Help Your Child Become a Natural Reader

Acquiring A Reading Brain

Ten Ways For Kids To Become Natural Readers

Too many children need after-school programs for reading. Getting a reading brain, being a natural reader, is one of the most complex skills we learn in our lifetime.

Children need to practice reading. But that will not occur if the fundamental reading skills are not in place. Science also shows us that the brain can change and learn at any age and, in effect, be rewired to be a reading brain.

Here are 10 steps to help your school-age child develop a reading brain:

Phonemic awareness – this skill is delayed in 90% of struggling readers. A great way to practice this skill is with rhyming — short poems or simple word games that require matching sounds.

Fluency – automatic decoding. Part of this skill is word recognition, which can be helped by having your child read along with you when you read to him.

Vocabulary – take every opportunity to build your child’s vocabulary. Encourage use of a dictionary, and help your child figure out unknown words by using context.

Phonics – this another fundamental reading brain skill. It comes down to language familiarity, and so word games, letter sound matching, rhyming are all helpful. For older children, counting the number of syllables in a word is helpful.

Comprehension – discuss books with your child to help them think about what they have read, to help them develop sound reading comprehension skills.

Focus - help your child practice sustained attention by setting time goals around projects that can expand over time. Help your child develop good study habits, such as working in a quiet room, to further build attention skills.

Processing – this is the essential phonics skill, the ability to process every sound in every word. Listening games that connect words to sounds can be helpful.

• Working Memory – concentration and other matching games are helpful, as well as encouraging your child to relate stories.

Sequencing – this skill impacts spelling and comprehension. Picture books are helpful as a way of seeing a story unfold, that later can be pictures in the mind. For spelling, unscrambling letter tiles is a helpful exercise.

The final thing that parents and teachers can do is to be vigilant, and recognize as early as possible if there is a problem that requires attention. Fast ForWord is one such research based reading intervention that targets most of the above aspects of reading, as well as rewiring the cognitive skills needed for a reading brain to develop.

Signs of Early Reading Issues

Looking for Clues

Early Signs Of Reading Difficulties

Article by Geoff Nixon published in Parent Guide, August 2008

Sarah began reading when she was 4-years-old. Her parents, Sue and Tom, were amazed at how quickly her reading improved. She whizzed through kindergarten, her only blemish being some difficulty with rhyming, and her parents could not have been more thrilled. They anticipated Sarah would continue to make great reading progress. Then came third grade. The 8-year-old dynamite reader suddenly faltered. She had difficulty with longer words, needed phonics help and started to resist reading out loud. Sue and Tom were stumped.

Sarah and her family are not alone. One out of five children has some form of dyslexia, defined by Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a neuroscientist at Yale University School of Medicine and author of Overcoming Dyslexia, as simply an unexpected difficulty in learning how to read. Some children struggle with their sounds right from the outset. But many others are like Sarah — they start out well and then, for no apparent reason, run into difficulties.

Therefore, it is important for parents to be vigilant. They need to understand how the brain works when it’s reading, and they need to know the clues to look for to ensure that their children really are on a sound reading track.

The Brain and Reading

While spoken language is 100-200,000 years old, reading is a relatively new invention — less than 3,500 years old. So there is no natural reading zone in the brain. To read, the brain has to create new neural circuits; the challenge is which ones?

It turns out proficient readers all read the same way. They lean heavily on their language knowledge, called their phonological vocabulary that has been developing since birth. Good readers have strong auditory processing skills that allow them to separately record each sound or phoneme within each word. This makes it easy to attach letters to sounds, that coupled with spelling conventions allows reading to be a simple extension of the spoken language.

Language is one of the fastest processing tasks that the brain has, and so it is not surprising that many children have muddy and unreliable phonological vocabularies. In these brains, the language regions of the brain are often not activated while reading — the phonemes are not clear, and so the brain has had to figure out another way to read.

Identifying Coping Mechanisms

The most common coping strategy is memorization. Confronted with the frustration of not being able to hear the sounds when being taught to decode, many young brains decide to memorize every written word. This technique can work deep into second, and sometimes even third grade, until the brain is overwhelmed by an ever-expanding word list. Since children aim to please, they add to the cover-up. It’s a common story: she was reading fine until second grade, but now the school tells me she has a reading problem. This is Sarah’s story.

Parents should not assume their child is on a good reading track because he or she likes reading or knows lots of words. It is important to look for clues indicating either a phonological awareness vocabulary problem and/or a coping strategy.

Signs of a Phonological Vocabulary Problem, Under Age Five

First, 40% of dyslexia is hereditary. So if one parent struggled with reading, then the children are at-risk readers. Similarly, if one child in a family has reading issues, then parents should pay close attention to the siblings.

Children with language delays (late to either speaking or following multi-step directions) are also at-risk readers. These delays often indicate an auditory processing glitch, which is the single most common cause of reading issues. While the language issues are normally resolved, the reading risk remains.

Another clue is difficulty rhyming. Fluent reading requires comfort and dexterity with the language. Rhyming is playing with the language — it requires dexterity also. Sarah’s rhyming difficulties were a good clue, overlooked by her parents.

Signs of Coping Strategies, Over Age Five

For a time, coping strategies can work, but they are not foundations for future reading success. The sooner they are discovered the better. Look for these clues when your first or second grader is reading aloud:

  1. Phonetically spelled words like need, mispronounced as often as harder words like enough. This is a clue that your reader may be memorizing rather than decoding.
  2. Trips over the same word more than once on the same page. This is an indication that the whole page is overwhelming, not just that word.
  3. Guesses at or skips longer words. This suggests that the word looks foreign to the child and the phonetic tools needed to decode are not present.

Clues in third and fourth grade that middle and high school reading comprehension may be at risk include:

  1. No reading stamina. If your child can only read a few pages in a sitting, that suggests a labored, exhausting and inefficient reading style.
  2. No ability to draw inferences from the text. This suggests the brain is overloaded with the task of decoding.
  3. Poor fluency in later grades. This is indicative of an inefficient reading style that takes brain capacity needed for comprehension.


Be A Sleuth

The brain’s coping mechanism is often convincing in early grades. If your child is using a coping style, a gap will develop. In most cases, those critical reading skills do not develop, and that gap does not close, making reading a life-long struggle.

So be a sleuth. And investigate reading programs if it is needed. Picking up on the clues can help prevent your child from getting deep into elementary school before discovering they have a reading problem.

Just Right Books Make A Huge Difference

Managing Your Child’s At Home Reading

“Just Right” Books & Online Quizzes

If your child will fight you every step of the way over reading this summer, consider a reading program like ours: software you can work on at home or on vacation, that will engage your child in reading over summer.

However, if the issues are less serious and all they need is a bit of encouragement, here’s a simple two-step plan:

  1. Find in-the-zone “just right” books.
  2. Keep track of reading and set rewards.

Here’s how you do it.

1. Find “Just Right” Books

It sounds simple, but to keep your child reading, pick books in his or her reading comfort zone. Scientists call it the Zone of Proximal Development.  It’s that sweet spot where reading is beneficial and fun, where vocabulary and reading comprehension are at 80% or better.  Harder books are frustrating, and with easier books below the zone the reader is not learning.

First, know your child’s reading level, in grade-equivalent terms, e.g., a 2.1 (second grade, first month) and convert this into a reading zone, ZPD using this Reading Zone table.

Second, find books that are in this zone. Here is Gemm Learning’s Recommended Reading List — favorite books chosen by Gemm staff, sorted by reading level and category — sports, more for girls, more for boys, etc.

To find out the reading grade level of a book at home, use this book level search engine. You can search by author or book title.

2. Create Rewards

While a purist may disagree with the idea of “paying” kids to read, rewards do work. Here are some ideas:

  • Check out your local library. Chances are they have a reading club where you could incorporate your just right books into their program.
  • Go to a site like At that particular site, there are about 3,000 books that your child can choose from to read then answer 10 questions to show that the book was indeed read. It allows your child to accumulate points for books read. You can attach a prize to a points level achieved.
  • Make up your own Reading Race. Set a prize goal by hitting a realistic points target – using 100 points for short books, 150 for average size, 200 for longer books — and a good list of just right books to read for the summer.

Schools report that children who do not read through the summer spend 1-3 months of the new school year just getting to where they left off the prior year. So being proactive about reading over summer is important.

F.A.T. City Class by Rick Lavoie

F.A.T. City Video Excerpts

Reading Out Loud

How the page looks to a struggling reader

Frustration. Anxiety. Tension.

Rick Lavoie holds a class to show a group of teachers how the world looks from the struggling student’s point of view. This is possibly the single most compelling video ever made to help parents see truly how difficult their child’s day is.


If you would like to buy the DVD, it is called “How Difficult Can This Be?: F.A.T. City Workshop.” There have been a couple of follow-up DVD”s also. Here’s an Amazon link to the first video:
Amazon link to F.A.T. City DVD

The Power of Brain Plasticity

About Brain Plasticity

The ability of the brain to change in response to stimuli

Brain plasticity refers to fact that the brain is adaptive — it self-organizes, meaning that if exercised appropriately it can adapt and change for the better.

This new understanding of the brain, made possible in the 1990′s by the invention of the fMRI, is in stark contrast to the prior theory, that each part of the brain has a fixed specialized function.  And that once these functions are learned, typically at a young age, they are fixed, pre-determined for life. As explained in great detail in Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself, this theory was called localizationism and it has been proved wrong.

In fact, not only is the brain plastic and able to change, it is changing constantly. Brain maps, the functionality by region, change constantly depending on individual needs. This is called “competitive plasticity” (or “use it or lose it”), referring to the fact that the brain is constantly dropping connections (knowledge or skills) that are seem to be no longer needed or that are not being challenged, and it will add connections if there are new demands.

For instance, the brain of a person learning the violin will steadily add more brain capacity to the playing hand, as the demands for accuracy, speed and coordination grow. A recent study by MIT showed that visual cortex brain tissue in the blind is used for language processing.

The Brain’s Ability to Communicate Can Change

The process of neuronal communication occurs very rapidly and messages are sent almost instantaneously. However, in some people, neuronal communication takes longer than in other people or does not happen at all.

The efficiency of communication in our brain depends on an abundance of proper synaptic connections between neurons. If a message cannot get across the synapse to the next neuron, or if there are not enough pathways for the message to travel down, the message can’t be communicated to different areas of the brain. If something is described as “plastic”, this simply means that it has the ability to change. It is now well known that many different elements of the brain’s communication system have the ability to change.

Synaptic plasticity (stronger connections)

The synapse (connection between the neurons) can change in strength. For example, if there is more neurotransmitter crossing the synapse, there is more activation of the receptor sites on the next neuron, which leads to a stronger connection. Like any other form of exercise, synaptic strength will increase if there is repeated and consistent activation of neurons

Neuronal plasticity (new connections)

The brain communication network as a whole can also be improved. Neuroplasticity simply refers to the ability of neurons to form new synaptic connections with one another. When something new is heard, either existing neuronal pathways are slightly altered or new connections are formed. In this way, constant and repetitive use of language will improve the ability of the brain to change itself and thus brain’s communication can improve.

Brain Plasticity And Learning

Conventional wisdom has been that the “window” for helping children develop their learning skills ends at three years of age. This is not true. The window is open throughout a person’s life. If exercised appropriately all brains are capable of higher levels of learning skill.

It is true that in the first three years of life the brain is in set up mode and learning circuitry is “always on” and so the rate of learning — discarding old connections in favor of newer better ones — is fantastic.  Beyond that window exercises aimed at boosting learning ability need to overcome a more cemented learning process.  But that’s all.  It is very possible, and a number of therapies, exercising the brain in very different ways, targeting very different aspects of brain function are having success.

Fast ForWord As An Intervention

The adult brain is not only capable of change, change from experience is central to how it works. This means that even in the case of traumatic brain injury
or a stroke, rehabilitation using training that replicates experience with escalating complexity can be effective.

Many of the breakthrough brain plasticity experiments were conducted by Dr. Michael Merzenich, which he then applied to the real world as a co-founder of Fast ForWord software for reading and learning. Although the concept of brain fitness is relatively new, it is gaining traction fast, since it promises fast and effective results. Fast ForWord is the industry leader in brain training software.