How to help your child learn to read.

Snapshots of life at home.
Jan. 2 2009 7:11 AM

Reading Isn't Fundamental

How to help your child learn to read.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

As a parent, you feel a special deep panic when you realize that your child—your beautiful, clever, funny child, who regularly surprises you with precocious bons mots, who built an ingenious bow out of tubing and rubber bands that can shoot a chopstick across the living room with remarkable accuracy—is having trouble learning to read. Meanwhile, all the other kids appear to be breezing along, polishing off Harry Potter books while your child stumbles over the difference between "how" and "now." You don't want to be one of those hysterical parents who gets all crazy about every little developmental bump in the road, but, hey, your kid can't really read yet, and the others can. In your darker moments you feel the desolate urge to ratchet down your ambitions for your child from valedictorian to graduating at all.

Such fears may be exaggerated, but they're not irrational. Reading ability does predict school achievement and success (which is, of course, related to income, health, and other factors), and reading gains ever greater importance beyond school, as more jobs are now based on information and technology. Failure to read places significant limits on how one fares in other parts of life. And a lot of people never do learn to read well: Approximately 40 percent of fourth-grade children in the United States lack basic reading skills; 20 percent of all graduating high-school seniors are classified as functionally illiterate (meaning that their reading and writing skills are insufficient for ordinary practical needs); and about 42 million adults in the United States cannot read. So you're not nuts to take a reading problem seriously.

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Now for some perspective. First, let's take a moment to recognize that compared with the development of oral language, the acquisition of reading is unnatural. Speech and the ability to understand speech can be considered the result of a natural process in the sense that the requisite skills emerge without formal training. Several species of animal employ sounds such as clicking, whistles, song, or foot tapping in a fashion that constitutes focused and targeted communication (and dolphins actually seem to have names for one another). Before children can speak fluently, they move from sounds to words, words to phrases, and so on, acquiring their growing expertise from exposure to the speech around them. They then make efforts to speak, with little formal guidance. By contrast, children must be taught to read.

The good news for kids who have trouble reading is that while a deficiency in reading may look like an across-the-board failure, it is often a local problem in just one or two of the components that add up to the ability to read. Reading, like golfing or playing the guitar, is not one big global skill but a constellation of many smaller ones. When we read fluently, the little skills weave together so seamlessly that they look like a single expertise.

It's important to look at the components because a holdup in the development of any single one may be at fault in a child's poor performance in reading. If we can identify the component that's not doing its share, we can do a great deal to improve reading. The components that make up reading are interrelated and overlapping, but distinguishable:

Vocabulary: knowing the meanings of words. A child's comprehension of what is read depends on this. Better vocabulary better prepares a child for reading.

Comprehension: understanding and being able to interpret what is read, connecting the printed words and sentences with human experience.

Phonological awareness: identifying and manipulating units of oral language, such as words, syllables, onsets, and rimes. Children who have phonological awareness can recognize that sentences are made up of words, words can be broken down into sounds and syllables, sounds can be deleted from words to make new words, and different words can begin or end with the same sound or have the same middle sound(s).

Decoding: breaking down words into their constituent sounds and building words from those sounds. This begins with blending sounds ("puh" plus "al" equals "pal") and extends into sounding out words the child has never seen before by recognizing the sounds of letters and syllables that form them.

Fluency: reading smoothly with accuracy, speed, and expression that conveys the sense of what's being read.

As a parent with no particular professional expertise in teaching literacy, there's a lot you can do on the level of normal play and routine home life to promote reading—and without turning it into a chore or a high-pressure struggle.

Parents can begin working on the components of reading when their child is still an infant and extend the process throughout childhood. To begin with, the more the child knows about oral language, the better. When she begins to read she will draw upon a reserve of expertise that she first built up as a speaker and listener: vocabulary, comprehension, phonological awareness, connecting words to things.

With infants, talk to the child and encourage him to make a range of talklike sounds. Begin reading to the child, and keep books around, including some within the child's reach. Do what you can to make reading fun, enjoyable, peaceful, and engaging, setting the stage for what comes next at the toddler level. You are building command of sounds, love of reading, and an appreciation of the value and importance of books.