Is Reading to Our Kids Enough?

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Some kids do teach themselves to read. But that doesn’t mean all kids can.

How about those people whose kids just taught themselves to read? I saw a Facebook comment recently (because my vice is reading the comments on articles, even though I know I’ll end up angry) where a mom announced she simply “read to her kids and labeled everything in the house and the kids were reading by age 4.” Therefore, she concluded, what’s all the fuss about teaching reading? Clearly, all the other parents in the world just weren’t labeling enough things around their home.

Um, no.

For some kids, it does work that way. I’ve heard plenty of stories about kids whose parents “discovered” they could read instead of “teaching them” to read. As in, one day, little Susie picked up a newspaper and said, “Who’s Donald Rumsfeld?” But those magical stories stick out because they are not so common. Peter Gray’s article on Psychology Today’s website even claims that “The written word is not essentially different to them than the spoken word, so the biological machinery that all humans have for picking up spoken language is more or less automatically employed in their learning to read and write (or type).” However, the research shows that it’s quite different, and not intuitively learned. I guess my question is, if learning is as natural as people claim, how come it took until 3500 BCE for the Sumerians to come up with written language?

Some kids get left behind by classroom reading instruction.

Although U.S. elementary schools teach the nuts and bolts of reading beginning in kindergarten, and wrapping up, give or take, in third grade, kids don’t always move through the stages at the same pace. Public schools base their teaching on the belief that six is the ideal age to learn reading, but maybe that’s not true. In this article in Today’s Parent, Susan Goldberg talks about kids (some home-schooled) who learned to read anywhere between the ages of 4 and 9. And in almost all those anecdotes, they ended up successful readers who learned easily when they were ready. On the other hand, one turned out to have dyslexia. The real risk for a slowly-developing reader in a traditional classroom is that they will fall behind their classmates if they can’t read the material in class.

The wait-and-see attitude seems risky. Growing up a poor reader can have serious consequences for education, employment, and even health. By fourth grade, teachers have stopped teaching how to read, and are expecting students to use their reading skills to learn new information. That makes it much harder to catch up.

So if you are concerned about your child’s reading, don’t just wait patiently. Talk to her teachers. Listen to what they are doing in class, and find out what else can be done. Consider requesting testing for learning disabilities if your child is getting good instruction and not making progress.

In the meantime, what can we do at home, besides reading regularly?

  • Phonics games – Try this Superhero Phonics Game, or any of these spelling and reading games.
  • Sight word practice – Some kids do well with flashcards, but others need more in depth practice. Try pouring some salt in a shallow pan and having them write out the sight words, or write them with a stick in the sandbox, to help them make the connection between the shape of the letters and the word they make up.
  • Authentic writing activities – Some kids just aren’t interested in learning to read or write when reading instruction starts and they need to see what’s in it for them. One thing that helps is letting them see you write. Send postcards to friends, make a shopping list for their favorite meal, write a story about your last trip to the park and let them illustrate it.
  • Reading with a purpose – Another way to get kids engaged in learning to read is to move beyond the early reading books and have them read something important to them. Show them how to read recipes, or instructions for a science experiment. Hand them driving directions to their favorite places. Have family members send you texts and emails for your child.

These strategies are no substitute for good reading instruction. But if you pick activities that help your child feel confident and interested in learning, you can do wonders for their motivation and make that good reading instruction more effective.

When parents read to children, it enhances vocabulary and comprehension, as well as building positive associations with reading that last a lifetime!

Fighting the Summer Slide

Have fun this summer, but don’t let learning slide!

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The Summer Slide sounds like a lot of fun! Maybe it conjures images of a water slide, with its cool stream glistening in the sun. Maybe you hear giggling children and squawking seagulls.

But it’s not that kind of slide, and it’s really no fun. The summer slide is what educators call the pattern of academic decline that happens when kids take the summer off from school. Students, especially students who struggle to make progress during the school year, tend to lose some of those hard-won skills over the summer. Researchers have known about it for over 100 years and various experiments in summer schools and other programs have been tried.

Some teachers assign summer reading or summer homework in the hopes that it will help kids hold on to what they have learned. Some families tackle these assignments head-on in June and get them done. (Not my family, but I’m sure people do.) Others struggle through the summer, or finish them at the last minute, or not at all. Summer reading homework isn’t effective for many students, and it’s not enough for many of them.

Meanwhile, schools talk about personalized learning but there is only so much one teacher can do for a whole class of students, especially once they leave for the summer. Still, personalized learning has the right idea in mind, that the goal for all students should be mastering the material. It just might take some students longer than it takes others.

What are some ways to make the most of your child’s summer time?

How can you set your child up for success in September, without ruining their summer? Here are some suggestion to fit in summer learning without the battle!:

Play games
  • Scrabble – a classic board game that asks children to use think about the words they see, and then connecting new words to them. It is great for building vocabulary (as kids argue about whether their opponents’ words are real), practicing decoding, and reinforcing spelling.
  • Scrabble Junior – This variation on the classic game is geared toward 5-12-year-olds, but is most appropriate for kids at the younger end of that range. At its easier level, Scrabble Junior has kids using their letters to complete the pre-printed words on one side of the board. This is a great option for kids working on letter identification or basic reading or spelling. The reverse side of the board works more like traditional Scrabble, with players building words of their own with the letters they have drawn.
  • Boggle or Boggle Junior– In Boggle, players shake the covered tray of letter cubes, then find more words than their opponents in the connected letters that land in the tray. Boggle Junior simplifies the process with picture cards and a smaller number of letter cubes. Players use the letter cubes to spell out the word shown, either while looking at it, or with the letters in the word covered to add another challenge.
  • Try Q-bitz to strengthen visual problem solving – A Q-bitz pattern card gets flipped over, and each player tries to build that same pattern with the patterened, two-color cubes on their tray. There’s a Q-bitz Junior, too, with simpler patterns.
  • Sum Swamp or Equate for math fact practice – Sum Swamp is a simpler game in which players roll dice and add or subtract the digits on the dice. Equate looks a lot like Scrabble, but with numbers and operation symbols. To keep it simple, limit the tiles to add and subtract; or up the challenge by adding multiplication, division, or fractions!
  • Balderdash – a fun way to expand vocabulary. Each player hears an unfamiliar word and writes down a madeup definition for it. One player has the real definition, and the other team has to guess who is telling the truth. This game challenges students to use their knowledge of word origins and word parts (prefixes, suffixes, roots) to make up plausible definitions, and to guess what makes sense.
  • Trivial Pursuit or TriBond for general knowledge-building – Trivial Pursuit Family Edition has a set of cards for adults and one for kids, so everyone has challenging questions to answer. TriBond cards each have 3 words or concepts on them, and the player has to identify how they are connected to each other. It is a great game for building flexible thinking.
  • Make your own Memory cards with sight words or math facts and their answers (or equivalent fractions, the possibilities are nearly endless). 
Have reading adventures
  • Try audio books for the car
  • Discover a new author or series
  • Make reading a special treat: Read in a tent, in a blanket fort, in a hammock, or in a canoe
  • Cook food from your favorite books
  • Join me for a Summer Reading Adventure online for 6 weeks this summer
Build routines
  • Instead of competing for attention with video games or TV, create a family habit of always sitting down for some learning at a specific part of the day. For some, after breakfast, before he distractions start, works best. Others reinvent the siesta as a quiet learning break mid-day. Maybe the youngest family members nap in the afternoon, and everyone else takes a study break.
Set an example
  • Sit down with your children and learn while they learn
  • Try Duolingo to brush up on your Spanish, commit to reading today’s newspaper cover to cover, or check something new out of the library.
Try technology
  • Khan Academy is free, and it offers lesson videos and practice for math. I find this is best for middle school and high school students, and less engaging for younger children
  • Doctor Genius is a free math practice option for younger children, beginning with the skill of counting to 3
  • No Red Ink lets students practice grammar skills in a fun engaging way, and gives them feedback and teaching in their areas of need
  • NewsELA provides free news articles, which can be adjusted to different reading levels. There are quizzes to check for understanding and a wide range of interesting topics to read about
What if you child finished the year with gaps or weaknesses?
All of these activities provide quality practice and enrichment to reduce the chance that the summer slide will affect your child. But what if you, or their teachers, think they aren’t quite ready to start next school year? What if they finished with skill gaps, or didn’t meet the school’s end-of-year learning benchmarks. Carefully designed teaching from a qualified tutor can make a big difference. Unlike the school year, when there are many demands on your time and your child’s, the summer provides an excellent opportunity to focus on one or two areas of need and make the most of learning time!
Keep your kids from falling behind in reading with some simple, fun, activities
Contact me for a free 30-minute consultation to determine if one-to-one, online tutoring in reading and writing is a good fit for your child!

Question: Who should use audio books?

Answer: Anyone who loves listening to a story!

There is a perception that listening to an audiobook is “cheating,” (an issue I would say Daniel Willingham puts to rest in this post). However, for students who are below-grade-level decoders, audio books are  way to honor their age-appropriate (or better) listening comprehension skills and keep them engaged in challenging texts.

I often present it to students this way: We work together to improve your decoding skills. (Through Orton-Gillingham based reading instruction and word analysis, as well as self-monitoring techniques and strategies such as rereading and using DISSECT to identify the meaning of unknown words). But sometimes, the most important thing is focusing on the story or meaning of a text. Accurate decoding takes energy and time. I want you to save your energy to think deeply about what you read, and at those times, I would like you to save your decoding energy to use on comprehension. So here:

  1. Listen to me read the text.
  2. Use a text-to-speech app or extension to hear it
  3. Listen to this published audio book
  4. Use your Bookshare or Learning Ally subscription

Once we remove the obstacle of decoding the words in a text, which is a complex process that requires cognitive energy, students are free to recall, analyze, argue, and synthesize, along with all the other higher-order thinking skills we are thrilled to see them use. Exposure to text at their listening comprehension level exposes students to vocabulary, concepts, and grammatical structures that they might not be able to access through independent decoding. Is it “cheating” to call on those higher-order thinking skills just because they can’t decode the words? I think not!

8 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Reading Fluency

What is reading fluency and why does it matter?

Reading fluency can be defined as the ability to read accurately, with sufficient rate and prosody (that’s phrasing and expression) to understand what you have read. Schools often measure it with an assessment like AIMSWeb or DIBELS, and they may report it as a score for ORF (Oral Reading Fluency), PRF (Passage Reading Fluency) or WRF (Word Reading Fluency). Students are asked to read out loud from grade-level text for one minute, and the number of words they read correctly is reported. The district establishes (or adopts) benchmarks–expectations for how many words a student should be reading per minute in the fall, winter, and spring of each grade. Then teachers use different types of lessons to improve your child’s reading fluency.

Why all the fuss about reading fluency? Children who don’t read fluently:

  • Have trouble making sense of what they read
  • Have trouble finishing their work on time
  • Often dislike reading
  • Often feel worried or embarrassed about reading out loud.
  • Find reading exhausting!

So what can parents do to improve your child’s reading fluency?

Some of the best strategies for improving reading fluency work both in school and at home. Find something to read and get started!

Pick the right text – Although some experts think it helps to practice with harder texts, most researchers recommend using stories kids can read mostly correctly (90% of words) to practice fluency. Teachers often send home texts that kids have already read in class, and which can be great choices for extra practice at home.

  • Reread a text several times – This works great with short texts like poems or a couple paragraphs of a story. Have your child read it a few times, enough so that they can “work out the kinks” and recognize all the words, but not so much that they just memorize the words.
  • Be a reading fluency model – Read out loud to your child. You can either read them a story they aren’t able to read alone yet, or reread an old favorite. Hearing how you pronounce words, group words into phrases and change your tone of voice for question marks and exclamation points helps them to know what good reading sounds like. Hearing good reading builds vocabulary, which can improve your child’s reading fluency.
  • Take turns – When your child is reading, the “I read a page, you read a page” strategy can keep your child interested and motivated to keep reading. It also gives the same great modeling as reading a whole story to them. Even better, they will hear you read some of the hard words that come up more than once in the text, which helps them figure out how to pronounce them.
  • Give feedback – after your child reads a section, tell them what they did well, and give them a suggestion for something to try next time. For example, “I really like the way you went back and read the whole sentence after you stopped to sound out that word. Reading the whole sentence is something readers do to make sure everything makes sense. Next time, watch out for words that look alike. I noticed you mixed up of and for when you were reading.”
  • Find new audiences – Kids need to read, read, read to boost fluency. Have them read to siblings (big or little), pets, or stuffed animals. Can they read to a grandparent over the phone, or on Skype or FaceTime?
  • Give them the chance to perform! – Record a video of your child the first time they read a new story, and then again when they have practiced. Point out how practicing helped them read faster, more accurately, and with more expression. Have them practice a book so they can read the family bedtime story when they are ready.
  • Practice, practice, practice – Like with any skill, practice makes perfect. Have your child do a little bit of reading fluency practice every day. Even 10 minutes could really improve your child’s reading fluency over the course of a few weeks.