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Children Learning to Read: What Parent Need to Know

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Children master many major accomplishments in their early lives. Learning to sit, stand, walk, run, and jump. Learning to feed themselves, dress themselves, and brush their teeth. Most parents don’t worry too much about these extraordinary feats. But when it comes to children learning to read, most parents seem to worry.

your child learning to read

And I understand that. 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.

What Parents Need to Know About Reading

To overcome that worry, I am going to share 10 key facts about reading with you. Understanding some big ideas around children learning to read will help you to be able to help your children.

The unknown is always scary. So the more you know about what you – as a parent, grandparent, guardian, aunt, uncle, or family friend – can do, the more your concerns about reading will fade.

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 talk about learning to read.

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 reading education. 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. I was privileged to do this 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 children 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.

10 Important Facts About Your Child and Reading

I will go into detail on each of these, but here are the 10 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/her for learning to read.
  4. Your child will struggle in reading if you never read to him or her.
  5. The best time to start reading to your child is when they are born. The second-best time is now.
  6. Background knowledge is vital to a child understanding what he/she reads.
  7. Explicit instruction in reading is necessary for most children.
  8. Reading problems will not correct themselves.
  9. The best way for anyone to get better at reading is to read more often.
  10. Ensuring that your child reads every day for at least 20 minutes is the best thing you can do to help him/her succeed in school and life.

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

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. Before cities.

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

Learning to Reading is Hard Work

This second fact about reading – that learning to read is hard work – follows the first fact.

Learning to read is hard work because it is not natural.

Learning to walk or talk is natural. Yes, those skills take time and effort. But how many children become so frustrated with those efforts that they quit trying? Almost none.

On the other hand, how many children become so frustrated with the effort required in learning to read that they quit trying? Too many.

Your child will most likely have days that they want to quit. If you never have that struggle with your children learning to read, count your blessings.

But if your children do want to give up, at least you understand why. Becoming a proficient reader will most likely be your child’s greatest achievement in the first decade (or two) of his/her life. Yes, it truly is that hard.

We adults tend to forget that learning to read is hard because we’ve known how for so long. So when your children struggle, go easy on them. Let them read easy books. Read to them and let their brains rest and play catch-up. That’s not quitting. That’s just smart.

Reading Aloud if Critically Important

Reading aloud to your children is the single best thing you can do for them if you want them to succeed in school, in reading, and in life. Well, feeding them is pretty important too! 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.

There is so much to say on this one topic, that I’ll be writing just about reading aloud in another post soon. But don’t wait for that post before you start your read-aloud habit!

You 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 him or 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. All that means is that they learn to associate feeling good with reading. Reading is a positive 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 backwards.

The same is true for reading to your child. The best time to start reading to your child is when they are 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 children are right now is the age you should start reading to them. Don’t wait another year and then look back regretfully, thinking, “I wish I had…”

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.

What is Background Knowledge?

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 he/she is to understand what he/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. He or she does not (most likely) see horses, cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, or other farm animals on a regular basis. Therefore, he/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 to him/her 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 even fantasy.

If your child is obsessed with dinosaurs, read dinosaur books daily. But also read books about other things – they might become his/her next obsession!

What is Explicit Instruction?

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 reading covers a lot of ground. Just a taste of what skills and knowledge 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!

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 by 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 some children, it will be – but many 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.

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 expect to hear a plan for addressing your child’s reading problems. Also, expect to hear 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 might want to 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/she is young or just not catching on quickly, kindergarten and first grade are your best (I’d almost say only) options.

What is the Best Way to Improve Reading Skills?

However, if your child is not really struggling to learn the reading skills he/she needs, but just struggling to make them automatic – the answer is more reading.

For most students, more reading is the best answer. Students who are not ‘getting it’ 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.

‘Nuff said.

The Golden Key: Daily Reading

We’ve arrived at number 10 – and you’re probably saying to yourself, “I get already – quit nagging me.” But 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.

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 30 minutes or more every day. That’s 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year.

Kids need to be reading. That means children learning to read and children mastering reading skills. Daily reading never ends. No vacations from reading.

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

5 Critical Components of Reading

20 Ways Parents Can Encourage More Reading

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

Now go get that book!

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