How to: Help your kids become better readers

These are a handful of the Morris family’s early favorite picture books. (Lauren Wood)

These are a handful of the Morris family’s early favorite picture books. (Lauren Wood)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today continues a summer series by Daily Journal reporters called “Teach Me Something” where we show how to do a variety of things and how things work.

By Michaela Gibson Morris
Daily Journal
The ability to read well unlocks so many doors.

It’s not just about doing well on tests. It’s the ability to access knowledge – an essential survival skill.

Readers are built slowly over a child’s early years. Children need to gather the skills to recognize letters, hear different sounds and connect meaning. It all comes together in kindergarten, first and second grade where kids do most of the work of decoding the written word.

If all goes well, the child makes the turn from learning to read to reading to learn by the end of third grade. The work still continues after third grade, building vocabulary and comprehension, but the heavy lifting is usually done in those first four years.

I’m not a certified teacher, but I am the parent to two children, ages 8 and 11. I’ve also completed training as a Read and Rise facilitator, a program Scholastic Books offered in our community a few years back to help empower parents as their children’s most important teachers.

It doesn’t matter how much education you have or don’t have. As a parent, you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Here’s some ways that you can help your child be a stronger reader.

The early years
• Don’t wait to start reading regularly. It may seem silly to read “Good Night Moon” to an infant, but you are building basic language skills and concepts of what books are for. They may want to chew on the book – which is why board books and soft foam books are great.

• Childhood songs like the “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” and nursery rhymes aren’t just cute, they teach valuable lessons about shared values and how sounds fit together in words. That spider didn’t throw a tantrum, it tried, tried again. If kids can recognize the word “out,” they can probably sound out the word “spout” when learning to read.

• Get to know your library. It is a treasure trove for picture books and materials to encourage literacy starting at the youngest ages.

Preschool
Make reading fun. Use funny voices for different characters in stories. Stop to talk about the pictures in the book or add commentary. You can even make up your own story using the pictures.

• Talk to your kids about what you’re doing as you’re making dinner and doing chores. Minimize the time they spend in front of the TV. They learn language from people, not cartoons.

• Three and 4-year-olds should work on learning letters and the sounds that go with them. Go slowly; they won’t learn the alphabet in one sitting. Keep it light and fun. Start with the letters in their name. Have a scavenger hunt in the newspaper to see how many letters they can identify. Ideally, kids should know their letters and most sounds when they arrive in kindergarten.

Grade school
• When you get to pre-K and kindergarten, pay attention to the little things your teacher asks you to do like reviewing sight words each night and having your child read to you every night. Reading isn’t a skill that can be crammed for like a high school exam.

• When you listen to them read, be patient and don’t offer them help too quickly. Let them sound out the unfamiliar word. They may stumble on words they already know. Gently correct them.

• Learning to read can be hard, frustrating work. It was for my kids. Don’t get in a hurry. Praise little successes. Don’t get upset with mistakes. Take breaks as needed.

• Network with other parents, but remember kids learn to read at different rates. Teachers can help with strategies, resources and assessment of how your young reader is doing.

• Keep reading aloud to your kids. Just because they are learning to read by themselves doesn’t mean they don’t want to explore books with you. My third-grader still loves for me to read to him.

And beyond
• As their reading skills strengthen, help them actively search out materials that inspire them to read more by following their interests. It doesn’t have to be traditional fiction. It can be graphic novels, magazines or books on their favorite animal. My third-grader is on a dragon kick. My daughter loved a series that melded fairy tale characters and detective stories. The goal is to keep them reading at least a little bit even when they don’t have to read for school.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com