How many different ways can you suggest, beg, cajole, or nag to get your kids to pick up a book this summer? We know summer reading is important because it helps student avoid “the summer slide” and maintain the skills they gain during the school year.
Whether your child’s school assigned summer reading books with a book report, gave a recommended list, or just said, “Make sure you read!” the burden of making them read falls to you.
For kids in the middle grades, getting them to read one hour a day, and at least 11 books a year, raises their reading achievement. But external reinforcers, like prizes, can backfire by sending kids the message that reading is so boring or unimportant that no one would do it unless they got something out of the deal.
The same study showed that reading-related rewards improve the self-concept of middle grades readers who earn them.
So how do you get your kids to read this summer without driving them (and especially yourself) crazy? Try making a game out of it.
My FREE Summer Reading Bingo board has 24 reading-related activities that give kids ideas for where to read, what to read, when to read, and who to read with. Offer your kids a new book for scoring a bingo, or just foster a little friendly competition in the family. Either way, this game gets your child thinking about reading, and sometimes that’s half the battle.
Subscribe to my email list, below, to get your copy of the Summer Reading Bingo board (by email), as well as emails about blog updates and other tutoring news.
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.
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?
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.
Some people would argue that kids need to learn to use dictionaries and so if they don’t understand a word in what they’re reading they should be responsible for looking it up.
While I agree that dictionaries are one important tool for language learning, they are often not the first line of defense for students who struggle with vocabulary, or for students who are reading difficult text. There are several reasons.
Dictionary definitions are sometimes difficult to understand. – A dictionary that is at too high a level for the student is going to overwhelm them with language they do not understand, and it’s unlikely to give them a definition that clears up their confusion
Looking up a word takes a long time. – When a student does not understand a word in what they’re reading, the goal is to get them back to reading as quickly as possible. Getting a dictionary, finding the word, and making sense of the definition take up valuable reading or study time.
Dictionaries do not help the child figure out what the word means in this text they’re reading. – A child without enough background information about a word will have trouble choosing the appropriate definition for the word. When they are reading difficult text, the wrong definition for a word can be enough to completely disrupt their comprehension.
So what can we do instead?
Choose books at the students instructional level. – pick books with some difficult or unfamiliar words, but not too many of them.
Help children understand the multiple meaning of new vocabulary words. – Look up important words and make a point of connecting them to other words your child knows.
Help your child look up a word. – Give them a child-friendly definition they will understand and remember. Help them reread the troubling sentence by substituting your definition for the difficult word.
Help your child generate examples and non-examples of the word to remember it longer. – If the word is important and likely to come up in lots of reading, it helps to have a rich understanding of it. You can ask questions like, “Would you feel reluctant to go outside on a cold morning?” or “Would going to brush your teeth be considered a mission? Why?” The yes or no answer isn’t as important as the explanation. Bring in the topics you and your child feel passionate about, like sports or music, to make these connections memorable.
Here’s what could go wrong with using the dictionary
Child: “Mom, what does loafer mean?”
Parent: “Here’s the dictionary. Look it up.”
Child: “It’s a shoe?” *rereads sentence* “Oh.” *Puts down Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and gives up on reading for the day.*
Here’s what a vocab conversation could look like:
Child: “Mom, what does loafer mean?”
Parent: “Where did you read it?”
Child: “Here. ‘As it pulled up, one of the loafing men at the corner dashed forward to open the door in the hope of earning a copper, but was elbowed away by another loafer, who had rushed up with the same intention.’”
Parent: “This dictionary says, ‘a person who idles time away.’ Basically, it’s someone who hangs around wasting time.”
Parent: “So, when is a time you might be a loafer?”
Child: “Saturday afternoons when I watch TV.”
Child: *Goes off to finish reading book.* It takes a little longer, but discussing and developing vocabulary is an investment in your child’s language skills that will last the rest of his life. The dictionary has its place, for sure, but it can be discouraging and distracting for struggling readers to tackle on their own.
From what I remember about middle school, it could have been the sequel to Lord of the Flies. Except I vaguely remember some adults being in the building.
Basically, I spent 90% of my time thinking about where to sit in the cafeteria, and whether it meant something that Kenny closed his locker and walked away as soon as I got to mine, and whether I had enough hair spray in my bangs. I guess I spent the other 10% thinking about academics, but frankly, that part is a little fuzzy.
Is it any wonder that these people, who were very recently children who definitely had monsters in their closets and needed timeouts, struggle to meet their teachers’ expectations in middle school?
So much changes in those last couple of pre-teen years. Physically, hormonally, cognitively, and emotionally, no one comes out of middle school the way they went in. For better or for worse.
Add to all this personal stuff the constant pressure on teachers to push academics down, down, down to younger students, and vulnerable middle schoolers are dealing with more pressure and stress than ever before.
So how do we protect our middle schoolers?
First of all: be there. According to this piece in the New York Times, even teens who seem to hate their parents feel better and have better outcomes when their parents are available regularly. The author, Lisa Damour, calls them “potted plant parents.” They are moms and dads who are just there, fading into the background. A study connected this parental availability with lower rates of behavioral and emotional problems.
Promote healthy habits like eating breakfast and lunch and getting enough sleep. As middle schoolers mature and get more freedom, they sometimes make short-sighted choices that affect them negatively. They may stay up too late, skip meals, or choose junk foods that affect how they feel and how they learn. Try for a family meal most nights of the week. Research shows that family dinners lead to positive outcomes for health and learning, but if you’re not home at dinner time, maybe you could sit down for breakfast?
Another important way to prepare your child for middle school is through teaching mindfulness strategies. This is one of the hardest practices to sell to adults and kids in our busy world, but I believe one of the most important. A growing body of research shows mindfulness training and practice is helpful for improving students’ attention, emotional regulation and compassion for others, while decreasing their stress and anxiety. It sounds counterintuitive that slowing down in this way is going to help your child make their way in the fast-paced middle school world, but these skills help teens learn to direct and sustain their attention, calm themselves when they feel anxious or upset, and understand their emotional reactions to challenges.
Preparing for academic success
Beyond health and social-emotional strategies, kids need some concrete strategies for dealing with the academic challenges of middle school.
Get a planner – Some schools provide them. If not, look for a school year planner that fits your student’s needs. Make sure it has enough room to write assignments.
Create a homework space at home – It could be permanent – like a desk in a quiet space, or temporary – like a file bin or supply caddy you can put on the dining room table, then clear away at meal time.
Create a weekly and daily routine – Often, teachers spend class time teaching students to fill out their planner or agenda book with class assignments. Support this and supplement it by sitting with your child over the weekend to look at the week ahead. Is it a busy week of practices and rehearsals? Is there a big project due next Monday? Every day after school, help your child to look at their planner and plan for tonight’s homework. Someday, they’ll do this on their own, but if you can find a moment to call them from work in the afternoon, or have them sit in the kitchen while you make dinner, you will build a habit that will pay off for years!
Clean and organize periodically – Depending on the child, binders and folders tend to get cluttered and lose organization over time. Take an hour on a relaxed weekend to spread out everything, sort it, throw out the junk, and file away important completed work, like things they might need to study for an exam later this year. Some kids might need this once a month, while others need a weekly check in, and some can make it to the end of the academic term without making a mess.
Give them responsibility – You are providing tools and support for homework, but at the end of the day, the grades are theirs. The transition to middle school can bring a steep learning curve for parents and kids. Be careful to set boundaries you are comfortable with so your child knows they have your support, but she also develops skills and independence to succeed on her own.
When to get expert help
The transition to middle school can be challenging for even the most capable and mature students. For many middle schoolers, good habits established during these years will make them available during the school day to learn what their teachers are teaching. The best case scenario is they will experience some challenges, and some moments of stress, but their strong foundational skills will serve them well.
For other students, learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, or weak basic skills might make it very difficult for them to succeed in class. If you and your child have tried some strategies, but school is still not going well, you might need to consult with other professionals. Talk to your pediatrician, a guidance counselor or special education teacher if you think an educational disability might be affecting your child’s progress. A tutor who is knowledgeable about middle school curriculum, study skills and executive function can also be a great help.
Contact me to schedule a free 30-minute consultation today to see if tutoring is a good option for your child.
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:
Listen to me read the text.
Use a text-to-speech app or extension to hear it
Listen to this published audio book
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!
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?
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.
I must have been seven the Christmas my mom gave me a beautiful, hardcover edition of Little Women. It was one of her favorite books, and I’m pretty sure I was named after sweet, peacemaking, short-lived Beth March. I tried to read it, because I loved books and I loved my mom, but it was incredibly boring and confusing. It was basically unreadable. Eventually, my busy mother found enough evenings to read it to me. That time, I loved it! It was a book I read over and over in the second half of my childhood, and I sought out the other books Louisa May Alcott wrote about the March family and read them, too.
The lesson here is that a good read is about a match between author and reader. That’s why we each have different favorites. My husband’s favorite history books bore me to tears and not everyone loves to read Oliver Sachs’ books about the amazing human brain like I do. When kids, especially reluctant or struggling readers, read a book, it shapes not only their understanding of the content and the world, but of themselves as readers. Too many experiences with books that are hard, or boring, and they start to think of themselves as people who don’t like to read. And with the millions of books, and ever-growing body of other things to read in the world, that is a huge loss.
So how do you maintain your child’s interest in reading as they grow their skills so they can handle what their friends are reading? I’m glad you asked!
Read to them! There are huge benefits to developing readers who hear fluent reading. It builds vocabulary, increases fluency, and keeps them interested in books. Plus, it makes for great family time! It’s really hard to argue with your brother or sister while you are both listening to a story.
Get the audiobook! All the benefits of reading aloud, except they can do it independently. Many public libraries offer digital audiobooks, which can be downloaded to an iPod, tablet, computer, or smartphone. Audible.com is a paid service that offers an enormous selection of audiobooks.
Find an alternative! In my experience, struggling readers tend to pick a book or series that works for them and stick with it. I have spent months trying to help kids move on from Baby Mouse, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Captain Underpants. On the one hand, they are reading and that’s great. On the other hand, I want kids to discover and enjoy the many other books out there, and reading a series does less to expand vocabulary and skill than reading the same number of unique books. Try a website like http://www.yournextread.com/us/ or http://www.whatdowedoallday.com/books-like-diary-wimpy-kid/ for ideas. Better yet, ask your librarian.
Show, don’t just tell! Talk about your own reading. Share your excitement when you find an excellent title or author. And also talk about the times you just can’t get into a book. Kids need to know that everyone gives up on a book from time to time, when it’s not the right fit.
Making book recommendations is a responsibility I take seriously. Making a match between a kid and a book is a great accomplishment. But there is trial and error involved. It’s important that your child understand that finding a book hard or boring doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, or that she is a bad reader. It might just not be the right book at the right time.