Helping kids learn to read is a process. It starts with letter identification, sound mastery, and then sight word recognition. They start becoming fluent in reading when they have the ability to sound out words they haven’t seen and the ability to comprehend what they read.
Comprehension is key to reading.
I personally think it’s the most important element. When I was teaching we focused a lot on Bloom’s Taxonomy. So the first step at the bottom of the pyramid is “Remember”. So a child can memorize words or their sounds. But next comes Understand, Apply, then Analyze. Cumulatively, they are comprehension.
If a child only remembers but doesn’t understand then they can’t apply it to other books they haven’t seen nor can they analyze what’s happening in a story.
But why is this important? Because we can use games to ensure children have comprehension and/or application of words either in context or by the way they sound. And that is when a child truly starts to read.
Reading is a process though, so to complete Bloom’s Taxonomy, they would hav to evaluate and create which are higher levels of thinking and typically more for mid-elementary grades. Either way, games allow for both evaluation and creation!
How games improve literacy and the research behind it
Games take the stress out of learning to read
So often kids sit in a chair struggling to sound out words from the letters and sounds they know. Word after word, page after page the only reward for completing the one before is being able to continue. Instead, games give kids the chance to read with breaks. It gives them a chance to act on the words they read and know. It gives them the chance to participate in the reading experience as part of a community where they can not only learn, but learn from other players as well.
According to The International Journal of Special Education “Learning to read can be a discouraging experience for children who have difficulty grasping concepts and skills.” And this is true for all readers. 
My oldest and I often sat down to play Banagrams together when she was 5. I would help, encourage, gently guide her to certain words, and even talk out answers for her. She still had the joy of playing the game, but was learning how to mix and match letters as we worked it out together.
Board games engage kids, making reading more than just a word on a page
It’s more than just about being fun, it’s about being a hands-on experience. “Today’s kids want to be engaged, and their games not only engage them, but teach them valuable lessons in the process—lessons that we want them to learn.”  says Marc Prensky. In game play, kids learn “…how to identify and concentrate on the most important things and filter out the rest” which is an invaluable skill for both reading and daily life.
When we engage kids in a fun and interactive way, they also start to absorb information, most notably reading, through their own learning style whether it’s visual, kinesthetic, or auditory.
Elizabeth Treher, PhD. puts it very plainly that “Board games are an important tool to provide hands-on and heads-on skill and knowledge development for people of all ages on all subjects. Not only do well-designed games create an engaging atmosphere, they also provide a non- threatening, playful, yet competitive environment in which to focus on content and reinforce and apply learning.” 
Games and puzzles promote the spatial awareness necessary to read
As adults, we typically take it for granted the spatial awareness needed to read words on a page. We naturally understand spaces and punctuation. We also understand the flow and direction of words and letters. Games help kids to better see how a word is formed, such as in quiddler or scrabble, instead of just seeing a completed word.
There is efficiency in learning to read using games
David Booth In his book, Guiding the Reading Process: Techniques and Strategies for Successful Instruction in K-8 classrooms, David Booth advocates for board games stating that “the most important reason for using a game is that it will help children learn more efficiently.” 
He explains that any game that involves reading, spelling, comprehension, and cooperative skills motivates kids, especially in groups, to master reading concepts.
It is estimated that kids learn and master skills much faster, maybe even 5-8 times faster in games play versus traditional learning. Results from a 2018 study “show that people with specific learning difficulties have positive improvements in the quality of learning” specifically relating to reading! 
Games use fluency and/or tell a story, just like reading
Whether you’re playing a game that is designed to have kids tell a story or not, even non-reading specific games have stories. So if I sit down to play Dragonwood with my kids, then it’s all about venturing into a mythical forest to battle creatures along the way. They will read each card as it gets turned and there is even a logical climax and conclusion to the game.
Likewise, games without a story line, still have a natural flow and progression. And of course, so does reading. So when reading a sentence, it can be related to playing a game. A capital letter comes first, you read from left to right, there is always a punctuation mark, etc..
How to help your new or reluctant reader to succeed using games
While I would argue that you can play almost any game that has words to improve reading skills in children, there are some specific games we have used to reinforce spelling, focusing on reading, and even discover storytelling.
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What’s Gnu? Buy it here
This game is an easy way to introduce simple 3 letter word formation, most specifically Consonant-Vowel-Consonant [CVC] words. It’s a silly games with cards that kids can put letters on. All vowels are red and all consonants black for easy identification!
Zingo Buy it here
This is a bingo game intended for pre-readers, but a great game to help kids visually match how words look as they hear them since each title has both a picture and its corresponding word.
Boggle Jr. Buy it here
This is less of a game and individual more hands-on practice for spelling, sounding out, and reading. Each card has a 3 or 4 letter word on the bottom with a picture on top. The tray has the ability to be flipped up and flipped down to either show or hide the words. Kids can then use the cubes to spell out the word.
Rory’s Story Cubes Buy it here
There are no words using story cubes, but this is a great literacy game as kids learn the elements of a story. Encourage them to write down the stories as they go which will further practice spelling and fluency. This also is a way to introduce and improve expressive language in kids!
Word Pirates Buy it here
This is almost a silly, themed-version of something like Scrabble. In my 6-year-old’s opinion it’s way more fun. You’ll build words using the dice you roll and connect them to words and bridges you’ve already placed. It helps with spatial awareness needed in reading because it also only allows words to be formed in certain directions.
Dixit Buy it here
This is another game with no written words. But each card has an image and requires both listening vocabulary and verbal story-telling. Encouraging kids to think of what story that image is telling can help kids with comprehension, accuracy, and even analogy. Does your child understand the picture well enough to give an accurate description or representation verbally?
Bananagrams and Banagrams Jr Buy it here
Did you know that Banagrams Jr has pre-made letter combinations so that kids are used to making words with both individual letters and combinations of more than one letter but make a single sound? Great practice! And you can play together or against each other depending on how ready the child is.
Quiddler Buy it here
This word formation game helps kids with blending sounds and letter combinations such as “sh”, “cl”, and others. It also can provide a way to play with guided practice from an adult whether it’s for new vocabulary words or high frequency words. It just depends on where your child is at in their reading and writing skills.
In a Pickle Buy it here
This is a text-only game that creates small graphic organizers of similar words. The reason I personally introduced this to my early reader when she was five is because there were no pictures of context clues, so I knew exactly what words she could read or sound out, and which she struggled with.
Scrabble / Scrabble Junior Buy it here
These are obvious choices that most home already have. Just remember, that sometimes teaming up with a partner like one adult and 1 child against a different adult and child is a great way to work through discovering and forming words.
UpWords Buy it here
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Research and citations:
- Charlton, Beryl, et al. “EDUCATIONAL GAMES: A TECHNIQUE TO ACCELERATE THE ACQUISITION OF READING SKILLS OF CHILDREN WITH LEARNING DISABILITIES.” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SPECIAL EDUCATION Vol. 20, No.2, 2005, files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ846936.pdf.
- Prensky, Marc. “DON’T BOTHER ME, MOM — I’M LEARNING.” Marc Prensky, 2003, marcprensky.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Prensky-DONT_BOTHER_ME_MOM_IM_LEARNING-Part1.pdf.
- Treher, Elizabeth N. “Learning With Board Games: Tools for Learning and Retention.” The Learning Key, 2011, www.thelearningkey.com/pdf/Board_Games_TLKWhitePaper_May16_2011.pdf.
- Booth, David W. Guiding the Reading Process: Techniques and Strategies for Successful Instruction in K-8 Classrooms. Stenhouse Publishers, 1999, pp. 35–36.
- Lämsä, Joni, et al. “Games for Enhancing Basic Reading and Maths Skills: A Systematic Review of Educational Game Design in Supporting Learning by People with Learning Disabilities.” British Journal of Educational Technology, vol. 49, no. 4, 2018, pp. 596–607., doi:10.1111/bjet.12639.