Is Reading to Our Kids Enough?

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

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

Um, no.

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

Some kids get left behind by classroom reading instruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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