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10 Must Know Things About Teaching Your Child To Read

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Managing the Conflicting Goals of Learning To Read

Learning to read is a high stakes road fraught with difficulty. This is a list of 10 aspects the learning to read journey that all parents should know. It’s a difficult list as it includes tradeoffs and conflicting short and long term goals and needs.

#1. Recognize Your Child’s “Ready To Read” Age

Pro Tip: Don’t start too early. Forcing children to read too early could lead to frustration that turns them off for life.  Not engaging a willing reader with more and more challenging books may lead to boredom and a lack of engagement in reading.

So, no pressure.  You just have to figure out your child’s “ready to read” age.

Quite a few skills – notably language skills — need to be in place before your child is reading-ready.  This includes sound language processing for phonics, attention and the working memory skills needed for reading comprehension.  These cognitive skills (processing, working memory, focus) can take a while to develop and only then can an understanding of the language (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) start to develop.

For may children, the cognitive skills do not develop sufficiently until 6 or 7 years of age.  This is why some European nations do not start formal reading instruction until children turn 7. Clues of early reading challenges here.

#2. Learning To Read Takes Years of Practice

Pro Tip: Avoid situations that might turn your child off reading. Focus on reading hourthe long term, It was Malcolm Gladwell who came up with the theory that true mastery of a skill takes 10,000  hours.  That sounds about right for reading, where reading is defined as reading comprehension with metacognition, the ability to self-regulate while reading. The hope is most students will be proficient readers around the end of 10th grade.

There is an unavoidable sequence of reading skills that need to be acquired when learning to read.  First, first you need to learn your alphabet and letter sounds.  Then you need to learn to decode, and then to spell regular words and irregular words.  Then you need to build vocabulary and language structure knowledge required for literal reading comprehension.  And then comes the hard part, you need to learn how to think while reading  — to make implications, connect to prior knowledge, etc. — and how to self-correct and self-regulate, metacognition.

The only way to become a proficient reader is, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests, to read.  If along the way you have a bad experience related to reading — maybe being humiliated reading out loud in class or one too many fights with a parent over reading at home — you may disengage and not put in the many hours needed to become a great reader.

#3. Reading Needs to be Learned through Phonics

Pro Tip: Make sure your child is sounding out, not guessing.  Reading is a relatively recent human skill. It’s not yet natural and so the brain has options when confronted with learning to read.  She could choose phonics, matching the text to sounds she hears in words – this it the right path. Or if those sounds are not easy to pick out, she might decide to memorize the text words, effectively learning a whole new language, English in text format.  This is the wrong path.

It’s no accident that while most children start walking and then start talking and roughly similar ages, reading readiness is all over the place. Some children have their letter sounds down at 3 years of age and are reading Harry Potter at 8.  Other children, who will go on to be perfectly good readers, don’t get started with reading until 5 or 6.

This range of development occurs because reading is a relatively new invention for humans. Literacy rates were under 20% all around the world in 1550 –mainly a skill mastered by the well-off, reaching 50% around 1800 and 90% around 1900 (Max Roser).  This means learning to read has only been considered an essential life skill for 150 years or so.

Consequently, while there is a language region of the brain, a visual region, a physical coordination, etc. —  and so we all listen, talk, see and walk naturally, at around similar ages — there is no region for learning to read.  Each brain needs to figure out how to read, which is based on its available inputs.

This is where the trouble starts. Good readers with naturally sound  language processing skills have sound phonemic awareness.  They hear the sounds inside words easily.  This means they are able to simply connect text to word memory acquired through listening.

For as much as 40% of the population though, varying degrees of auditory processing difficulties cause muddiness in word memory, how sounds are heard.  This leads to brains working on alternative reading methods such as word memorization. Maybe in 10,000 years there will be a reading region in the brain.  But for now, there is not and so we all experience reading a little differently.

#4. Early Impressions of Reading Can Last

Pro Tip: Don’t force it. Many high school students are not engaged readers because they get off to a bad start, including:

  • Being forced to start learning to read too early
  • Being forced to do 20 minutes of reading each night when 2 minutes is torture
  • The feeling that as a child you were disappointing parents and teachers with your reading
  • Regular humiliation from reading out loud in class or to parents
  • Connecting reading to only negative emotions

Reading is a long distance race.  A bad start that leads to a lack of engagement in reading can be disastrous.  A study by Nagy and Anderson (1984) found good readers in 5th grade read 10x as many words as poor readers.  ,

A child has to want to read.  There really is no other way to build proficiency. A traumatic, troubled or even unpleasant first introduction to reading in those first 3-4 years of learning to read can create a negative connection that lingers.

#5. Many Struggle Despite Getting Help

Pro Tip: Your child is not out of the woods reading-wise, until he is reading at least at an 8th grade level. Nothing says learning to read is not easy like our national literacy statistics.  It depends on what study you use and how you define reading, but the most trusted studies, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 2013 found  that only 35 percent of fourth graders and 36 percent of eighth graders are proficient readers.  Furthermore, in 2013, 22% of 8th graders were not reading even at a basic level.

America’s performance on international reading tests paint a similar picture. Despite spending almost twice as much per student on education as we did 30 years ago, reading outcomes have barely budged.

Reading is a tough skill to master.  This is because there are a number of cognitive skills involved. Early on, it’s about language processing needed for phonics and reading fluency. Later on, the required skill set needs to expand to include working memory, thinking while reading and attention to get to reading comprehension.

Reading at an 8th grade level requires competence in all of these skills.  This means as a parent, you need to be vigilant until that reading level is reached.

#6. Computer Games and Social Media Are Tough Competition

Pro Tip: Computer games erode attention skills.  As enumerated in many studies, most recently by a Scholastic study of 2,558 adults in America, children are reading less and less.  The report states that 62% of 6-8 year-old children say they either love or like reading books for fun.  This percentage drops to just 46% for 15-17-year-olds.

The lessening engagement in reading is mirrored by increased activity in social media and computer games.

Actually, the impact of electronics may be even more insidious than just a competition for time.  Computer games make focusing easy — they are designed to engage.  To the extent that computer games and TV time replace activities that require engagement, children are deprived of the opportunity to practice executive attention, a critical reading skill.

#7. Reading Skills Influence Life Outcomes

Pro Tip: Reading skills and self esteem are connected.  There are two life consequences from reading difficulty. First, a struggle learning to read eats away at self esteem.  The so-called Matthew Effect says children who have success in learning to read are learning risk takers, and enjoy a virtuous cycle where enthusiasm around learning is positively rewarded with more success.  Whereas, those that struggle tend to apply less effort and are more easily defeated, leading to a spiral.

Second, reading is a career skill.  If children do not learn to read properly, the chances of securing a good job in later life are significantly reduced. US Department of Labor studies indicate that workers with less than functional rates of literacy have fewer employment opportunities, not exactly a shocking conclusion.

Reading determines high school graduation and success in college.  Conversely, poor literacy is associated with unemployment or worse.  According to the US Department of Education 60% of America’s prison inmates are illiterate and 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems.

Reading skills impact life outcomes.

#8. Reading Difficulties Undermine Love of Learning

It’s a shame that such a difficult skill is instrumental to learning.  It means that for many, the difficulties encountered in learning turns kids off school.

Their early days are marked by humiliation in not being able to master what their peers can.  In later years, the transition from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’ that occurs during the early years of education is one that marks many children being left behind in the classroom and ultimately disengaging from education.

#9. The School Moves On From Reading Instruction

Pro Tip: Reading instruction tapers off in 4th or 5th grade. As we discussed above, children come to reading in their own time.  And just because a child may not take to reading early on does not mean he cannot become a good reader.

In a perfect world, the best approach is to wait for a child to develop the necessary skills and an interest in reading, and then launch into reading instruction full on.

But this is not a perfect world, especially for schools. There is a lot of content to get to, and schools are under pressure to have children reading grade level books.    Never mind that every child is different. Schools are pretty much forced to get your child to reading standards he may not be able to meet, risking turning him off reading for life.

By 4th or 5th grade, the mantle for learning to read journey transfers to the parent.

#10.  Kids Feel The Pressure All Around

It is plainly obvious to a child at an early age that reading is important.  Everyone is trying to teach him to read — his parents, grand parents, teachers, older siblings, everybody.  It is also obvious to your child  that if he is struggling with learning to read that he is letting everyone down.

Even worse, if he is asked to read out loud at home or in class, he is letting everyone down and he is humiliated at the same time.

Kids feel the pressure. This adds to the trials and tribulations of teaching your child to read.  It’s high stakes, you want to keep pressing, but you don’t want to make your child feel like they are disappointing you or worse feel humiliated.

Final Thoughts About Learning To Read

For many, the road to reading is not at all unpleasant.  For them, phonological awareness is sound from the start, decoding is straight forward and reading takes off.

For most of the remainder, reading proficiency is atill a realistic goal.  They will need help with the fundamentals, the phonics in particular, before reading is easy and natural.  But once that important precursor to a regular reading habit is mastered, the road to reading proficiency is reasonably straight forward.

The main point of this article is to alert parents to difficulties involved in reading.  It’s a miraculous skill.  If your child is having difficulties learning to read, we hope the factors above will be helpful to you in plotting a path forward.

Pro Tip: If your child is stuck, get help.  If your child gets stuck ast some point in the reading process, it’s likely there is a cognitive skilll gap holding her back. For example, language processing (phonics working memory, attention.  Gemm Learning specializes in helping child get back on track with reading by exercising and improving the cognitive skill foundations to reading.  Learn more about our reading help here.

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