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How to Raise a Successful Reader

boy reading a book

March 30, 2017

Reading is a developmental process that every child reaches at their own pace. Not every six year-old is ready to learn to read, while some four year-olds are. Early reading instruction is something that most parents do naturally by reading to their children on a regular basis and inviting them to handle books.  By doing this, young children learn that there is a right way to read a book (i.e. reading left to right, top to bottom), as well as how a story is structured (i.e. beginning, middle and end).  They begin to match pictures with the words that Mom or Dad say. Some children even memorize a favorite book and are delighted to “read” it to their parents. 

But what happens if you grow up in a family where reading books doesn’t happen? Unfortunately, you don’t learn those basics about how books are supposed to be read and, inevitably, are at a higher risk for reading problems down the road. 

By the time most children get to school, they know the alphabet and some numbers. Some children can even recognize the letters in their name.  Early childhood teachers work with children on the process of learning to read. Reading entails two distinct skill sets: The first is learning to decode what the letters mean; the second is learning to comprehend and understand what you are reading.  Early childhood reading instruction focuses primarily on the first, learning to decode.  Children use phonics and whole language skills to begin to match sounds with letters and understand the sounds that certain letters make together. Comprehension and understanding are important as well. Children are encouraged to retell the story, ask questions and visualize the story for themselves, all while practicing decoding. If you ever wondered why kids were so tired after a day of school, just imagine the brain power doing all of that takes!

Once kids reach about fourth grade, the focus of reading changes from learning to read to reading to learn. Students are asked to create the meaning of a piece of literature for themselves. No longer can they rely on pictures to help them figure out what’s happening in a story. They learn about the different features of a nonfiction text (a textbook, for example) and how to make meaning there. Here is where reading problems inevitably show up. Some students are word callers—they can decode with ease, but are at a loss to explain what it is they just read. Some kids have basic problems decoding. Remember that reading is a developmental process?  Just like some six year-olds aren’t ready to read, some nine and ten year-olds aren’t ready to make the switch from decoding to understanding. 

Once you get to your teen years, readers should be able to both decode and understand. These are skills that improve with practice (yes, it’s true – in order to read better, you have to read more!) It’s like basketball, running or learning to play chess; you have to practice reading in order to become a better at it.

So, how do we help kids become better readers? Encourage reading in your family early on, even if it’s just for half an hour every night. Make reading a priority. Visit the library and ask for recommendations.  Librarians read a lot and are always ready to recommend something. Model good reading habits for your kids. Instead of reading Facebook or playing a game while you are in a waiting room or need to kill time, read a book. Talk about the books you are reading with your kids, when it’s appropriate.  Encourage them to talk to you about what they are reading.  Ask them questions and encourage them to summarize what they read. All of those things help kids practice the kinds of reading strategies teachers want kids to use when they read. Encourage them to sample a wide variety of books and point out books that you think will be of interest to them. 

Just a few words of caution, however. Know that kids will read a book that might be “too hard” for them if it’s on a topic that they are interested in. I’ve seen kids with really low reading levels read books on UFOs, sports stars or dinosaurs because they were curious or interested. Don’t underestimate the power of curiosity! Don’t try to dissuade a reader from trying something just because you think it might be “too hard” for them. Secondly, all reading is good reading. Any kind of reading will help a child improve. If your child loves The Little House on the Prairie books, let them read those. If the Magic Tree House books are beloved by your teen, don’t insist that they read The Lord of the Rings instead. Books aren’t only meant to educate, they are also meant to entertain and reading a familiar book can be relaxing and enjoyable. The only time this is a problem is when readers don’t want to challenge themselves and keep reading at the same level. Just like a runner needs easy runs as well as challenging ones, so do readers.  And yes, comic books, graphic novels, newspapers and magazines count as reading, as does horror, science fiction and fantasy!

Remember, too, that just because your fifth grader can read books at an tenth grade level, doesn’t mean that he or she is ready to read teen books. The “readability” of a book is far different from the content of a book.  An example is Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. I’ll admit that Dune is one of my favorite books and that I read it for the first time when I was in junior high. I will also readily admit that I didn’t get a third of what I read. The lexile level for this book is 820, which places it’s “readability” squarely at the fourth to fifth grade level.  However, anyone who has read the book, would point out that the complex world building, challenging philosophy, explanations of ecology and interrogations of religion put the book squarely in the realm of the adult reader.

Let’s review:  Reading is a complex process that encompasses two sets of skills: decoding and understanding. Learning to decode comes before being able to make meaning out of what you read.  Reading gets better the more you practice it. Challenge your kids, learn to help them make good reading choices and model good reading habits for them. Reading as the act of immersing yourself into someone else’s imagination, or reading to learn about something new are both valid ways to read. Reading is an important skills that everyone needs. Grow a reader!


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