see you reading and writing, but also let them participate in these everyday real life situations that require reading and writing.

Here are some examples:

  • cook together and read a recipe; have your child write the recipe down in their own recipe book
  • write letters to family and friends
  • write a grocery list
  • label plants when you plant seeds or plants in the garden
  • point out road signs you see when you’re walking or driving

Read lots of books

One of the absolute best ways for kids to learn to read is to read and listen to a lot of books. When you read books – and have real conversations about them (not answering the comprehension questions found in a curriculum) – this increases your child’s comprehension, it develops a love of reading, it strengthens your relationship, and it expands their view of the world around them.

Research shows that reading to and with your kids is one of the best indicators of success as a reader. Kids who are read five books a day have been exposed to over 1.4 million words versus kids who are never read to have only been exposed to about 4400 words.


When kids play, their brains are incredibly engaged. Their brain makes connections much faster through play than through worksheets. Give kids notebooks and pencils to use in their play kitchen or with their stuffed animals. Encourage them to make signs for their fort or labels for the rooms in their dollhouse.

Story baskets are another great way to connect reading and play – your child can retell a familiar story with props related to the book.

Learning Invitations

Learning invitations are a great way to invite your kids to explore letters and words, without pushing your kids into a lesson that you are directing. Self-directed play is an important part of development and learning. Give your kids access to materials like magnet letters, letter tiles, games, and more.

These posts will help you get started:

Construction and truck learning invitations

Get Outside

Nature activates more of a child’s senses. And when more senses are activated, more of their brain is engaged. So get outside to learn, instead of sitting inside at a desk!

  • read books outside while your child is barefoot in the grass or hanging upside down on monkey bars
  • use things you find in nature – sticks, flowers, leaves, rocks, etc. – to make letters or words
  • draw letters and words in the dirt

Worksheets and flashcards aren’t the only way for kids to learn letters and phonics. And they certainly aren’t the best or most developmentally appropriate. You can (and should!) teach reading through play and real life experiences.

And this is exactly why I created Play Your Way to Reading, a play-based reading program designed to give you the tools you need to teach reading through play. No worksheets required!

Play Your Way to Reading will walk you through how to teach reading through play and give you over 100 specific play-based activities to do with your kids.

Download these FREE lessons from Play Your Way to Reading!

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