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What can parents do to help their child learn to read?

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.



All parents are concerned about setting their child on the right road to academic success, and every parent wants their child to perform well in school so their child can reap the lifelong benefits of a good education.  Most parents are very willing to do whatever they can to help their child develop a good foundation for school, and the best way parents can start their children off on the right foot is to give them a good foundation in the world of literature and text.  In fact, research has shown that children who are successful in school typically spent over a thousand hours engaged in literacy-developing activities with their family before ever stepping foot in a classroom.  Similarly, research has shown that children who do not succeed in school typically have not spent very much time in the first five years of their life engaged in reading-related activities with their families.

Most parents believe that regularly reading to their child is the most important thing they can do to develop literacy skills.  However, reading to children by itself is not sufficient to develop a good pre-school foundation in literacy.  And what's more, the things parents do when they read to their children can make the activity more or less powerful.

Before we get to what is termed "lap reading" (holding your child in your lap and reading to him or her), let's consider some other, powerful activities that parents can do with their children to establish a solid literacy foundation.

Letter Knowledge

The fundamental building blocks of text are letters, and children who enter school with substantial letter knowledge are much more likely to develop good reading skills, and by extension, are much more likely to succeed in school overall.  To be successful readers, children will need to be able to identify and distinguish the individual letters of the alphabet at a glance without any conscious effort.  To become that familiar with the letters, children need to spend a lot of time with them -- playing with them, examining them, and learning what makes one letter different from another.

Research has shown that learning to identify letters by name is not all that important.  Some people, for example, teach their children to identify letters by a sound that corresponds to the letter, and that seems to work just as well.  However, what is important is that children be able to quickly and easily distinguish the letters.  To do this, children will need to spend some time comparing similar letters side by side, and they need an adult to explicitly show them what features of the letter to look for that make it distinct from other similar letters (what separates the O from the Q?  What makes the G different from the C?).

Some letters can be hard for children to learn to distinguish because children are very concrete thinkers.  If you turn a chair upside down, it is still a chair.  But if you turn an "n" upside down, it becomes a "u."

Here are some things parents can do with their children to help them learn to distinguish and identify the letters of the alphabet.

Using letter-tiles or cards with letters on them, have your child sort the letters into piles based upon a particular feature of the letter.  For example, have your child separate the letters into one pile for curved lines (O, S, C, etc.), one pile for straight lines (T, M, X, etc.), and one pile for both straight and curved lines (B, d, p, etc.).  Once the letters are in those piles, have your child separate the letters even further (letters that "stick up" (d, b, h, etc) and letters that "hang down" (y, g, p, etc.).  You can also teach your child to separate capital letters from lower-case letters using this same approach.

Also, children love to play the memory card game, sometimes called "concentration."  A version of "concentration" can be created to help children learn about the letters of the alphabet.  Create or obtain a collection of letter cards -- two cards for each letter of the alphabet (for young children, you may want to start with just a handful of letters and work up to all 26).  Shuffle the cards and spread them out on a table, face down.  Have your child pick up a pair of cards, and if they match they keep them.  If they don't match, they have to put them back where they were.  This is also a good way to teach children to match upper- and lower-case letters.

Playing with letter-shaped refrigerator magnets or letter blocks, and identifying letters in the newspaper or story books are also good activities parents can do to help their children to be more familiar with the letters of our alphabet.

And of course, encouraging children to write can be an extremely powerful activity to help them learn the letters.  They may start out writing scribbles, only inserting the occasional "real" letter, but as they practice, and as they get feedback, they will become more adept at writing more and more letters.

Vocabulary

When it comes to learning new words, children are like sponges.  Young children have the ability to learn a new word after hearing it just once (a skill that apparently goes away as we get older).  By the time a child enters school, that child has learned between 2,500 and 5,000 words.  For the first few years of formal education, an average child will learn about 3,000 new words per year.  That's 8 words per day!

However, while these numbers describe averages, they hide the fact that there are huge differences in vocabulary development among individual children.  Some children enter school knowing as much as twice the number of words that their peers know.  This discrepancy in vocabulary size correlates very strongly with reading achievement.  In fact, research has shown that one of the primary differences between successful readers and unsuccessful readers is vocabulary size.

Vocabulary and reading are very closely related -- to be a successful reader, the child must learn the connection between printed words and familiar spoken words.  Further, once a child becomes a successful reader, text becomes the primary source of vocabulary development.  You may not realize this, but as a literate adult, you learned most of the words you know by reading text (as opposed to watching TV or listening to speech).  Thus, as years of education pass, the discrepancy between the vocabulary size of some students over their peers can grow from two-fold to over four-fold.  Imagine how frustrating it must be for some high-school students to not understand 75 percent of the words that their peers know and use.

The gap in vocabulary size between successful readers and struggling readers begins early and grows over time, so it is important to address the gap as early as possible.  Here are some things parents can do with their children to help them develop larger vocabularies.

For very young, pre-school children who are not yet reading, the best way to develop vocabulary is through natural, oral communication.  Very young children learn new words by hearing them and using them in conversation.  Every time you are out with your child, you have an opportunity to introduce your child to new vocabulary.  Even just running errands at the grocery store is a rich opportunity to enhance your child's vocabulary.

Young children are concrete thinkers, and initially, they are very adept at attaching names to concrete things.  It is good to encourage and support this by providing many names for concrete objects.  At the same time, as you attach names to concrete objects, you can talk about them more abstractly.  For example, concrete names that can be attached to a banana would include "banana," "fruit," "yellow," "bunch," "peel," etc..  Abstract words that could be brought up in relation to a banana would include "delicious," "slippery," "ingredient," etc..

Words can be known at different levels of understanding, too.  Most of the words that very young children "know" are only known superficially -- the child may say the word but may not know what it means or how to use it in a sentence.  It is important that children be familiar with a large variety of words, but it is also important that their understanding be more than superficial.  When your child uses new words, talk about what those words mean, and do things that help the child to practice using those words.

Ironically, though, the best way for children to develop a rich vocabulary is to read, and read a lot.  Vocabulary growth and reading success are intimately related.  A child needs a rich vocabulary to develop good reading skills, and as reading skills improve, the child's vocabulary increases.  This in turn makes it easier for the child to read, so the child reads more, which enhances the child's vocabulary more.  Reading and vocabulary development feed off of each other and support each other.  Oral vocabulary comes first, and to begin this cycle, children must have an adequate vocabulary to develop those early reading skills.  However, once children begin reading, parents can support their vocabulary growth by encouraging them to practice reading, and practice a lot.  It is estimated that poor readers spend less than six minutes per day actually reading real, connected text while good readers spend more than an hour per day reading.  That's a ten-fold difference!  It's no wonder that these children have vocabularies with so much greater breadth and depth than their peers.

Background Knowledge

Vocabulary development is very strongly correlated with background knowledge.  Background knowledge is really just knowledge about the world, and for young children, the two primary sources of information about the world are first-hand experiences and second-hand stories (either from television and movies or from family members and friends).

Everybody has background knowledge about some things, but some children have more background knowledge about the things that are more likely to be relevant to what is studied in a formal classroom.  And children who have the background knowledge that is relevant to topics that come up in classrooms have advantages when it comes to reading and academic success.

Ideally, teachers would begin their instruction with the background knowledge that children have, and they would build upon that knowledge.  However, parents can focus on enhancing the background knowledge of their children as well, and there is much that parents can do to enhance their child's background knowledge.

It is popular to dismiss television as a vast wasteland, but there are some programs that can be a powerful source of background knowledge for children.  There are any number of programs aimed at helping children to learn more about a variety of topics ranging from wildlife and the environment to society and culture.  Television becomes a wasteland when parents don't monitor and control what their children are watching, but not all television is bad.  And children can develop healthy television viewing habits if parents encourage them at a young age to watch the informative and educational programs.

Nothing beats first-hand experience, though, when it comes to enhancing background knowledge.  Children who have traveled to the ocean and spent some time exploring the beach have a much richer background knowledge in that area than children who have only heard about it or watched programs about it on television.  Even seemingly trivial experiences, such as a trip to a bread factory, or a trip to the zoo, can be educational experiences that broaden the child's horizons a little further.

Stories that parents and family members tell are also very meaningful to children.  They hear first-hand from somebody who lived the experience, and that adds to the richness of their background knowledge.

Every opportunity that parents have to enrich their child's background knowledge through first-hand experiences or through second-hand stories should be exploited, and no experiences should be considered trivial.  Children learn a great deal about the world by listening to stories and engaging in conversation with adults and friends.  They may not realize it, but when parents spend time telling stories and describing their life experiences with their children, they are actually improving the odds that their child will become a successful reader.

Phoneme Awareness

The English writing system is a tool for representing the sounds in speech (phonemes) with symbols on a page (letters).  For children to be successful readers (at least in English), they must develop an awareness of the sounds in spoken language, and there is no reason to wait until they go to school to develop this "phoneme awareness."

As mentioned earlier, young children are very concrete thinkers.  Whole words represent objects or ideas.  Breaking words apart and paying attention to the sub-parts of words is not something that children do naturally.  Consequently, most children enter school without an awareness that spoken words are made up of sounds.  Ask a 5-year-old what a "long word" is, and the child may say something like "snake" or "train" or "mile."  To the child, these are "long words" because they represent long things.

Helping children to develop an awareness of speech sounds (phonemes) is becoming a top priority for teachers because research has shown that a lack of phoneme awareness is a serious obstacle to reading success.  Children who come to school with phoneme awareness are significantly more likely to develop reading skills earlier and easier than children who lack phoneme awareness when they come to school.

Parents can help their children to develop phoneme awareness before their child ever gets to school, and thus enhance the odds that their child will learn to read.  Here are some things that parents can do to help their children develop phoneme awareness.

Rhyming games are always fun, and can be a good start to developing an awareness of the sounds in speech.  Take turns with your child thinking up rhyming words for a particular word (e.g. "wall").  The last person who can think of a rhyming word "wins."

The game "I spy with my little eye" can be modified to help children develop awareness for phonemes.  Start off by saying, "I spy with my little eye, something that begins with a," and then add a speech sound (instead of a letter).  So you might say that you see something that begins with a /sh/, and the options could be "shoe" or "sugar" or "shirt."  To extend this game and make it more challenging, say that you see something that ENDS with a certain sound (so your child has to think about the last sound in the word instead of the first).

You can also teach your child "Pig Latin."  Pig Latin requires removing the first sound from a word and adding it to the end of the word (followed by "ay").  So "table" would become "able-tay" and "mouse" would be "ouse-may."

There are also a variety of songs and books available that help children develop an awareness of the sounds in speech.  Dr. Seuss books and other similar books are wonderful for teaching children how to "play with words."  There is also the song "Apples and Bananas" that is very popular with children and which encourages them to manipulate the sounds in words.

Any activity that helps children to pay attention to the sounds that make up words (phonemes) is going to help children develop phoneme awareness, and is therefore going to give them a head-start in developing literacy skills.

Lap Reading

At the outset of this article, it was mentioned that many people believe that reading to their child is the most important thing that they can do to help their child develop good literacy skills.  As we have seen, there are many other things that can and should be done to establish a good foundation that will support reading and academic achievement.

However, there is still a place for lap reading.  Sitting with a child and reading a book is a wonderful activity.  It strengthens the bond between parent and child, and it teaches children a great deal about the value and usefulness of literature.  Research has shown that there is a strong correlation between how often children are read to and how much they enjoy reading as they grow up, so time spent reading to your child is not time wasted.

Lap reading can be made more powerful, though, and parents should know what they can do as they read to their child to make it as rich an experience as possible.

First of all, parents should know that lap reading and bedtime reading are two different things.  Lap reading should be an active, collaborative exploration of the text that you share with your child.  To explore the text with you, the child should be alert and engaged.  Bedtime reading, of course, is quite the opposite.

When you and your child engage in lap reading, you should sit where both of you can see the text and pages clearly, and you should very explicitly model what you are doing as you read.  Periodically use your finger to point to the text as you read and very explicitly show your child how you sound-out and pronounce each word.  If you are reading a story, periodically stop and ask questions and make predictions about what will happen next.  Ask the child to do the same.  Tell the child what you are thinking as you read -- don't keep your thoughts to yourself, but instead, show your child what readers think about as they read.  Talk about the child's own experiences and relate them to the story or the information in the book.

And keep in mind that lap-reading does not always mean reading a story -- sitting with your child and reading magazines, and newspapers, and informative text is an excellent lap-reading activity.  They simultaneously gain information about the world (enhancing background knowledge), and they also begin to learn about the mechanics of text and learn the value of reading, and develop healthy reading comprehension skills that will substantially enhance their likelihood of success in school.

Research has shown that the earlier that children develop reading skills, the better off they are in school.  In fact, children who are still struggling to read grade-appropriate material by the second grade are at a very high risk for reading difficulties and for subsequent academic failure.  Research has also shown that many parents believe that learning to read is something that children learn in the classroom (and not at home), and some parents, ironically, believe that they are disrupting their child's education by teaching literacy skills in the home.

It is critically important that parents learn that teaching literacy skills in the home can only enhance their child's chances for academic success, and further, it is important that parents learn about the most powerful and effective activities they can do with their children to help them develop good literacy skills.  With effective instruction from both parents and teachers, virtually every child can read and succeed.




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Last Updated 8-7-03