Some parents may have youngsters who start first grade able to breeze through Tolstoy and Shakespeare. Others have children who have successfully avoided learning the alphabet those first six years. But most of us have beginning students who are somewhere in between. They may be able to read their names, identify a few street signs, spot the Exxon station by its ''x's,'' and have some idea how to navigate from A to Z. But reading, in any fluent sense, still eludes them.
That, of course, is what first grade and first-grade teachers are for - to teach these skills - while home is a place to run and play and relax from the rigors of school. There are, however, a few activities parents can share with their children which, if done gently and briefly a few times each week, will support this important learning process, educators say.
The first, say the pros, is the one most of us do - read to your children, early and often. Even infants love the bright pages and rhythmic sounds of children's books, while your school-age children (including those who can already read) like the experience of snuggling close with a parent and a book.
Here are some more activities to play with your preliterate youngsters. Remember, keep it fun, nonobligatory, and low-key. As soon as your child gets restless or frustrated, it's time to quit.
Many schools have returned to phonetic teaching, assigning each letter its most commonly used sound (''t'' as in ''table,'' ''m'' as in ''mat''). Vowels are taught in their short form (a - cat; e - let; i - bit; o - box; u - cut), and consonants with both hard and soft sounds are taught in their hard form (c - cat; g - goat).
It's best to break the 26 letters down into manageable bits, starting perhaps with the letters in your child's name, or a group of eight or 10 vowels and consonants. To help him recognize the individual letter sounds, you can play:
* Toes and Nose. Ask your child to show you his toes and his nose, and ask him what letter each starts with. Then tell him you're going to say a list of words; if you say a ''t'' word, you want him to touch his toes, but if you say an ''n'' word, you want him to touch his nose. Start with tail, tree, nail, nab, tingle, near, train, tie, night, next, never, time. You can vary this game, doing ''finger and knee,'' ''hair and leg,'' or even ''rug and curtain.''
* Magazine Letters. Go through a magazine with your child and take turns looking for pictures of things that start with the letter ''M.'' Use whatever letter you are working on that day as an alternative.
* Claps. This is very much like Toes and Nose. Pick two letters - ''f'' and ''p,'' perhaps - and tell your child to clap once for the ''f'' words and twice for the ''p'' ones. Then make up a list of a dozen ''f'' and ''p'' words, and clap away.
* Grocery Store Bs. Take the child on an imaginary (or real) trip through the grocery store, and ask him to name everything there that starts with a ''b'' (beans, bacon, beets, etc.).
Putting the phonetic sounds together is a lot trickier than it looks. The beginning consonants seem to come easily to many children, but figuring out the endings seems a little tough, and decoding the middle vowel seems well nigh impossible at first. Here are games to make it fun:
* Rhyming Words. Take one ending of sounds your child knows, like ''at,'' and write it down on a sheet of paper four or five times. Then ask your child to think of words that sound just like ''at'' - like ''mat,'' or ''sat.'' As he thinks them up, write them down. Try it with ''op,'' ''et,'' ''en,'' ''in,'' ''ut,'' etc.
* Vowel Variance. Take letters like ''m-p'' or ''l-t'' and write them down on a page. Let your child suggest vowel sounds to fill in the blank, and see what words you can make.
* Words I Know. Ask the child to take a page or section from a newspaper or magazine and circle all the words he or she can read. Start with the two-letter words, if this seems easier.