What Helps Children Learn to Read?

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Parenting and Reading

When his boys were small, Robert Stevens looked forward to the end of each day, when he would shut the door on the rest of the world and read them a bedtime story. "It was a wonderful time of day," he remembers.

Reading to their children is one of the most important things parents can do to help them learn to read - and learn to love reading - says Stevens, an associate professor of educational psychology whose sons are now 14 and 16.

For 25 years, Stevens has researched how young minds connect symbols on a page to things, actions and ideas. At the start, he reports, parents can help by talking to their babies a lot. "For very young children, the more verbal interactions they have with adults and others, the faster they develop language."

Barbara Van Horn, co-director of the Goodling Institute for Research and Family Literacy, concurs. Help children connect their experience and printed words, she suggests. For example, if you're reading aloud from a book about a boy and his dog, talk to your child about your family dog. "You want to be able to tie as many things as possible to what kids already know," says Van Horn. "It helps them learn new things because they have a lot of background experience to build on."

As parents read to their children, it's also helpful to ask questions and discuss the story. Prediction questions - "What do you think is going to happen next?" - are powerful, because the child is making a bet, exploring motivation and comprehending what's happening in the story, Stevens notes.

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With 3- and 4-year-olds, Stevens advises that parents play word and rhyming games and teach their children alphabet letters using toys such as colored plastic letters on the refrigerator.

Meanwhile, parents can keep reading to their children. Stories are great, but reading expository books about, say, dinosaurs or bugs or how to build something also is very important, says Van Horn.

Stevens recommends a balance. Since narrative is easier to comprehend and helps children tap into the pleasure of reading, it plays an important role, he says. "At the same time, it is clear that even at very young ages children need exposure to expository text because that is the primary type of reading they do from grade six through college and beyond."

Although 15 minutes a day of interactive reading often is recommended, this will vary based on a child's age and attention span, says Van Horn. Once the child begins to learn to read, parent and child can take turns reading paragraphs aloud to each other, and correcting each other's mistakes, says Stevens. In addition to being fun, these activities help with what experts say are the four pillars of reading: phonics, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency (speed and ease).

The key, says Stevens, is balance and integration among these building blocks. For example, a kindergarten class may learn the H-sound (phonics), then practice the sound with the "A" and "T" sounds to get the word "hat." Then the teacher talks about other H-words and what they mean (vocabulary). Next, the teacher reads a story about hats (comprehension).

Parents needn't worry about drilling their young children, but rather should expect their children's teachers to teach phonics in a thorough and thoughtful way, says Stevens. That frees up parents to focus on the most important task of all: cuddling up with their kids to read bedtime stories and creating positive associations with reading that will last a lifetime.

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