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Thursday Three: Reading Help

Posted by Pam on September 10, 2009 at 9:32 AM in Recommendations
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My kids went back to school this week - finally - and it made me think about how parents could help their child's reading during the school year. I've broken it down to the three people involved in your child's reading development - the teacher, the child, and yourself. Here are ways to help each.

1. Helping the Teacher
With class sizes growing and budgets shrinking, teachers need the help of parents more than ever. While you can't present the state-regulated curriculum, any parent can help with building reading skills. If you're good at reading aloud, offer to come in and read to the kids once in a while. Better yet, ask about that state-regulated curriculum and find books at your library that can support it. When my children were studying Native Americans, I brought in folktales to read. How Chipmunk Got His Stripes is one of my favorites. When they learned about insects, I brought in Farfallina and Marcel. You can also use the storytime to bring more depth to issues the teachers don't have time to cover in class. During the 2008 election, I was happy to share Grace for President.

There may be other ways you can help if you're not comfortable being a storytime presenter. Our school had a pull-out program for children who needed a little extra help with reading. Volunteer parents would bring the kids out in the hall for fifteen minutes, select beginning reader books, read along with them, and send the books home for them to practice in the week. This take-home reading program worked very well in giving kids a little extra attention and needed very little training. Volunteer parents also came in on occasion to help the children write stories, to run small book groups, and to prepare materials.

2. Helping Your Child
Other than potty training, I've found nothing that has tested my patience on a continual basis more than the beginning reading stage. There are wonderful successes, often followed by the third laborious rendering of the word then. It can be very frustrating for both of you. So you can help your child by remembering that she will benefit most in her reading growth by mixing up the type of reading she does. Books that are easy for her will reinforce the feeling that reading can be just pure fun. Books that are in her comfort zone will give her confidence of her skills. Books that are a challenge will push her learning to the next level. In fact, while this approach seems somewhat natural for the early reading stage, it applies throughout a person's reading life even to adulthood. It is one of many reasons that kids (and grown-ups) are never too old for picture books. Please don't be one of those parents I see in the library telling their first graders that they can't bring home a "baby book." A better approach is to let that first grader bring home some books that he chooses, and some more challenging books that you choose.

3. Helping Yourself
My last sentence leads nicely to one of the main ways that you can help yourself, and that is to avoid The Reading Game. You know it. It starts with something like, "We can't tear Jacob away from Harry Potter. What is your child reading?" This parental competition starts early ("Lizzie was smiling at us at two weeks) and goes on ("Jamal made All-Stars again!") and on ("Well, Reggie is going to Harvard, but I'm sure that's a good school too."). You'll find the competition in many factors of a child's growth, but verbal skills and reading level seem to dominate. In my thirteen years as a parent, no one has ever asked me if my kids can do long division or sing in tune or climb a tree. But from the first year, I've been asked to compare what words they were saying and then what words they recognized and then what words they were reading until it was all about reading and levels and books.

There is only one way to win this game, and that is not to play. Don't let yourself get sucked into the competition, don't let yourself feel bad, and don't let yourself push your kid based on these conversations. Also, don't let yourself get too proud either, because kids have a way of surprising you. My oldest daughter had a slow start to reading, made methodical progress in first grade, and suddenly made a huge leap in reading level. Now at thirteen, she's an excellent and voracious reader. My younger daughter started reading at four years old, and plodded along thereafter. Now in fifth grade, she's still a slow reader which has made her much less interested and less strong a reader than her sister.

My point is that The Reading Game is pretty meaningless anyway, so it doesn't pay to take it seriously. To be fair, there are a lot of honest exchange between parents about what their kids are doing that is helpful in knowing when to give a little push and when to wait it out. But I trust that you know the difference. One makes you feel connected to another mom or dad, and the other makes you feel like a failure as a mom or dad. Looking for those connections and avoiding those competitions will be one of the best ways that you can help yourself.


Susan writes...

You're so right about not playing The Reading Game. I think its origins lie in Parental Anxiety, and the less we give in to that, the better!

Kristen M. writes...

I totally agree with all of this. My son is really sensitive about me coming into his classroom space so I won't be volunteering in his class but I WILL be in the school library helping other kids.

And we get chapter books, easy readers and picture books all in the same library visit. Whatever we see that looks like a good read is fair game. I would rather have the kid reading a good picture book than a lower quality, higher reading level book anyway.

Easter writes...

Thanks for this post - everything you say is so true. I am starting my second year as the "Story Lady" at my daughter's elementary school, and it is so much fun to share books with the kids!

Bonny Becker writes...

As a kids author, I do a lot of book signings and this is perhaps the type of comment I hear the most: what a precocious reader someone's child is. It's lovely. I can totally understand a parent's pride. But I'm always quick to say, esp. if a child is in ear-shot, that I didn't start reading until I was seven. One of my daughters had to take remedial reading in the second grade, because she really wasn't ready in the first grade. She's a huge reader now.

My other daughter who was readying by five, doesn't like reading very much at all.

To me, trying to get kids to read too early is like trying to get them to walk too early. Let them mature neurologically at their own rate and when their brain is ready, reading will be so much easier for them. In the meantime, just make it something fun. Don't panic. They will read!

Harrison writes...

Dear PBS Parents,

Your shows are fantastic. I try to watch them everyday on KOPB Portland, Oregon and PBS Kids Sprout. I like your web site. Do you want to know what KOPB stands for? It stands for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Hope you're doing well.

Corinne writes...

What a fantastic article with practical and useful information. It wasn't until I let go of my own angst regarding my child's reading ability that I was able to enjoy her journey. Thanks for the reminder :)

Cassie writes...

I agree completely with not rushing your child or pushing them to read too early. Pushing them to read books that are too difficult takes all the joy out of reading. As a teacher, who has taught several different grade levels, I have to say the kids who enjoy books and see reading as a fun activity, become life-long readers. That is my ultimate goal in teaching-I don't want to just teach them the skills involved in reading. I want them to love books!

Ellen writes...

To Kristin M: A "picture book" may be more difficult reading than a chapter book or "reader." Our school librarian calls the books with "E" on the spine "books for Everyone." I wish more people would take the "E" to mean Everyone, not Easy. Many of them, in content, concept, and text, are not easy at all.

Laura writes...

I agree with the comments about not pushing your child too fast. As an elementary teacher I see too many parents (and students) that are obsessed with the "level" at which their child is reading. Young children should be reading independently at a level just below the level the teacher is instructing them. That way, they are not struggling too much with the vocabulary, and can practice fluency and comprehension strategies. Plus, we all know that most children equate things that are "easy" to having fun. It's a mistake to try to push too fast. All children develop at different rates. Unless there is some kind of a learning disability, I have found that most kids who struggle somewhat in earlier grades catch up to their grade-level peers by third grade if they are getting good instruction. You just have to be patient, and give a lot of encouragement.

I also wanted to add to Ellen's comment about picture books. She is right, the difficulty of picture books is not always "easy" but can exceed a child's reading ability. Sometimes the vocabulary level can be as high as 8th grade -- too hard for a child to read themselves. That's one issue I have with the E for Everyone label. My personal belief is that many picture books are meant for read-alouds, or shared reading with a grown up, and children shouldn't be left to navigate them alone unless the difficulty level is appropriate.

Jim Trelease agrees with you and says forcing is rarely effective. Pressure and competition are just to opposite of what reading at home should be. Make it fun, take a break when the struggles get too much, tell your child that "big words are just little words you already know put together".

I was so excited about what you were saying I didn't take time to proof the above. That's what I get for moving too quick. I meant to say "just two opposites of what reading. . ." Ooops.

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