How To Help Your Child Reach Academic Success by Building Literacy
Proven ways to help your child succeed in school
As an English teacher, I can tell you there is nothing — simply nothing — more important than reading with your child, keeping your child within reach of books or texts that interest them, and promoting a love of reading in your household.
Just this year, as a twenty-two-year teacher of tenth-grade language arts, I came across one of the most heartbreaking moments of my career. I had a teen student whom I was almost positive could not read. I tested my hypothesis, carefully crafting situations where I asked him to read this question aloud or tell me about the main idea of this paragraph. He could, in fact, read the words. But he was not comprehending the material.
When the students were left alone to read and answer questions, he almost immediately became a one-man comedy show. He did anything he could not to sit still and read, which I later learned was because, to him, it seemed hopeless—he simply could not make sense of the material. He made covert efforts to see answers other students were writing. If I caught him early enough to stop that, he would station himself at my desk — right next to me in fact. He needed help, he said. Yes, indeed, he did. His final efforts were to stay by my side until I questioned him and guided him closer and closer to an acceptable answer.
With twenty other students in the classroom, I could not give him all the attention he needed. I almost, at times, had to push him away. If I had been able to sit with him, one-on-one, and give him time to read, summarize, and ask questions of the material, perhaps he would have improved.
These are the hard facts about teaching in an overcrowded educational system where children come to school with so many educational deficiencies.
The good news? You, as a parent, do have some time to work one-on-one with your children. As a parent of two children and a teacher whose workload seems insurmountable, I share the frustration of a packed schedule. However, this is a problem that you can’t trust the system to solve.
The good news is that there are proven ways you can grow a reader, a writer, a thinker, and a student who will have great potential to be a success in school and in the world. I know these ways work because as a parent, I have used them to improve my own children’s literacy skills. As an English teacher, I’ve seen them work when parents of my students use them. And I use these methods with students in my classroom to help them become more adept readers.
Step One: Pre-Literacy Years
The goal at this stage is to make reading a positive experience. Read, read, read. Yes, read for language acquisition. Yes, read for increased exposure to vocabulary, but most importantly, read for fun.
One of the best pieces of advice I have been given as a teacher is that relationships between activities and experiences matter.
What does this have to do with reading to your child, you ask? It is the creation of a positive relationship. For example, if a student feels comfortable in my classroom—if they feel acknowledged, if they look forward to the nonjudgmental environment and positive energy of a classroom and/or educator—then they will be more receptive to whatever happens within that environment. The same goes for reading.
If you introduce reading as an event associated with comfort, tranquility, or even excitement, the child will want to do more of it. What about after bath, where baby is snuggled in the parent’s arms and lights are low, rocking back and forth in that oh so relaxing rhythm, reading Goodnight Moon? What about Saturday trips to the library, sitting on your lap as they read The Kissing Hand, maybe even with an ice cream cone afterward?
Children in their early years love structure and crave security, and these rituals can help them associate reading with something that is pleasurable and rewarding.
Besides making positive associations with reading, children become more adept language learners. The more language children are exposed to, the more that language becomes their own. Research by Dominic Massaro, a psychology professor at the University of California, showed that the vocabulary used in children’s pictures books contained more “rare” words than normal conversational vocabulary.
Besides the actual act of reading itself, what are other ways that parents can give their children a step-up on the literacy ladder?
Reading Rockets, a publication geared towards helping improve the literacy of children of all ages, uses research to analyze the correlations between actions that occur in the lives of children from birth to five years of age and their future literacy skills. The skills that most predicted high literacy involved environments where oral language, alphabetic code (phonics and invented spelling), and print literacy (comprehending visual symbols and objects) were emphasized.
Talk your child. Talk to them a lot. Don’t use baby talk—use the conversational language with which you talk to adults. Talk to them, and equally important, have them talk back to you.
Play games or purchase toys that involve learning the letters of the alphabet. Practice helping the child associate and say (remember: oral language) the sounds that each letter makes. Even have them “guess” how to spell words from sounds/letters that they know.
Object recognition builds background knowledge. The more the child knows about the world and the objects within it, the more they will be able to make associations in their reading and figure out words, even if the phonetic method does not always work by itself.
One more thing: experience
As a teacher, I see one main weakness in struggling readers: background knowledge. If a child has been sheltered or not been exposed to a variety of experiences in the world, they immediately are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding a written text.
Why? If you are reading about a dog, for example, and you have never seen one, you do not have enough information to do many of the things done by successful readers: make inferences, visualize events in the story, or make predictions.
Take your child places where they are exposed to new and different things: the zoo, museums, festivals, nature walks, etc. Besides building sweet memories that will last a lifetime, you are filling their young brain with information. This information will help them make connections to the things and people they read about later on in formal schooling.
Step Two: Early Literacy Years
As your child gets older, continue the steps you implemented in the pre-literacy years. Make it a point to continue creating a positive reading experience, practicing listening to and vocalizing words, building phonemic awareness, and broadening background knowledge through exposure to the world.
However, once children are learning literacy strategies in school, the process requires another level of parental involvement.
When kids begin to learn to read, the process requires practice to attain mastery. Children at this stage are learning to sound out words. This is the foundations of phonics. Once these processes become automatic, the secondary function of comprehension can take place. If the process of decoding words is too laborious for the young reader, comprehension suffers. How to help? Again: read, read, read.
Perhaps at this time have your child read books at their reading level to you. Help him or her sound out and decode words that they cannot initially pronounce or understand. Also, read to your child, carefully pronouncing and articulating sounds and phonic patterns of words. Continue to supplement with phonics flashcards or online games to help your child build sound combinations.
Add a second layer of focus: comprehension
Remember my story above about the student that couldn’t read? Remember I told you he could sound out a lot of the words? This ability is not enough to master literacy, and this is the step where many children get stuck. They expend so much energy on decoding the words that the message gets lost in the process.
Make sure that your child is not only able to sound out words, but also to recall bits of information.
Questioning for comprehension
Once a child begins to read, consider subscribing to publications geared towards young readers. I know that, as a child, my eyes lit up when a new issue of Highlights magazine for children appeared in my mailbox. Nowadays, there are so many magazines that cater to young learners (by the way, Highlights is still up and running, and it’s awesome). There are publications such as Brainspace, an engaging interactive magazine for children ages 8–14, National Geographic Little Kids for ages three to six, and National Geographic Kids for ages six through nine. These publications integrate fun activities such as games with real-world science and technology related aspects.
Make the arrival of the magazine a big event; sit with your child and read, ask questions, explore connections. First and foremost, let your child’s interests guide your selections of reading materials. Interested in planes? Read an article on Amelia Earhart. Interested in cooking? Read recipes and make them together. Again, each time you associate the written word with a child’s interests, reading becomes enticing and important.
Question them on what has occurred in the written text. Practice the habit of reading and questioning as a joint function. Periodically, as you read, ask your child the “5 W’s”:
- Who is in the story?
- What are they doing it?
- When are they doing it?
- Where are they?
- Why are they doing what they’re doing?
- How did they do it?
These are the basic indicators of general comprehension.
As readers advance in skill, they should begin to move past these initial comprehension questions and do things such as make inferences (educated guesses based on evidence in the story), visualize events in the story, make predictions about future events in the story, and connect elements in the story to their own lives.
Ask your child to do these things at different points in the story.
Step Three: Middle and Later Years of Schooling
As your child gets older and makes their way through their school-age years, expectations can become higher and higher for literacy competency. The assumption is that through continued exposure to reading, both in school and at home, a child’s ability to grapple with complex texts grows as well. Of course, if the child’s basic comprehension skills have not progressed, then the more elaborate reading processes such as inferencing, analyzing, and evaluating for things such as author’s purpose cannot occur. How can a parent help?
At the beginning of the year, ask your child’s teacher for a list of important texts the class will be studying. If possible, read these texts either before your child or with your child.
At this point in the literacy game, you do not have to read alongside them. You and your child can read separately, but the point is to come together and talk about the reading. Ask your child questions about the material. Have them seek main ideas and then prove their assertions with details from the text. Ask them to summarize and/or question them on how this information relates to the world today.
Chunk and “download”
During these years, Common Core has emphasized a focus on informational texts, so in addition to fiction, your child will likely be reading historical documents, scientific lab reports, etc.
These documents can be challenging, so a good reading strategy is called “chunking.” This involves separating the material into small bites and then ensuring adequate comprehension before moving on to the next section of material. By questioning your child after each “chunk,” they will be able to do what I call “downloading,” meaning they will “own” small pieces of text before progressing to the next chunk of information.
Writing the assimilated information down at this point can also be very helpful.
The Bottom Line
There are so many ways a child can be successful in this world, but very few of them can be done without the essential skill of literacy. The web itself provides many resources for concerned parents who want to help their child develop this indispensable ability; in addition, a child’s teacher can also usually give or recommend resources to help parents monitor their child’s literacy.
The important thing is that weaknesses in this area be addressed before they become monumental hazards to your child’s academic and future success.
Novelist and poet Aberjhani states the power of literacy’s profound ability to impact an individual: “When a reader enters the pages of a book of poetry, they enter a world where dreams transform the past into knowledge made applicable to the present, and where visions shape the present into extraordinary possibilities for the future.”
Give your child the gift of life-long knowledge. Give your child the gift of possibilities that only the pages of a book can provide. If you do, the future is his or hers for the taking, and the stars are not the end of his or her journey — they are just the beginning.