My child’s teacher says he is not reading at grade level

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Wait, what do you mean he’s not at grade level?

Many parents watch and worry as their children learn to read, making sure that everything is going as expected. Others trust the school’s process and believe that their children are doing fine as long as they do the homework the teacher gives and go to school each day. 

At this time of year, some parents receive the surprising (or maybe not totally surprising) news that their child isn’t progressing in reading like we hoped. Now what?

What does it mean to “read on grade level?”

Different measurements, different conclusions

Schools complete some kind of screening and progress monitoring assessments in reading throughout the early grades. Schools usually commit to one system of measuring reading success, such as the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment, with numerical scores) or the Guided Reading system (with levels from A-Z) or another system such as Lexiles, which assigns a 3 or 4 digit number to text based on its difficulty.

In addition, schools often measure reading fluency wit a tool like DIBELS or AIMSweb, designed to let teachers know how quickly and accurately students read text, compared to other students in the same grade, across the US. These scores can alert teachers that a child is not progressing as quickly as peers, but they don’t tell teachers why, or what to do about it. For example, one child might read beautifully and quickly with poor comprehension, while another reads slowly, stumbles over words, but understands the subtle points of a story. Both migh score below grade level, but they have different learning needs. 

So a reading score that’s “below grade level” should be the beginning of a process that helps us learn more about the student and figure out how to help. This should include additional assessments, trying out some interventions (like small group fluency practice or phonics lessons) and measuring progress, and conversations with parents about concerns and next steps.

Why is my child struggling with reading?

“OK, so that’s all good and well that the school has a process, but why is my child struggling with reading?” Fair question.

The short answer is they haven’t yet received enough of the reading instruction that they need, at a time they were ready to benefit from it.

Reading is a complex process that involves the development of oral language (speaking and listening), phonological knowledge (hearing the individual sounds /c/a/t/ in the spoken word cat), letter-sound knowledge, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Dr. Hollis Scarborough developed the model of “The Reading Rope.” to show how all these strands are woven together and develop alongside each other to contribute to skilled reading. 

If there is a gap or a breakdown in any of these areas, students might not be able to meet grade level reading expectations, until they get some support and practice. 

Another popular model, Nancy Young’s Ladder of Reading and Writing shows that while about half of young children develop reading skills pretty easily with decent teaching, the other half need “code-based, systematic and explicit” reading instruction. And not all schools offer that. In fact, a great number of schools in the US are still teaching what’s called the Guided Reading model, which promotes having children read leveled books, often with predictable patterns (I see a cat. I see a dog. I see a capybara) that rely on children looking at the pictures instead of mastering the spelling patterns and decoding the words. 

Some readers learn to read this way and it does not appear to harm them (though many have difficulty with spelling down the road because they haven’t learned letter-sound relationships in a systematic way). Lots of other children get stuck and need better instruction, with more careful assessment, and more explicit phonics teaching, to be successful.

For many readers, high-quality phonics instruction over a relatively short period of time is enough to get them over this barrier and they catch up rapidly. Other readers need specific instruction and extra practice to build fluency, or grow their vocabularies, or develop their oral language skills. 

How to help your child read at grade level

The best thing you can do for your struggling reader is make sure they get a solid grounding in phonics and that they can sound out words and break words into meaningful chunks (think-ing or un-think-able). This can important but not easy. One option is to advocate for your child at school. Learn about what program they are using and advocate for curriculum choices that are consistent with Science of Reading research about how kids learn to read. Ultimately, getting schools to improve thier instruction is what will make a long-term difference in reading outcomes for your community, but it’s overwhelming to take on on your own, whether you advocate for services as part of an IEP or for better classroom instruction.

If you want a reasonable way to supplement poor instruction at school, consider working through a book like Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. Even if you feel like you don’t know a lot about phonics, there are some great videos on YouTube to explain different phonics concepts.

If your child is able to sound out words and chunk them into syllables (most kids who struggle to read struggle with that part), you can help them work on fluency by taking turns reading, either reading the same text or alteranting pages in a book. Poems can be fun texts to do this with.

If your child’s reading sounds nice, but they have trouble remembering and explaining what they read, you can help them develop their oral vocabularies by talking about the story together. Ask questions like, “What was surprising in this chapter?” or “Where do you think they will look first for the lost dog?” Practice summarizing what you read. A great time to do this is when you pick up a book to read the next chapter. You can say, “I remember that when we left off yesterday, the robot had just rescued the bear cub but her foot came off. Let’s see how they solve that problem.” Asking and answering questions and summarizing are powerful ways to help a child think through what they read and understand it better. 

Don’t Panic, but Take Action

If conversations with your child’s teacher, or your own observations, have you wondering how to get your child to read better, the task can feel overwhelming. The good news is that almost every child (many models say 95% of kids) can learn to read if they get the right instruction. The bad news is getting the right instruction can be a major undertaking. 

But remember this: Reading ability does not correlate with intelligence. Even your smart, hard-working, creative child can struggle with reading if the teaching isn’t meeting their needs. But with the right instruction and resources, they can thrive!

If you are concerned about your child’s reading, contact us today to find out how we can help, with online structured literacy instruction using the Orton-Gillingham approach.

Ebooks for younger readers

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Screen time for younger children is controversial. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for kids under 2 and an hour or less per day for kids between 2 and 5. For a lot of families, especially those with children of different ages, this can be a hard limit to enforce. Other families take a more nuanced approach, focusing on the types of activities (games, shows, books, video chats) their kids are engaged in, instead of counting screen time as a whole. 

At my house, we do monitor our children’s total screen time, especially passive watching of videos. But I have found that ebooks are a great tool for getting kids engaged in reading, especially independent literacy practice at young ages. Here are some of our favorite ways to use ebooks for my kids, ages 7 and 4.

So many options!

The public library

The public library is an excellent source of free ebooks and audiobooks for readers of all ages. My library subscribes to Overdrive as well as Hoopla. Both of these services have a catalog of books that cardholders can check out. Overdrive has an free app, Libby, that can be downloaded to phones or tablets. It’s a simple way to get children’s ebooks for iPad or Android tablets. You can also read the books in your web browser on a computer. 

There are some standard ebooks, and there are also some narrated picture books. My toddlers loved the Llama Llama books by Anna Dewdney in this format. Even though we read them together at bedtime, they still enjoyed having a different narrator reading.

These days, my 7-year-old has his library card info saved on his Chromebook and checks out lots of graphic novels and some audiobooks with a little bit of support to search the catalog. If you’re raising a struggling reader who has difficulty with independent reading, including ebooks in their reading time can be a great way to boost independence and grow their love of stories, even if the books they can read on their own aren’t at their grade level.

Finally, if we are going to be in the car a lot, for either a single road trip or a busy week of errands, I often let the kids choose an audiobook to play in the car from my phone. We have listened to some things just for them, like the Junie B. Jones books, and others that I enjoyed, too, like the Harry Potter series and Ramona and Beezus.

Subscription services

If the public library doesn’t have what you need, or if you want to avoid waiting for popular books to become available, you may want to invest in a ebook subscription service. Costs vary but it may be worth the investment if your children are devourers of books.

I like Epic Books both as a tutor and as a parent. If your child’s teacher has a free school-based subscription, you may be able to get Epic on a home device at no cost. If you want to subscribe on your own, check out the link here. For $9.99 a month, less if you pay for a whole year, the selection is pretty darn good. The collection of books is growing all the time and includes some great non-fiction titles, like National Geographic science books, as well as some excellent fiction and engaging graphic novels. You can search by topic, title, and reading level to find what you’re looking for. Their graphic novels are my go-to to entice reluctant readers to start reading with me.

Another popular service is Kindle Unlimited, which costs about $10 through Amazon and gives access to a large library of ebooks. A quick search shows 60,000 titles in the category “Children’s ebooks” and includes popular series like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. While there are some picture books in the collection, it seems to lean more heavily towards middle grades novels.

Specialty services

If your child has a learning disability or visual impairment, you may qualify to use a non-profit services like Learning Ally or Bookshare. These specialty services have the best catalogue of popular books as well as textbooks available in audio format. While they are often used with middle and high school readers looking to keep up with longer texts they struggle to read visually, some younger students may benefit as well. 

With Learning Ally, parents can subscribe for a cost of about $12 a month, although schools also often create subscriptions for qualifying students. Bookshare is available to students at no cost, but needs to be set up through the school system. 

Just read!

I feel guilty sometimes giving my kids ebooks instead of hauling enough bags of books home from the library to keep them occupied. I wonder if I’m conditioning them to look for quick gratification when they can instantly download a book they want or click on a word they can’t pronounce to hear it. 

But if the alternative is that they do omething else on a screen, instead of going to the shelf and picking up a book, I’ll take the ebooks any day! It makes my 4-year-old feel grown up to be reading on a borrowed tablet, and it limits my 7-year-old’s resistance to reading when he doesn’t have the book of his dreams on hand. 

Ebooks for younger readers can be an excellent part of a varied reading diet and a great tool for parents looking to increase reading engagement and have a whole library at their fingertips!

Do you like reading on a screen or do you stick with paper? Comment below and let us know!

Picking Books for your Children to Read at Home

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We have books here. We have way too many books here. Between the collection my father-in-law saved from my husband’s childhood, the ones I own myself and those we’ve received as gifts, not to mention my years teaching in schools, we have more than we could possibly need. But it is still so hard to get my son to pick a book and sit down and read. So if you’re like me, wondering how to get your child to read on grade level, or read books that hold their attention, read on! 

Every Reader His/Her Book

In 1931, S. R. Ranganathan proposed the Five Laws of Library Science and “Every Reader His/Her Book” is number two. But finding the right book for your young reader is not always an easy feat. Here are some tips for finding a book that will keep your children reading.

Consider their interests

Whether your kids are into Minecraft, sports, princess or pets, there is a book out there for them. You can find lots of blog posts on this topic with internet searches like “Books for kids who love__.” For one student who loved Minecraft, I found a series by Mark Cheverton that takes place inside the game. My student found a lot of joy in picking apart the things that couldn’t really happen in the game, and in predicting what was going to happen next. 

Another tool I love for finding similar books is the website What Should I Read Next? It doesn’t always have some of the newer series for kids but it’s a great starting point for a search. 

Help my child read for free
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

For early readers, there are a wide variety of stories featuring their favorite characters from TV and movies. My son read these Marvel Meet the Superheroes books over and over. For quick read-alouds and more independent readers, the 5-Minute Stories series has many books with favorite Disney characters. This Pixar collection is terrific, and there are also Disney Princesses, Avengers, and many others. My library has many options.

Some kids prefer non-fiction books. I always did. Don’t give up on stories for them, but definitely indulge their interests, whether it’s cookbooks, Guinness World Records or creepy animals! Try to encourage their interests in narrative by introducing them to the biographies of people in these fields, or stories featuring chefs or animals. 

Consider their skills

If your child is reading at the same level as his or her peers, it’s a lot easier for them to grab any old book off the classroom bookshelf and get into it. If your child is an advanced or struggling reader, it can be harder to find a match between their maturity and interest level and their ability to read the words on the page. 

Graphic novels are one option for getting more complex stories in the hands of reluctant or struggling readers. Even classic literature, like 1984, is now available in graphic novel form, which can make it accessible to kids who have a difficult time sitting down and paging through a novel. 

How to get your child to read on grade level
girl reading a book on a red couch

If you’re looking for another idea for how to help a struggling reader at home, consider audiobooks. Many are available for download through the public library (Overdrive and Hoopla are two commonly-used services). Amazon’s Audible.com is a paid services that offers audiobooks, if you prefer to buy them. 

If you’re struggling to get your child to sit down and read, grab our free Winter Reading Bingo board to get them excited about all the ways they can enjoy books!


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Read to them (even when they are “too big”)

As your child’s reading skill grows, reading out loud to them is still a powerful way to enrich their vocabulary and build their comprehension skills for more complex stories. It’s tempting to tell your child to go read on their own all the time once you know they can but make some time for reading aloud in your week.

Reading out loud to big kids can even feel awkward, once they are too big to beg you for a story. Let them pick books that are too hard or too long to read alone. Or offer to take turns reading their book, especially at the beginning, to help build some reading momentum. You can even read them short selections of your own reading – things that made you laugh, or made you think, or news articles that made you think of them.

Audiobooks, especially at bedtime or in the car, can be a relaxing way to enjoy a story together. The Harry Potter and Narnia series’ are great audiobook experiences. Listening to books is a valuable experience on its own. Beyond that, the hope is that once you have introduced them to a book, or a series, kids will feel more confident picking those books up on their own a little down the road.

Good books matter

The volume of information we all have available to us can feel like drinking from a firehose. TV, YouTube, billboards, podcasts, video games and Instagram all scream for our attention. It takes deliberate planning to make sure we’re all digging in to quality literature, and not just snacking on whatever junk media comes our way. For our kids, sometimes getting them to read books means meeting them halfway, with graphic novels, audiobooks, or characters from popular media to help them develop the patience readers need to tackle bigger, more challenging, more rewarding reading.

What are the best books for my child to read at home?
We all hear that reading at home is important for children. But what should they be reading? Here are some ideas for kids of all ages.

Don’t forget to grab your Winter Reading Bingo Board!


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My child is Guessing Words When Reading!

If you’re the parent of a young reader, you may have caught wind of terms like “The Reading Wars” and “The Science of Reading.” The issues always boil down to, “What is the best way to turn children into capable and eager readers?” Like everything, the questions and answers get oversimplified and misrepresented in media. But if you have a school-age child, varying approaches to reading instruction can make a huge difference. Especially if you’re wondering, “Why does my child guess words when reading?”

If a child guesses words while reading…

The (Vastly Oversimplified) Process of Reading

To read written English, we need to:

  • Connect the right sounds to the symbols (letters) printed on the page and blend them together to “hear” a word
  • Read quickly enough to not get exhausted and not run out of attention
  • Recognize a real word and understand what it means in this sentence
  • Read a whole story, remember it, and understand things about the story

One philosophy of teaching reading, called balanced literacy, advocates encouraging children to “use context clues,” including pictures, to figure out “what would make sense.” The problem with that approach is that, eventually, the books they read have fewer and fewer pictures to help them figure out hard words. Kids who rely on this coping strategy end up stranded because they don’t know how to say multisyllabic words. These kids have often been very successful in the classroom until third or fourth grade, but by fifth, they start to struggle. They can’t keep up with grade-level science texts, or lessons that require them to read for information. 

How to help children who guess words when reading
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

The worst part is that this is not what mature readers (like adults) do. Efficient readers quickly recognize whole words or chunks of words and combine them to read words they might never have seen before. By encouraging children to check the pictures, or by letting them fall back on this strategy, you’re promoting a reading habit that will become less and less effective as they progress as readers and eventually, it will leave them stranded. 

This parent noticed the problem when she tested her daughter on a predictable book with pictures to provide support. With the pictures, it sounds like beautiful early grades reading. But when the pictures are removed, the child stumbles and gets stuck. Think about the last 10 books you read. How many had pictures to help you read the words? Relying on the text alone is what reading really is!

How to Help Your Child Avoid Guessing

If you’re trying to figure out how to stop your child from guessing, first you need to understand “why does my child guess words when reading.”

Use decodable text – “Decodable text” is the term for stories that follow a sequence of introduction for different phonetic spelling patterns. The exact sequence is different for every set of decodable books, but generally “easy” books include one or more short vowel sounds and short words in short sentences. Think “Val sat on the mat.”

Text becomes “decodable” when students have learned the spelling patterns included in it. This doesn’t always match grade level or any other commonly used book leveling system. To know what decodable books your child needs, you have to know what patterns she has been taught: short vowels, silent e, vowel teams, etc.

Give “hard” words to them for free – Readers guess when they don’t know a word and don’t have the tools to figure it out. Once you have picked appropriate books, it helps to anticipate the tricky words and warn your child when they come up. It can feel awkward to interrupt their reading, but remember that you’re trying to stop the guessing behavior before it starts.

Even if they can read almost every word in the book, they might need help with character names. I know I’m not the only one who read Harry Potter without knowing how to pronounce “Hermione” until the movies came out!

Instead of “What would make sense?” – In the guided reading philosophy, teachers cue children when they get stuck on a word by asking “What would make sense here?” It leads them to say horse when they can’t read pony or hat when they can’t read helmet. Sometimes those substitutions are OK in early stories, and so kids over rely on that strategy. Then they get to more challenging texts. What would make sense in this sentence from the Wikipedia entry on electricity?

“The ____ of this force is given by Coulomb’s law.”

You didn’t guess magnitude? Me neither. That’s why having a strategy for breaking down unfamiliar words is so important.

One way to make reading more fun is to use our Winter Reading Bingo Board. Download it here.


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Why is this still happening?

I heard the statistic that actual classroom instruction in public schools lags about 20 years behind educational research. It makes sense. If a teacher works in the schools for 30 years, it has probably been at least 20 years since she was a grad student. And administrators and curriculum coaches are likely at least a few years out of school. Not to mention, college teacher preparation programs are still teaching this approach to reading instruction and churning out new teachers who teach the same ineffective strategies. 

Is there hope?

Lots of people are asking their school districts hard questions, bringing effective, evidence-based, strategies into the classroom, and moving towards better curriculum. As a parent, finding these people (or becoming these people!) is one of the most powerful ways you can help your child and all the children in your district.

Look into local Decoding Dyslexia or Reading League chapters. 

For your own child, consider whether your current public school is the right place for them to learn to read. I taught my own son to decode because he attended kindergarten via distance learning, in a balanced literacy district, to boot. If your child is struggling with guessing and avoiding reading, it may be the best approach to choose a home instruction program or find a tutor who can teach your child using structured literacy so they have the skills and confidence required to sound out words without guessing. 

If it’s time to get some highly trained, 1-on-1 help to teach your child to read, contact us for a free consultation and demo lesson.

What should I do if my child is using the pictures to guess words when reading?
Some children learn to use the picture or other clues to guess words that are hard to read. Here is how to help your children move away from using pictures and rely on the words printed on the page.

How to help a child read better at home

If you buy something from a link in this post, we may get a small commission on your purchase.

Happy New Year! Among the many resolutions we all make to eat better and get organized, many parents are wondering how to help their children have a great year. As a parent, you may be looking for ideas about how to help a child read better or how to get your child to read on grade level. Read on for some ideas about how to help a child read better and read more.

Identify the Problem

Sounding out words

Sometimes, children are reluctant to read because reading feels very hard! Especially for younger readers, books “at their level” can be filled with tricky irregular words that don’t follow the rules they know. For example, a sentence like “Bill made a card to give his mother” would look right at home in a first grader’s book, but there’s a lot to take in here: 

  • silent e changes the vowel sound in made, but not in give!
  • in mother, the o makes the /ŭ/ sound instead of the /ŏ/ sound!
  • card has an r-controlled vowel sound, which many reading programs don’t introduce until later on!

If your child is still learning about phonics and how to sound out words (usually up through second grade, possibly later), look for decodable books that match what they have learned. For kindergarten, Bob books are a great option. These Simple Words books are a terrific choice for older kids who want to read “real” books but are still learning to decode. Check out all my recommendations for decodable books here.

Reading Fluently

Even if a child can accurately sound out words, they may do it in a slow, laborious way that makes it hard for them to follow a story. If you’re wondering how to help a child read better and more fluently, one of the best ways is to provide a good model. This can mean taking turns reading pages, or having an older sibling read with them. Reading along with audiobooks is another option for letting children hear a fluent reader.

Beyond modeling, fluent reading comes from tons of practice. Suggest that your child read to pets, or dolls, or grandparents, or the neighborhood squirrels, whatever captures their attention. It’s important that children read frequently and read lots of different types of stories to become more fluent. It’s like learning a musical instrument – it can be boring, and it can be painful for the people listening, but slow and steady practice is an essential part of becoming a great reader!

Need ideas to jazz up your home reading routine? Sign up here to grab my free Winter Reading Bingo board and get email updates with more ideas to help your readers at home!


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Sticking with a Book

Maybe your children read beautifully but they still don’t like it. Reading time is “boring” or “too long.” In our modern world, it can be so hard to block out distractions and sit down with a book. I read a lot of eBooks and often have to dodge email notifications, game requests, ads and weather reports to even get my book open! Those things are designed to get us to look at them. Think about how you can design reading time to make it appealing.

You can help a child read better and help them build reading stamina by:

  • Creating cozy reading spaces – cushions, blankets, good lighting
  • Keeping book collections fresh – hit the library regularly or trade with other families for new-to-you titles
  • Keep old favorites handy – there’s nothing wrong with rereading well-loved books!
  • Set an example – I know you don’t have time, no one does! But if you want your child to read, let them see you read. Keep a book in the kitchen and steal a few minutes while you wait for the water to boil, or create a bedtime reading ritual for everyone.

Finding books they can stick with is another challenge for growing readers. If your child has a limited reading diet, you may be wondering how to get your child to read on grade level. I often search websites like whatshouldireadnext and Good Reads for books like a current favorite. School and public librarians, as well as reading lists published by schools, can be great resources for book ideas. The Holy Grail of reading is finding a series your child loves, written by a prolific author. 

You can help your child expand their repertoire by:

  • Introducing new series – bring home one or two books from a new series and be willing to go back for more.
  • Learning about popular authors on YouTube or on their websites
  • Trying graphic novel versions of popular books – These can be quick reads that give them a taste of a more complex story.
  • Finding a common thread – If they like non-fiction about animals, try a novel that features animals.
  • Adding audiobooks – While we don’t want to give up on “eye-reading,” adding audiobooks can expose children to new kinds of stories in a more fun, lower effort way that might motivate them to read similar books themselves

Kids Who Read More, Read Better

Skipping reading when everyone is tired at bedtime or on a busy night of soccer and scouts doesn’t feel like a big deal. But daily reading has huge cumulative impacts on learning and development. Kids who read for 20 minutes a day can read six times as many words each year, compared to kids who read just five minutes a day. That can make an enormous difference in vocabulary, knowledge, and ability to understand stories.

Kids who read for 20 minutes a day can read six times as many words each year, compared to kids who read just five minutes a day. Click To Tweet

So let’s get started! Make it your New Year’s Resolution to increase your children’s reading time by 5 minutes a day, to start. Once you take the first step of making sure they sit down with a book daily, it’s much easier to grow the habit from there!

How to help a child read better at home
Most of us don’t remember learning to read. Here’s how to help your children get the help they need as they learn to read.

Don’t forget to download the Winter Reading Bingo board!


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Sorry, I don’t tutor kindergartners – Here’s why

When I used to do test prep tutoring for high school students through some of the big tutoring companies, I pretty much only talked to parents who were looking for that specific product. I’ve been tutoring privately for two and a half years and now that I talk to a wider cross-section of parents, I am surprised by how often parents are looking for tutoring for their kindergartners! Sometimes, they feel their four- and five-year-olds have fallen behind kids their age and want them tutored in basic academic skills like letter names, shapes, and counting. Other times, they want their preschooler to “get ahead” so they can do well in kindergarten.

I’m sympathetic to these requests because I know starting school can be incredibly stressful for parents. I have a four-year-old myself and I find myself wondering all the time if he’ll do well when he starts school or if we have some hard work ahead of us.

As a reading and writing tutor, I don’t take on students that young. Especially working online, I don’t think I can meet the needs of the youngest learners. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I don’t think “tutoring,” in the traditional definition, is appropriate for students before around first grade.

I think that four- and five-year-old preschoolers and kindergartners, frankly, have way more important things to do than to sit with a tutor. I would rather see them on their feet, playing, creating, following directions, problem-solving, and learning about the world around them. Children this age have a short attention span for things that aren’t their own ideas and that’s not a problem! That’s the way they are supposed to learn.

That’s not to say they don’t have a lot to learn before they start school. There is a huge range of starting points for kids entering kindergarten. But kindergarten teachers expect that wide range to enter their classrooms at the end of every summer.

In any public school classroom in the U.S., kids are likely to have birthdays at least a year apart. That’s just the nature of the public school system, due to enrollment cutoffs. Teachers expect that and use a variety of techniques to meet kids where they are and bring them through the year. By high school, you wouldn’t be able to guess the age of many of the students.

In kindergarten, though, the differences can be dramatic. But in my experience as a public school teacher, some gaps are much more concerning than others. I would much rather see a student come in to the classroom who can converse with peers and adults, manage her behavior, navigate the classroom space, and solve problems. If she doesn’t know all the letters in the alphabet when she starts school, I can work with that!

Parents are constantly getting the message that they need to get their kids “ready” for kindergarten. There are workbooks and intensive preschool programs. There are family members pressuring parents to do more, comparing these preschoolers to other people’s children who were reading earlier or doing remarkable things before kindergarten! And because parents want the best for their children, they’re not sure where to turn.

Stay tuned for the next few weeks where I will be sharing some ideas for how to know whether your child is ready for kindergarten success and what kind of activities and lessons you can teach to help them be ready or when school starts this fall!

As a special education teacher, I have worked with students coming in for kindergarten screening for years. I will share some of the things that make us wonder or worry about an incoming student as well as some of the best ideas I’ve learned for promoting of the things that really matter for your child going into kindergarten.

Sorry, I don't tutor kindergartners - Here's Why

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
Kindergartners need lots of play and real-life experiences, not a tutor.

Coming soon: 4 Big Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten. Join the mailing list for updates about the book and tips and tools to get your child ready for school!



More than flashcards – how to help your child learn sight words

What are sight words?

Sight words, also known as high frequency words, are the most common words encountered in printed text. According to research by Edward Fry, creator of the Fry Instant Word list, the 25 of these words make up one third of all printed material. Some of these words are easy for kids to sound out (like big) while others (like the and was) are irregular or “rule breakers.” Two common sets of sight words that schools test and teach are the Dolch words and the Fry word list.

Why are sight words important?

Strong readers have a large vocabulary of words they recognize by sight. Think about your reading here in this paragraph. Are you sounding out each word or recognizing most of them as whole units? Part of the process of learning to read is adding more words to your sight word memory, which increases reading speed and efficiency. Some words (think little, people, McDonald’s and Grandma) are difficult for young readers to figure out sound by sound, but they quickly come to recognize them because they are seen frequently and/or because they are meaningful and kids are motivated to recognize them!

Why do we have to do sight words for homework?

Some teachers assign sight word study for homework. For some kids, not a lot of practice is needed to memorize the sight words. Others need to look at them, read them and spell them again and again to get them into memory. If a child hasn’t memorized the age-appropriate sight words, it can make their reading slow, choppy and frustrating. It can also make it hard for them to spell in a way that others can read their writing.

Assigning this practice at home lets teachers focus on other aspects of teaching literacy. It also may make sense to practice at home because each child is likely to be focusing on a different set of sight words.

Ways to study sight words

There are lots of ways to make sight word practice fun and meaningful and to get the assignment done without losing your mind.

Tactile practice

Have your child write sight words in a shallow tray full of sand or salt, in shaving cream, or on the shower wall with shower paint. You can also fill a quart Ziploc bag with hair gel or colored liquid soap, seal the bag well, and write words with a finger on the plastic. The bag of gel is my favorite because it’s less messy, but any type of practice that gets your kids saying the word and its letters, feeling the shape of the letters as they write and trace and reading what they wrote is good practice because using multiple senses strengthens the memory of the word.

Use the cover-copy-check strategy:

  • Read the word and spell it out loud
  • Cover the word or flip the card over
  • Write it or trace it without looking
  • Check to see if you spelled it right

Games

When I’m working with kids, I’m likely to turn just about anything into either go fish, memory/concentration or 20 questions. Here are some game ideas for sight word study.

Go Fish: Write the words on pairs of flashcards. Use the cards to play go fish. Deal 5 cards to each player and ask, “Do you have was?” If a player draws a match, make sure they read the pair out loud before you let them keep it.

Memory: Use the same pairs of flashcards to play memory. Lay between 5 and 10 pairs of words on the table face down. Players take turns flipping over a pair of cards, reading the cards and keeping them if they match. Make sure they read the words out loud and don’t just match visually.

20 Questions: Lay out the cards where everyone can see them. One person thinks of one of the words, and the other asks questions to figure out which one it is. Ask questions like, “Does it have the /p/ sound?” or “Does it have 5 letters?” Encourage the child to move the cards around and eliminate/flip over cards that don’t fit the clues.

Online games:

  • Popcorn words on Fun4theBrain.com
  • Sight word games at Education.com
  • There are also an ever-changing array of sight word apps for Apple and Android

Mnemonics

Mnemonics are memory tricks, like learning the sentence, “My very educated mother just served us nachos” to remember that the planets in our solar system are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. (Remember when Pluto was a planet and our mother served us “nine pizzas” instead? My favorite is the sentence, “Big elephants can always understand small elephants” to help kids spell because.

For sight words, the tricks your child picks will be individual to him or her. Check out Pinterest or search for “spelling mnemonic __” for whatever word your child is struggling with.

Think about meaning

Sight words can be tricky because they make kids remember whether a word starts with w or wh and that the uz you hear in does spelled like the oze you hear in goes.

The question words who, what, when, where, why all have wh.

Does and goes are both verbs and they both get the +es suffix on the end, even though they are pronounced differently.

Spaced repetition

Last, but definitely not least, is the strategy of spaced repetition. The linked video is geared toward medical students, but the idea of the forgetting curve is just as true with kids learning sight words! I’ll post a video soon on how to set up a spaced repetition system for sight words, but here are the big ideas:

If you are starting from scratch, pick five words to focus on. Once the child can read those words accurately on the first try, move those words over and only study them every other day. After a week of studying them every other day, move them to the twice a week group. At the end of that week, move them to once a week, then on to once a month. If the child misses a word, move it back to every day practice until they can do it correctly again. As the child masters the every day words, introduce new ones to work on so they always have about five new (hard) words and a bunch of others that they are getting really good at.

After they can remember a word they haven’t studied in more than a week (monthly), retire the word. It is definitely mastered!

When can we stop practicing?

This question is tricky because it’s different for every child and every set of words. The goal with sight words is accuracy and automaticity. If your child’s teacher is assigning sight word homework, he or she is probably assessing them in the classroom and will decide when to move words out of the practice set. If the child can read the word accurately, with no hesitation, spell the word, and read it when they see it in a sentence or story, they have mastered it and can stop studying.

Boy doing homework

How to tell your child she has a learning disability

Early in my teaching career, I worked in a substantially separate special education classroom for middle school students with significant disabilities. Many of these students had a diagnosis on the autism spectrum while others had cognitive impairment of varying severity. With some of these students, their impairments were so significant that they were unlikely to notice the extent of their differences from their peers. They got all their instruction with me in the small group classroom, with the exception of art, gym, and music. While they attended lunch and recess and social activities with their middle school peers, they needed the support of small group instruction at their academic level for their other classes.

One graduation night, I was in my classroom with a couple colleagues getting ready for the ceremony. A young adult we didn’t know came in and said, “I used to come in this classroom when I was in middle school. I never got the point of being in here. What do you teach?”

I hesitated, wondering if this young woman was unaware that she had been in special education in middle school. I knew of her, because some of her siblings were still at the school, but I had never met her when she went to school there. I didn’t really know much about her as a learner, except now I knew that she had been in my specialized program as a middle schooler.

I said, “Well, teachers have figured out that some students do their best learning in a big class with about 20 other students and different teachers all day long. Other middle schoolers do their best learning in a small group classroom where they have the same teacher for all their subjects.” She nodded and said goodbye. She seemed satisfied with that answer. But it made me think: what is the best way to tell students about their learning differences and when should they be told?

Now I have been working with a different population of learners. Many of the students I work with have specific learning disabilities in reading, writing or math. Some have diagnosis of dyslexia. I still work with some students on the autism spectrum and others with a variety of diagnoses, including ADHD. While many of these students are younger, I’m starting to wonder at what point they need to be told they have a disability.

While it’s certainly not my place to tell students any information that their parents haven’t explained to them, I do often have to have challenging conversations with students who are noticing their differences from peers and feeling like some of the work is too hard for them or than what they’re being asked to do is not fair.

It seems like third grade is the time that many students start to express this. By that point, everyone in the class knows which students have to leave the classroom to go to another teacher for reading, and which students are either never called on to read out loud or struggle and look miserable when they do get called on. In many classrooms, students protect and help the students who are struggling most. They often will take the lead in reading if they have a struggling reader in their group or jump in to help someone spell a word if they think it’s a difficult one. But 3rd grade is also the time when many of my students begin to wonder what’s wrong with them or begin to see themselves as stupid.

In my lessons with them, I do several things to combat that perception. First of all, I make a point to focus on the strengths of each of my students. Students with terrific vocabularies get asked to teach word meanings to their peers. Students who have had lots of explicit phonics instruction are called on to identify the vowels in a word because while many other students may be able to read the word, not all are able to analyze it in the same detail as my students who have had extensive Orton-Gillingham instruction. I make it a point to call on students to share their background knowledge about sports, or fishing, or animals, if I know it’s an area of interest and strength.

But I also frequently have to talk to students about their weaknesses. The way I do this is I start to ask them questions about things that are easy for them and things that are harder as young as kindergarten and first grade. These young students often have a great deal of difficulty identifying their best subject or their weaker ones. In fact, they often tell me that their favorite class is the one they’re struggling in most. Sometimes I wonder if that’s because that is when they get the most adult attention and help. But older students, beginning in about second grade, can pretty clearly tell me what they can and can’t do. They might say “I love to write but I’m bad at spelling.” Or, “I know all my math facts, but I’m not a good reader.”

For these students, I validate their experience, but I reframe it. If they say “I’m not good at spelling.” I say, “I’ve noticed that sometimes you have trouble remembering how words are spelled. Sometimes I see that you get all the consonant sounds right in your words but you mix up the vowel sounds. Is that what you notice, too?” I want them to analyze specifically what they can and can’t do so that they’ll be able to see their own progress. I also don’t want them to think of themselves as being bad at something. Having a growth mindset means that they see their struggles as goals they have not yet accomplished. When we think of skills that way, students are able to see that they make progress from week to week, month to month, and year to year.

These discussions about strengths and weaknesses are the same ones any parent can have with any child, regardless of whether they have a disability. But I think they’re especially important to have with children who struggle particularly in one academic area. It shouldn’t be a secret that students read slower than their peers. The teacher knows it, the parent knows it, and it’s important that we tell the student what we know. They should know that their area of difficulty is not something to be ashamed of. We know it’s not because of lack of effort. And we’re working hard to try to help them develop that skill. They need to know that.

After these conversations about strength and weakness, as a parent, you may want to give the child a name for those difficulties. I worked with one first grader who was incredibly proud to tell me that the reason he couldn’t do the spelling I was asking him to do was that he had dyslexia. What he hadn’t figured out yet is that’s why we worked together in the first place, but those realizations come with time.

Telling your children the name for the struggles they are experiencing can feel scary. The anxiety you may have had about their diagnosis and your worries about what will happen as they grow up may make you want to hide this information from your child. But I believe this is misguided. You can avoid naming your child’s learning disability, but you can’t protect them from it. They live in a world of struggling to read or not being able to remember math facts. In fact, giving a name to the thing that can frustrate and overwhelm them can give them a lot of power. 

These discussions can happen over the course of years, as you feel your child is mature enough to understand different things about their way of learning. Just like with any part of parenting, discussing a child’s learning disability is a long journey. But if you gradually give them information and responsibility, they will be much more ready to take on the self-advocacy and planning responsibilities required to help them succeed in school, college, the workplace and other facets of their lives.

Can you get Orton-Gillingham tutoring online?

March, 2020 update: I have created a new website including a growing collection of videos for tutors about how to set up reading tutoring online. Check it out here: http://deeprootslearn.com/videos-for-tutors/

I also have a Facebook group. Please join for more information about getting started as an online reading tutor. https://www.facebook.com/groups/194704258484350/

Getting trained in Orton-Gillingham has totally changed the way I look at students and reading. Explicit, diagnostic, teaching in phonics makes an enormous difference in how students learn. But when I became an online tutor, I had to figure out if I could still do Orton-Gillingham tutoring online. Now that I have figured it out, I won’t go back to in-person meetings for O-G!

When I first became an Orton-Gillingham tutor, I found it really difficult to quickly manage all the materials I need in a lesson. Working with students with dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities who were reading below grade level (and often exhausted from a frustrating day of school), I knew it was really important to use their time wisely. I also worked with some younger students who had difficulty sustaining attention for an intense one-hour Orton-Gillingham reading lesson. Then I became an online reading and writing tutor. I have developed my set of tools so I can do Orton Gillingham tutoring online. And the results have been fantastic!

The key thing that makes an Orton-Gillingham lesson work is that the teaching should be should be systematic and based on a student’s mastery of earlier skills. That means that when I first start working with a student with dyslexia or a specific learning disability in reading, I use informal assessments to figure out what they need. Then I use my lessons to systematically fill those skill gaps. So if an older reader still doesn’t automatically use the right short vowel sounds, we have to go back to the short vowel sounds. 

Sometimes those materials can look really young because they are designed for students who are learning to read in first grade. What I can do in the online setting is quickly reformat and redesign materials to make them more appealing to older readers. For example, I can insert images to go with our vowel sound practice in the reader’s notebook that are not the traditional cartoony phonics images. I can also engage students in choosing their own visuals with a quick Google image search so that they can build their notebook along with me.

Another reason that I love doing Orton-Gillingham tutoring online is that it gives me so much flexibility within the lesson. Sometimes during in-person lessons, I find that a student doesn’t understand a vocabulary word we’re discussing or has trouble with a particular sound. In an in-person lesson I usually have to make a note of that and remember to review it in our next meeting. During an online Orton Gillingham lesson I can open a new tab in my browser and do a quick search for pictures of the thing we’re discussing. I can quickly give the student a visual of an emu or the city of Dallas to help them form a mental image to go along with the new words they are reading and learning. This strategy of using pictures as well as text as a context for learning vocabulary has been shown by research to help students remember words better and for longer.

And maybe the best thing about Orton-Gillingham tutoring online is that the student and I need very few specialized materials. For the multi-sensory part of the lesson, it does help for a child to have some physical materials in front of them. They definitely need paper and a pencil and it also helps to have some kind of textured surface, which can be as simple as salt poured in a baking sheet or a rough towel on which to trace their letters. Other than that, I supply everything and put it right up on the screen. I can use ebooks that I borrow from the library or get from Kindle. I can create word lists in a Google doc and share them right on my screen. I can create activities like word building and word sorts using Google Slides. And we have all of the free online reading games available to students online to choose from for reinforcements. (I really like some from fun4thebrain.com.) With my youngest students I usually build in a game break in the middle of the lesson, something like sight words or typing to reinforce their skills but give them a break from the challenging new content. Some of my older students don’t take a break at all during the lesson, while others ask if we can save the last 5 minutes for something they want to share with me, either a piece of work from school or a funny YouTube video.

What I do my Orton-Gillingham tutoring online, I’m also able to see more students in a day. For in-person tutoring there is travel time between the students and also time to set up and break down all my materials. By doing Orton-Gillingham tutoring and that way I am able to maximize the number of students I can help!

If you’re interested in seeing what an online Orton-Gillingham lesson would be like for your child, please contact me today. I offer a free 30-minute consultation where I can assess the student and demonstrate some of the fun tools that we use.

Does Orton-Gillingham tutoring work online?

Is reading on a screen bad for the brain?

People of all ages are spending more time than ever before getting information on their screens. My three-year-old loves his piles of books, but he goes crazy for ebooks on my phone. And they are a great choice for me to give him sometimes, too, like when we’re traveling or when I am barely awake and holding a book over my head just doesn’t work. But is reading on a screen bad for kids? Does reading on a screen affect reading comprehension?

Some research shows that people remember things better and comprehend more deeply when they read information on paper, as opposed to on a screen. But is this something special about the human brain? Or is it a matter of teaching kids appropriate strategies for reading on a screen? I suspect it’s a bit of both. However, even if paper makes it easier for people to learn, digital information isn’t going away. We need effective strategies for making the most of digital content.

Skimming: Understanding the structure of text

If you are reading paper material, it is usually pretty easy to tell what kind of thing you are reading by looking at its physical appearance. Is it a thick book? A magazine? A photocopied packet? A newspaper article? Digital print is harder to figure out at a glance, so previewing the text helps you figure out what you are going to read and make a plan for doing it right.

  • When you are reading a text on a screen, take steps to make sure you understand the way the document is organized and to help you figure out and remember where things are.
  • Look at the table of contents or scroll from the beginning to the end. How many parts/chapters/headings are there? How long is each part?
  • Read the title of each main section. Which ones seem the most important to you? Which ones are you interested in or excited about?
  • While you are skimming, look for text features that stand out. Does the author use:
    • Bullets
    • Numbered lists
    • Lots of links
    • Tables
    • Infographics
    • Video clips?

Knowing the type of information you will find helps you plan your reading style.

Use search and bookmarks to find important points in the document

One downside I notice when reading an ebook or reading a long document on the internet is I have more trouble remembering where I read something. For example, in a novel I might flip back to a previous chapter to refresh my memory when I can’t remember a conversation characters had. If I’m reading in a paperback, it’s easy for me to remember that it was about a third of the way through the book. Reading on a screen, I have more trouble remembering where I saw something. Luckily, the search feature in a web browser or an ebook makes it easy to find a piece of text if I can remember any of the words around it.

  • If you find something that you know will be important, use the bookmark feature of your ebook reader to mark that page. Or use the highlighter to mark a line or word. If you are reading in your browser, write down or copy and paste a key word or phrase that you want to come back to later.

Note taking tools for marking up digital text

Studies of user behavior show that readers online tend to skim through information, scroll past details, and click on links. Have you ever found yourself on a website or watching a video on YouTube and had no idea how you got there? All you wanted to do was sit down and check directions to a new restaurant. But now here you are. This type of behavior can lead to interesting discoveries and but it can be a waste of time and an ineffective way to study or learn.

When you’re reading to find specific information, you need a system to take notes so that you will remember what you read. There’s nothing worse than spending an afternoon scrolling through articles only to realize that you can’t remember which one had the excellent fact you wanted to include in your paper. Use a note taking system, either paper or digital, to keep track of what you’re reading so that you don’t lose details.

One simple and quick system for doing this is a system like two column notes. You can either create a table with two columns or draw a line down the middle of a piece of notebook paper. There are a few different ways to use two column notes. One way is to write the key information about your source, including a link to the article, in one column and write the fact that you gather in the other. Doing this on a word processing document makes it easier to transfer it into your paper later. You can simply copy and paste the facts you found. Another way to keep track of information as you find it is to use a digital notebook tool like Evernote or Google Keep. Google Keep has an extension for your browser. When you highlight a piece of text and then click on the Google Keep icon, Google Keep creates a note on your notepad that has the information you selected, as well as a link to the source. The downside of this is you will have many separate notes for your topic by the time you are done.

Managing distractions like links

The really wonderful thing about reading texts in digital form is that writers are able to embed all sorts of helpful information that doesn’t fit in their paragraph. Links can give your digital reading experience a much more three-dimensional feeling than turning pages in a textbook. Want to see a map up close? Zoom in. Not sure who the scientist is that the author refers to? Click the hyperlink to go to a page about his work. Unfortunately, with all of that additional information comes a whole new kind of distraction that readers don’t have to deal with on paper. Here are some tips for dealing with beneficial and distracting links as you read.

  • Before you click a link, ask yourself will this help me meet my goal for this reading? If your goal is to find information on the causes of the Civil War, you don’t need to click links that will take you to information about modern-day geography of towns in the south.
  • If you do think a link will be beneficial, right click on it to open it in a new tab or a new window. This can be a double-edged sword, however, because before you know it you may have a dozen tabs open next to the article you’re reading and all of that information, good as it might be, just becomes a distraction. Use this strategy with restraint.
  • Consider reading an article twice. The first time, read through the text on the page and take any notes about important facts you read. The second time you go through the article, click on relevant links. In effect, if an article is valid, you can not only use it as a source but also as a source for further reading. Think of these as two different uses for the article and don’t try to do them at the same time.
  • Print to PDF and ignore the links. If you find that you have a very difficult time ignoring all of the hyperlinks in a piece of text, get rid of them. Click print in your web browser and print the page you are trying to read to a PDF. You don’t have to print the file to paper, because when you print the PDF it will make the links non-clickable. You can always go back to that source another time, and click on the links if you need more sources or more information.
  • If you really can’t stop yourself from clicking links or searching related material, the nuclear option is to use airplane mode. When your device is in airplane mode, you won’t be able to reach the internet to start that unnecessary “extra research” that always leads you to Facebook or the weird parts of Wikipedia.

Managing reading speed

Think about the way you scan the covers of magazines while you wait in line at the store. Now think about the way you read the next novel by your favorite author. Different kinds of content and different purposes for reading lead to different reading speeds. By being aware of your reading speed and choosing an approach that makes sense for the text, you can improve your comprehension.

  • What is your goal for reading? Are you trying to find a specific detail? Get an overview of the topic? Learn how to do something? Gain a deep understanding of a concept? Your purpose for reading will affect the way you read, including how fast you try to read.
  • What is your background knowledge about the topic? If you know a lot about something and are just looking to add a few more details to your understanding, you might read more quickly. If a topic is totally new to you and you have to master it, you are likely to read very slowly.
  • If you want to read faster, many digital tools will let you boost your reading speed. Zap Reader is a free, web-based tool. You paste text into the website and set your reading speed. It presents words a few at a time and keeps you moving through the text. The Kindle app has a feature called Word Runner that does the same thing. But just because you can read faster doesn’t mean you should. This type of reading seems best suited to light reading like fiction.

Understanding digital genres

Before you can set an appropriate reading speed, you need to know what kind of material you are looking at. In school, we learn genres like fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and historical fiction. But have you ever noticed that blog post is a genre all its own? How about slideshow or vlog? All of these are different genres you might be taking in to get information. Each one has its own purpose and its own flow.

Using text features will help you figure it what kind of text you are looking at and will help you use effective strategies.

  • Slideshow – Um, in my opinion, scroll on by. These are almost always a time suck with little content to offer. Unless it’s recipes, then click your heart out, my friend. Just know this is almost exclusively an entertainment genre. Don’t try to tell yourself you’re getting “background information” or, worse yet, “starting your research.”
  • Blogs – Blog authors work to make their content readable. They understand that their audience skims quickly. Look for short paragraphs, bullet points and lists. Blogs also tend to have a lot of links that might tell you where a blogger got their information, or how to find a similar blog you might want to read. Use the “Managing Links” tips to handle information you want to read later.
  • Video – Youtube allows you to bookmark videos at particular points. Many videos also have closed captions. Both of these features help you nail down specific pieces of information if it’s coming at you quickly. If the content isn’t something you need to learn deeply, did you know you can speed up video play (using the Settings cog wheel) to get through video faster? I do this when I’m working my way through a series of videos by the same creator and I don’t need to hear ALL the details of his projects each time. I’m just checking in to see what’s new. It’s like skimming for video!
  • News article – An important thing to remember about news that comes out on websites is that, unlike the print edition, writers and editors are likely to push out content on a breaking story before all the facts are in. So check the timestamp on an article and look at the bottom of the page to see if there is a note that the article has been updated or corrected. Sometimes the first information available is incomplete or downright wrong. If you are looking to get the facts, make sure you keep checking back as the story unfolds and the author has more time to write clearly.
  • Not-quite-news articles – Website owners with something to sell often buy articles, sometimes very cheaply, to make their website attractive to search engines and readers, and to make the pages look full. Often, website owners are trying to draw you to their page to sell you a product, or to get you to look at advertising that runs beside their articles. Think about the purpose of a website before you invest time (or money) in what they are offering. Is it a big-name website? Do you recognize the name of the authors? Can you figure out what the authors want you to buy or believe? Just because you don’t know the people involved doesn’t mean it’s bad information. But most people don’t spend time and money developing a website because of their love of knowledge. They usually hope to make money somehow. Are they the kind of people you want to support?

Listening to text

One awesome feature of digital text is the ability to listen to it instead of reading with your eyes. Some ebook readers offer text-to-speech support, like iBooks on iOS. Several options are available for having websites, pdfs or other documents read to you.

Chrome browser extensions:

  • Select and Speak – this free extension does exactly what is says. Highlight a section of text with your mouse and click on the play button. You’ll hear a computer-generated voice read the words you chose. Because it’s free, your options are limited, but you can choose a male or female voice and adjust the reading speed.
  • TextHelp’s Read&Write for Google – The paid version of this extension (and the 7-day free trial) offer great features including word prediction for writing, color-coded highlighting for note taking and vocabulary supports, as well as text-to-speech capability. Even once all those paid features go away, though, you still have text-to-speech leftover.
  • Audio books – through the magic of the digital age, just about any recent book, and many classics, that you want to read are available in digital versions. I always start with the digital downloads at my public library. A subscription to a service like audible.com is another great option. Either way you can download the audio book to your computer or mobile device and listen on the go. But what if you’re reading for school? What if you’re expected to quote text or take notes? That’s where it gets a little bit tricky but you can still use good reading comprehension strategies even when you’re listening.
    • Pay attention – Trying to learn from an audiobook by having it on while you do other things on your phone is like trying to learn math by keeping the textbook under your pillow while you sleep. Learning by osmosis doesn’t work that way. Think about reading from an audio book the same way you would read from a hardcover book, make sure you’re sitting in a quiet place. Turn off other distractions like TV, music, and conversation. Have a notebook and pen or a word processing document open.
    • Check your comprehension – At the end of each chapter or anytime you have to stop reading, talk yourself through the author’s main points. You may want to produce a written summary of what you read. Just a few notes about the highlights of each chapter will really help you remember what you read later when it comes time to use the material in your writing or to study for a test. This doesn’t have to be complicated, you can use the notes feature on your cell phone or just a piece of paper in your notebook to record your thoughts.
    • Use rereading – Familiarize yourself with your audiobook device. Most have a single button that lets you rewind 10 or 30 seconds at a time. For longer sections there is a slider that let you go back further or use the table of contents to click on the chapter you want to review.
    • Use bookmarks – Ebook tools usually have a bookmark feature. If you hear something interesting, press the bookmark button so you know the spot you want to go back to later.
    • Familiarize yourself with the layout of the book – Just as when you are reading a book with your eyes, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Start by looking at the table of contents and figure out how many chapters there are. Notice how many pages are in each chapter. Notice how many hours of audio the book is.
    • Reading speed – You may find that listening to an audiobook at regular speed feels too slow. Reading out loud is a slower process for most people than reading in their heads so listening to someone read out loud can be a slower pace than when you read something to yourself. Most audio book readers let you adjust the speed up or down. Many readers find that they can gradually increase the speed from one up to as fast as two or three times the original speed of the text with practice. However, you’re not going to be successful with this if you don’t read actively and have good attention.

When to use paper

Part of my background is that I am an assistive technology specialist. Using technology to teach and learn is one of the main parts of my work. A major part of my teaching philosophy is that students should have access to the technology they need to do their best work. I could not function without audio books, digital copies of text, and tools like speech-to-text and highlighting to get me through reading and writing tasks. In fact, I’m using speech-to-text right now to write this. However, it’s not the perfect choice for everyone or for every task. Knowing when to put away your device and settle in with a paper copy will help you make the most of your reading.

Here are some reasons you might want to read on paper.

  1. The material is visual. I would not think to use a digital copy of a math book or most types of science books. Although many, especially the proprietary ebook developed by the publisher, have great page design and let you see a lot of information at once, in many cases there is something to be said for being able to turn the book from side to side, put your finger on one part of a diagram, or flip rapidly between pages to compare a diagram to a practice problem. This goes along with my preference for doing math work on paper, although I do almost all written work digitally.
  2. The material is very difficult. If you’re working with subject matter you’re not comfortable with, it might make more sense to use a paper copy. For example, when I read an article in a psychological Journal, I prefer to have a paper copy. One reason is the PDF copies are often duplicates of the print page with material set up in two columns. I find it visually confusing to have to scroll up and down the column and then across the page to the second column. I also tend to flip back and forth frequently in text like this as I try to understand the terms the authors are using and remember elements from different parts of a study. Because this material is so complex, and I don’t read it in a linear way, it helps to have a paper copy of the study. I also make a lot of notes when I’m reading something challenging like that including underlining text, and writing words and often question marks in the margin. Although it’s possible to do all of these with a PDF markup tool, I find that I do it more efficiently with a pen and paper.
  3. You are reading to relax. It’s harder to disconnect and enjoy your book when you’re reading on a device with dozens of built-in reminders, and therefore distractions. When you get a new book by your favorite author, sometimes you just want to get lost in that world. That’s one time when reading on paper is a great option. I find this to be especially true when I’m reading old books, like those that existed before ebooks. There’s something about reading Jane Austen on my phone that is jarring. If I read those books on paper instead, I find I am more able to follow the book and to get into the author’s world. For me, it makes it more enjoyable reading experience. Of course, I don’t find a lot of time to pick up a paper back and read, so I often have to save books like this for vacations.
  4. You are reading late at night. There is evidence that the blue light emitted by our device screens can contribute to difficulty falling asleep. If you have to do a lot of your reading late at night, you might be better off reading on paper, or on a device that is not backlit, like some models of Kindle. The reason for this is the blue light emitted by your device tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime, and makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep. Experts recommend that you turn off your devices at least an hour before bedtime. So if you have a long day of reading planned, save the stuff on paper for your after-dinner study time. Get all of your reading on the screen out of the way during daylight hours.
  5. You are reading with children. I acknowledge that there is no way to keep screens away from my children in the long run. I think it is important for them to know how to navigate devices, understand material on the screen, and take advantage of the many sources of information available on the internet. I also think it’s important that they understand the benefits of books in paper form. All of the things we talked about are things a child who has never read paper books would not know to look for. By giving kids diverse reading experiences using both hardcover traditional books and ebooks, we can help them to learn how they learn best.

I don’t think that reading on the internet or on our phones is going to do long-term harm to us as readers or thinkers, as some people seem to believe. But I do think that reading in the digital age is necessarily different than when all we had was paper. Remember, reading is not a natural act, something that we evolved to do. Reading of any kind is a technology that humans have invented. Like any technology, it will change and develop over time. Just as we need different skills to drive a car than we need to drive a horse and buggy, we need different skills for digital reading than paper reading. And also like learning to drive a car, we need to give students supervised practice before we expect them to do it well on their own.

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Is there a downside to reading on screens?