It’s parent-teacher conference time. You’re sitting across from your child’s teacher (or perhaps, these days, seeing them on Zoom), and they’re telling you that your child is behind in reading.
As a teacher, I know that’s disheartening for parents to hear, and perhaps the pronouncement even throws you into a bit of a panic. I’ve seen it on dozens of parents’ faces.
I would imagine that is because helping your child grow in their reading comprehension skills can be a daunting task for parents whose expertise is not in teaching.
I have good news for you:
you can do this.
Many times, after hearing that their child is below the expected level, the next thing out of their mouths is, “How can I help my child get better at reading?”
When I hear this question, I am so glad.
Glad for the willingness of parents to help their kids learn to read, because, truly, the foundations of reading are best started at home. Then, when kids reach school age, teaching kids to read becomes a partnership between home and school.
When parents ask for suggestions, I usually give parents a few ideas of what they can do at home, but it never seems quite thorough enough in the time that we have.
This post is what I wish I could tell every parent, babysitter, aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa, foster parent, step-parent, day care worker…in short, anyone who has a kid in their life.
Though I could have simply given you my own tips, I decided to go a step further.
I reached out to my network of educators and ask them what they wish all parents knew about helping their child(ren) learn to read.
The educators who contributed to this informal, mini-research project came from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. I especially valued the perspectives of those who aren’t traditional classroom teachers, since they have different perspectives than my own.
Those who participated included:
- Beginning teachers
- Experienced teachers
- Retired teachers
- Public school educators
- Private school educators
- Educators in the U.S.
- Educators in other countries
- High school English teachers
- Early childhood teachers (Kindergarten, for example)
- Special Ed teachers
- Classroom aides and reading interventionists
- Teachers whose own kids have struggled to learn to read
- Homeschool moms
Each of the forty-five educators who responded answered this simple question:
In your experience, what are the top 3 things parents can do to help their child learn to read (and to love it)?
I was fascinated – and humbled – by their responses. Though my five and a half years of teaching experience have taught me a lot, I know that I don’t know everything. I found myself learning from their responses.
In fact, the answers that I received influenced a change in the report card comments I wrote for this quarter. And the next time I’m in a parent-teacher conference, and need to answer the question, “What can we do at home?” I’ll be tweaking my answer to sound more like the tips I’ll be sharing with you (a shortened version, no doubt).
Since there were forty-five different responses, I am going to consolidate the most popular responses into five tips to help your child improve their reading comprehension and grow their love for reading.
Don’t worry; after I list them, I’ll break them down for you into practical steps, incorporating some of my own ideas along with those of these stellar educators.
- Read to your child: early, often, always (or as long as they’ll let you)
- Model reading in your own life
- Talk, talk, talk – about books & everything under the sun – and also listen
- Make it fun
- Surround them with books
1. Read to your child: early, often, always
This tip was hands-down the winner out of all the answers.
About 90% of respondents said some variation of this: read to your child every day as early as possible (even while they’re in the womb!), during infancy, throughout childhood, and all the way until they don’t want you to read to them anymore.
A couple of educators told me that they still read to their kids who are in middle school.
As long as they want a read aloud, give it to ‘em. Even if they already know how to read on their own.
Why, though? Once they can read on their own, why should we keep reading aloud?
Teachers know that modeling anything is the first step toward teaching kids a new skill. This is true for simple skills, like washing hands and making beds, all the way up to complex skills.
Reading aloud is how we model the process of reading to kids.
It helps kids know how reading should sound so that they’re more likely to read fluently (smoothly) and with expression when they themselves read aloud.
It also helps kids know what the process of reading is like. When we make a mistake, we can go back and reread a word. If we’re stuck on a word, we can stretch it out to get all the syllables. If we’re confused, we can go back and reread.
Reading aloud is also, as we say in Educationese, scaffolding: providing the support that kids need to understand something that they’re not ready for on their own yet.
Reading books to kids helps them develop background knowledge and vocabulary before they can independently read “big words.” We stop and explain things or define words they don’t know. That’s scaffolding.
Read alouds also help introduce them to text types that they haven’t encountered before. Having someone to explain what to expect in a new-to-them genre enables them to remember the patterns and structures of that genre the next time they pick up a book in that same category. That is also scaffolding.
If we stopped reading aloud to kids as soon as they could read Dr. Seuss books on their own, they would not have the scaffolding that they need to develop the necessary skills to comprehend longer and more complex texts.
By reading aloud to them books that are increasingly challenging, we give them the tools they need to read advanced texts on their own later.
But, Christina, you might ask, I’m not the best reader! And I’m not a teacher. How do I do this well?
- Pick books that interest you and your child. If you’re bored by it, they will be too. One simple idea is to pick books that you loved as a kid and share it with them. They may not love it as much as you do, but your excitement will be catching. See #4 and #5 for more details about where to find books. If you’d like some of my specific recommendations, see my Read-aloud Ideas post.
- Make it part of your daily routine and family culture. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy – just a chapter or two before bed or after dinner will go a long way to helping your child gain all the benefits of read-alouds. Feel free to jump to #5 for some suggestions on how to access the zillions of reading choices out there.
- Read creatively.
- Make up funny/different voices for the various characters in the book.
- Use great expression – when there’s an exclamation point, raise your voice! When the characters are whispering, whisper. If someone sounds panicked, talk faster like people do in real life when they’re panicking. If someone has an accent – or you imagine they do – add it in. Your kids won’t care if you wouldn’t sound good enough to be on a stage with that accent.
- Don’t worry about feeling ridiculous. It’s okay to be silly with your kids! By reading out loud how you hear the characters in your imagination, they’ll hear how reading can sound in their own minds.
- Bonus: this type of reading creates positive, fun, simple memories with your kids, which will strengthen your relationship. And give you lots of good topics to talk about besides.
2. Model Reading in your own life
I was surprised by how many people responded with this suggestion – nearly half. But it makes sense. If you’re wanting your little guy to read, but you’re not prioritizing it yourself, why would they think reading is valuable? Kids watch everything we do. If we’re not putting your money where your mouth is, they’ll notice.
Very early each school year, my students start to roll their eyes ever so slightly whenever I bring up reading, because I talk about what I’m reading all. the. time.
They learn very, very quickly that I spend more time reading than just about anything else, so when I ask them to guess what I did over the weekend, they shout “Reading!”. And they are absolutely right.
But they also start to catch my excitement. I can’t help it; I love talking about what I read. Your kids will be more likely to be excited about reading if you are reading and finding joy in it, too.
How do you this?
Read what you like to read.
One teacher said that her dad read the paper every morning, as well as magazines, but not many books. That was still an example to her of prioritizing reading.
Another said that one of her favorite things to read is cooking blogs.
Whatever floats your boat, read it!
Important note: Although there are myriad text types to read online, it’s also important to read PRINT material in front of your kids. Not on your phone.
Yes, we have access to all kinds of text types on screens, but as one teacher said, “Kids don’t know the difference.” Even though you know you are reading, it looks the same to them as when you scroll through social media.
Let them see you reading actual, physical paper copies of things whenever possible.
3. Talk, talk, talk – about books and everything under the sun – and listen, too
This one tip has a whole lot packed into it.
Let’s start with the “everything under the sun” part:
What kids know from real life (“background” or “prior” knowledge), they use to understand the books that they read. The skill of combining this knowledge of the world with the descriptions and details in books is called inferring and is one of the most challenging and crucial comprehension skills to develop.
However, you can help your children with this skill every day!
The more you talk with your kids about what they (and you) are reading, and about everything else that goes on in your day, the more they are adding to the store of knowledge in their amazing little brains.
This makes their ability to infer come much more naturally.
So then, when they read that little Johnny blushed after his classmate made fun of him, they already know what blushing is and that the feeling associated with it is called “embarrassment.”
Because they know that already, they can understand why Johnny responds by running to the bathroom and crying instead of being utterly bewildered by his reaction.
Let’s flesh this out a little more:
1. Talk about things all day long, even and especially when kids are little.
Don’t only talk with them in baby talk and assume that they can’t understand “grown-up” vocabulary.
Those little sponges known as toddlers are soaking up alllll the language we use whether we think they’re paying attention or not!
Case in point would be kids using four-letter words in kindergarten when the adults in their life don’t think they’ve ever spoken them around the kids.
A more positive example would be when I was talking with my sister and her husband while my nieces were around, relaying some story or another about our brother, and little Miss J, who is less than 2 years old imitated a word that I said.
You get the point. They’re listening and they’re learning.
What should you talk about? Here are some ideas, for starters:
- Explain how to do the laundry
- Tell why it’s important to use soap and warm water when washing the dishes
- Talk about what “construction” is as you slow down on construction zones on the highway
- Name and talk about the animals you see as you’re out and about
- Describe traffic jams and skyscrapers in the city
- Name the different fruits, vegetables, and meats as you buy groceries
- Explain how to measure ingredients when you cook.
- Tell them all the whys and wherefores that they ask about – in age-appropriate ways, of course.
Have them participate in all of these daily tasks, too, so they have personal experience to draw on as they read.
As you explain these different aspects of everyday life, it grows their vocabulary and their knowledge of the world, which is crucial for understanding what they read.
2. Point out, read, and discuss all the text you see and experience in everyday life:
- street signs
- nursery rhymes
- comic strips
- labels, etc.
Even songs count! Discussing all of these types of text with your child exposes them to the purposes for different text types and helps familiarize them with how language works.
3. Finally, as you build in the daily reading explained in #1, discuss what you’re reading.
This part seems to be the most daunting for most parents, because you haven’t been “trained” to ask questions about books like we teachers have been.
Honestly, though, I think it comes more naturally than you might think.
You know those ridiculously simple “Baby’s First _____” books – the alphabet, animals, food, etc.?
If you stick to just the text on the page, you’ll be sick of it before you’re even through reading it one time.
As Brian Regan once said (and I’m paraphrasing), the description on the back has more words than the actual book!
A well-kept secret is that the pictures in books are actually a highly important part of helping to develop comprehension in your little tyke.
- So when the book says “pat the piglet’s spongy nose,” you model what “patting” is like.
- When it says, “Stroke the puppy’s soft fur” model the action of stroking.
- When it says “a is for apple” you point to the apple and talk (or ask) about the color of the apple or how many there are in the picture.
- When you notice that a character’s face is expressing emotion, point that out to your child, “Oh, he looks sad! See his face all scrunched up! What is he sad about?”
Another thing my early childhood educator folks would want me to say is to teach your child how to handle print and talk about the basics of text:
- how to hold a book
- how to turn a page
- how words go from top to bottom, left to right (in English)
- what rhyming words sound like
- beginning and ending sounds in words
- teaching the letters that match the sounds we say in words (a says ah-ah-apple, p says puh and point to those letters on the page)
And if you’re having trouble doing that yourself, you could try finding a daycare group, preschool, etc with peers where they’ll do some of that during the day.
For more advanced books, here are some of the easiest types of questions you could ask during reading:
- What do you think is going to happen next? (try to stop at a really intense part! This makes kids groan, but is so fun! *mwah ha ha* But really. It adds some excitement to reading.)
- How do you think [character] is feeling after [this awful or exciting thing] happened?
- Why do you think [character] chose to say/do ____?
Here are some questions to ask after reading – at the end of a chapter or book:
- What part did you like the best?
- What part did you not like?
- Tell me the main things that happened in what we read today
- Do you think [character] learned anything from _____ experience?
Don’t feel like you have to ask the same questions every time. The important thing is to talk in a natural way about what you read so you’re helping them think about reading.
Talking to your kids about what the characters experience can give you a peek into their hearts and heads about how they are interpreting their emotions, experiences, and the world around them. Take advantage of the opening books give you to have conversations you might not have otherwise.
4. Finally, and this is important: listen.
Ask your child about what he/she is reading, and then listen to the answers.
Truly listening and engaging shows that what they are reading matters to you, and you find it highly important.
It might be hard, if you have a child who feels the need to explain every. single. detail. of the book (my big brother, for instance), but do your best to listen and engage with them.
Even if you’re chopping veggies and mixing up dinner while they talk.
4. Make it Fun
Making reading enjoyable is going to look different for each child and family.
The most important thing I heard from teachers, though, is to let your child read books they enjoy.
Don’t force reading (though it should be an expected part of life).
Don’t ever – and I mean EVER – make it a punishment.
Don’t make them read books they don’t want to read (unless it’s for school).
It might be that they really enjoy learning all about outer space or sports teams.
Maybe they really enjoy graphic novels.
Maybe they only like reading books about characters in outer space, or books that have a movie made about it.
Maybe they just need to learn that there are mystery books exist.
Maybe books that include animals are what hits the spot.
Not forcing kids to read, and letting them read what they are interested in, is ESPECIALLY necessary for kids who are what the education world calls “reluctant readers” – aka, kids who seem to not be on track with reading or are not wanting to read. They’ll feel your anxiety and frustration, which will only make their reading experience more stressful.
Many people hesitate to let kids run the show when choosing books.
Aren’t some books just a bunch of trash and not good quality?
Do I want my students, and other kids, to experience the exquisite usage of language in “quality” literature?
But I want them to discover the joy of reading more.
Because when kids like what they’re reading, their enjoyment is more likely to turn them into a life-long reader than forcing them to read books they don’t like.
Absolutely, use your parental discretion and steer your kids away from books that would have content that is not appropriate or healthy for their age and stage. Common Sense Media is a good place to find reviews on books you’re not familiar with yourself.
Beyond that, let your child choose what they want to read. As one teacher-friend said, “No one likes to be told what to read.” Give your child the freedom to choose. It will go a long way toward making reading fun.
Sometimes it takes trial and error. But it’s worth it to keep looking for texts that your child will enjoy reading.
Hint: their interests and hobbies are usually a good place to start.
1. See #5 for suggestions on where to find different types of texts.
2. Let kids feel success in reading and celebrate with them.
One way to do this is to give them incentives and rewards. Some kids are more motivated by outward rewards, you know? And that’s okay.
Take a look at your local library incentives, like summer reading programs, and take advantage of the prizes they give.
Anyone remember the Book It challenge from Pizza Hut? I participated in that in school. It still exists! The funny thing is, I don’t remember ever reading just to get a free personal pan pizza or free scoop of ice cream, but I sure loved claiming my prize when I did! And I was proud of myself for earning those treats. Your kids will feel a sense of accomplishment, too.
Even if I’ve always loved reading, I’m sure the fact that my mom had us participate in those challenges and made sure we got our prizes encouraged me to keep reading.
Here are some of the other ideas for incentives that teachers shared:
- Make a Friday book nook night: they can stay up as late as they want if they’re reading. Make it all cozy and special!
- Offer to buy them a book from a bookstore (if you have the money), and, as long as they finish it, say you’ll buy the next
- Make a reading goal, such as 20 minutes a night, or finishing ___ book, and when they meet it, CELEBRATE! Buy pizza, or candy, or take them to a special trip somewhere (probably cheap, like the park).
- Go to the library for special events (when they start having them in person again) or just make a trip to the library itself a special event.
The main goal here is that, through the family culture you create, you are encouraging and expecting reading, celebrating your little readers, and making it fun – even if the only reward you can afford is them getting to watch you try to do the Floss, cheer for their success, and then smash them into a big hug saying, “I love you and I’m so proud of you.”
5. Surround them with books
….actually, surround them with any type of print you can get your hands on.
Several teachers recommended filling your home with books – even every room in the house if you can. Having books all around them that they are interested in will go a long way toward encouraging them to read.
As you gather books, expose them to different types of texts:
Nonfiction has biographies, how-to, did you know, history, science, and all sorts of topics.
Fiction includes historical fiction, mystery, realistic fiction, fantasy, adventure, animal stories, and more
But think beyond “regular” books:
- Brain teaser books
- Joke books
- Activity books
- Math books
. . . you name it. If it has words, and they like to read it, (and it’s appropriate content), let them at it!
Yes, even graphic novels or comic books.
Anything at all helps.
And, as you introduce them to different kinds of stories and informational texts, they’ll start to learn what they like to read, which makes it easier to help them find more books that they like.
It might not be what you like to read, but what’s important is that they are experiencing the life-changing wonder of books.
How do you surround kids with books if you’re on a budget, or really have no money left over after paying the bills?
*cue angelic chorus singing AHH*
The public library!*
*Assuming you are in a country/culture that has public libraries
The public library is one of the most under-estimated resources my country has.
So many towns in the U.S. have a library, in which, provided you are a resident, you can borrow books FOR FREE and then return them when you are done.
If you have access to a library, there is no need for you to feel the pressure to buy a bunch of books.
Just take a crate, or a couple of back packs, and check out as many as they’ll allow you to take.
My hometown library lets you check out fifty books at a time. My sister takes a plastic crate and fills it to overflowing with fifty books of all different kinds every two weeks. It sits on the floor next to their comfy chair in the living room, and the books get scattered all. over. the house during those two weeks, because the girls just go and grab books and “read” them between just about every activity.
If you find the idea of fitting a library trip into your schedule every two weeks a tad overwhelming, start small. Try once every month or two.
Here are some other sources of free, accessible books:
- YouTube – there are SO many quality books that are read aloud and are free to listen to – even chapter books!
- StorylineOnline. Same idea as YouTube: actors and actresses read picture books out loud to kids.
- OpenLibrary.org is another great option. It’s free to make an account, but be sure monitor what your child is reading, since kids and adults books are mixed in there together.
- If you have some money and want to pay a subscription, Epic! is a great option as well.
There are affordable ways to buy different kinds of books and get them into your kids’ hands, too:
- Thrift stores, like Goodwill
- Used bookstores
- Library book sales
If you want to pay full price:
- local bookstores
- Kindle books, audiobooks or physical books on Amazon (yes, audiobooks count, too!)
And, last but not least, maybe you can find yourself an aunt (or uncle or grandparent) who will buy books for your kids on your behalf, and gift them for birthday and Christmas.
In short, there are so many ways to get books into your home and into your kids’ hands. And if you need some specific suggestions of titles and authors, fear not! I am planning just such a post for the near future.
What do these five tips tell you?
Well, if you’re already doing these things, then that’s great! You are providing your child(ren) with every possible opportunity to learn to read and to love it.
If they’re not avid readers right now, or are struggling to read, IT’S OKAY.
Take a deep breath.
Your child is not going to fail seventh grade/high school/life just because they’re six years old and struggling to read.
I say this so often to the parents of my students: every child learns at his/her own pace.
Just last year, I had a student whose spelling was still developing and who was reading at a pretty “low” level for fifth grade standards.
When I met with his mom during the first round of conferences, she said he hadn’t really started reading independently until the year before. Fourth grade, people.
And you know what? Once his brain was ready, and he got started, he was zooming along and loving life. He is one of the perkiest, happiest, most polite and enthusiastic students ever. He’s going to do great in life.
And it’s not going to matter that he didn’t get the hang of reading til the age of nine. He’s a smart cookie.
If you’re a parent who is not doing many, or any, of these things right now, take a deep breath.
Try incorporating one of these tips into your daily routine and make a habit of it.
If reading is not part of your family’s culture now, don’t expect an overnight change.
But do work on it.
It’s not too late to start.
Maybe you didn’t have parents that could model reading for you, but you can for your kids.
Maybe you didn’t have parents who could afford the time and attention necessary to talk with your kids about books. But you can.
And if you’ve read this far, chances are, you’d like to try something to help your precious little one with their reading.
So give it a shot!
Like I said before: You can do this!