Reading Isn't Fundamental
How to help your child learn to read.
Posted Friday, Jan. 2, 2009, at 7:11 AM
With toddlers and preschoolers, it helps to connect reading to some routine such as bed time, nap time, or a pre- or after-meal lull. Select topics she likes; let the child select books for you to read. Get in the habit of activities or games that rhyme and otherwise play with sounds: songs, jingles, made-up phrases (e.g., "Billy is silly" to catch the rhyming sounds, "Sally sounds silly" to catch the sound of the initial S). Nursery rhymes are especially rich in words, rhyming, and other fundamentals. Talk about a greater range of subjects, even very mundane ones—like pointing to the parts of a car or animal in an illustration and labeling them. As you read, stop and ask a gentle question: "What do you think Babar is thinking here?" or "What do you think will happen next?" These are great for comprehension. If the question is too difficult, offer a little more guidance by attaching a statement: "I'll bet Babar is a little lonely. What do you think would make him feel better?" Also, you can encourage your child to experiment with writing, which helps reading because she uses sounds to try to write the word. You might see the child write "sn" for "sun," a great start that shows awareness of sounds and the breakdown of words into sounds.
As your child continues in elementary school and begins to work hard during the school day on reading, it's a good idea to continue reading with and to him, mixing in casual writing practice (some kids will go for the idea of alternating entries in a journal with a parent) and talking over dinner and in other family settings about what the child has read. If there's a series of books that speaks to one of your child's enthusiasms, helping him get into that series will allow him to become familiar with continuing characters and engage with a larger story, which makes even new books seem familiar. Keep a dictionary around and easily accessible, and use it once in a while, inviting your child to do this with you. The dictionary not only reinforces vocabulary and comprehension, it helps your child decode words by showing that they are composed of syllables that can be sounded out. Make up word games to play while driving or in a store. "Think of words that sound like snow" is good for a first or second grader, but you can work up to more complicated games for older children. If you make the play competitive (if your family's into that), please resist the temptation to rattle off 50 words in a row and then do your special taunting wiggly victory dance. And, of course, continue to show by your actions and not just your pronouncements that reading is engaging, relevant, and a path to fresh experiences. Keep books around where your child can pick them up in the natural course of things. And don't forget to pick up a book yourself. Model the desired intimacy with books; don't just preach it.
You can't add becoming a full-time reading tutor to the already full-time demands of parenting, and children will vary in interest, ability, and attention, so you'll inevitably have to select just a few of the many possible activities to promote reading skills. In general, go for regularity—a little almost every day, as part of a routine that links reading to the more relaxed moments in the day—rather than a Shakespeare marathon one Saturday a month. And when setting priorities, bear in mind that two activities are clearly the most critical:
- Read aloud to the child. It shows that reading is important, part of everyday life, and fun, and allows you to model the basic component skills. It's fine to read the same books over and over, as many children like to do. Research indicates that repeated readings help a child to integrate words better; comprehend meaning; and connect sounds, words, and meaning. Even on the 50th time through the same story, interact during the reading to bring the child into the activity. "What is Pooh doing? What do you think is in the jar?"
- Help the child understand that letters are related to sounds and that words can break down into sounds. Ultimately, the child's reading will advance by being able to sound out words, not by memorizing individual words. There are alphabet books to help you work with your child to connect letters to sounds. In the middle of reading, stop and sound out a word. "Let's sound this out together: Errr ... un. Run! He's getting ready to run."
Reading may be important and complex and very scary when your child has trouble with it, but parents should take heart in remembering that mundane low-pressure practice during games and other activities with you can make an enormous difference. Even a slightly increased sensitivity to breaking down sounds or rhyming, even a slightly heightened familiarity with books and motivation to engage with them, can provide a significant boost at school. Reading preparation is at the top of the list of factors that make a difference in school achievement. Such preparation need not—and should not—feature threats, severity, and drudgery. Instead, help your child to read by doing what you do anyway—playing with him, talking with her—in a slightly more purposeful manner.
You may well have questions. Here are some common ones.
Alan E. Kazdin, who was president of the American Psychological Association in 2008, is John M. Musser professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College.