Most parents look to teachers when it comes to reading help for kids.
But teachers are time-poor and, if your child is a reluctant reader or
struggles with reading, there are things you can do to help him on the path to becoming a capable, confident and enthusiastic reader.
Does My Child Have a Reading Problem?
The first three years at school are pretty important when it comes to getting the hang of reading.
Not that kids can't learn to read or dramatically improve their reading after this but their confidence can suffer if they feel they're not reading as well as their classmates during the first two or three years.
If you’ve been told your child is having difficulties with reading or if you think there may be a problem, please don’t panic.
While some children do learn to read easily with very little visible effort, many others experience problems at various points and pretty much all of these problems are fixable.
The key is to work out exactly what the problem so your first step should be to make an appointment with your child’s class teacher.
Primary school teachers are trained to assess children’s reading, to diagnose specific problems and to work out strategies to overcome them.
These assessments don’t take long and are pretty straightforward to do.
Usually the teacher does them for all children in the class at various times during the school year to make sure they’re all on track. In Australia, teachers are required to do this and to keep running records to chart each child’s progress.
Reading difficulties fall into two broad categories:
Children who have comprehension problems may be able to read very well but understand very little of what they read.
They have “cracked the alphabet code” so they can recognise or sound out even quite difficult words but they don’t know what many of them mean.
Children with decoding problems will be able to answer questions and tell you about what has been read to them but they either read very slowly or make many mistakes or both when they’re asked to read themselves.
These kids will also have problems with comprehension.
Kids do many activities at school around comprehension and decoding so your child’s teacher should be able to either reassure you about your child’s progress or explain what the problem is and what needs to be done to address it.
Helping Your Child at Home
With both comprehension and decoding problems, there's a lot parents can do so do ask the teacher to tell you how you can help.
The teacher will probably send home some special homework every day for you to do with your child and it's important that you do this.
But if your child doesn't seem to be getting any assistance or if you simply want to do more to support your child's reading, here are a few ideas to try.
Helping with Comprehension Problems
If a child can read quite fluently, seems to recognise a lot of words by sight and can sound out unfamiliar words fairly capably, it may not be obvious that he doesn’t understand many of the words.
This is easy to check and correct if you read regularly with your child and if you listen to him read to you. I know it can be hard to find the time to do this, particularly if you have other children, but it really is worth putting the time in now to avoid problems later.
Your child will be doing work at school aimed at building his vocabulary and comprehension skills but here are some ideas you can work on at home:
Pick out a few of the more complex or unusual words and say something like: “Hmm, ‘recover’, that’s a hard word. I wonder if you can tell me what it means?”
If he knows, great. If he doesn’t, you can explain it and then get him to read the sentence again.
You can do this even if you don’t have the written word in front of you.
For example, if you go to the Maritime Museum (a great museum in Sydney), explain what the word ‘maritime’ means as you’re driving there. The first time your child sees it written down, he’ll not only be able to sound the word out, he’ll also understand what it means.
Many parents think they have to stop reading aloud to their child once he or she can read independently but there’s no good reason for doing this and many great reasons to keep going!
Reading aloud to older children has loads of benefits, is great fun and helps to build children’s vocabularies and comprehension as you talk about the story and explain the meaning of new words.
Helping with Decoding Problems: Fluency
Some children are what teachers call ‘dysfluent’ decoders. This basically means that they have reached an acceptable level of decoding ability for their age - so they can recognise and sound out words – but that they do this more slowly than they should.
A teacher will be able to diagnose this problem by giving your child a timed reading test using a passage from a text at the appropriate level.
If this is the problem for your child, the solution is to get him excited about reading so he’ll want to read more. The more he practices, the more fluent and confident he’ll become!
In addition to any school readers or other reading homework his teacher provides, I would suggest doing everything you can to immerse your child in reading. Here are a few ideas:
Mix it up a bit here: choose some books he can easily read on his own, some more challenging books and other books that you read aloud to him. Include some fiction and some non-fiction on any subject that appeals to him.
Helping with Decoding Problems: Word Recognition
A child who has problems sounding out words when he reads is fairly easy to spot.
When you listen to him read, you will be able to see that he makes many errors and you’ll probably also find that he doesn’t recognise a word when he encounters it a second time, even after you have helped him sound it out or told him what it is.
If this is the problem for your child, he has probably not yet grasped some of the sound-letter correspondences he’s been taught at school.
The best way to fix this is to work out exactly which letters and sounds are a problem and then to target those by re-teaching them and providing plenty of practice.
Your child’s teacher can administer an assessment designed to provide this sort of information.
For example, a common problem for many children is the e at the end of a word which is silent but which changes the sound of the vowel which appears earlier in the word:
sit + e = site|
bit + e = bite
mat + e = mate
kit + e = kite
nap + e = nape
Some children will pronounce the e and read ‘site’ as if it were written ‘city’, ‘kite’ as ‘kitty’ and so on.
Your child’s teacher will probably provide homework to help your child work on the sounds and letters he’s having trouble with but you can also help by – yes, you guessed it! – continuing to read aloud to him and to listen to him read.
The same suggestions I made to help with fluency will also help with decoding problems with one addition: when you read aloud to your child, run your finger along under the words at least some of the time so he can follow the words.
Do this particularly when you encounter words he has problems with. This kind of activity won’t replace the more targeted work your child’s teacher will probably give him but it will definitely help.
Center, Y. (2005). Beginning Reading. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
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