Library day is the best day of school for five-and-a-half-year-old Victoria Lin of Montclair, New Jersey. She searches for books by her favorite author, Dr. Seuss. Her mom has read The Cat in the Hat to her so many times that she can read some of it on her own, with a little help from her memory. She also chooses books she and her dad like to read and talk about, such as nonfiction about firefighters or marine animals. Her family plans to visit an aquarium soon, so the librarian suggests a book on dolphins. Victoria adds it to her stack, along with one about manatees — they fascinate her.
Victoria is well on her way to becoming a good reader, which could make all the difference in the world to her future. Decades of research demonstrate that enjoying reading and reading well are the biggest factors in a child’s school success. Good readers make great students. They score higher on achievement tests in every grade, in all subjects, including math and science. So what are the tantalizing secrets of giving your children an academic edge as well as lifelong pleasure?
1. Good readers start out ahead. Reading scores in first grade are a key indicator of school success in 11th grade. Meaning that what happens in the very early years has a lasting effect on learning. So try these tips with young children:
- The more you read, talk and sing to babies, the greater their foundation for vocabulary and understanding. The youngest ones are amazingly receptive to language.
- Toddlers will sit still to interact with books if you pique their interest with questions like “Who’s that?” and “What else do you see?”
- Preschool is the time for children to begin to learn the alphabet, and to become aware of the sounds that make up words — a crucial skill for reading known as phonemic awareness. They don’t call it that, but Victoria and her mom practice phonemic awareness whenever they’re reading her favorite rhyming books. They clap out the syllables in names (“Vic-tor-i-a”) or play word games, such as “I’m thinking of a word that starts with the letter E.”
- Young school-age kids need lots of practice reading to and with their parents. Try echo reading to build fluency: You read a passage and then let your child read one. Call your child’s attention to punctuation and interesting words as
2. Good readers have better vocabularies. Think about the conversations you’ve had with your child today. There’s a good chance that — because of the hectic lives parents lead — most of the words you used were simple, immediate and directive. For example, “It’s time to go now!” Especially on our busiest days, it’s easy for parents to forget that kids look to us for varied and rich conversations. One study showed that when teachers used more complex speech, very young children learned to create more complex sentences themselves. From third grade on, kids need to learn about 3,000 new words a year — that’s eight new words a day. And it takes at least four exposures to make a word their own. To enrich your child’s word power, try these ideas:
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- Tell stories about the past, present and future. At dinnertime, relate a story about your childhood or ask about an upcoming school event.
- Encourage play. According to child development expert Sue Bredekamp, it’s a crucial way for children to hone their language skills and give voice to their ideas.
- Read a variety of books — picture books, stories with rhymes, science or history books that convey cool new information. And engage your child in extended conversations about what you read together.
3. Good readers preview and summarize. As you begin a new book, spend a little time with the cover, suggests Francie Alexander of Scholastic Education. Read the title, look at the illustration and ask your child what she thinks the book is about. Research shows that prediction triggers the deeper thinking that improves comprehension. Every few pages or so, ask your child to retell what’s happened; ask what might happen next.
4. Good readers picture a story in the mind. Children who do this are better at remembering details and are much more interested in reading for pleasure. Encourage your child to notice a character’s features or clothing, for example.
5. Good readers connect to what they’re reading. Comments from you help create engaged readers: “This story reminds me of the time…” or “I wonder if that character…” Soon your child will be eager to make his or her own links.
Preparing your child to be a good reader is one of the greatest gifts you can give as a parent. Kids who struggle over words and have trouble understanding text find little enjoyment in the process. They avoid reading, and it shows. In a study of middle-class fifth-graders in east-central Illinois, the most avid readers spent more than 50 times as many minutes a day reading for pleasure as less fluent readers. By year’s end, the better readers had read more than two million more words, creating an even wider gap of proficiency and knowledge.
Academic achievement certainly isn’t the only reason to nurture reading skills. For one thing, there’s the pure joy of reading. As Jennie Nash, author of Raising a Reader, says in her book, “You can find companionship in books, counsel, solace and delight. You can spend hours alone in a room listening to the quiet music of the written word.” Reading can give your child those magic moments and much more.