Your child's teacher has told you that regular, independent reading outside of school is the best way to improve your child's fluency and raise their reading level. This practice has not been a part of your routine at home and you need some practical suggestions of how to implement a program for your child. Following are simple, easy to apply strategies.
- Create a routine. Your child's teacher will most likely recommend (or require) reading for twenty to thirty minutes a day. Help your child make this a habit. Sometimes reading at the same time every day is the best practice. Some kids, like adults, like to read at bedtime, but comprehension may break down as your child becomes sleepy. If they read in bed, going to bed earlier than their bedtime is a good idea. Keep a reading log to record how well they are sticking to the daily practice.
- Provide a quiet, comfortable place to read. It's hard to concentrate with the TV on, music playing, or the phone ringing. Ask your child where they feel most comfortable. Sitting, reclining on pillows, or even lying down is fine as long as they are still able to concentrate. Be sure there is adequate lighting. Also, be sure to get regular eye exams for your child should they need reading glasses. Sometimes when children are reluctant to read, it is because their eyes feel strained. Settling in to read should be a cozy, special time when children can let their imaginations go. For younger children, a ‘reading buddy' in the form of a stuffed animal can be a motivating companion, or a special blanket, pillow, or chair can encourage strong habits.
- Be positive, but firm when it comes to regular practice. Use a positive, not nagging tone when it comes to reading practice. Be flexible, but firm. You want the time spent to be productive- you don't want them just staring at the page, but it may take them several minutes to settle into their book. The sustainable time that they can concentrate and the facility with which they can ‘get into' their books will improve and increase over time, so have patience. It may seem at first like your child is only spending five minutes or so actually reading, but keep at it.
- Teach your child to use a bookmark. It may sound obvious, but many kids lose their spot and can't remember where they left off. Keeping that bookmark tucked in place will help them to pick up with their book at any time and be less disrupted by pausing their reading. Sticky notes work very well because they don't fall out and because they can stick it right underneath the line where they left off. Almost anything works as a bookmark and it certainly isn't necessary to spend five dollars on one from the bookstore. Implement a tracker if they have a hard time keeping their place. A tracker is used to underscore the line your child is reading. This is helpful for when the reader easily loses their place when reading. It takes a little practice: one hand holds the book; the other hand moves the tracker down. They will sustain comprehension better and waste less time finding their place when they look away from their book for a moment. Very early readers may track word by word with a fingertip, but more advanced readers should be taking in a whole line at a time. In fact, using a translucent strip of colored plastic (perhaps a ruler) will allow your child to see not only the line they are reading, but also the upcoming line.
- Talk with your child about what they are reading. Be sure they are actually reading, which means comprehending the text. After they read ask them to give you a simple retell of the story. This should include characters, setting, and events. You can also ask them to tell you the ‘who, what, when, where, why, and how' of the story. The more details they include, the more apparent it is that they are following the story and engaged in it. (Hopefully they will want to tell you more and more!) Likewise, when they pick up their book again, ask them what was happening when they last read. If they are reading a non-fiction book ask them for three facts that they read or the main idea of what they read with three specific details.
- Don't abandon books very often. It may take several pages or chapters for your child to become engaged in their book. Encourage them to stick with the book. It will likely hook their interest. However, once in a while, a book is really not what they expected or not a good level. Then it may be time to abandon the book.
- Have your child read aloud to you occasionally. Oral fluency is also important to your child's teacher. Have them read aloud to you occasionally. You will notice if they are reading with a high level of accuracy of not. Encourage them to use expression in their voice; even exaggerating the dialogue of different characters can be very fun. Avoid correcting them as they read, as this will make them more self-conscious, but it's okay for them to ask occasional help with a word. If you notice that that struggle to read more than 5% of the words (about 5 words on a page of a typical chapter book) this book may be too difficult for your child right now.
- Stock up on new books regularly. Go to the library or bookstore regularly. Going back to favorite authors or series is a great way to continue their momentum, but also encourage your child to try different genres and new authors. Be sure your child is reading both fiction and non-fiction. A non-fiction book that is above your child's reading level, but has eye-catching visuals is okay. If your child is motivated to read what they can and take in the illustrations and diagrams, then it will send the right message about reading. Likewise, the occasional book that is too easy, but an old favorite is fine if it keeps them engaged. The majority of their book selections should be at their reading level.
- Have a special place for their books. You may not have room or the resources for an entire library or even a large bookshelf, but your child should at least have a basket or a box for their book collection. Keep it out of reach of younger siblings who may not know yet how to care for books. Even if the majority of their books come from the library, try to build a small collection of books that your child can keep. Non-fiction books on favorite topics are good choices because they will likely go back to them again and again.
- Challenge your child to move up to harder books over time. Your child needs gentle pushes towards more challenging books. They probably won't exhaust a given series before they are ready to move up. Some series have a hundred titles! If you're not sure where to go next, tell your local librarian what your child has been reading and ask them what is slightly more advanced. Discuss it in terms of, ‘Wow, I bet your ready to try this book' rather than, ‘That's too easy for you, try something harder.' They may not want to read something that they think is hard, but they will take pride in their increased ability.
Reading should be a leisurely, enjoyable activity, but regular reading practice is also meant to build fluency, vocabulary, and understanding of progressively more advanced texts. This is all in preparation for the varied and great demands of reading non-fiction academic material in school as well as building a life-long love for reading. Instilling regular habits and working together as a family to meet goals will get your child on the right track.
Susan Niz, M.Ed.