Education Column: Helping Your Child Become a Better Reader

By Mary Forde

The question I was asked to respond to this month was, “how can I make my child a better reader?”  And my first question back is “better, how?”  Faster, more accurate, more fluid, with more comprehension?  If you are hoping for directions on which kit to buy, program to enroll in or tutor to hire, I hate to disappoint you. 

The answer for parents from my perspective is relatively simple and cheap – talk to your children and read to/with your children.

Talk – A LOT

When I first read the sentence, “The eggplant was a vivid aubergine.”  I don’t begin by sounding out the words.  I do know what an eggplant is and I know it is usually purple, I know ‘vivd’ usually refers to color, so I guess that “aubergine’ is another word for purple and move on.  I had the wonderful advantage of growing up in a household of very verbal adults.  I was smothered in words all day long from the time I was very young.  Most of it, by the way, not intentional, and some not always appropriate, but lots and lots of words.  I knew early on that a “bookie” is not someone who reads a lot of books, thanks Uncle Joe.

Describe what you are doing and why you are doing it in adult conversational language.  It may feel a little strange at first but you can turn it into a game or pretend you are on a TV show.  “On today’s episode of “Chopped” I am going to broil the flounder.  When you broil fish, it gets a nice crust that doesn’t happen when you bake it.” 

Provide synonyms for the adult words you use.

Broiling is kind of like grilling, the heat only comes from one side.  You can usually see the flames when you grill and broil. 

Create categories.

Grilling and broiling are both ways of cooking.  You can boil or fry or toast or microwave.  These are all ways of cooking food. 

Create your own word games – car rides are great opportunities.

The alphabet game is good for this.  Let’s go through the alphabet and think of foods we wouldn’t put on the grill.  Applesauce, Bananas, Cake…..  When it’s your turn try to think of something your children might not be familiar with and describe – Kumquats!

Read to/with your children.

My childhood memory: every school night once we all had our pajamas on (including my one brother who put his pajamas on over his school uniform so he could sleep later), we piled on one bed and my mother read one chapter from the Honey Bunch books (a really cheezy 1930’s series that she loved as a kid).  One chapter only.  We would start by remembering what was happening when we stopped the night before and what we thought would happen next and then we went into the adventures of Honey Bunch and Norman.  Benefits – my mother had her own great memories of the books, one chapter only, no more no less, basic recall and prediction, quiet time before bed.  I don’t know the author and I would be surprised if she won any awards or honors, but that remains a fond memory.  Not only does this create a great literacy opportunity, it helps make a smoother bedtime routine, always a plus for everyone.

Suggestions for bedtime reading:

• Chapter books are great – usually there is the end of the chapter ‘cliffhanger’ that keeps you coming back for more

• Pick a book you loved as a child – let your children know your memories around the book

• Ask about the topics they are working on in school and see if you can find a related book, it can give kids a preview of vocabulary and concepts in a safe, quiet place (bedroom) in addition to hearing them in a busy classroom

• Pick up literature about upcoming trips or vacations, fiction or non-fiction, even trips to the doctor or dentist can be less stressful if you have read stories about the experience

• Watch a movie and then read the book (or vice versa) – always interesting to figure out what is the same and what is different

You may find you are reading to yourself for the first couple of nights but persist.  Storytelling is contagious and routines are comforting anchors for most of us. 

It is also helpful to set aside some time when everyone is quiet and reads their own books, comics, newspapers, magazines….  It’s never too late, but it is easier earlier.  Let your children see you as a reader and/or a listener.  Audio books are a great alternative when your hands and eyes may be busy.  Even if you have to fake it sometimes, you may find yourself discovering or rediscovering the joy of reading.  I actually picked up Honey Bunch again last night, yes, I still have a copy.

Mary Forde is the Chief Pupil Personnel Services Officer.