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The Science of Reading for Parents

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Have you ever thought about everything that is involved in a child learning to read – and read well? The research about learning to read is massive. However, this article covers the science of reading for parents in an attempt to give you – as a parent – more tools for helping your children.

If you’re like most parents, you didn’t fret much about all the things your child has to learn before age 5 and starting school. Just of few of these are learning to sit, stand, walk, run, and jump, learning to feed themselves, dress themselves, and learning to talk. But, while most parents don’t worry too much about their children mastering these extraordinary feats, when it comes to children learning to read, most parents seem to worry.

What Parents Need to Know About Reading
your child learning to read

That’s understandable because learning to read is so important. This one skill can set your child up for success. And failing to master this one skill can mean a lifetime of struggle.

Understanding these basic facts of the science of reading for parents will give your confidence that can overcome your worry. As you understand these basics, you’ll be better equipped to help your child succeed.

While the building blocks of reading cover way more than the following 10 key facts, these basics will give you enough to support your child. And as your child goes through the learning-to-read process, you’ll be better equipped to pick up on signs that your child might be struggling and you’ll have some information to help you ask productive questions.

Just a note about pronouns: for simplicity of reading, I’ll be alternating the use of pronouns referring to boys and girls. It should be obvious that all statements apply to all children.

Why Listen to Me?

I write mostly about faith stuff like Jesus, Bible study, and prayer. So why am I now writing about children learning to read?

First, there is a strong connection between literacy and the Christian faith. I’ll be covering that another time.

Second, I know a lot about reading! While I’m passionate about faith, I’m also passionate about reading, teaching reading, and building a love for reading in others. Below is a thumbnail sketch of why you can trust me when it comes to understanding reading.

children learning to read
  • I homeschooled my two sons from birth until the youngest was in middle school – 9 years of ‘schooling,’ and 15 years at home with them. That included teaching them both to read. They both went on to earn Master’s degrees – so I guess it worked!
  • I taught reading as an elementary teacher when my boys were in middle and high school. I taught for 16 years, in every elementary grade except fifth.
  • I taught struggling readers in special programs for 2 years.
  • I have both a master’s degree and a doctorate in literacy. Call me an overachiever!
  • I spent 2 years training teachers on strategies for helping struggling readers.
  • I also taught graduate students who were earning a master’s degree in reading education as an adjunct professor for 2 years.

I share my experience with you so you can have confidence in what I say. And so you can be more confident in your ability to help your child in learning to read because of what I say.

Because the truth is – what you do matters a lot! Teachers can make a difference in a child’s life, of course. But parents usually have much more influence, especially in the elementary years when reading skills are being mastered.

7 Important Facts About the Science of Reading for Parents

I will go into detail on each of these, but here are the 7 facts that I believe are vital for you to understand.

  1. Reading is not natural.
  2. Learning to read is hard work.
  3. Reading aloud to your child prepares him for learning to read.
  4. Background knowledge is vital to a child’s understanding of what she reads.
  5. Explicit instruction in reading is necessary for most children.
  6. Reading problems will not correct themselves.
  7. The best way for anyone to get better at reading is to read more often.
  8. Ensuring that your child reads every day for at least 20 minutes is the best thing you can do to help him succeed in school and life.

Now, let’s dig into what these 10 facts mean to you and your child.

Fact 1: Reading is Not Natural

Natural skills are those amazing feats I mentioned at the beginning. The physical accomplishments babies quickly learn such as walking, talking, and feeding themselves. These skills are natural. They don’t have to be taught (except in rare cases). They are simply picked up by watching others.

This is not true of reading. To understand what this means, think about life before technology, before electricity, and even before cities.

What were the essential skills people needed to survive? Hunting, gathering wild food, and farming. Taking raw food – whether meats or plants – and creating edible food with it. Building shelter. Providing clothing to protect yourself and your family from heat, rain, and snow.

children learning to read

All of those skills can be – and were – learned without having to read. Reading was not necessary for basic survival.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Reading is a necessary skill for survival in most of the world. But just because it is necessary doesn’t mean it’s natural.

And because reading isn’t natural, it must be taught. Of course, there are always those children who seem to pick up reading as if by magic. But they are rare.

Most children learn to read by being taught to read. Because they will never learn it if they aren’t taught. Because reading isn’t natural.

Fact 2: Learning to Reading is Hard Work

The fact that learning to read is hard work follows naturally from the fact that reading isn’t natural. When any skill needs to be learned – such as reading or sewing or using a power saw or drill or driving a car – that learning is hard work.

Think for a moment about the more natural learning involved in learning to walk, talk and care for ourselves. These abilities are what I am calling “natural.” Although mastering these abilities takes time and effort, almost every human will master them. The only people who won’t are those with some type of handicap, whether mental or physical.

Aside from the fact that these abilities are almost universally mastered, think about how many children become so frustrated with trying to learn to walk or talk that they quit trying. It never happens! And it never happens, in part, because these are natural abilities.

On the other hand, how many children become so frustrated with the effort required in learning to read that they quit trying? Sadly, that answer is far too many. And that is, in part, because learning to read is not natural and is therefore hard work.

Your child will most likely have days when she wants to quit. If you never have that struggle with your child learning to read, count your blessings.

But if your child is like most children and has days (weeks? months?) when he wants to give up trying, at least now you understand why. That understanding alone can help you become more compassionate with struggles and thus more able to encourage, support, and help him.

I’ll go so far as to say that learning to read is so hard that becoming a proficient reader will most likely be your child’s greatest achievement in the first decade (or two) of her life. Yes, it truly is that hard.

As adults, we tend to forget that learning to read is hard because we’ve known how for so long. So when your child struggles, go easy on him. Let her read easy books. Read to him and let his brain rest and play catch-up. That’s not quitting. That’s just being a smart, understanding, and compassionate mom or dad.

Fact 3: Reading Aloud if Critically Important

Reading aloud to your child is the single best thing you can do for them if you want her to succeed in school, in reading, and in life. Well, feeding her is pretty important too, but you know what I mean!

There are dozens of research studies done on the benefits of parents (or others) reading aloud to their children from the earliest years. And you know what all those studies agree on? You need to be doing it every day.

In this article, I cover just a few of the reasons why reading aloud to your child is so important. Then, I cover some basics of choosing books and reading them. But don’t stress too much over doing it “right.” Just read aloud to your child every day. You’ll grow as a reading-aloud parent just as he grows as a lover-of-reading-aloud-time child!

Your Child Will Struggle If…

children learning to read

Yes, I know it’s hard to hear this, especially if you are a weak reader yourself. But you need to know anyway.

Your child will almost certainly struggle in learning to read if you do not read to her regularly. One reason for this actually has less to do with reading skills than with emotions.

When children are babies and toddlers, reading to them almost always involves physical touch. They sit on your lap or beside you on the couch, cuddling close. You lay in the bed together as you read a goodnight book. You ruffle his hair when something funny happens or kiss her cheek when the word ‘love’ is used.

All these expressions of love build an emotionally positive feeling towards reading for your children. That means they learn to associate feeling good with reading. Reading becomes a positive, often cherished, experience long before they ever know a single letter of the alphabet.

And all that emotional goodness? That is the ‘juice’ that keeps your child motivated when the challenges of learning to read seem too big.

If you want your child to be a successful reader – and I know you do – then start reading to them now.

When is the Best Time to Start Reading to Your Children?

I just answered this question, didn’t I?  Now. But let’s look at that answer a little closer.

Maybe you’ve heard this proverb: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time in now.” That’s because none of us can turn the clock backward.

The same is true for reading to your child. The best time to start reading to your child is when she is born. The second-best time is now. It doesn’t matter if your child is 2 weeks old, 3 years old, or almost 10.

Whatever age your child is right now is the age you should start reading to him. Don’t wait another year and then look back regretfully, thinking, “I wish I had…” In fact, don’t wait another day! Run to the library or the store, grab a book today, and start before bedtime tonight.

Start now and don’t fuss about what books to start with. Anything you have is better than nothing. Books from yard sales and thrift stores are cheap. And the library is free. Just pick some books and start.

Fact 4: Background Knowledge is Critical to Reading Success

Background knowledge is a reading-teacher term that you may be unfamiliar with. However, it isn’t anything special. You build background knowledge in your child’s life every day. You just didn’t know you were doing it!

In the simplest terms, background knowledge is the knowledge that a child (or adult) must have before reading if she is to understand what she reads.

For example, your child must understand what a horse is to understand a book about wild mustangs. Your child must understand how plants grow from seeds to understand a book about starting a garden.

Background knowledge and vocabulary often go together. Think, for example, of a child who lives in a high-rise apartment in a big city. She does not (most likely) see horses, cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, or other farm animals on a regular basis. Therefore, she must learn what these animals are from books.

Books about farm animals – a common favorite for young children – build background knowledge that will aid in understanding any fiction stories that take place on farms.

The best way to help your child build a wide variety of background knowledge is to read him a wide variety of books. Read books about animals, jungles, cars, trucks, houses, people, jobs, space, bugs, and everything else. Read fables and myths and legends and fairy tales. Read historical fiction and realistic fiction and fantasy.

If your child is obsessed with dinosaurs, read dinosaur books daily. But also read books about other things – like sharks or pumpkins or rocks. Those might become her next obsession!

Fact 5: Explicit Instruction is the Best Way to Teach Reading

Explicit instruction is an education term that means something is taught directly. For example, explicit instruction in earth science includes being taught that the earth is round – instead of just assuming ‘everyone knows that.’ Explicit instruction in cookie baking means showing your child how to measure a cup of flour or a teaspoon of vanilla. He won’t know unless you teach him.

Explicit instruction in reading covers a lot of ground. Just a portion of the skills and knowledge that should be explicitly taught are listed below.

  • Letter names
  • Letter sounds
  • How to write letters
  • The direction print goes in a book – left-to-right and top-to-bottom
  • Upper- and lower-case letter similarities and differences
  • Rhyming
  • Sound replacement (e.g. replace the ‘c’ with ‘t’ to change cap to tap)
  • Letter blends and digraphs – these are consonants that are combined to make new sounds. For example, ‘s’ and ‘h’ combine to make ‘sh’ sounds
  • How pictures help us understand books
  • How to put letter sounds together to make words
  • How to take word sounds apart to make individual letter sounds
  • How sentences are made from words
  • How to divide syllables in a word

I could keep going for pages! The key thing to remember is that none of these reading skills are just picked up by reading to children. They must be taught, practiced, and retaught.

As a parent (grandparent, friend, aunt,…) your job is to ensure that your child’s teacher has a plan for explicitly teaching all these – and many more – reading skills. Unless, of course, you are homeschooling – then it’s your job to teach them!

Fact 6: Most Reading Problems Will Not Correct Themselves

Of all the items on this list, this is the one I most wish was not true. I wish that simply increasing the amount of time spent reading and being read to would correct reading problems.

But the sad truth is, that usually by the time reading problems are noticed the easy solution of more reading usually isn’t enough.

For a few lucky children, reading more will fix their problems. But unfortunately, most will need extra instruction, encouragement, and time to overcome reading problems. This post cannot go into the details of what could be done – and even if I could, every child is unique, so every approach must be unique.

But I will say this and say it loudly: Taking a “wait-and-see” approach to reading problems can be an educational death sentence. I’ll say that again: “wait-and-see” is not going to help your struggling reader.

When to Get Help for Struggling Readers

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say this: If your child is not reading easy books independently by the middle of first grade, demand a parent-teacher conference. And at that conference ask directly what the teacher’s plan is for addressing your child’s reading problems. Also, ask what you need to be doing at home because that is just as important as what the school does.

If you are homeschooling, you can be more flexible with that timeline. But still, if your child isn’t reading by age 8, you should investigate why.

There are two reasons why that first-grade goal needs to be met. First, a child who falls behind in early grades seldom, if ever, catches up without a lot of help and a lot of effort. And second, kindergarten and first grade are the most beneficial years to repeat if your child is struggling.

Again, I don’t have time to go into all of this but repeating any grade above third is unlikely to have a positive impact. If your child needs extra time, whether he is young or just not catching on quickly, kindergarten and first grade are your best (I’d almost say only) options.

What About Slow Learners Who Aren’t Struggling?

Sometimes a child may not be progressing in reading as quickly as you thought she should, but isn’t really struggling or becoming overly frustrated. She understands but is putting the pieces together slower than other children or slower than the curriculum indicates she should. In other words, she is struggling more with making the reading skills she’s learning automatic.

In that case, I have good news. The answer is more reading! No need to worry or fret – just increase your daily reading time to 45 minutes instead of 20. Break that time up into 15 minutes at breakfast, then 15 minutes after school, then 15 minutes just before bedtime. And make sure your child is taking a turn reading and being read to.

For most students, more reading is the best answer. Students who are truly struggling with understanding basics such as letter sounds, rhyming, or answering basic comprehension questions (out loud is fine), usually need extra help. But most students – especially if they were read to from a young age – do not need extra help. They just need more books. More reading. More listening to books. And less screen time.

Fact 7: Daily Reading is the Golden Key to Reading Success

I bet you think this was fact number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6! And you’re not far from the truth. While you’re probably saying to yourself, “I get already – quit nagging me,” I wouldn’t be doing you or your child any favors not to point out again that the most important determining factor for a child’s success in school and in life is reading.

Not learning to read. Not mastering reading skills. Not being read to. But actually reading. Every day. No days off from reading because yes, it is that important!!

Research indicates that 20 minutes a day is adequate. And I’m ok with that up to about age 8. But after that, kids need to be reading for at least 30 minutes every day. An hour isn’t unreasonable for more children once they reach age 10 or 11. That’s 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year.

Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s impossible – you don’t know how much homework my child has” or “We have ballet 3 days a week” or “I work 2 jobs, how am I supposed to manage that?” I understand this can be challenging – and more so as your child gets older and joins sports or clubs or gets a part-time job.

But the truth is no sports achievement will benefit your child as much as becoming a lifelong proficient reader will. No hobby will be more important. No other skill has the same power to radically improve your child’s life as reading does.

So, however you manage it – by enlisting the help of family and friends, or by going to flip phones only, or by cutting off cable and all streaming services except for one that is carefully chosen and carefully controlled – for the sake of your child, make it happen.

And a quick word about homework: do all you can to negotiate with teachers to substitute extended reading for almost all other homework. Don’t get me started on the research surrounding the benefits (or lack!) of homework!

The bottom line: your child needs to be reading. Reading daily at his current reading level. Listening to read-alouds at her current comprehension level. Reading on weekends and vacations and holidays. Receiving books as rewards and presents. And having a designated family reading time that is never missed. Daily must-haves: eat, sleep, brush teeth, and READ!

Now What?

Well, obviously, grab a book and start reading to your child!

But seriously, if you take nothing away from this except for that ‘reading daily’ habit – I will consider that a win.

Of course, there is much more to say about children learning to read and how parents (including you) can help. So be looking for the next 3 posts in this series:

7 Ways Reading Improves Your Child’s Life

How to Motivate Your Children to Read More

If you have any questions, drop me a line at tammie (at) lifeloveandjesus (dot) com.

Now go get that book!

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